Big Bird For Belfast

Sean O Driscoll reports from New York in today’s Irish Times (free view) that the Sesame Street Workshops are to get $1 million from the American Ireland Fund to produce 26 shows to teach tolerance to children in Northern Ireland, following on from similar projects in Kosovo, Palestine and Israel.

  • gypsynolan

    I hear that they will be replacing Big Bird with Big Ian, but that they are having some problems
    choosing a replacement for the character Crazy Harry; whose trademark is that he likes explosions…

  • wild turkey

    Upfront and betraying cultural baggage, I’ve always been a Sesame Street fan.

    Anything that questions and confronts ‘received wisdom is to be welcomed.
    It will be interesting to see how the show challenges the phenomenon of prior ‘knowledge’.

    Its striking that many people from whatever traditions,communities,cultures, nations (take your pick) usually claim, and have, a detailed knowledge of their heritage and history.

    Proponents of each (all?) side(s) claim to have exclusive possession of ‘the true story of the conflict’. In my limited experience here the problem seems to be not that the knowledge claimed is untrue but that it is usually a very very selective knowledge. It is incomplete. This selectiveness, insofar as it focuses on ‘victories’ and is also used to substantiate exclusive claims to victimhood, has been and is devastating.

    As I understand it, there were actually separate Israeli and Palestinian versions of Sesame Street and the production of the show(s) through up conflict. Link below is to a 1999 Washington Post article A Bumpy Ride on ‘Sesame Street’:Israeli-Palestinian Show Hits More Snags Than the Peace Talks

    Will Sesame Street make a positive impact here? Don’t know. But I do know there is an empty large white building on a hill overlooking Belfast that could be used as one of the production sites.

    Any ideas for casting?

  • Carlos

    None of these things really work and usually end up as being patronising no matter how worthy.

    If they wanted to encourage tolerance in children they would stop state schools from flying the Union jack. Which does more to encourage tribalism than anything else.


    Surely separate schools for the majority of catholics doesa lot moe to enourage tribalism than flying a flag.

    How about we agree to stop flying any flags at all, and in exchange every schools will be a micture of all denominations?

  • Carlos

    Yes I agree with that TAFKABO as long as they teach Irish history and teach the Irish language instead of French.


    I like the way you said irish history, as if there was only one.

    Anyway, back on topic.
    D’ya think people will be happy listening to someone that is being controlled by some people who are working behind the scenes and putting words in their mouths?

    BTW, what is Dennis Donaldson doing these days?

  • Russell

    Wouldn’t the money be better spent producing 26 videos to teach the meaning of democracy to the unionists? Brightly colored alphabet blocks that spell MANDATE and large numbers that are arranged as 24.7% to indicate the share of the electoral vote received by Sinn Fein would be most helpful to the dolts.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    The problem with tolerance is that it is not enough in itself. The stance of tolerance is not a positive embrace of the ‘other’ it is instead as stated mere ‘tolerance’. It is just the mid point between prejudice and positive intergroup attitudes (or allophilia as it has been defined, see: Allophilia and Intergroup Leadership by TODD L. PITTINSKY

    The goal of merely lowering prejudice to the mid point seems to me to represent a low aspiration and will not longer term really foster the end of the intergroup conflict it is setting out to do. The real challenge is to learn to both embrace the positive aspects of the ‘other’ community and to filter through the aspects of the ‘self’ community and to determine the value of each. In this process lies a possibility of reaching not a mere tolerance but an embrace of the other culture and group that would really remove the basis of the conflict. Of course this may come at a threat to some of the defining characteristics of the self group and is hard work which is why cuddly tolerance projects are so much easier to do but are ultimately futile.

  • Russell

    Duncan, let’s hope that Sesame Street uses ‘easier’ language.

    You know, this ‘tolerance’ crap is just a rephrase of the old ‘they’re all sectarian bigots who just enjoy killing each other’ language that was used to oversimplify the underlying causes of the conflict in the north. Those causes are political (not religious, since bible discussion is quite rare) and they are still in place. Naturally, people with opposite political perspectives are going to disagree. Let’s not call that disagreement ‘intolerance’ and think that a few kiddies videos is going to somehow address the underlining dynamics. All this garbage does is misplace the emphasis. And that, since it’s an O’Reily fund, is all it is intended to do.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    Russell yes and no. The conflict is indeed political but the inter group dynamics are also defined by the sectarian prejudices of the respective groups. It is this prejudice that serves the group purpose of reinforcing the cohesion of the self group through exclusion and definition contrary to the ‘other’. The intolerance and exclusion of the ‘out’ group is used to strengthen and reinforce the ‘in’ group cohesion. In that way it’s a response to and a cause of the inter group conflict as a self reinforcing dynamic. Admittedly tackling this is pretty hard and it may involve a revision of the relative ‘in’ group political preferences as well as an embrace of the ‘other’ as a new balance is found. That’s a major group challenge and is pretty threatening so i don’t doubt its easier to piss around with half assed tolerance projects than to really dig into the issues. Sometimes people would rather live in dysfunction than face the fear that goes with finding a completely new way.

  • Russell

    Duncan, group dynamics theory is a novel approach to the north, but which group(s) are you applying these dynamics to? It seems that you are dividing Catholics into one group and Protestants into another. If so, then I don’t see how group dynamics theory can have any practical application to a ‘group’ that is that diverse.

    Now that aside, the difference between Catholics and Protestants isn’t, paradoxically, a difference of theology: it’s a difference of politics. The historical demographics determined that most Protestants would be unionist and most Catholics would be nationalist. Now two groups of people with opposite political aspirations are locked in a struggle of the supremacy of those respective aspirations. Only one group can ‘win.’ That underlying dynamic isn’t going to go away or be fudged from view. That is the fundamental cause of the conflict that has to be resolved. All the rest (i.e. intolerance, etc) is rooted in that dynamic.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    On that assumption it seems as if you are setting up a permanent lose lose if the only possible solution is that one side win and one lose. The solution may involve recognition that both sides can not achieve the perfect victory they aspire to.

    Actually group dynamics seems to me to be very apt model to apply to the North. Of course it is systems within systems so it’s messy but it’s certainly no less nonsensical than an idealized individualist notion. Human beings think they have control and autonomy but most of us operate as hostages to lager group systems that we don’t perceive and which we serve without conscious thought. The north seems to me to be pretty perfect fit to that analysis and thus a group dynamic model seems appropriate.

    Politics is after all merely the outworking of these group dynamics itself and can not be said to be the cause its merely part of the process. People find themselves in particular groups and factions as part of that process and respond accordingly but that does not necessarily mean that they must for time immemorial remain in those factions. The possibility exists for the redefinition of the group identities in such a way as to reframe the political conflict without one or the other faction necessarily winning a victory or suffering a total loss.

  • “Palestine”?

    A. Where is that?
    B. Are you kidding?

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Kids aren’t essentially sectarian. It’s something they learn from their environment – parents, peers and teachers/carers.

    If children as young as three are displaying sectarian attitudes, then that’s because they have learned it. Bigotry becomes normal, especially if it isn’t challenged by the child’s authority figures. Because we have pretty insular communities here, sectarianism is probably validated by a child’s peers, reinforcing the bigotry by applauding it.

    It’s also easy for a child to learn sectarianism if they do not know anyone from the ‘other side’. In too many places in NI, children from Catholic and Protestant communities don’t mix. There might not even BE anyone from the ‘other’ community in their area.

    So while kids aren’t stupid and can make up their own minds on a lot of issues, if they are not presented with choices that allow them to follow another path, then they should be presented with the options somehow.

    Which is where Sesame Street steps in, I guess.

  • james orr


    Will we see an orange coloured Ernie being all nice and co-operative with a green coloured Bert?

    Kids don’t watch Sesame Street anymore. Times have moved on – they should be commissioning Shrek, The Cramp Twins or Totally Spies instead. Cartoon Network is what kids watch these days.

    For a campaign to be relevant it needs to understand its audience, and this campaign clearly doesn’t.

  • harpo

    ‘If they wanted to encourage tolerance in children they would stop state schools from flying the Union jack. Which does more to encourage tribalism than anything else.’


    LOL. The very fact that there are seperate Catholic schools in the first place (so that normal schools are seen as state schools) wouldn’t be part of the ongoing tribalism of course, would it?

    In most places the state is the backbone of the education system, so that there is no ingrained sectarianism. The vast majority of schools are state schools, with only small numbers of private (sometimes on a religious basis) schools. Thus most kids just go to school, not a state versus a Catholic seperate school.

    I’d say the solution would be to abolish the Catholic seperate school system. Educate the young all together. But then that’s just my anti-sectarian thinking.

  • harpo

    ‘That is the fundamental cause of the conflict that has to be resolved.’


    No sh*t Sherlock.

    If what you have described is true (and it is), then there is no solution that can resolve it. I’ve always said that. Unionism and nationalism basically want the same piece of land treated 2 different ways. And those ways are mutually exclusive. That’s the facts. There is no way around it.

    Anything short of a UI is unacceptable to nationalists, and anything short of staying in the UK is unacceptable to unionists. There isn’t any middle position that both will find acceptable.

    For ‘resolution’ to occur, things that are very unlikely to ever occur have to happen. One possibility is that one side gives up its aspiration and accepts the position of the other side. I can’t see that happening, can you?

    The other practical solution that would resolve things (but won’t ever be allowed to happen) would be for one side to wipe out the other in NI, so that there is no one left to aspire to the opposing view. Thus unionists could wipe out all the nationalists and have a 100% unionist NI, or nationalists could wipe out the unionists and have a 100% nationalist Ni that could then join the ROI.

    I’ve always been of the view that there are some political situations to which there is no solution. And they usually involve 2 tribes wanting some piece of territory treated in mutually exclusive ways. That’s why there is no solution to the situations in NI, Palestine/Israel or Kashmir. Two mutually exclusive aspirations can’t both be accomodated. All that ever can happen is for one side to win, and for the other side to hopefully give up once the win is in.

    In NI, nationalists didn’t give up when NI was set up. They didn’t see that as a solution, did they? Their aspiration continues. If a UI comes along at some point, is that really the solution, or is it just the start of the next phase where unionists don’t just give in and accept the UI, but either stay as unionists trying to break free of the UI and get back into the UK, or become separatists, intent on setting up an independent identity?

    Many nationalists think that a UI is the end game, and that peace and love will reign and unionists will just settle in and accept it. I don’t think that is realistic.

  • harpo

    ‘Will we see an orange coloured Ernie being all nice and co-operative with a green coloured Bert?’

    james orr:

    I doubt it. If it’s realistic we will have Green Bert and Orange Ernie living in a big apartment with Ernie’s family. Bert’s family will live in the apartment next door. Bert and Ernie will be sharing a room, but there is a dispute.

    Bert wants Ernie to agree to knock down the wall separating their room from the apartment belonging to Bert’s family, and to brick off the door, so that the room becomes part of Bert’s family’s apartment. Ernie on the other hand is happy for things to stay the way they are. He is quite happy for the room to stay where it is.

    Bert accuses Ernie of being a supremacist for not letting Bert have his way. Bert also points out that the room used to be part of the Bert family apartment and it should return to that status. Ernie points out that it was only part of it because both apartments were part of one big united apartment.

    Bert responds that the apartments were only united in that way because Ernie’s family made it that way by stealing the apartment belonging to Bert’s family long ago. Bert says that his family had an ancient and honourable tradition of living in their own apartment when Ernie’s family was still living in a cave. And that it was only when Ernie’s family moved into the apartment next door that the trouble started because Ernie’s family coveted the apartment next door, and knocked down the wall and took over control of both apartments.

    To Bert that was an injustice and his family still doesn’t recognize what Ernie’s family did then, or since. To them that room is theirs and the situation has to be resolved to their satisfaction.

    Ernie points out that everyone moved into an apartment at some stage and that Bert’s family did exactly the same thing at some point to whoever was in the apartment that they moved into before them. We’re all apartment invaders, and your family just starts history at a point that suits them, says Ernie.

    Both go off and sit in a huff. It’s the same old argument all over again. Ernie phones his cousin Miss Piggy – the leader of the Apartment Defence Association. Bert phones Kermit – the leader of the Apartment Liberation Army. Neither approves of the activity of these organizations but they sympathize with the underlying cause.

    Miss Piggy has just had one of Bert’s cousins shot, because the week before Kermit organized the bombing of the fridge in the kitchen of Ernie’s family apartment.

    to be continued