Big Bird: 1, Ted Cruz: 0
Like so many Twitter feuds, this one started with a tweet. From a bird. Big Bird, to be precise. Last week, Big Bird’s Twitter account posted a tweet saying that the beloved Sesame Street character had been “vaccinated” against COVID-19. To any sane person, a tweet from a fictional television character wouldn’t elicit a response more than, “well, that’s cute.” But alas, we live in a country that elected Ted Cruz to the United States Senate. He and his right-wing ilk are anything but sane. Senator Cruz took issue with the otherwise innocuous tweet, calling it “government propaganda…for your five-year-old.”
I’m not going to discuss how pathetic it is for a sitting American senator to both start and manage to lose a fight with a muppet. (Twitter already took care of that for me.) Beyond the obvious, Cruz’s outlandish response to a fictional television character is demonstrative of a political movement that believes any act of selflessness is worthy of remonstration.
Let’s take a step back. Big Bird was “vaccinated” against COVID-19 because the character is supposed to be six years old and last week the CDC approved a pediatric COVID vaccine for children ages five to eleven. For many parents anxiously waiting to vaccinate their children under the age of twelve, the CDC’s announcement was a major development. Prior to the approval of the pediatric vaccine, the United States was significantly lagging in its efforts to vaccinate Americans ages twelve and older. So far, only 59 percent of eligible Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The United States currently ranks fifty-first in vaccination rates, as compared to other nations. This is particularly egregious given the fact that the United States has such a large surplus of vaccines, they’re being thrown away.
It’s difficult to express how maddening it has been to know that your child’s safety depended on the selflessness of others. Getting vaccinated isn’t just about protecting yourself, it’s about protecting the most vulnerable in our society who can’t be vaccinated. Right now, that group includes all children under the age of five. In a New York Times op-ed published in August, writer Jessica Valenti, expressed what so many parents and caregivers were feeling at the time: “I’m furious that the physical and mental health of countless American children are at the mercy of the willfully ignorant and the irrationally fearful. It’s enraging to listen to people complain that wearing a mask or getting a simple shot is akin to an assault on their freedom while children who have no choice bear the brunt of their nonsense. Most of all, I’m tired of hearing about how my anger won’t change hearts and minds or that I need to respect other people’s choices — even when those choices put others’ health and lives at risk.”
Valenti’s prediction was scarily prescient. While the threat of the Delta variant did temporarily boost vaccination rates, to this day approximately 134 million Americans remain unvaccinated. When schools reopened their doors for the 2021–2022 school year, COVID cases among children skyrocketed. Not surprising, given that the vast majority were ineligible for vaccination. Begging our fellow citizens to get vaccinated in order to protect children was a strategy that largely failed. Therefore, underscoring the importance of pediatric vaccines. While it is true that COVID is not as dangerous for children as it is for adults, “as of November 4, over 6.5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic.” A recording-breaking number of children have been hospitalized for COVID and 645 have died. Hearing that it is “unlikely” that your child will become critically ill is cold comfort to the families of children who end up with lifelong complications or die from the virus.
Pediatric COVID vaccines are a significant milestone in the pandemic. That’s worth celebrating and it’s worth using every tool at our disposal to encourage parents to vaccinate their children, including beloved children’s characters like Big Bird.
Of course, Sesame Street would talk about the pandemic and the importance of vaccinations. After all, this show constantly emphasizes the importance of diversity, inclusion, community, and teaching children to do whatever they can to help others. When it premiered in 1969, Sesame Street was a groundbreaking television show: aimed at improving the education of children, especially those of lower socioeconomic status.
Despite the nominal funding it received from the government, the show was wildly successful. “Independent research found that children who regularly watch Sesame Street gained more than nonviewers on tests of letter and number recognition, vocabulary and early math skills. One study, in 2001, revealed that the show’s positive effects on reading and achievement lasted through high school.” Furthermore, the show never shied away from addressing social issues, particularly those that impacted children who lived in urban environments: “Perhaps the most radical part of the Sesame DNA has always been its social activism. From the start, Sesame targeted lower-income, urban kids — the ones who lived on streets with garbage cans sitting in front of their rowhouse apartments.”
Simply put, Sesame Street represents everything that the modern Republican Party deplores.
The GOP is a political movement perhaps best characterized by selfishness. The Republican Party’s entire political ethos could be summarized as, “Well I got mine, sucks for you if you didn’t.” Any act that is seen as benefiting our collective society like public education, universal healthcare, family leave policies, or increased workplace protections are derided as “big government wastefulness” or “socialism.” This logic, or lack thereof, has directly influenced the Republican Party’s response to the pandemic.
Although Cruz himself was first in line to receive the vaccine early in 2021, he and his Republican colleagues have also enjoyed fanning the flames of anti-vaxxers for their political gain. Why did Cruz attack Big Bird over a tweet? Because he knew that to remain in good standing with a political party that continually denies the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic and encourages people to act as if it doesn’t exist, he needs to condemn any progress made in combating it. Cruz is not an aberration, he is a representation of a political faction that values self-destructive selfishness, disguised as “individualism”, above all else.