Lars and the Real Cow.

This morning, I received an insider tip that conservative commentator Lars Larson was preparing to skewer Stan Foote, Artistic Director of Oregon Children’s Theatre (OCT), on his KXL radio show. Mr. Larson’s staff had apparently spotted an incendiary OCT press release about its upcoming show, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, which included the following teaser: "The book is widely used and supported by unions as it promotes their message of organizing, empowerment, and solidarity. Lawyers of labor and employment law also recommend this book."

Now if you’ve ever listened to Larson’s radio show, you'll know that he has a beef (no pun intended...yes it was) with labor unions, particularly now that union workers have single-handedly destroyed the American auto industry. (Also, he doesn't like the illegal immigrants so much). So you can imagine his consternation upon learning that the region’s flagship theater for young audiences was propagandizing for the union cause. To Larson’s credit, he invited Foote to speak on the air about this pressing issue, rather than just trash talking about it.

Background: Click, Clack, Moo is a popular picture book by Doreen Cronin, with delightful illustrations by Betsy Lewin. It was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Honor in 2001, and named Best Children's Book by Publishers Weekly in 2000.

The plot of the slim volume is simple: The farm animals are cold. Banding together, they use a typewriter they have found to type a note asking Farmer Brown for electric blankets. When Farmer Brown ignores their repeated requests, the animals refuse to produce eggs and milk--in other words, they strike. Outraged, Farmer Brown sends his response: “There will be no electric blankets. You are cows and hens. I demand milk and eggs.

The labor/management impasse is resolved when the farm animals offer to exchange their typewriter for electric blankets. Farmer Brown decides this a fair exchange and everyone gets what they want.

That’s the long and short of it. The stage adaptation expands on the book with a little extra back story and fun song and dance numbers (including an homage to Les Miz). Larson’s concern is that children watching the play will be unwittingly indoctrinated to believe that unions and collective bargaining are good for society. Paraphrasing, here are a few of the questions he posed in his interview this afternoon:

Aren't the animals making demands that will drive the poor farmer into bankruptcy? How is this any different than union autoworkers forcing GM out of business by making unreasonable demands for outrageous wages and benefits?

Should we be encouraging school kids to make demands? What if they ask for more recess? Are we supposed to just give them what they want?

Isn't using subtle messages to teach unsuspecting children that unionism is good a lot like a madrassa teaching Palestinian children that Jews are dogs that ought to be put in the ovens?

Would OCT ever consider producing a play that espouses conservative values? For example, teaching children that every life--even that of the unborn--has value.

To summarize: (1) Unions = Bad; (2) Culture = Liberal Bias.

Foote responded with equanimity (though with a chuckle of incredulity through most of the interview). I know he's not a fan of heavy-handed “message” plays – he’d much rather give kids something to think and talk about than to spoon-feed them a particular viewpoint, left or right. Click, Clack, Moo, does have a few lessons about the value of communication, negotiation, compromise and -- brace yourself -- standing up for your rights. Are those really such bad things to be teaching children? And while the conclusion is that the cows, chickens and ducks get something in return for their militancy, they also give something up in return – in other words, everybody wins. By the way, did I mention that this play has tap-dancing cows in tutus?

As for the liberal bias, Foote informed Larson that OCT’s production (2005-06 season) of Lois Lowry’s powerful book, The Giver, told the harrowing story of a purportedly utopian society in which one approach to reaching “perfection” was to euthanize "imperfect" children. Foote pointed out that the play’s subtext spoke to the importance of individualism and the value of human life--sentiments that Larson seemed to appreciate. Of course, The Giver also questions how much freedom should a society be willing to sacrifice in exchange for security; it doesn't answer that question, but challenges young readers to think hard about an important, and very real issue.

I think Larson was mostly looking to pick a fight to make a point about unions and how the conservative viewpoint never gets a fighting chance in our culture. Thankfully, he did not try to drum up listener outrage, nor did he issue the right wing equivalent of a fatwah against OCT. He also refrained from personally disparaging or belittling his interviewee--a tactic that seems all too common with his ilk. He even let Foote conclude the interview by offering a $3.00 discount on tickets to Click, Clack, Moo for anyone calling the OCT box office (503-228-9571) and saying “Lars sent me.” I’ll let you know if I hear of any takers.

Final note: OCT asked a talented member of its Young Professionals program, Fergus Firth, to produce a few promotional videos for Click, Clack, Moo. Fergus recently appeared in OCT’s production of Gossamer, playing the lovable dog, Toby. He also played the Prince for a few years in OBT’s production of The Nutcracker. What else? He's produced award-winning films with NW Film Center, and composed a piece performed by Fear No Music as part of its Young Composers program (which you can listen to here). This young man is an example of just how dangerous arts education can be.

Below is his video snippet of early rehearsals for Click, Clack, Moo to give you a better feel for how dangerously radical it's going to be.


culturejock said...

Well it's nice to hear that Lars didn't set out to TOTALLY skewer Stan, and it sounds like Stan was well prepared! I do have a bad habit of turning on the Lars Larson show if I happen to be driving in my car at that hour (trips to Salem are the most common cause) but I think it's important to know what he and all of his scary followers are thinking. I used to love it when Randy Leonard would go on the show -- he really knew how to push Lars's buttons.

One time, I was sitting next to Lars at the Grand Floral Parade (I was only there because we were hosting the AFTA conference that year) and I got into a fight with him about public funding for the arts. He surprised me then too by not pulling Mapplethorpe out of his ass or some ancient incident like that; instead the best argument he could come up with is that public funding is "so small that it must not really be necessary." Also some strange analogy of how he paid for the artwork above his fireplace with his own money.

Be prepared for Lars to become even more obnoxious now that everything around him is completely Democratic. And keep staging them scary dancing cow plays!

Mead said...

Stan Foote is so awesome.

rich bachelor said...

I'm a stagehand, a union member and an occasional employee of OCT. This would make me at least two things that Lars doesn't like.

Along with the unending need of reactionaries to get people outraged about pretty unconsequential things simply for the purpose of entertainment, there's this knee-jerk union bashing that's getting more and more ubiquitous as the economy gets worse.

Of course, people like Larson use the opposite argument when times are good: If things are so wonderful, then we don't need unions, right?

Wrong, dick. Despite obvious corruption in some unions, they remain one of the very few ways that an average worker may hope to see anything proportionate to the extraordinary profits made by their bosses, and even that is still a very small percentage indeed.

I've ran three labor actions in my life without ever involving a union, and every time it was simply because the employer wasn't even following the law. In each case, the employer had decided to blithely ignore basic aspects of labor law simply because they felt they could, and knew damn well that they would get away with it. When their staff responded with civil collective bargaining, it surprised them, and ultimately they went with our suggestions.

(I should probably just write a blog post about this. Sorry.)

MightyToyCannon said...

CJ: Your phrase "pulling Mapplethorpe out of his ass" was quite vivid. Thanks for sharing your Lars sighting. My Lars story is that I was once shopping for a used Saab convertible and was told by one seller that his car used to be owned by Lars. I didn't buy that one, but thought it was curious that he had a foreign car -- albeit owning a Swedish car is appropriate if your name is Lars (my grandfather was Olaf, so a Saab was appropriate for me as well).

Mead: I agree with your assessment of Stan's awesomeness. What makes him a great director is that he is a great teacher at heart.

MightyToyCannon said...

Rich: Thanks for adding your comments. Along with you, I'm getting tired of the union-bashing. Yeah, the system doesn't always work, but collective organizing has done a heck of a lot of good for people through the years. And what's wrong with giving working people the opportunity to earn decent, middle-class wages?

shobiz said...

The real mistake here is in assuming that all farm animals are Liberals. Why, just the other day I saw a dancing cow with a copy of The Weekly Standard, right after he parked his Ford Excursion on an illegal immigrant.

I'm still trying to think of a good "pulling Maplethorpe out of one's ass" joke....

Floyd Sklaver said...

I hope your comment about unions ("now that union workers have single-handedly destroyed the American auto industry") is indicative of Larson's opinion and not your own.

Unions certainly did not destroy the auto industry. Management did; by making bad decisions including producing cars no one wants and not investing in alternative energy sources or fuel-efficiency (in fact to fight every opportunity to raise CAFE standards).

MightyToyCannon said...

Thanks for commenting Floyd. My comment on the auto union was indeed written facetiously, reflective of Mr. Larson's opinions not my own. Like you, I'm tired of labor unions being scapegoated for the ills that were caused by the management decisions made by auto execs driven by the allure of year-end bonuses and whipped to perform by stockholders only interested in short-term returns.