Doctor Seuss, Doctor JJ and Power of Story for Life At the Highest Levels of Government

20 04 2007

I have a homeschool mom friend and activist in Tennessee, a conservative Republican and Christian.

She served in uniform herself. She served NHEN as a fair and careful moderator who, imo, was tougher on herself than anyone else.

She even served on her local school board recently, and of course took undue lumps for being a homeschooling mom who according to the rhetorical excess of the times should therefore stay out of all public education business (as if it didn’t affect her family and community interests as full-fledged citizens just as much as anyone else??)

The short power of story is: I trust her heart , and though I’ve never met her in person, feel that I know her to be a Thinking Parent.

But like all of us who ARE thinking, she is always learning more. And she seems honestly open to that prospect, which is why I have admired her these many years despite the fact that our politics are not the same. She does her homework without foregone conclusions in mind.

So — all that is preamble to this. She has a Tennessee education blog, and after the SCOTUS decision the other day, she posted something that made me (the musical theatre mom whose daughter was assistant stage manager for “Seussical: the Musical” in community theatre last summer) smile, even though I hated that decision and disliked the way my homeschooling mom friend saw it.
She quoted a Dr. Seuss book, that “a person’s a person no matter how small” (Horton the elephant, remember?) as a way to affirm the rightness of the partial birth abortion ban.

I started to engage her in a debate on her own blog, but thought better of it. You know that role-conflict mode at a family reunion or maybe a big holiday, where you are thrown into impossible conflicting demands between being mother, wife, daughter and hostess or guest, say, all at the same time? I didn’t want to do that to her. So I will ramble on here instead, and send the link to her for consideration privately at her leisure, without her being boxed into performing for company.

She wrote:

Adults make mistakes. Adults commit horrible crimes. Children, no matter how small, shouldn’t have to suffer the ultimate price for those mistakes and crimes. . .

I could send you to dozens of sites telling you what the opinion means…perhaps we should all start with the 73-page opinion itself.

“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

–Deut 30:19 & 20

It turns out that Doctor Seuss (Theodor Geisel, not actually a physician or Ph.D.) was indeed passionately pro-life but in the antiwar sense, not the conservative Christian anti-abortion sense. Read this and maybe this, for other perspectives and power of story. It’s complicated — he was for example prejudiced against Japanese in WWII, which fits this from Antiwar.com in 2005:

So before all you liberals – who have been writing me, praising my recent column on the subject of the threat of fascism from the Right – get too smug and full of yourselves, remember that the witch-hunting dissent-crushers of the neoconservative Right, who have thrown the traditional conservative distrust of government power and centralization out the window, have their antecedents on the Rooseveltian Left.

Before the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and Michael Savages there was Walter Winchell (a gossip columnist who smeared [.pdf] the antiwar movement as agents of Hitler: note here the casually approving reference to “enemy aliens” being rounded up), the pundit Dorothy Thompson (who labeled antiwar conservatives “Vichy Fascists,”) and Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss,” the famous cartoonist and author of such ever popular children’s books as And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, The Butter Battle Book, and The Cat in the Hat.
…What poses a particular danger is that American liberals, as well as neoconservatives, can hark back to elements of their own ideological traditions in support of a distinctly American authoritarianism. This is why there has been almost no opposition in Congress to what is essentially a bipartisan policy of Big Government and endless war.

and also this from the National Review in 2003:

. . .”[Seuss] was brooding over the mounting cold war with the Soviet Union and believed that under Ronald Reagan the nuclear arms race was beyond control. Over dinner at La Valencia, he wondered out loud how a democratic government could impose ‘such deadly stupidity’ on people like him who were so opposed to nuclear proliferation.” Then he wrote The Butter Battle Book (1984), which his publicists earnestly declared to be “probably the most important book Dr. Seuss has ever created.” Seuss himself called it “the best book I’ve ever written.”

The story describes a conflict between the blue-suited Yooks, who prefer to eat their bread with the “butter side up,” and orange-suited Zooks, who eat their bread with the “butter side down.” The Yooks and Zooks then embark on a perilous arms race.
They build ever more menacing weapons . . .

All of Seuss’s other books, including The Lorax, end on a hopeful note. The Butter Battle Book, alone, does not. It is also a perfect emblem of the moral equivalence that neutered so many liberals during the Cold War: It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread — as if Communism weren’t a threat to liberty, but an eating preference.

. . .So what are conservatives to do with Seuss?
I say read him, because most of his books are incredible fun — but also choose wisely. My favorite Seuss book is one that many people don’t know about: I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (1965). Seuss may not have realized it, but the theme of Solla Sollew is powerfully conservative.

[JJ’s Note: this is what “Seussical the Musical” is based on]

Unfortunately, it was not Seuss’s most commercially successful book — sales were disappointing, even though it was written and issued during his heyday. The Morgans describe the book this way: “a somber morality tale, a Seussian Pilgrim’s Progress with the message that one can’t run away from trouble.” Yet it’s far deeper than that.
In truth, Solla Sollew is a warning against what Eric Voegelin called immanentizing the eschaton. Put in plain English: Don’t seek heaven on earth. . .

On the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo,
Where they never have troubles! At least, very few.

It is, in short, Utopia.
Trying to reach this impossible place, the narrator embarks on a series of misadventures, including an encounter with a loony knight who bellows, “I’m General Genghis Kahn Schmitz.” (“The finest line I have ever written,” Seuss once said.) Ultimately, he arrives at the outskirts of Solla Sollew — but he can’t get inside. It seems that a key has been lost. Everybody’s locked out. Frustrated, the city’s gatekeeper declares that he’s had enough:

And I’m off to the city of Boola Boo Ball
On the banks of the beautiful River Woo-Wall,
Where they never have troubles! No troubles at all!

Ah, yes: a place that’s even better than Utopia. By this time, of course, the narrator has caught on. He goes back home to confront his troubles rather than avoid them.

It’s a wonderful book with a beautiful message — and in Seuss’s liberal universe, perhaps even a subversive one.

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9 responses

20 04 2007
JJ

Among the other differences, Horton Hatches an Egg was from the 1940s while the Butter Battle Book was from the 1980s — with a lifetime of cultural and political change separating them.

21 04 2007
JJ

“Pro-life” imposed by force through authoritarianism? I hear that as a scary story no matter who is telling it . . .

21 04 2007
Nance Confer

Late-term abortions are not normally about adults making mistakes and trying to get out of something. They are about dangerous medical conditions that could kill or damage the woman involved. (The truly scariest part of this decision that I have read so far — the notion of an as-applied challenge — http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-380.ZO.html — see Section V.)

To suggest that I and my uterus and my husband and my children should be bound by someone else’s good book — Bible or Suessian tale — is ludicrous. To enforce that suggestion from the bench of the Supreme Court is a crime against humanity.

Nance

22 04 2007
freerangelife

Speaking of Power of Story, I thought of you when I read this.

(I happened upon GlobalMindShift via FLOW, which stands out for, among other things, using free education to indicate an action rather than a thing.)

22 04 2007
freerangelife

I should have put quotation marks around “free education,” to indicate that I was referring to the phrase.

22 04 2007
JJ

That whole site is new to me —
I checked out the homepage too, all about “meme power” and bookmarked it. 🙂

10 03 2008
JJ

A new site I just added to Snook’s blogroll is “The Bard Blog,” — sort of a celebration of young lovers’ thrilling full-frontal embrace of Shakespeare, rather than the usual schooling of Shakespeare as a prescribed schedule of unpleasant doses from the stern apothecary, for general civic improvement:

“Green Eggs and Hamlet”
. . .Dr. Seuss and Shakespeare working together. We’ll get such great works as Horatio Hears a Who, Hop on Puck, and more. . .

14 03 2008
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13 06 2010
Why Educate Our Kids? Part Four: Audience Behavior « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Part Four: Audience Behavior 13 06 2010 So today as Spunky started a new conversation about what it means for a child to be “well-educated” I noticed it afresh and thought I’d mention some of what it makes me wonder, about what’s being […]

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