Like most American children, I grew up reading books by Dr. Seuss. The Lorax was my favorite. I’m an unapologetic capitalist, you see, but I feel my inner conservationist pumping her fist in the air in anger whenever I revisit that animated tale about the ecological consequences of production practices so shoddy and shortsighted, even BP executives might blush if they were caught committing them.
Oh, sure, we know the oil spill in the summer of 2010 dirtied the waters in the Gulf, killed scores of birds and dolphins, and mucked up Louisiana’s fragile marshlands, but in a series of greedy decisions, the Once-ler from The Lorax glumps up the Humming-Fish pond, gives the brown Bar-ba-loots “crummies in tummies”, and hacks down the last Truffula tree without so much as a thought to cleanup.
But even the Once-ler eventually grows a conscience. Long after his factories are closed and the world has gone brown, he invites the next generation to do better than he has.
Perhaps with his sad words of caution ringing in my ears when I was young, I have never had a problem caring “a whole awful lot” about how we steward the earth while also supporting an American free market system. Because of this, I was as horrified as any hemp-clad, Pelosi-supporting Californian with whom I rarely have something in common a couple of years ago when I was watching weeks and weeks of black goo gush into blue water.
I know a good businessman has a moral responsibility to consider the impact of enterprise on the environment and to use natural resources wisely from the beginning.
This is the message I took from The Lorax as a child, and I think Dr. Seuss would be well pleased by my interpretation.
After all, despite the political controversy stirred by the publication of this 1971 picture book--those on the right who screamed Dr. Seuss had become a rolling-eyed tree hugger indoctrinating children, and those on the left who screamed Dr. Seuss had written a green manifesto to prove loggers were evil--the man Theodore Seuss Geisel was never quite that dogmatic.
Rather, he seemed most interested in making people think about the consequences of their actions. In fact, while he later used The Butter Battle Book to criticize the arms race, which I happen to believe helped win the Cold War, I have nothing but love for Dr. Seuss’s story about Yooks and Zooks fighting it out over how to butter morning toast.
Anyway, the author had a point when he wrote that book. The need to promote assured mutual destruction is an absurd idea. Does that necessarily mean American nuclear armament in the face of despotic communism didn’t serve as a deterrent for violent engagement? Whether or not an admirer of Reagan and Thatcher, who can really argue that the human reality of geopolitics isn’t ridiculous?
Regardless, Dr. Seuss was never a crazed ideologue or an irrational pacifist. In fact, while many people may have forgotten--or may have never known--long before I was born, long before The Cat in the Hat made his first appearance in 1957, Mr. Geissel earned incredible respect from me when he got out his mightier-than-a-sword pen and went to war voluntarily a couple of years before he became a commissioned officer in the Army.
He once explained, “I got irritated into becoming a political cartoonist by one of our nation’s most irritating heroes, the late Col. Charles Augustus Lindbergh. In 1940 when Adolf Hitler was putting out the lights and bestowing terror on the people of Europe, Colonel Lindbergh was bestowing defeatism and appeasement on the people of the USA.”
Enlisting an army of whaz-its and whoze-its and a giant American eagle in a top hat, Dr. Seuss did his best to fight fascism, bigotry, and Hitler long before it was fashionable to do so. Clearly ignoring the polls in which the vast majority of voters wanted to stay out of the war raging across the pond, he asked Americans to reconsider their core values and stand up against evil even when that evil lurked outside their borders.
For example, picture in your mind an October 1, 1941, Dr. Seuss cartoon, which appeared in the daily newspaper PM. There is a granny in her glasses and button boots with “America First” written across her sweater. She is reading Adolf the Wolf to the horrified and perplexed looking brother and sister we all know as the famous playmates of Thing One and Thing Two in The Cat in the Hat. With a fatuous smile on her face, the granny concludes, “…and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones… But those were Foreign Children, and it didn’t really matter.”
One might recall “America First” was a non-interventionist pressure group that used the famous aviator and internationally acclaimed celebrity Charles Lindbergh as a primary spokesman. The main thrust of its message was that America should avoid war at all costs, even if the cost was a whole continent swallowed by darkness. It put forth the idea that Europe was a quagmire of unending, entangled conflicts from which America might never emerge if we got involved as well. Let the Brits deal with the Germans! It wasn’t our responsibility! It wasn’t our neighborhood! In the midst of a crushing depression, we had our own problems.
Perhaps that cartoon still resonates today, hmmm????
Consider Charles Lindbergh saying on September 11, 1941, “We are on the verge of a war for which we are still unprepared, and for which no one has offered a feasible plan for victory--a war which cannot be won without sending our soldiers across the ocean to force a landing on a hostile coast against armies stronger than our own.”
Remember a different quote that expresses a similar sentiment, “In the end, no amount of American forces can solve the political differences that lie at the heart of someone else’s civil war.” (Senator Barack Obama on a proposed surge in Iraq, January 18, 2007)
But I am not writing this article to discuss the ills of defeatism and appeasement, the bounds of American foreign involvement, or even the parallels of Iran/Iraq/Afghanistan with the history of World War II.
Rather, I am simply paying homage to a man I’ve come to greatly admire quite apart from his contributions to children’s literature.
I know that once Dr. Seuss left the neutral ad business to venture into the most contentious political debates of his day, he showed the courage of his convictions--he chose the right side of history--and that is worthy of respect.
In truth, even though we might very well have argued about some of the political issues that rage in Washington today--the appropriate use of public funds, the role of government in a person’s life and other such what-not--I think of Dr. Seuss as a socially conscious, fair minded, and passionate patriot who served his country well. I do not think of him as either a Democrat or a Republican.
In fact, at different times throughout his career, one could argue Geisel shared positions with the left and the right, but he was mostly a free thinker who loved his country more than he loved any one political party.
For instance, while he voted for FDR and steadfastly supported Roosevelt’s foreign policy during World War II, he had no problem lampooning that administration’s fondness for high taxes and profligate spending when he thought they were detrimental to the American people.
Shortly before his death in 1991, a biographer asked Dr. Seuss if there was anything else he wanted to say to his country.
“The best slogan I can think of to leave with the USA would be we can… and we’ve got to… do better than this.”
Yep. That still applies, too.
I sure do wish I could take that man out to exchange ideas over a nice plate of green eggs and ham.
I’d like to tell him just how much I wish there were more men like him engaging in debate in our present-day public forum… men who stand for principle first, party second.
After all, there seems to be a great unrest, a corroding uncertainty, and a sense of crippling defeatism in the American air again for a whole host of reasons. We shall have to resign ourselves to these without the one word point Dr. Seuss asks us to ponder most in The Lorax: unless.