December 18, 2008

Dr. Seuss, Politics, and Parenting

The other night at bedtime I read Yertle the Turtle to Sal.  If you don't have kids or don't regularly read Dr. Seuss, it's the one where there's this turtle (Yertle) that is the ruler of a little swamp--"the king of all he sees."  In his thirst for power he stacks his subjects so he can see farther and thereby expand his turtle kingdom.  As the turtle tower grows and grows, the poor turtle at the bottom, Mack, sheepishly complains that his legs are tired.  Yertle barks back that he has no right to speak to him, because he rules over all he sees--blah, blah, blah.  Shortly thereafter, the pile of turtles comes crashing down when Mack, of all things, burps.  He doesn't rebel, there's no revolution, natural bodily functions simply take over and a regime collapses.

I was struck by the overt political message of the story.  This is, of course, no great revelation.  The book has been around for years and the parallels to fascism are obvious and deliberate.  Of course, being more of a Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish type of guy I hadn't read Yertle the Turtle in many years.  As is my habit these days, I immediately started drilling holes in Geisel's analogy.  Turtles are like a fascist regime?  C'mon, it will never hold up.  My dislike of analogies is not suspended, even for the good Dr. S.  After a few minutes, as is also my habit these days, my mind wandered to something else.

Later I decided to do some super sleuthing on the internet.  I love the internet--it has almost all the answers.  It was clear that Seuss had some political agenda that I had never considered, and I found it necessary to learn more.  Many of you have probably had a similar experience and may already know all about Dr. Seuss and his politics.  If so, I apologize for recycling some information here.


Before writing children's books Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel, of course) was a left wing political cartoonist for PM magazine and ardent supporter of U.S. involvement in World War II (before Pearl Harbor, when intervention was highly controversial and a potentially stark change in U.S. foreign policy).  Some of his caricatures of Emperor Hirohito and other Japanese remain controversial.  Interesting.  Considering the events that followed his views on WWII don't seem unreasonable, though at the time he was on the extreme left.  I do wonder what he would say now about Japanese internment camps.  Regardless, as I am no expert on the history of WW II or foreign policy then or now, my point is that Dr. Seuss had a life before writing children's book (though some accuse the current administration and many conservatives to be similarly "Rooseveltian", if that's a word, in their policies) and he had leftist leanings that he stuck to.  It makes sense that his ideas would find their way into the books he later wrote, even if they were for children (which isn't unique to Dr. Seuss either--as there are even college courses about left wing politics in childrens' literature).  

I also came across this blog entry by a concerned mother.  

I found this even more interesting.  Of course anyone with a heartbeat and a thread of cognitive function knows that "socialism" has gotten a lot of play in the media over the past few months (thankfully the election is over now and the sound bites have died down).  I know when people say "socialism" I'm supposed to be scared, though I'm not entirely sure why.  But arguing about socialism and taxes isn't what I'm getting at here.

What I really wanted to dwell on is the concerned mother's response to "Ten Apples Up on Top" and her answer for protecting her daughter from Dr. Seuss' "subliminal message that socialism is ok."  Her answer:  "I will stuff this book to the back of my daughter's book shelf and hope she forgets about it."  

So again, let me state, I'm not an expert on foreign affairs, U.S. history, tax codes, or, in this last instance, effective parenting.  However, I've grown extremely tired of unfounded and unsubstantiated fear being used as a marketing or political tool.  So now conservatives need to be afraid of Dr. Seuss because he's a "socialist?"  And, in fairness, as I want to be somewhat impartial here (because I don't really dig partisanship), leftists should be afraid of Dr. Seuss because he's pro-life?

In these situations I fall back on my mantra of serenity:  "Whatever."


So last night I read a few books to Sal at bedtime.  First we read "Ten apples up on top."  He didn't even blink at the subtle ideological undertones.  Then we read one of the post humous Dr. Seuss books (cobbled together from a partial manuscript with the help of others), "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day."  It is the story of a silly school with all kinds of peculiar and interesting teachers, and a principal paralyzed with fear that the students may not be learning everything they need to pass an impending standardized assessment test.  If they fail, their beloved school will be torn down and they will be transferred to the dull school in neighboring "Flobbertown."  Though not a classic, it has the usual Seussian rhythm and feel, as well as a moral.  Right before the exam Miss Bonkers, one of the more popular teachers in the school, offered words of encouragement:

Miss Bonkers rose, "Don't fret!" she said.

"You've learned the things you need

To pass that test and many more--

I'm certain you'll succeed.

We've taught you that the earth is round,

That red and white make pink,

And something else that matters more--

We've taught you how to think."

So, in the end, maybe the thing we should fear the most is that our children won't learn to think.

But before I close this post that has wandered into the world of politics, I thought I'd leave you with a photo that was forwarded to me yesterday by a friend of mine, with its included text.  Can you guess what they're afraid of?

"Time Person of the Year"


You guessed it--smokers.

End Comment:  Now that the sound bites have died down, I'm forgetting why I'm supposed to be afraid of this guy.  I seem to remember something about being "elitist."  I'm confused, where's his latte?


  1. Once you get going you really go! I love reading your blogs. How nice to live at the top of a hill you can ski down. Only problem I see is that now you might want to build a ski lift or tow rope!! Hope all at your house have a great winter. I hope mine will be snow free and warm (not likely in Jinan--the warm part)

  2. The "socialist" thing got me, too. I saw that a kid I grew up with had listed as his political views: "Obama is a socialist." That was it. I wondered if he meant that as a compliment or as an insult. And it made me realize that this kid, now an adult, must not understand socialism very well (if he had written "Obama has a few proposals which are somewhat more socialistic in nature than some systems already in place, though less socialistic than other structures already in place, structures most Americans love and would never call socialistic," I would have understood my acquaintance's point better, but would still be no closer to understanding his own political position).
    Anyway, I, too, find it interesting and sometimes even rewarding to parse the ideological foundations of various children's books. Every book (virtually every message of any sort, for that matter) has an ideological underpinning. Of course, I've discovered that too much overt analysis along these lines tends to annoy Elizabeth and cause Sonora to lose interest in my reading of the book.

  3. The "Obama is a socialist" phrase also bothered me. I think Dave and I were among the very few who voted for Obama in our hyper-conservative state. Also what bothers me even more is the use of fear-factor in politics. I wonder how long it will take before people are willing to give up their freedom to ensure their security rather than sacrifice their security to ensure their freedom.
    I didn't know Dr. Seuss had political views in his books. I guess I've just stuck to Green Eggs and Ham.