When U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the first-term Texas Republican, in the run-up to the Tea Party-engineered government shutdown included in his 21-hour filibuster a reading of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham,” he may have been trying to show what he has in common with everyday Americans. He actually showed his ignorance.
It was more obvious – and embarrassing for the GOP not embracing “Teapublican” extremism – than a comparable pop-culture mash-up in 1984. I was then one of the editors at the Washington (D.C.) Weekly; Ronald Reagan was President and running for re-election; that year’s music was awesome: Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer,” Los Lobos’ “How Will the Wolf Survive,” R.E.M.’s “Reckoning,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
Conservative columnist (and Reagan supporter) George Will commended Springsteen’s song as exemplifying American values, but he'd missed the point, which was a cry for a vanished past of national pride based on shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. Springsteen said the song was about "a working-class man [in a] spiritual crisis … lost. He has nothing left. He's isolated from the government ... nothing makes sense."
I wrote that Will hadn’t really listened – or hoped voters wouldn’t: “Listening to Springsteen’s powerful lyrics and hearing a jingoistic flag-waver is like considering the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” a restaurant review,” I said then. Now, I write that Cruz or his no-compromise “wacko-birds” – as Republicans including Arizona’s U.S. Sen. John McCain called them – are just as clueless about Dr. Seuss.
The world's most popular author of children's books, Dr. Seuss – Theodor Seuss Geisel – wrote and illustrated 44 children's books before his 1991 death, and along the way earned two Oscars, two Emmys, a Pulitzer Prize and more accolades than a right-wing Texan born in Canada could invent for himself.
Seuss also was a staunch liberal whose editorial cartoons were in New York’s terrific afternoon newspaper PM during World War II.
Peter Dreier, a professor at Los Angeles’ Occidental College, where he chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, writes, “Dr. Seuss was also a moralist and political progressive. His most popular children's books included parables about racism, anti-Semitism, the arms race, and the environment. His books consistently reveal his sympathy with the weak and the powerless and his fury against tyrants and oppressors.”
A Massachusetts Lutheran who graduated from Dartmouth and in the 1920s freelanced for periodicals such as the Saturday Evening Post and Vanity Fair, Seuss became a successful advertising illustrator. His first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” came out in 1937 after famously having been rejected by 29 publishers. In the 1940s, he penned hundreds of cartoons for PM – which he described as a publication “against people who pushed other people around" – before turning his talents to cranking out anti-fascist propaganda for the military and government.
Writing in Tikkun magazine, Dreier said, “He used his cartoons to challenge racism at home…, union-busting, and corporate greed, which he thought divided the country and hurt the war effort.”
After the war, the McCarthy-era divided the country in different ways, and Seuss’ books became more political, if subtle. “Horton Hears a Who!” has the elephant help tiny creatures endangered by others who can’t or won’t notice them. Seuss wrote, "Even though you can't see or hear them at all, a person's a person, no matter how small.”
From “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Lorax” to “The King's Stilts” and “Yertle the Turtle,” Seuss poked fun of the greed, influence and plain silliness of the powerful. Yertle, king of a pond, stands on his own subjects to raise himself higher, uncaring about others (a real 1-percenter). The bottommost turtle says, “I don't like to complain/but down here below, we are feeling great pain./I know up on top you are seeing great sights,/but down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
Whether exposing to his young audience the foolishness of destroying the environment (“The Lorax”) or bigotry (“The Sneetches”), Seuss offered a kindly, thoughtful and sensible perspective that’s sorely lacking in Cruz and the few dozen Teapublicans that held us all hostage this month – and threaten it again in a few months.
Like Seuss said when asked about “The Butter Battle Book” (about nuclear proliferation), "I'm not anti-military, I'm just anti-crazy."
Even with egg on their faces (green eggs, even), Cruz and his ilk should read Seuss’ "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" It warns, “You can get so confused/that you'll start in to race/down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace/and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,/headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.”
Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.