Dr. Seuss once wrote propaganda for the U.S. government. This should not surprise anyone who has read “The Lorax.” Its impassioned telling makes Greenpeace rookies look like policy wonks. But perhaps some of his other works were more subtle. Recent events raise the question whether Seuss saw where we were headed and tried to warn us.
Remember “The Cat in the Hat”? Its moral appeared to be that mothers should not leave their children at home unsupervised. Only the Fish, that plaintive and easily ignored voice of reason, argued against the excesses of the Cat. But what if the Mother stood for maturity itself, or the concept of shared social responsibility? Then the Cat would represent the rebellious individual rejecting adulthood, or spoiled children, or selfishness in any form.
Where did Mother go? After the collective and common burdens of the Great Depression and the war, why would people have stopped feeling the kinship that builds and sustains communities? Perhaps the comparative peace and prosperity that followed the war finally allowed them to retreat into their private lives, to form connections on the basis of affinity instead of necessity.
Fair enough. But how does that create such a rich environment for selfishness? Enter Thing 1 and Thing 2.
The roles of Thing 1 and Thing 2
Thing 1 is commercial culture, an abstract concept that has no form of its own but finds expression wherever want trumps need. With more discretionary income available, American families of the 1950s could indulge themselves, in turn helping create a cycle of perpetual consumption that continues today, without sacrificing basic needs. Easy as it may be to blame General Motors, General Electric, General Mills and the other Joint Chiefs of Stuff, we volunteered for that draft. Deprivation felt bad. Consumption felt good.
Thing 2 is moral relativism. That phrase is popular among conservatives as shorthand for any deviation from a specific set of public behavioral norms, but it can be applied just about anywhere people justify transgressions by comparing them favorably to other sins. For example, state-sponsored gambling makes a pretense of funding government initiatives with money given voluntarily rather than through taxation. That avoids important civic questions, such as whether taxes imposed by elected officials don’t really reflect the will of the electorate, and whether gambling should be legal at all. Never mind the disproportionate harm that falls on the mathematically ignorant.
Fish: a bore, a scold
That leaves … the Fish. Over the din of Top 40 AM radio, the roar of muscle cars, the endless loop of advertising, the Fish has tried to tell us how best to live: to save our money, exercise, wear sunscreen, floss, give to charities, sit up straight, look people in the eye. The Fish appears in many guises, from Ralph Nader to Ross Perot to Ron Paul, but he is always easy to recognize. He’s a bore, a scold, a nag, a party pooper. Only once, in 1976, when the nation was gripped with guilt over its abandonment of oversight, was the Fish elected president. Ronald Reagan, who was much more like the Cat, won in a landslide in 1980.
The Cat is neither Republican nor Democrat, though it has best been represented by George W. Bush, who told us to respond to terrorist attacks by shopping, and who has charged an entire and unfinished war to a credit card whose bill will only come due after he leaves office. Unlike the Cat, however, he is not going to come back with a great big machine to clean up the mess and fix what he has broken. And while the Cat may once have been afraid of the Mother, it has had decades of our uninterrupted attention. With the help of commercial culture and moral relativism, selfishness has reigned over all things communitarian. With citizenship reduced to a retail experience, individual preference takes precedence over national interest.
Community life: a tough sell
The prevailing world view shows that clearly, because consumption is a zero-sum game, in which one person must lose for another to gain, while community life is not. To draw people back toward a life in which they support each other’s interests and trust that their own will be respected, someone has to make a persuasive case for the idea that sharing does not always mean sacrifice. That’s a tough sell.
Still, whether it’s older Americans remembering a shared sense of purpose from years ago, or younger voters who believe they have a chance at optimism for the first time, or those in between, who wish the idea of community meant more than Facebook and MySpace, this seems like a good time for the return of responsibility. Not just the Fish, who will have to raise taxes to cover the record debts run up by the Cat, but the Mother.
The first thing she could do is send Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke to their rooms.
Clayton Bennett, a local business writer and the author of several nonfiction books, was never left home alone in his childhood.
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