Friday, September 30, 2005


Four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I went back to see what I wrote in the days and weeks immediately following those events. I found this review essay, published in The Metro Herald on September 28, 2001, under the general heading of "Fathoming the Unfathomable." (I meant to post this on that date, but I had to re-type the whole thing and just got around to it a few hours ago.)

Book Round-Up:
New Publications Achieve Unintended Relevance
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Most publishing companies plan their seasonal lists far in advance. The lead time for a typical new book is at least a year, if not longer. Exceptions are made, of course, when current events dictate: Several “quickie” books came out after last year’s protracted election, for example, and we are no doubt going to see a number of books in the next few weeks about Osama bin Laden, terrorism, and Afghanistan that were either completely unplanned or in their early production stages when the events of September 11 caught us all (including publishers) by surprise.

It is rather chilling, then, to discover books on this fall’s lists that have remarkable relevance to the world since September 11. Here are a few of them.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War

The surge of patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon has reminded more than one observer of the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. December 7 and September 11 are no two dates “that will live in infamy.” In putting the United States on a war footing, President Bush has invited comparisons to President Franklin Roosevelt, despite the fact that it is fairly clear that the 21st-century war against terrorism will not involve the sort of mass mobilization of the general population that characterized World War II.

With these parallels in mind, it is fascinating to examine – “read” is not the most appropriate word here – the new paperback edition of Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, edited by Richard H. Minear (New York: The New Press, 272 pages, $17.95). The publication date was set for September 28 [2001].

Before he became the world’s most famous author and illustrator of children’s books, Dr. Seuss was a successful advertising artist, working in New York for Flit®, an insecticide as well-known in the 1930s as Raid® and Off® are today. (“Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was a popular catchphrase.) Living on a comfortable income from that steady job during the Great Depression, Dr. Seuss became concerned as war broke out in Europe, and he began submitting editorial cartoons to PM, a short-lived (1940-48) New York daily newspaper with a decidedly left-wing bent. PM was associated with the “Popular Front” of pro-Communist, anti-fascist organizations, many of which were headquartered in New York at the time and which fed, and were fed by, a network of New York intellectuals. While Dr. Seuss apparently did not share his publisher’s pro-Communist sympathies – some of his cartoons actually lampooned Stalin – PM was happy to have his sharp wit and sharp pen contribute to the debate.

Dr. Seuss’s career as an editorial cartoonist was brief, barely two years, from January 1941 to January 1943, when he joined Frank Capra’s film unit of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. But in that short period, he created about 400 separate cartoons and caricatures. He viciously attacked the expected villains, such as Hitler and Mussolini, as well as people that we today, far removed from the moral and intellectual climate of the times, would find unexpected: Charles Lindbergh, for instance, who as part of the America First movement seemed to favor Germany and who was said to espouse anti-Semitic views.

Dr. Seuss also attacked slackers on the home front, whiners, windbag politicians, and racists and bigots. Several of his cartoons criticized employers who refused to hire blacks or Jews for war industries. At the same time, his characterizations of Japanese and Japanese-American figures were nothing but racist themselves. These not-so-benign Dr. Seuss cartoons are striking reminders of a dark time in U.S. history, when American citizens were herded into concentration camps simply because their skins were a different color, and their ancestors came from a different continent, than those of the majority.

What’s most fascinating, in looking at Dr. Seuss’s cartoons of 60 years ago, is the way they reflect the political debates at home in the months leading to Pearl Harbor, when the United States could not decide between assiduously protecting its neutrality and leaning towards Britain through the Lend-Lease Act, and continuing debates about how best to conduct the war in the months after Pearl Harbor. Just as today there are calls for national unity in the face of the terrorist enemy, so there were in December 1941 and throughout 1942 – calls that would not be necessary if there were not factions threatening that unity in word and deed.

It should be added, unfortunately, that much of the explanatory text provided by the book’s editor, Richard Minear, is unnecessary. For readers unfamiliar with the times, a bit of historical context is necessary, and Minear does a fairly good job in doing that. He goes overboard, however, in describing in detail cartoons that are included in the collection (as well as some that were left out; why any were left out remains a mystery), leading to a soporific effect. Another fault of the book is that the cartoons are not arranged in a simple chronological order; instead, they are grouped according to loose themes that seem to be idiosyncratically chosen. Despite these misgivings, this is a book worth recommending; it would even be interesting in the absence of historical parallels between 2001 and 1941.

The Brand New Kid
While Dr. Seuss Goes to War is not a children’s book, despite its title, The Brand New Kid is. Written by NBC News anchor (and Arlington County, Virginia, native) Katie Couric and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, The Brand New Kid was published by Doubleday late last year (hardback, 32 pages, $15.95). We include it here because it is, as Couric notes in a brief introduction, “a springboard to talk about the importance of basic human kindness and compassion in our daily lives.” She wrote the book as a way to help parents “do a better job helping our children learn about tolerance and inclusion.”

Given the way in which Americans of Arab, Near Eastern, and even South Asian ancestry have come – literally – under attack in recent weeks, Couric’s book will be welcome in many classrooms and homes as it opens up discussion about how we treat people who are “different.”

In the case of The Brand New Kid, the protagonist – Lazlo S. Gasky – is not Arab, but vaguely Eastern European (perhaps a refugee from the upheavals of the fall of Communism?) who dresses funny and smells funny (to the other children in his new school). Before long, however, some of his classmates take the brave step to make friends with him, risking being made fun of themselves, and – this comes as no surprise, since Couric makes no attempt to be cynical – it turns out he’s not so “different” after all, and all the kids get along. An important lesson, told perhaps too simplistically, but one that needs repeating far too much.

Is Tolerance Possible?
A book intended for adults – indeed, for educated readers – asks whether religious tolerance is truly possible, even in a pluralistic society. In Getting Over Equality: A Critical Diagnosis of Religious Freedom in America (New York University Press, 214 pages, $45), Notre Dame University law professor Steven D. Smith points out the conundrum of religious tolerance: People who truly believe in their religions cannot admit the validity of other religious beliefs, which leads inevitably to a climate of intolerance.

The paradox of American history has been that, for most of the past 225 years, we have achieved a degree of religious tolerance unequaled elsewhere and in any other time. In a chapter entitled “The (Compelling?) Case for Religious Intolerance,” Smith points out:

“To the modern mind, at ease in a pluralistic culture, religious intolerance seems an anomalous and anachronistic vice, like dueling or racial bigotry. Human association is a presumptive good, after all, so why on earth should anyone be reluctant to accept and associate with others merely because they adhere to different faiths (or to none)? How does it hurt me if you profess a different creed than I do? The classic expression was Jefferson’s: ‘[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’

“From this perspective, religious intolerance seems a manifestation less of outdated thinking than of a failure to think at all; intolerance is an expression of that quintessential (although unexpectedly resilient) modern vice – ‘irrational prejudice.’ It is nonetheless important that we understand the case for religious intolerance, in part because an understanding will help us appreciate the development by which tolerance can evolve from a character flaw into a virtue, and in part because toleration is not a completely secure achievement; it is something that still needs defending.”

Indeed, recent events underscore the salience of Smith’s last sentence. We are learning today the price of religious intolerance worldwide, and the fragility of tolerance even in our own country. Smith asks about the American experience of general religious tolerance: “How has this achievement been accomplished?”

He replies, in part: “The answer is no doubt multifaceted, involving a combination of political, legal, religious, and cultural factors, and probably a certain amount of plain good fortune.”

Steven Smith has written a provocative book that deserves further attention in this time of religious and cultural introspection.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Finally, in the fortnight following September 11, Americans have raised and contributed more than half a billion dollars (that’s $500,000,000) to assist the recovery from the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. That’s an incredible accomplishment and serves as an experiential rebuttal to the argument made by David Wagner, a professor of social work and sociology at the University of Southern Maine in his new book, What’s Love Got to Do With It? A Critical Look at American Charity (New York: The New Press, 210 pages, $18.95 paperback).

In a new-Marcusian mode, Wagner argues that charity in America is something of an illusion, “that America’s ‘virtue talk’ has a great deal to do with obscuring how little we as Americans actually do for people who find themselves in adverse circumstances. More subtly, America’s worship of giving, volunteering, and nonprofit human service work as the center of moral acts and heroic achievement allows the two other sectors of American life – the for-profit business sector and the government – to be legitimized.”

Wagner’s book deserves a more thorough review at a later time, but the juxtaposition of this month’s immense generosity and his crabbed vision was too much to ignore.

No comments: