So what if Horton heard a Who?
The Ethics of Hobbes, Hutcheson and Dr. Seuss in the Age of Trump.
Horton’s World: A person is a person, no matter how small.
In Dr. Seuss’ story Horton Hears a Who!, Horton is an elephant who lives in a jungle. Since elephants have big ears, Horton is able to hear a tiny voice emanating from a tiny person on a speck of dust that is a tiny world. The tiny person, who says he is a Who, is calling for help because the tiny world of the Whos has come unmoored and is blowing in the wind toward a pond in which the Whos will all drown. To save the Whos, Horton grabs the speck of dust and places it on a flower. He then promises the Whos that he will plant the flower in a safe place to secure their long-term safety.
But Horton is overheard by a group of his friends, a diverse bunch of animals, none of whom has ears as big as an elephant’s and none of whom can hear the Whos. To them, Horton is seemingly talking to a flower, and they think he is delusional. To save Horton from his delusions, they overpower him, seize the flower, and declare their intention to destroy it. Horton resists and prevails upon the Whos to shout in unison until, finally, when the last little Who child adds his small voice to the chorus, Horton’s colleagues can hear the Whos clamoring for help. At this point, they immediately adopt Horton’s mantra that “A person is a person, no matter how small,” and the book ends with them pledging to help him protect the Whos’ world.
But why? Why should Horton’s jungle mates care about protecting a bunch of insignificant creatures on a minuscule piece of dust? The answer to that question is the key to the moral and the message of this story, and most of Dr. Seuss’s other stories as well. The story is not merely about Horton’s heroics, it is even more about the willingness of his colleagues to change their minds when confronted with convincing evidence, and their ability to demonstrate empathy toward other creatures no matter how different and how insignificant.
The world of Dr. Seuss is one in which people care for each other, differences among people can be reconciled, and one can reasonably expect people to be reasonable. This, I contend, is one of the main reasons Dr. Seuss’s stories remain enormously popular among parents and children some sixty to eighty years after their publication. And, I contend as well, the continuing popularity of Dr. Seuss’s books is a sign of hope for us in the coming Age of Trump.
Hobbes, Hutcheson, and Horton: All against all, or all for one and one for all.
The moral and message of a story are contained not merely in the words and actions of the main characters, but in those of the surrounding characters and in the overall ambience of the story. Does a story portray the struggles of heroically good individuals against a corrupt society and a generally malignant populace? Or does it portray the efforts of good people to convince other basically good people to do the right thing? The messages of these two types of stories are very different as to what children will face in the world and how they should behave. The former message is the gist of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a mid-seventeenth century English thinker. The latter is the gist of the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, an early eighteenth century Scottish thinker.
Anglo-American ethical thinking has been dominated by two main streams of thought since the eighteenth century, streams which are represented by Hobbes and Hutcheson. Hobbes claimed that humans are essentially selfish, and that society is a zero-sum game in which one person’s gain is another person’s loss. The suffering of others is nothing compared to the convenience to ourselves, Hobbes contended. Life is a war of all against all. If Hobbes were writing the story of Horton and the Whos, the story would likely end with Horton’s colleagues destroying the flower, since protecting the Whos was too much trouble, and who cares about Whos anyways.
Hobbes’s ethical position has been advanced over the centuries by a long train of social thinkers. The position was represented in the eighteenth century by Bernard Mandeville’s advocacy of cutthroat laissez-faire capitalism because “Private vice makes for public good.” That is, cheating, bullying, lying, greed, self-indulgence, and meanness are what make the world go around. In the nineteenth century, this philosophy was represented by the so-called Social Darwinism of William Graham Sumner. The rich are rich, Sumner claimed, because they are better people. The poor deserve their poverty because they are worse.
In the twentieth century, Hobbes’s war of all against all was rationalized in the trickle-down theories of David Stockman. It is better for everyone, he claimed, if the rich get richer because some of their wealth will trickle down to the poor. The stock in trade of plutocrats in all ages, Hobbes’s thinking is currently the mantra of Donald Trump, for whom little people and refugees like the Whos are merely losers to be set aside while winners like him get on with life.
Hutcheson represented a contrary position. He contended that humans are essentially social, and that society should be properly understood and operated on a mutual aid basis in which the gain of each is the gain of all. He claimed that people are essentially empathetic, and that we inevitably share in the suffering and happiness of others. Denying our responsibility for others in pursuit of selfish individualism is a self-defeating proposition, which only leaves one insecure and a loser, no matter how much one ostensibly wins. Triumph over others is defeat for oneself.
In the eighteenth century, Hutcheson’s position was represented by Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence. Jefferson took the phrase “pursuit of happiness” directly from Hutcheson, for whom it meant seeking one’s own happiness through helping others. Pace Donald Trump and his Tea Party haters, the country was actually founded in empathy.
In the nineteenth century, Hutcheson’s theory was reflected in the cooperative ideas of Jane Addams, whose Hull House was a model of sharing and caring. In the twentieth century, it was represented in Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of the Four Freedoms to which all people are entitled – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Embodied in the phrase one for all and all for one, the theory has been the stock in trade of liberals in all ages. It has been the gist of Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can,” with the emphasis on the “we,” and is currently the mantra of Bernie Sanders. And it is the moral represented by Horton and his friends.
Dr. Seuss’s World: Doing the Right Thing.
Dr. Seuss’s stories are above all else about our responsibility for each other and, especially, the responsibility of those with power to assist those without. Sharing and caring are the keys. The tension in his stories generally comes from disagreements about what is the responsible thing to do. In Horton Hears a Who, it is the disagreement between Horton, who insists that he must protect the Whos, and Horton’s colleagues, who insist that they must help free Horton from his delusions. But once Horton’s friends realize that Horton is not delusional, they immediately accept their responsibility as more powerful creatures to help the less powerful Whos.
One of the important points in the book is that no one, no matter how big and powerful, can succeed on his/her own. Horton the elephant is by far the biggest animal in the story, but even he is liable to be overpowered by the combined efforts of the other smaller jungle animals. Success, Dr. Seuss is saying, is social. In turn, no one is too small and weak to make a difference. It was the squeak of the last and smallest Who that finally enabled Horton’s friends to hear the Whos, and to realize the harm they were about to do. Failure, Dr. Seuss warns, can be individual. So, everyone must help. This message permeates all of Dr. Seuss’s books.
In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton once again accepts a responsibility to take care of someone at risk, in this case a bird’s egg that has been abandoned by its mother. Horton sits for what seems like months on the egg, through storm and stress, consoling himself with the mantra that “An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent.” When the egg finally hatches, the infant is half bird and half elephant, a biological impossibility, but an ethical justice. Most important, no one in the story rejects the baby elephant-bird as deformed or different. The story is not just about Horton’s faithfulness, and the duty of those with power to help those without, but also about the willingness of others to accept diversity.
In Green Eggs and Ham, the conventional tables are turned, and an adult is being harassed by a child to try something new and different, something the adult thinks he won’t like. It is normally the case that children are adjured by parents, teachers and other adults to try new things, things the kids think they won’t like. In the end, the adult tries the green eggs and ham, and finds that he likes them. The key to the story is that the adult is willing to admit he was wrong. He does not merely try the green eggs and ham to get the kid off his back, and then save face by insisting that he still does not like them. He is willing to swallow his pride, along with the green eggs and ham. This is another instance of those with power accepting responsibility to support others.
Most of Dr. Seuss’ other stories – from The Sneetches to Yertle the Turtle to The Lorax to How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Butter Battle Book – turn in the end on the idea that most people will do the right thing, the socially responsible and cooperative thing, if and when they realize what needs to be done. Dr. Seuss is not a Pollyanna. There are bad people in his books, and bad things happen to good people in his stories. But there is always the possibility of reconciliation and consensus as an outcome.
Dr. Seuss treats what used to be called “the common man” and “the people” with respect. People may be wrong, wrong-headed and ignorant, but they are not idiots. He would seemingly support Lincoln’s claim that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Dr. Seuss’s stories illustrate Lincoln’s adage, with the underlying assumption that most people can be reasoned with, and will change their minds and ways when they are given adequate evidence and appropriate arguments.
In this respect, Dr. Seuss’s stories stand in sharp contrast to children’s stories in which characters inevitably and irreconcilably fight one another, and in which the world is chronically ominous, dangerous and downright scary. The stories of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, Tweety Bird and Sylvester the Cat, and the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote are prime examples of this. In these stories, large predator animals seek to kill small prey animals. Given their biological differences and genetic imperatives, there is no basis for reconciliation or consensus between the enemies. The large animals are meat eaters, and the small animals are their meat.
In these stories, the small animals are made to look and sound like little children. Since small children are intended to identify with the small creatures, these stories portray a scary world for children. And even though there is some consolation in that the predators in the stories never get their prey, the message to children is that the world is a dangerous place full of big creatures trying to kill little creatures like themselves. In a similar way, stories such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White,” in which an innocent young heroine is threatened by an evil adult witch, convey to children the message that evil is real, that evil is all around us, and that you can never tell who is hiding their evil intentions behind a benign smile.
These stories represent the world that Donald Trump inhabits, a realm of false smiles and perpetual fighting for domination, in which doing dirty unto others before they can do unto you is the law of the land. But Trump’s world is even scarier than these storybook worlds, because in his world the three little pigs, Tweety Bird, and the Road Runner would be considered weaklings and losers, and they would get eaten. Trump’s is a world in which sharing and caring, doing the responsible and empathetic thing, have no place.
Trump’s America. Or is it?
I think that those of us who are appalled at the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States need to distinguish between three things to be able go forward with some degree of optimism. We need to distinguish between Trump the person, Trump the President, and Trump the ostensible representative of the American people.
Trump the person is abominable, and he is a classic loser despite his success. The man is without couth or class and, seemingly, without conscience. He is a perpetual adolescent, trying to assert himself amongst people whom he secretly seemingly sees as superior to himself. So, he denigrates them, but he is really denigrating himself in the process. He is a bully who relies on others to fight his battles, a billionaire who took his father’s money and did very little with it, a businessman whose only successful business has been in selling his name to a credulous portion of the public. His racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, and selfish self-centeredness represent most of the worst elements in American society. As I write this essay, he is a seventy-year old man about to become the most powerful person in the world, but he is still acting out in tweets and in rants the insecurity of a pimply adolescent.
As awful as Trump is as a person, it is not clear that he will be able to translate all that awfulness into his presidency. As President, he will need to cope with his own ignorance, incompetence and short attention span. He will also need to deal with a sharply divided Republican Party, most of whose leaders dislike him, and with a Congress, most of whose members face election in less than two years. He will also face a public that does not like him, and that gave his opponent a significant majority of the popular vote in the election. So, it is not clear how much of his awfulness can be translated into policy.
Finally, it is quite clear that Trump does not represent the values and political preferences of a majority of the American people. He not only lost the popular vote, but it seems that most of his votes came from people who were opposed to Clinton, not in favor of him. There is a plethora of reasons why he won the election or, rather, why Hillary Clinton lost the election, and his candidacy and election have unleashed some of the worst elements and tendencies in our society. But it is not the case that the populace has in recent years turned to the far right. And the continued popularity of Dr. Seuss is one small proof.
Dr. Seuss’s characters represent almost all that is best about America, and not merely his main characters, the heroes of the stories, but the supporting cast as well. That is the key to the morals and ethics of his stories. Most of us see ourselves not as heroes, but as members of the supporting cast in society. Dr. Seuss portrays his supporting cast of characters as basically good people, who are empathetic and responsible. That is the role in which he casts people like most of us and our children in his books. He tells us and our kids that good in the world comes not merely from powerful heroic individuals such as Horton, but from the support of ordinary people like us who end up supporting Horton. That parents and children continue to find comfort, amusement and instruction in Dr. Seuss’s stories is a source of hope that the ethics of Horton and Hutcheson will prevail in the long run, and that we will emerge as a decent society from the reign of Donald Trump.
 For a discussion of storytelling and the moral messages of different narrative forms, I have posted an essay on this blog site entitled “What to do about the Big Bad Wolf: Narrative Choices and the Moral of a Story.”
 For a discussion of the devolution of conservatism and the evolution of liberalism in America, I have posted an essay entitled “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump and the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama” on this blog site.