22 February 2007

Practice Running with Sneetches

The Sneetches By Dr. Seuss (Bio).
Re-titled as: How the Plain-Bellies allow themselves to be excluded, setting themselves and Star-Bellies up to get suckered.

The Plain-Belly Sneetches are depressed because they don't get to go to the beach parties hosted by the Star-Bellies. The Star-Bellies are a caricature of your garden variety snob-bully: You're not like me because of X (in this case, starts on thars), so I'm not going to play with you (or invite you to the frankfurter roasts & marshmallow toasts). Dr. Seuss paints a very sad picture of the plight of the poor, picked on Plain-Bellies:

They left them out in the cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that's how they treated them year after year.

So, what keeps the Plain-Bellies from throwing their own parties? Why don't they gather up their own pile of wood and light their own fires? Had they done so, it is likely that eventually the distinction between Plain-Bellies & Star-Bellies would have, at the very least, diminished. After all, a good party is a powerful draw. And even if it didn't, it might or might not be important to the Plain-Bellies anymore. Nothing takes the wind out of a bully's sails so effectively as a victim's disinterest.

However, the Plain-Bellies aren't that smart. So they're ripe for the picking, and sure enough, there's someone willing to separate every fool from his money. This time, the con-man's name is Sylverster Mcmonkey McBean. $3 for a star-on, $10 for a star-off. McBean spends all day taking money from all the Sneetches.

They kept paying money. They pet running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one... or that one was this one
Or which one is what one... or what one was who.

McBean drives off with all the money, congratulating himself on a scam well done, "They never will learn. No. You can't teach a Sneetch."

The book ends with a Utopian scene:

But McBean was quite wrong. I'm quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

It sounds great. It's nice for a thirty-second lecture against bullying. But I seriously doubt that such an over-simplified solution would work for your average kindergartner, much less for any kind of group of adults. The fact of the matter is that the Star-Bellies and Plain-Bellies are groups, but each group is made of individuals who would each have names and families. It wouldn't take long for the individuals to sort themselves. They would either find a new method of marking the Haves and Have-nots, or there would be a falling out among those who began as Star-Bellies, and any without stars would be ejected from the group.

The Sneetches was - and remains - one of my all-time favorite of Dr. Seuss's titles. But the allegory is just so over-simplified that it breaks down and is really quite unconvincing.

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