By Tom Peterson
Last week Cambridge, Mass., elementary school librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro returned 10 Dr. Seuss books to Melania Trump. To mark National Read a Book Day, the first lady had sent a set of books to one school in each state. Phipps Soeiro wrote the first lady that while she felt honored that her well-funded and supported school was chosen, maybe they could have picked a different recipient:
…school libraries around the country are being shuttered. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school “choice” with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools…. Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Why not reflect on those “high standards of excellence” beyond only what the numbers suggest? Secretary DeVos would do well to scaffold and lift schools instead of punishing them with closures and slashed budgets.
This letter raises plenty of issues to justify returning the books. There are better ways for Mrs. Trump and her husband’s administration to help, starting with not destroying the nation’s already fragile, under-fire and underfunded public school system.
An imperfect hero
Then Phipps Soeiro adds that she’s returning the books, in part, because they were by Dr. Seuss. Now, I’ve quoted Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel’s pen name) several times in my posts because of his brilliance with words. I’d read his biography and found him to be a person who gave a damn and made the world a better place. But in his early career you can see the racism, as Molly Roberts writes in The Washington Post:
To support her argument, Soeiro cites scholarly work on “the minstrel characteristics” of Seuss’s characters, or “caricatures.” The Cat in the Hat may have been based on blackface entertainers, and before his storybook career took off Seuss sketched cartoons filled with racist stereotypes, particularly of Japanese people.
Okay. So Seuss had issues. But so did a vast array of other authors, including pretty much anyone writing before, say, 1930. And Dr. Seuss books contain plenty of other lessons more amenable to the forward-thinking, from “The Lorax’s” hit-you-over-the-head environmentalism to the anti-fascism of “Horton Hears a Who,” “Yertle the Turtle” and “The Sneetches.”
Unlike Melania Trump’s husband, Dr. Seuss stood unequivocally against Nazism in the United States. In the early 1940s he created more than 400 political cartoons for a New Jersey paper that took on racism and both foreign and domestic fascism.
Shortcomings great and small
I doubt that school library has purged its Dr. Seuss books. I certainly hope not. It might also have a copy of The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, a deaf and blind woman of remarkable achievement but who also encouraged eugenics and called for “physicians’ juries for defective babies.”
The library probably has a lot of copies of The Declaration of Independence. Did you know that the central author of that document, Thomas Jefferson, owned more than 600 slaves through his years? Of course you did, although maybe not the number. Yet has any individual done more to promote the idea and practice of democracy? Many of us like to hear and read inspirational quotes from people whose accomplishments we admire. Here’s one:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — Thomas Jefferson
Cognitive dissonance served on a platter. You’re welcome! Here’s another inspirational quote:
Whatever your 100 percent looks like, give it. — Lance Armstrong
Throw in performance-enhancing drugs and you can give 120 percent—for that extra edge! Livestrong, the organization founded by world champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, with its once-ubiquitous yellow bracelets, raised more than a half billion dollars to help cancer survivors. In 2012 Armstrong finally admitted to doping, was stripped of seven Tour de France titles and banned from competing. He resigned from Livestrong’s board where the controversy had become a liability. Yet the organization still helps cancer survivors and their families.
My generation grew up admiring Bill Cosby. The textbook my class reads displays a prominent Cosby quote, but I’m sure the author will delete it from the next edition. For about 200 years U.S. president’s office and the press had an unstated agreement that philandering wouldn’t be of interest to the American people. Just move on, nothing to see here. That has changed. Presidents have been known to be unfaithful in their marriages. So has Martin Luther King, Jr. And for all of his focus on chastity, Mahatma Gandhi had strange sleeping habits (Google it yourself). An entire Wikipedia page is dedicated to criticisms of Mother Teresa. Did you know that James Thurber wasn’t a feminist?
Any decent biographer tells us about the shortcomings, great and small, of their subject. Some of our heroes were mean and cranky, some were racist, others used their positions to enrich themselves. Some of this can be “dismissed” as people of their times. After all, Lincoln didn’t seem concerned that women couldn’t vote.
So there you are. Like the rest of us, our heroes are flawed. Some more than others. They will disappoint us. Some religious leaders wanting to trap Jesus on a theological point suggested that a woman charged with adultery be stoned. Jesus told them to go ahead, and let the one who has never sinned throw the first rock. One by one, they all walked away.
Steve Jobs may have been a horrible boss and though he was worth tens of millions he left his daughter to live on food stamps. But you can still choose to admire his innovation and obsession with design. Or not. There’s that point, and each of us judges it personally, when you simply decide the fault is just too great. People and organizations screw up. So we forgive folks where we can and we don’t forgive where we simply can’t. What’s your tolerance for bad things done by remarkable people? What does it take to kick a hero out of your pantheon?
Celebrate the accomplishments
When Fox newscasters get too uncomfortable with a public figure they disagree with, they dredge up some foible about them, real or trumped up, as though the flaw negates the person’s accomplishments. I say, Pooh to that! Nice try, Fox, but a flaw doesn’t define a whole person.
We don’t celebrate every aspect of our heroes’ lives, we celebrate their achievements, we honor their perseverance, their creative genius or what they did for society. We celebrate their struggles to bring about the hard-won Civil Rights victories, India’s independence from the British empire, and the birth of American democracy.
Aspiring writers like to learn about how successful writers were able to make it happen. The same is true for musicians, scientists, politicians. We find inspiration from people who have done remarkable things. We like to meet them, hear them speak, read their books. Some of them we actually know, like a favorite teacher or a friend. From their important work we learn how to make the world a better place, how to create communities of action, how to be part of movements. How to improve some piece of our world.
The heroic life
Oh, the places you’ll go if you make peace with life’s ambiguity. Only imperfect people make our world better. Most of us are at least aware of our own flaws. We may even beat ourselves up over them. But even though we know we’re not always up to snuff, each of us is free, even obligated, to live heroic lives. Focus on that.