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By now, you’ve likely heard about the Cambridge school librarian and her open letter to Melania Trump. The First Lady had committed the act of sending the school 10 free Dr. Seuss books, in honor of National Read a Book Day. The librarian published a blog post rejecting the gift — it should go to needier schools, she wrote — and trashing Dr. Seuss for good measure, on the grounds of being “a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature” who is also “a bit of a cliché,” and … wait for it … “steeped in racist propaganda.”
It’s such luscious Cantabridgian self-parody that picking it apart feels almost too easy. As most preschoolers are taught, the proper response, when presented with a gift you don’t want, is “thank you,” with no further commentary. And dismissing Dr. Seuss’s entire body of work as racist? “The Sneetches,” published in 1961, is the foundational text for teaching the perils of prejudice. (If you don’t believe me, ask Barack Obama.)
The Cambridge schools have already taken care of scolding the librarian. Now, we’re left to consider the sadder part of this story: why it’s so easy, these days, for smart people to lose all sense of perspective. Because this librarian is hardly alone. In an age of outrage, tribal warfare, and proudly-proclaimed resistance, we’ve lost something big: The ability to call them as we see them.
It’s such luscious Cantabridgian self-parody that picking it apart feels almost too easy.
This is Donald Trump’s fault as much as Cambridge’s. On an almost-daily basis, the president of the United States acts like a neighborhood bully on Halloween, throwing rotten eggs at every car that passes, whether it carries Republicans or Democrats. The natural human impulse, it increasingly seems, is to pick up every egg and throw it back, until all of us are coated in rhetorical slime.
And throwing slime feels good, especially when you have a crowd of like-minded Facebook friends cheering you on, and when you’re genuinely upset about policy differences. The librarian took this moment to attack standardized testing and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and to suggest some alternate books that were more overtly about social justice. Sad that she didn’t acknowledge how much Dr. Seuss tackles social justice via metaphor.
But it’s hard to have perspective when you’re so proud to be right — and when you remember that Michelle Obama got similar attacks for her brazen attempts to make school lunches healthier. So here’s a Sneetches-worthy filter for anyone inclined to trash Melania Trump: If any other First Lady had done the same thing, would anyone be upset?
There’s no need to pity Melania, who has made her own life choices, but the constant attacks on her outfits and speech patterns and minor First Lady activities have become, not just meaningless, but mean. Treating her as a well-meaning human being is not a tacit endorsement of the Trump administration.
But it’s hard to have perspective when you’re so proud to be right ...
And it should go without saying, as it’s another common theme of children’s literature, that expressing high dudgeon at everything and anyone in the Trump orbit only diminishes those moments — and there are many, in Trump’s America — where outrage is truly warranted.
But today’s Twitterized climate leaves little room for nuance. And so the two camps keep doing what they do, feeling self-righteous and self-actualized while doing absolutely nothing to sway the other side. The rhetoric gets easier to stereotype: The left writes long, academic-style essays that read as elitism run amok, while the right reduces complicated politico-social debates to three-word slogans like “Drill, baby, drill.” (One guess at which tactic is more likely to bring electoral success.)
If Dr. Seuss were around today, I imagine he’d bring back Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the cynical huckster who took advantage of all of those prejudiced Sneetches, to sneer at a whole new set of tribes.
“You can’t teach a Sneetch,” said McBean in the book, as he drove off and left the Sneetches to sort out their own troubles. In the book, McBean was wrong. It’s unclear what would happen today.