Magazine article The New Yorker

Sylvester Sequester

Magazine article The New Yorker

Sylvester Sequester

Article excerpt

The books of Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Geisel, depend on what Donald Pease, a professor of English literature at Dartmouth, refers to in his biography of Geisel as "plausible nonsense." "Children will grant you any premise, but after that--you've got to stay on the same key," Geisel told one interviewer. "What I have tried to do is use implausible facts to create a plausible world."

Geisel died in 1991, but had he lived long enough to observe current affairs even he might have been surprised at our political and economic system's ability to generate plausible nonsense of its own. That the onset of eighty-five billion dollars' worth of automatic spending cuts should be followed within days by the Dow's reaching a record high seems worthy of commemoration in Seussian verse: "Said John Boehner, complainer, the Republicans' man / 'We've run out of road, now we can't kick the can.'/ The books would not balance; triggered sequestration. /But the markets still rose, like Obama's frustration."

Professor Pease noted the other day that Geisel actually did provide a parable about political stalemate: the story "The Zax," which appeared in 1961. "It was published at the height of the impasse produced by the mutually assured-deterrence logic of the Cold War," Pease said. "But it also has lots of applicability to the present impasse in Washington, D.C., where neither side seems willing to budge." Pease was in New York earlier this month to give the keynote address at a conference, held at New York Law School, dedicated to examining the works of Dr. Seuss in the context of civil society. The conference's organizer, Tamara Belinfanti, an associate professor, agreed that the story was eerily prescient. "They are just standing there and not moving," she said, referring to fictional "Zax" creatures and to elected tax creatures.

Although the sequester was not itself under discussion--despite its fortuitous rhyme with Sylvester, the villain in Geisel's 1961 work "The Sneetches"--a strong case was made for the ongoing contribution that the books might offer in analyzing current events. During a panel discussion, Dennis Parker, the director of the A.C.L.U.'s Racial Justice Program, suggested that "The Sneetches" posits a system of apartheid in which, as he put it, "the Plain-Bellied Sneetches are denied some of the basic rights of any creature--that is, to play ball and to feast on marshmallows." The book concludes with star neutrality leading to equality, in which no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches; but, Parker pointed out, the cost of this outcome is the eradication of the history of oppression. …

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