Monday, September 15, 2008

The Best Sneetch

It's still

For someone who generally doesn't read this blog, Sweetie is a fountain of ideas for me. When she propounded her "Second Banana Theory," she gave me the premise for the showdown between Andy Richter TV shows with "Andy" in the title; then, for today, she also gave me the actual Showdown.

Imagine how much better my life, and this blog, which is a part of my life, would be if I were to listen to Sweetie more often? Or at all? I'm going to start trying to remember to want to listen to Sweetie instead of just sitting silently during our conversations waiting for a break so I can insert the cool joke I thought up during our previous conversation.

Anyway, today's Showdown is one that is both incredibly tough and incredibly relevant: Deciding who is The Best Sneetch.

Everyone remembers The Sneetches, right? They were the birdlike creatures that lived on beaches and ran into trouble when Sylvester McMonkey McBean came along with his Star-On/Star-Off machines and messed up their whole society. Before McBean came along, they had a system of telling who was better or worse than the others -- stars vs. no-stars. After McBean came along, there were Sneetches who had stars, who had no stars, who had multiple stars, who had stars in weird places, and the whole Sneetch society was destroyed.

There are people who will argue with me about that last sentence. Those people will tell me you can't say their society was destroyed, because that's not the case and because that makes it sound like the ending was a bad thing. Those people who raise that argument are, in a word, wrong. They are, in two words, wrong and misguided.

Those people who don't think that Sneetch society was destroyed, and/or who think that destroying Sneetch society was not a bad thing, are bad for our society, because they don't want people to be better than others, ever, even if there is a good reason for deeming one person to be better than the other.

That's the truth about our society, and about humans in general, and possibly about Sneetches: one person frequently IS better than another. The McBeans of the world don't want that to be true, but it is true, and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Let's review The Sneetches, which I've read a lot in the past two years because the Babies! just turned 2 and I read to them almost every night, although many nights I read them the books out of order and in parts, because Mr F usually sits on my lap as we read, and he likes to flip pages randomly, so as we read, he will skip ahead and back and jump whole sections and then return to the beginning. If you imagine a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and Kurt Vonnegut, you'll get the general idea of what it's like to read a story with Mr F in charge of the pages.

Still, in one order or another I've read the Sneetches a lot in the past two years, and I'm very familiar with the premise, and I'm also very familiar with some things that were left out of the premise, and that is this: Dr. Seuss never tells you what purpose the stars served or how they got there or how Sneetch society ended up that way.

Yeah. Chew on that for a while. All our lives, we've all thought The Sneetches was about how we're not supposed to judge people based on appearance or about how people are not necessarily better or worse because of their appearance -- but that is just an assumption we've made.

This assumption proves yet again, the My Aunt's Dog Theorem, since generations of people have blithely assumed t
his: The stars on their bellies serve no purpose and are merely cosmetic. That's what you have to assume, if the moral of The Sneetches is that we can't judge people merely by appearance; you have to assume that the stars are cosmetic and have no purpose whatsoever because if the stars have a purpose, then we have no basis for assuming that they're a good or bad thing.

The stars, in most people's view, are something akin to skin color or hair color or eye color -- a superficial trait that denotes nothing, really, about the person/Sneetch underneath the skin color/hair color.

But Dr. Seuss never says that.

Nothing in The Sneet
ches ever says the stars are superficial markings. And why do we assume that they are superficial markings? Most animals do not have superficial markings; most animals' markings serve a purpose of one sort or another. Take the peacock tail. The peacock tail seems to be among the most superficial-seeming flourish an animal can have. But it serves a purpose -- attracting a mate. It serves a purpose so powerfully that despite generally being a liability to the peacock, the tail has continued to be a feature of the peacock instead of being slowly bred out over time.

Markings in animals serve to attract mates, or discourage predators from attacking, or to blend in to surroundin
gs, or a variety of other purposes. But despite that, we humans simply assume that the stars the Sneetches had on their bellies served no purpose, that they were simply ornamental. We assumed that because human beings are the only animals who in fact do have superficial markings -- but we actually have very few superficial markings, when it comes down to it.

Humans have superficial markings that don't bear directly on our ability to survive or mate or attack or otherwise interact with the world around us; skin color and hair color and eye color in particular have nothing to do with a human being's worth or lack thereof. But we have other markings that everyone assumes are superficial and yet they're are not.
These are markings like earrings, and haircuts, and clothing, and tattoos. We assume these are superficial, because they can be changed, but they're not superficial. They in fact tell something about you, or me, or the person with the tattoo/earring/nose ring/mohawk.

Look around, wherever you are right now, unless like me you are sitting in an office at "work" staring at your computer and nobody else is in your office because you've cultivated a curmudgeon attitude, or at least you hope it's deemed to be "curmudgeon," because the alternative is "antisocial loner," and that's not as nice-seeming. If that's the case, go mingle with your coworkers or the people around you, and then look around.

When you see people around you, ask yourself what their outward, "superficial" appearance tells you. Do they have a nose ring? Long hair? Short hair? Earrings? Can you see a tattoo? Are they wearing jeans? Or a tie? Do they have their sleeves rolled up (like I do) and their tie loosened (like I do), or are they buttoned up?

All of that says something; all of that is intended, consciously or subconsciously, to send a message. Sleeves rolled up/tie loosened, for example, means more than my sleeves are always a little short for me and my neck is kind of chubby (which is what it mostly means for me); it also means I'm working hard and I need to be formal for the office but I'm really an informal kind of guy. I roll up my sleeves and loosen my tie to let you know that you don't need to call me "Mr. The Trouble With Roy," you can just call me "Roy."

Nose rings tell people you're a hipster who wants people to think you don't t care what they think. A crewcut tells people you're ex-military, or that you don't give much attention to your apperance, or that you're too cheap to get haircuts by a barber and instead choose to clip your own hair (me, again.)

I won't elaborate on all possible non-superficial markings that humans have; you get my point, and my point is, as usual, the correct point, which is that seemingly superficial markings on human beings serve to set your status in the world and also to show you whether that person can be trusted or is a threat or whatever other message needs to be sent.

So why, then, do we assume for no reason whatsoever that the stars on the bellies of some Sneetches had no point? That they were purely superficial, artificial markings? Why do we think that?

It's because we want to think that, of course. That's why we think everything that we think: Because we want to think that.

We want to think that the stars on the Sneetches bellies were superficial markings that served no real purpose because otherwise the story is a much more complex story with unsettling ramifications in our real lives.

Here's our version of the story, and how it applies to us: The stars don't mean anything, so those star-bellied Sneetches shouldn't have been so uppity, so it was a good thing that the plain-bellied Sneetches challenged the society, and ultimately it's a good thing that no Sneetches were better than any other Sneetches, which is comforting for me because it tells me in my life that nobody is actually better than me.

Here's a more complicated version of the story with unsettling ramifications for us and our lives: The stars mean something; I'm not sure what. But when the plainbellies got stars on their bellies, it messed up the system, so the starbellies had to do something to make sure that society wouldn't collapse, only things got all screwed up and now, even though they needed a way to tell whether some people were better than others, they can't, and Sneetch society is in trouble. Also, in my own life, that means that people might actually be better than me.

That latter one doesn't make for a very good kids' book, does it? Or a very nice thought to ponder while driving home from work. That's why everyone wants to assume that the first version of the story is the "real" version of the story.

But here's the thing: society is made up of people that are better than other people at things. And here's another thing: it needs to be that way. And here's yet another-er thing: We need ways to tell who is better than someone else.

Maybe McBean wasn't such a great guy after all. Why, even, do people assume that he was? I think he was kind of a troublemaker and con man. He upsets society for money and then drives away, leaving everything in a bind, and we think maybe he did a good thing? Dr. Seuss never said that, either, and I got the distinct impression that Seuss thought maybe McBean wasn't so great.)

In society, we need people to be better at some things than other people, and some people are better at things than other people. We need, for example, some people to be better at surgery, and we need those people to be surgeons. We need people to be better at leading, and we need those people to lead. We need people to be better at cooking, and we need those people to cook.

Having everyone be equally good at everything is only a good thing if (a) the level of skill that everyone has is a high level of skill -- it doesn't do much good to have people all be equally good at heart surgery if our level of skill is terrible -- and (b) despite being equally good at everything, people still went into different professions. One of the things that led me to become a lawyer is that I wasn't terribly good at math and science; originally, I was pre-med in college but I lacked skill in math and science, so I went into law instead. If I'd been as good at math and science as everyone else in the world, I might have become a doctor, and we'd have one less lawyer in the world.

No jokes, please.

Okay, fine, make those jokes; but if you do, send them to me so I can enjoy them, too. Still, while having fewer lawyers in general might be good, having me not be a lawyer might be deemed to be a terrible thing by my clients, who have generally been pleased with my services and who I've done some fine things for.

It's also true that some people simply are better at things than others. Tiger Woods is simply better at golf than other human beings. Brett Favre is better at quarterbacking than other human beings. Bill Gates is better at selling computer programs than others. Tom Hanks is better at acting than others.

There's nothing wrong with people being better than other people at something. There's also nothing wrong with recognizing that some people are better at things than others, and giving them their due credit for it. That's a basic part of society: People compete to be better at something than others, on a variety of levels and in a variety of fora. People compete to be better at parenting, better at getting married, better at getting promoted, better at staying married, better at life. That competition is healthy and good for society. It makes us better to try to be better.

Now, having proven that it's both normal and good for society to both have people be better at things than others, and to recognize that, let's move on to the next level: It's okay for society to assume that some people are simply better people than others.

Provided, I'll add, that you're judging based on good qualities. If you provide that, then it's perfectly acceptable, and good, for society to say that some people are simply better people than others -- and we have to do it.

Your first instinct was no doubt to react in horror and be ready to denounce me, but hold on a second; don't hit the denounce key just yet. Instead, stop and think, and you'll realize it's true. Some people are better than others.

Start with the easy ones. Pretty much everyone is better than Hitler, right? And Stalin? We can all agree that everyone we all know or have run into is generally better than Hitler and Stalin. Then throw in Ted Bundy and the Unabomber. Everyone I know is better than Hitler, Stalin, Ted Bundy, and the Unabomber. I don't even have to think about it very long. They're just better, because they haven't committed genocide and started world wars and blown up or murdered innocent people.

As you start thinking like that, then, you can sort people into "better" or "worse" categories. "Better" people include people who are good parents and good family members and good coworkers. "Worse" people are people who embezzle money or torture animals or drive too fast on the highway and keep me from making my exit.

As you start doing that, you'll sit back and take your finger off the denounce key because I'm right: some people are better than others. There is a universal set of values that we can all agree on, values that exist in every society and have always existed, which helps us to rank and sort and judge people, and by that universal set of values that exists, values that insist that we should not harm others and should try to coexist peacefully, we can rank people based on how well they uphold those values in their lives, and the better people are at upholding those values, the better people they are.

So you see? I didn't base it on athleticism or medical skill or money; I based on it on the universal core beliefs that all human beings hold, beliefs that tell us inherently that some people are better than others.

If Thomas Jefferson had been more accurate, he'd have written that all men and women are created equal but then they by their actions demonstrate that they are better or worse than each other. (Then again, he was concerned about declaring independence from England, and not concerned about declaring which Sneetch was The Best, so I'll let him off the hook.)

Now, having come all this way, go back and look at the original questions that led us down this path -- why we assume that the stars were superficial markings, and why we want to believe that people are all equally good. The answer to both is the same: We generally assume in our lives, until required to do otherwise, that everyone is equally good and that the separations between us are simply superficial societal markings that do not inherently denote worth because that's the simplest way to go about life; and that's the simplest way to go about life because it doesn't raise unsettling questions like maybe I'm not as good a person as I could be or why am I hanging around this person?

And, we assume that everyone is good, etc., while at the exact same time making judgments about how good (or bad) other people are, and then not acknowledging that we've made those judgments.

We do all this because it's simple.

It is simpler to say I believe everyone is equally good and valuable to society than it is to say I believe that some people are better than others and here's why... because the latter invites thought and controversy and people hitting the denounce key. The society we've created is one that wants to insist (while not actually believing) that everyone is not just created equal but remains equal throughout their lives, that our actions cannot move us up or down in human esteem even though just the opposite is true: we all start at the same starting line, but finish where we end up because of our actions, and how you run the race determines how much respect you should get.

It is simpler to say I believe everyone is equally good, etc. and then make value judgments based on seemingly-superficial qualities like whether someone is wearing a tie or not while not acknowledging the internal contradiction because we don't want to acknowledge the internal contradiction -- that's uncomfortable -- and, again, because our society (all around the world) demands that we not acknowledge that some people are better than others.

And it is simpler to say I believe that some people are deemed better than others because of their superficial qualities rather than their inherent goodness or badness because we would all rather believe that other people got ahead on luck or looks or lucre than on good or bad qualities. We'd rather believe that because if people got ahead on good qualities, it makes us wonder whether we are doing the right thing and measure up; who wants to be all wrapped up in self-doubt? But if people got ahead on bad qualities, that's worse: who wants to live in a society where people get ahead by lying, cheating or stealing?

We cover the contours of our society and our belief with a mental wallpaper that declares that all people are equally good, and we hope then that nothing punches through into the nooks and crannies we've covered up, and then, when we read The Sneetches, we quickly mentally decide that the stars on their bellies are simply superficial markings that mean nothing because if we don't do these things, we might be beset with self-doubt and controversy and continued questioning.

All of which leads to this: which Sneetch was really The Best?

If you've been following, you know the answer: It was the Plain-Bellied Sneetches.

The Plain-Bellied Sneetches, who had none upon thars, were The Best Sneetch, because The Plain-Bellied Sneetches did not simply sit back in their society and accept it for what it was. The Plain-Bellied Sneetches did not meekly decide that it was okay to be locked out of weenie roasts and games, and did not go off and form their own separate society of weenie-roasts and games.

No, the Plain-Bellied Sneetches looked at society and questioned it and asked why? Why is it that we are excluded? Are they really so much greater than us? Have we been judging the elite in our society -- for all societies have an elite, and sometimes several depending on which facet of society you look at -- have we been judging the elite in our society by the right criteria?

The Plain-Bellied Sneetches asked whether it was right and just that some members of society should be entitled to more than their fair share, whether the measure of who gets what and why was being done right. Should we be distributing the rewards of society based solely on these stars? they asked. Or is there a better way to do it?

All societies have to distribute their rewards one way or another; they can do it equally or unequally. They can do it based on one, or many, factors. Distributing rewards is not wrong; it is a function of society.

But society has to do that, has to distribute its rewards, in a way that is fair. It has to do that in a way that rewards the kind of behaviors and values and traits that society wants to encourage, and punishes the behaviors and values and traits that society wants to deter. A society could, for example, distribute most of its rewards to those people who are born into the right family, or to those people who marry the right person, or to those people who are lucky enough to catch the attention of the media and hold it.

A society could even, if it wanted to, give most of its rewards to those lucky enough to be born with a star on their belly.

But when a society begins to distribute its rewards the wrong way -- when it gives more to people who do not contribute as much, when it heaps riches on those who do not appreciate it or who use it selfishly or otherwise abuse their rewards, when society takes a wrong turn-- then it's time for the Plain-Bellies to begin questioning things.

That will never happen in the Plain Bellies keep tricking themselves. Society will never correct itself if the Plain Bellies, instead of asking why things are the way they are and whether there's not a better way to do things, if instead of doing that the Plain Bellies simply hope that they, too, will be invited to the weenie roasts or go start their own weenie roast, society will never fix itself and nobody will be making sure that we're encouraging people to be better and not worse.

The Star-Bellies weren't the villain. McBean wasn't the villain. The villain in The Sneetches was the initial unquestioned acceptance of the status quo by the Sneetches; when things got offtrack on the beaches, nobody at first was going to do anything about it. Nobody until the Plain-Bellies got it into their heads to mess with the system using McBean's machine -- and everyone began to question the values they'd internalized, and everyone began to ask what really made a Sneetch worthwhile, and everyone began to look for an answer to that question that was based on something other than the system they'd used to get into the mess in the first place.

The whole Sneetch society was destroyed, ultimately: Sneetches were no longer judged on whether they had a star or not. The Sneetches took a good hard look at themselves as they passed through McBean's machine, and decided that there was a better way to do things.

We should be so lucky as to have our own Plain-Bellied Sneetches,who, because they questioned their society and challenged it and made it a better place, are The Best Sneetch.

Want to know what the "My Aunt's Dog Theorem" is all about? Find out by reading about The Best Song in A Language Other Than English.
Think this is all too much meaning to ascribe to a simple kid's book? Then get away from all this junk and read why The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog was The Best Children's Book.

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1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

I always think this when we talk about men vs. women at sports. Look, male athletes are (generally) stronger and can jump higher than women ones, so there's no shame in moving the tee up or lowering the rims or whatever for the women. Conversely there's stuff women are better than men at, so there's no shame in us not being good at it. I don't want to go all Rachel in the OC by suggesting that's housework and so forth. Of course a lot of women are stronger and can jump higher than me too...