Opinion: Horton’s Hullabaloo

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Dr. Seuss must be turning in his grave. Pro-lifers are claiming there’s an anti-abortion message in Horton Hears a Who, a movie based on his second book featuring the lovably loyal elephant. From NPR:

‘I meant what I said and I said what I meant. And an elephant’s faithful, 100 percent.’ That’s one of Horton the elephant’s best-known mottoes. But with a movie version of Dr. Seuss’ much-loved children’s book opening Friday, another Horton saying has drawn attention from activists who see a message in the movie — a message that suits their purpose. That message: ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small.’ ‘Exactly,’ say abortion foes.

Using Horton’s innocent words to support the personhood-at-conception argument? It’s a world gone mad. Frankly, I like it better when they protest popular lit (à la witchcraft in Harry Potter), because an angry social conservative is a lot less irritating than a self-satisfied one. Observe:

In Horton Hears a Who, Horton discovers that there’s a whole town (Whoville) full of tiny people (the Whos) on a tiny speck of dust that’s come floating his way. His neighbors think he’s lost his mind. But Horton decides it’s his calling to protect the life on the speck: ‘A person’s a person no matter how small,’ he insists. When Jim Carrey, the film’s Horton, said those words during the Los Angeles premiere of the film last week, demonstrators who’d slipped into the theater started to yell. It was a surprise, to say the least, for the premiere audience. ‘I thought maybe there was a nut loose in the theater or something,’ says Karl ZoBell.


Just the one? Just checking.

Audrey Geisel, Dr. Seuss’ widow, has objected to the demonstrations because the Geisels didn’t want to see Seuss characters used to advance any political purpose.

But that argument is a little misleading, because Dr. Seuss has always been about politics. Seuss, né Theodor Geisel, previously tapped his illustrative genius as a left-leaning editorial cartoonist with a razor-sharp pen. And many of his most enduring children’s books slip in very liberal political messages. The Butter Battle Book gave grim commentary on mutual deterrence during the Cold War, and The Lorax was a rallying cry for tree-huggers everywhere. Yertle the Turtle, meanwhile, provided a rather proletarian critique of monarchy, or capitalism, or something.

Given the history, you could just as easily argue that Horton Hears a Who is about valuing people who are less economically well-off, who are of a different race, who live in a different part of the world — or who may just be vertically challenged. In short, pun intended, people who are easier to ignore, neglect or even persecute.

The problem isn’t that pro-lifers are politicizing children’s literature. That happens all the time. It’s that they really need to do their homework. Out of ignorance, they’re disregarding Seuss’ rich liberal legacy — and in the case of Horton, what could be a very different political message.