Horton the caring troublemaking elephant who not only makes trouble but stays in it

So, STA used to be surprised by the crazy connections I would make between philosophers, critical theorists and popular TV and movies or how I could interpret and express my own everyday experiences through the words and theories of Judith Butler. Not anymore. For anyone else reading this blog, I offer this entry as a good example of how my brain works. In this entry, I contrast an ethics of troublemaking (inspired by Judith Butler) with a feminist ethics of care, sprinkle in some Michel Foucault (and his idea of the caring and curious masked philosopher) and apply it to Dr. Seuss and Horton Hears a Who. Crazy? Perhaps. Unique? Always. Without further ado, I bring you Horton as the caring troublemaker…

If you can’t see it, hear it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist. Our way of life is under attack. And whose leading that attack? HORTON! Are we going to let troublemakers like Horton poison the minds of our children? When Horton tells our children about worlds beyond the jungle he makes them question authority which leads to defiance which leads to ANARCHY!

These are the words of the Sour Kangaroo (but only in the movie–they aren’t in the book) as she implores the other animals in the jungle of Nool to help her stop Horton. She condemns him as a troublemaker who is out to destroy their way of life and to poison the minds of their children. But what is it about his actions that causes trouble for her? Why is she so angry and frightened and threatened by him? It is not just that he thinks differently or that he sees and hears things (like tiny worlds on small specks on flowers) that others don’t. It is that he refuses to fall in line and obey the rule of their society (at least according to the Sour Kangaroo): If you can’t see it or hear it or feel it than it doesn’t exist.

Horton is condemned as a troublemaker because he makes a choice to disobey what he finds to be wrong (as inaccurate and not properly reflecting his own observations of people on the speck) and unjust. So, the troublemaking part of his action is not only (or even mostly) that he is open to other ways of thinking about the world–ways that are counter to common sense like little worlds or specks that talk, but that he refuses to deny those ways and defiantly claims their value and humanity—a person’s a person, no matter how small. Fundamental to Horton’s troublemaking is a sense of justice and attentiveness to others who he witnesses being treated unfairly and/or that are in need of care. In this sense, he makes trouble by getting into trouble (thinking about the world differently, seeing worlds on specks) and then by staying in trouble (refusing to ignore or deny those specks).

Consider a scene early in the movie (the chapter is titled, “Making Trouble”) when the Kangaroo confronts and threatens Horton. She commands him to stop treating the speck as if it had a world on it and to tell everyone else that he was making it up. If he doesn’t, she warns, he will be in for an ugly fight (and big, big trouble). So, he better hand over the flower and the speck. His reply:

No! I can’t give it to you. There are people on this speck. Granted, they’re very small people. But a person’s a person, no matter how small.

In this scene, the real trouble for Horton is that he refuses to get himself out of trouble even when doing so puts him in danger of being ostracized or worse by the other animals. He stays in trouble not because he is eager to anger the Kangaroo or because he is bored and wants to make life more interesting (or thrilling) for himself. No, he stays in trouble because the alternative is to ignore the voices of others and to let them perish. To get himself out of trouble Horton would not only have to turn his back on the Whos, but he would have to deny that they ever existed. This denial (that is, the refusal to recognize this other world) would strip the Whos of their humanity/humanness. For, how could they have humanity if they don’t even exist, if they are only figments of Horton’s imagination?

What I find interesting about Horton’s troublemaking in this story is how it is inextricably tied to his passion for justice and his openness to other worlds and ways of being/living. This suggests that troublemaking (as in, making trouble for those in power, for the status quo, for rigid rules) can be motivated by something other than rebellion, destruction, or deliquency. Troublemaking is motivated by a sense of moral responsibility towards/for others, by an ethical need to work for more just societies, and by a desire to care (for and about) the world and all of its inhabitants (especially the smallest).

Yes, I think that in this film Horton is a great example of a caring troublemaker. We can see this care in a couple of different ways. In one sense, he is giving care to the Whos on the speck–he cares about their world and he takes care to ensure that that world remains safe and viable. But, there is another sense of care happening in this story–a type of care that is not just about the attention and the help that Horton gives to the Whos and their speck of a world. This type of care is not about specific actions but about an approach/attitude to the world; this type of care refers to the quality of one’s character as someone who cares and is curious about the different possibilities of life that our worlds offer.

In “The Masked Philsopher,” Michel Foucault describes curiosity and the care it suggests:

[Curiosity] evokes ‘care’; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.

From the beginning of the story (in the book and both versions–1970 and 2008–of the movie) Horton exhibits the qualities of curiosity-as-care. Here, let me break it down in terms of the 2008 version. First, let me offer a scene from early on in the movie. Horton is trying to explain to the Sour Kangaroo why he is talking to a speck of dust on a flower:

Kangaroo: That’s absurd. There aren’t people that small!
Horton: Well, maybe they aren’t small. Maybe we’re big.
Kangaroo: Horton!
Horton: No, really. Think about it. What if there was someone way out there looking down on our world right now? And to them, we’re the specks.
Kangaroo: Horton! There is nothing on that speck!
Horton: But I heard.
Kangaroo: Did you, really? Ohhoho my. Then how come I don’t hear anything?
Horton: Well…hmmm…
Kangaroo: If you can’t see, hear, or feel something it doesn’t exist. And believing in tiny, imaginary people is just not something we do or tolerate here in the jungle of Nool.

Foucault: it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it
Horton:  Horton is interested in and attentive to the world around him and open to imagining new possibilities. His sharpened (and heightened) sense of reality enables him to hear the tiny cry coming from a small speck floating by as he is bathing in the stream. Instead of not hearing (or more common, hearing but refusing to listen), Horton listens and responds to the voice that signals the possibility of another world beyond his, a world that seems unimaginable within his world (with its empirical, physical and “natural” laws). He is not threatened or even incredulous at the possibility of a tiny world on a speck; it does not immobilize him. Instead it sparks his curiosity and his imagination about what lies beyond his own observations.

Foucault: a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd
Horton: Horton is ready and willing to be open to how our surroundings, such as flowers, trees, specks of dust, may not be what they appear to be. They may be strange and strangers to us (we don’t really know them or what they are).

Foucault: a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way
Horton: Once he hears the voice and believes there that there is a small person on the speck, he is committed to never look at flowers and dust (or the world, for that matter) the same way again. He is committed to staying open to the possibility of other worlds (ones that are smaller and bigger than us).

Foucault: a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing
Horton: [a stretch perhaps?] Horton is unwilling to let the moment pass and the speck of dust and its inhabitants to perish. When he hears the small voice crying for help, he acts immediately.

Foucault: a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.
Horton: Horton refuses to honor the jungle of Nool rule (at least as created and enforced by the Sour Kangaroo): If it you can’t see, hear, or feel it then it doesn’t exist. He steadfastly stands behind his (empirically unproven) claim that there are people on the speck of dust.

Now, this kind of care–the care for remaining open and interested/attentive to the world in its different permutations–is not often recognized as such. Maybe that is because care-as-curiosity is hardly ever about being careful. It is exhausting, dangerous and quite frequently gets us into trouble (and demands that we stay in trouble by being resistant to rigid rules and ready for new possibilities). But, what if we imagined the type of troublemaking and troublestaying that Horton is doing as an ethics of care? Then, could we begin to value (and honor and promote) troublemaking?

Another Feminist Reponse to Horton Hears a Who: Why is it always the mother’s fault?

A year ago, when the Jim Carrey/Steve Carrell version of Horton Hears a Who came out, feminists responded (see here and here and here) to what they saw as the blatant sexism within the movie’s over-emphasis on the single son as the hero and the 96 daughters as invisible. Why couldn’t one of the daughters save the day? Why does the mayor care more about his one son than his daughters? Why would the filmmakers add this sexist storyline?

I agree with this assessment of the film and do find the emphasis on the son at the expense of the daughters to be disappointing. Typical, but disappointing nonetheless. However, when I first watched the movie at the Riverview Theater in South Minneapolis with my kids (and again today on dvd), what angered me was not this reinforcement of the male-as-the-only-hero-that-matters. No, what angered me was how the movie perpetuated the classic take on who was to blame for all of the conflict and crisis: the smothering mother.

Why does the Mayor’s son need to save the day? Because the kangaroo mother is afraid of change in the jungle of Nool. She is afraid of things that she cannot see or hear. She is afraid that all of Horton’s “troublemaking” (yes, she uses that word in the film) will lead to questioning authority and eventually anarchy. While other animals may help her realize her plans, it is her fear alone and her disdain for that which challenges her simple worldview that leads to the crisis in the first place. She will stop at nothing to make sure that Horton doesn’t corrupt the children of Nool. She is so concerned with the corruption of her own son that she “pouch schools” him. And, she manages to stir up the other parents into a frenzy over the supposed threat that Horton and his “free thinking” pose.

Unlike the storyline about the son and the 96 sisters, the idea of the fearful kangaroo was present in the original version. But what is different in the earlier version is that the kangaroo was not alone in her fear or her disdain of Horton. Her son was a willing participant in the mocking and criticizing of Horton. In fact, he helped to instigate it. He was not trapped in her pouch, smothered by her “love” and her need to protect. So, why did they add this smothering mother theme? What could it possibly add to the story?

Horton Hears a Who was originally written in the 1950s and, according to this wikipedia entry, was inspired by Dr. Seuss’ desire for the U.S. (in their occupation of Japan post WWII) to treat the Japanese better. The book serves as an allegory and, as such, has a political message: Every person counts. Even the Japanese. The 2008 version seems to have its own political message. With its rhetoric of change good/staying the same bad and its villifying of traditionalists (and the Bush Administration) as home-schoolin’, fear mongering, anti-thinking conservatives, Horton Hears a Who is a liberal response to what is understood to be a radical shift towards conservative, fundamentalist beliefs. The message seems to be less that every person counts (because a person’s a person no matter how small) and more that close minded conservatives who see change as undermining important traditions and values are crazy freaks who are willing to kill an entire world (the cute little whos in whoville by boiling it in oil) just to protect their own. The film seems to be saying (or screaming or bashing its audience over their heads) with the message: They must be stopped! Free thinking, imagination, questioning authority must win out!

Hey, that sounds like what I am trying to promote in my own vision of troublemaking as a critical and questioning approach to the world and our understandings of it. I am all for promoting imagination and encouraging people to move beyond their limited perspectives (and their belief that anything that they don’t see or that they ignore doesn’t exist). So, what’s my problem? My problem is that the person standing in the way of all of this great thinking and imagining and saving little worlds is an overbearing, smothering mother. That’s right. Once again, the mother is to blame. Not the government. The city council of Whoville only makes a brief appearance as a bunch of idiot jerks who are more interested in ensuring that the annual Whoville celebration occurs than protecting the interests of its citzens. Not the evil vulture Vlad. He is tricked by the Kangaroo into stealing the flower that houses the Whos and Whoville. Not the other animals in the jungle. They like Horton, but the Kangaroo bullies them into being afraid of his non-conformist behavior and approach to life. Nope. It is the evil, nagging, overbearing, ignorant, close-minded, fear mongering Kangaroo that is to blame (Do I sound a little harsh here? She is such a caricature of the smothering mother role that I am not sure that she has any endearing qualities).

The filmmakers in this 2008 version shifted the message away from valuing everyone (as emphasized in the book) and towards critiquing those who fear change and are afraid to challenge tradition. To emphasize this message, they went with one of the most popular ways to show the conflict between tradition and innovation: The mother who refuses to let her child grow up and who wants to make sure that tradition is respected and adhered to. So, what’s the big deal? Here is one reason that this is a big deal:

This movie vilifies mothers. This isn’t something new. It happens all of the time in movies (in many kid’s movies mothers are not present–usually dead–or they are clueless or they are the problem). But, when I am sitting in the theater with my two kids watching Horton Hears a Who, I get very angry at being reminded of how I, as a mother, am represented in movies. What images and damaging stereotypes are my kid’s wittingly and unwittingly absorbing as they watch the mean kangaroo try to destory Horton and Whoville? She is the ultimate bad guy (don’t get me started on how they oversimplify the good guys/bad guys and good vs. evil in these films).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, feminists have been quite critical of how the girls (the mayor’s 96 daughters) are ignored in favor of the boy (the son). By ignoring the girls and not allowing one (or all) of them to save the day, the movie reinforces the idea that boys are still the heros and reminds kids, as they are watching the film, that “boys rule, girls drool” (sorry, my son likes to chant that. Of course my daughter flips it so that “girls rule, boys drool”). In some ways, this part of the story is an easy (and obvious) target for criticism. But, if we focus all of our attention on this example of sexism (which seems to be indefensible for many these days), we fail to see some of the deeper, darker and more insidious forms of sexism and mysogyny that this film taps into and reinforces. Why is it still okay to blame the mother for our problems? For our own inability to embrace change? For our desire to not think critically? Why aren’t we all responsible for this ignorance and our hateful responses to a fear of change, the unknown, or different ways of living?

When will we ever grow up?

Eminem (and Borat) as Socratic gadflys?

I was reading a recent Time article about Eminen’s new album at my parent’s house this past weekend when I came across this description of the cultural instigator:

But one development wreaked more havoc on Eminem’s hateability than all the rest: amazingly, someone coarsened the culture without him. As Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen advanced the art of provocation, broadening it from Eminem’s preferred taboos of sex and class to the mocking of all Americans (by a foreigner, no less) for being naive enough to believe their own mythology. Baron Cohen was darker, funnier and way more misanthropic than Eminem — which is how it goes with cultural instigators. They poke, we react; they poke again, we react a little less, until eventually someone with a sharper stick and a bushier mustache comes along. America’s Most Outrageous is just not a title you keep for long or get to hold twice.

Consider the various elements of a cultural instigator (as outlined by article author Josh Tyrangiel). People hate them and they demonstrate a hatred for people. They provoke by messing with cultural taboos. They mock and challenge treasured values through their cultivation and practice of the art of provocation. They are funny, but their humor is dark. They must constantly come up with newer and better and more shocking ways to antagonize and anger. They are outrageous but never for long. Some other instigator always comes along with a better (sharper, more pointed, more provocative) way to be outrageous and to capture the country’s (world’s?) ire.

According to Tyrangiel’s description, one implicit goal of a cultural instigator is to be the most outrageous. To be the center of attention. To have people talking about you. To have a certain buzz surrounding your name and your exploits. And, above all else, to sell the most products (whether they be cds, concert tickets, dvds, books, magazines). All of these goals are focused on the instigator and their role as entertainer/celebrity. But, is this the only (and even main) goal of the instigator? Are they really only interested in being hated and stirring up controversy to sell their products? Are there other ways to interpret what the cultural instigator is doing and why they might be doing it?

Can we read this image as something other than an a**hole delinquent trying to piss us off and take our money?


What if we thought about Eminem (and Borat and others like them who push our buttons and raise questions that get us talking about topics that we are usually too afraid to talk about or we assume to be beyond question) as Socratic gadflies? Is that too much of a stretch? How about this: what if we thought about cultural instigators as engaging in practices that are similar to the Socratic gadlfy? How would that enable us to think about those instigators and the creative and critical work that they do as something more than a clever (and mean-spirited) game that they play (and that is meant to play us)?

Consider Socrates’ defense at his trial. In a plea for his life, he attempts to make a case for his necessary and important role within the community by claiming the role of the gadfly:

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble stead who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

Is this what Eminem or Borat are doing? Does Socrates live up to his own lofty goals? These questions should be addressed and the troublemaking-as-gadfly actions of these cultural instigators should be evaluated. Maybe I can take that up in another blog. Right now, I am interested in leaving the question open so as to think about cultural instigators as troublemakers in ways that are counter to the popular stereotypes of them as a**holes with sticks who poke us for profit and pleasure.

Men Behaving Badly: Virtue, Vice and the Battle for our Souls?

The Book of Virtues / The Book of ViceI just started reading Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice (subtitled very naughty things and how to do them). Sagal offers up this book as a (quasi-satirical?) response to William Bennett and his The Book of Virtues (subtitled a great treasury of moral stories). Bennett wrote his book in 1993 as a response to what he saw as the lack or decline of moral education in the United States. Since I plan to devote several future blog entries to this book (I will end the suspense here: I have many, many problems with Bennett’s book), I will just offer this brief summary: The Book of Virtues is a collection of stories that are meant to educate both children and adults on classic virtues like self-discipline, compassion, courage, responsibility, and honesty. In writing the book in 1993, Bennett hoped to continue the tradition (a tradition that he thinks is being lost) of passing on important values to the next generation.

I have only read a few pages of Sagal’s book, but I can already tell that it is at least partially a reaction to Bennett and his lofty goal. From the flipped (book of vice not virtue) title, to the strikingly similar book jackets, to Sagal’s gleeful reference to Bennett’s own inability to live up the standards his book promotes, it is clear that Sagal wants to make fun of virtues and virtue talk. He also wants to demonstrate that, even if people think that virtues are a good idea, they really want to talk about and imagine how to practice vice. Here is his (disturbing, I think) assessment of virtues vs. vice:

In the long war between Vice and Virtue, Virtue has been met on the battlefield, routed, defeated in detail, occupied, and reeducated in prison camps. When last seen, Virtue was working on the Strip in Las Vegas, handing out color flyers advertising in-room exotic dancers. She says she’s happy, but she doesn’t meet your eyes (2).

WARNING! WARNING! I see some real problems here. When I first heard about this book, I was intrigued and thought it might offer an interesting counter to the rigid link between virtue and conservative (frequently fundamentalist) thought that is so prevalent these days in popular and scholars-who-don’t-study-religion-or-ethics talk. On some level, I am still hopeful, but I absolutely cannot let this paragraph pass without reacting to Sagal’s satirical take on William Bennett and his virtue crusade. (Wow, this is page 2. How long will it take me to read all 252 pages?)

In Sagal’s scenario, Virtue is a man at battle who is courageously defending the honor of virtues and morals. He is weak and eventually overtaken by Vice. Okay, overtaken is too tame of a word. He is routed, defeated, occupied (violated? penetrated?), and re-educated by Vice (possible translation: Virtue becomes Vice’s bitch?). Having been completely emasculated, he becomes a whore on the street who is so demoralized that she (yes, he is now a she which demonstrates how far he has fallen!) can’t even look you (by the way, who is the you in this sentence?) in the eyes.

Of course, Sagal is joking here and he using his humor to demonstrate (among other things) the hypocrisy of moral crusaders like Bennett and the disconnect between what Bennett (and other “family value” folk) vigorously promote and what they secretly (or not so secretly) practice. I have no problem with exposing such hypocrisy, but I am bothered by how he does it. Let me explain. The image that Sagal gives us here (and as far as I can tell, throughout the book) is exclusively of a white, heterosexual male who must undertake the epic struggle between being virtuous and having vices. Women (of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages) may tempt and successfully seduce him but they are only serve as evidence that the struggle exists. They are not subjects or actors engaging in the struggle themselves.

Now, I understand that Sagal is writing from his own perspective and that he is a white, heterosexual (and happily married) male. And his writing style is one that draws heavily upon his own humorous engagements with and observations of the various vices. For these reasons, I understand why the book would skew toward the white male heterosexual (aka the-top-of-the-heap) demographic. But, in his blurb about virtue and vice in a battle (for our souls) he doesn’t just ignore women, that is, not consider them in his description of the battle. No, he uses them as the foundation for his joke; he uses them to serve up his humor about men who claim to defend virtue but end up (always and inevitably?) being seduced by the dark side and behaving very badly. Ha Ha. Look. Virtue has become a whore. Isn’t that funny? While Bill Bennett and his cronies may be the butt of Sagal’s joke, it is women (and their roles as strippers giving lap dances in the introduction and chapter 3 or as prostitutes handing out flyers) and the reader’s shameful pleasure of them that dominates so much of what I have read so far (since I started this blog entry, I have made it to page 81).

The pitting of women as strippers/whores/objects of our lust against white, heterosexual men as failed paragons of virtue/typical guys-who-want-to-behave-badly is established in the author’s note even before the introduction. Sagal writes about how this book is partly inspired by and dedicated to Marv Albert (and those like him) who engage in vices (Marv is an adulterer who has a secret biting fetish) and get caught. No fair, Sagel cries as he ponders: Why are a select few allowed to get away with it while the rest of us (men, that is) are burdened by our pesky virtues and moral (and legal) accountability to our families and society? Poor Marv, Sagal laments. Basketball players like Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant can engage in bad, perverse behavior, but a schmo like Marv won’t ever be able to get away with it. He won’t ever be able to engage in polymorphous perversity (or force sex on a woman) and bite a woman (without consent and repeatedly) on her back. Of course, Sagal is not endorsing Bryant’s, Chamberlain’s or Albert’s behavior. But, by not considering the perspective of the women who are the objects of this vice (in this case, sexual perversity and more), Sagal is leaving out an important part of the story about how battles over virtue and vice are engaged (and represented in the popular imagination).

At whose expense is this battle between vice and virtue waged? Whose souls are being struggled over (and who doesn’t have a soul or at least one worth fighting for)? And, why, no matter who wins (Virtue or Vice), does the woman always end up the loser?

Michael Steele keeps getting into trouble…

0 So, STA tipped me off to this article about Michael Steele and the recent troubles that he is having. I am including it here as an example of how getting in trouble and staying out of trouble get used and understood within the mainstream media. [Note: Thank you Jon Stewart for pointing out how much Steele looks like the guy with the fly in his soup!]

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, working the room at a luncheon gathering of party officials yesterday, had the same parting words for each man he met: “Stay out of trouble.” Or, if speaking to a couple, he would tell the woman: “Keep him out of trouble.”

After this opening, Dana Milbank from The Washington Post describes the kind of trouble that Steele has gotten into in the last couple months: his run-ins with Rush Limbaugh, his failed attempts at appealing to the “hip hop generation,” his inability to generate enthusiasm for the Republican Party, and the misguided hope he places in the “tea bag” as the future of the party. Milbank concludes by admonishing Steele to “stay out of trouble.”

For the author of this article, trouble is being used as something that is bad, something that leads to crisis and has the potential to cause serious damage. Milbank understands Steele to be in some serious trouble: his job and the success of the party are in serious danger because of his bad/misguided/ineffective actions.

But, how is Steele using the term? Does he mean it as a joke? A playful and fatherly greeting to his party members? A warning and admonishment? And, when he tells the men (this, perhaps is too obvious, but what about the women? Does he imagine that they are incapable of making serious trouble or does he want them to make trouble?) to stay out of trouble, what exactly is he suggesting that they do? Stop raising controversy? Stop challenging the Democratic party or start challenging them more? Stop trying to change the course of the Republican party?

What if instead of telling them to stay out of trouble he had said, make trouble? Go out and shake up the party in ways that help to invigorate it and make it relevant. Ask the tough questions about where they went wrong and how to get them back on track. And don’t stand for anything less than an agenda that speaks to (and for) a wide range of people and their concerns. Would this be an example of virtuous troublemaking?