I grew up reading the wondrous word fusions from the mind of Dr. Seuss. I was weaned on Green Eggs and Ham, learned mischief from The Cat in the Hat, and cheered as an environmental advocate who still speaks for the trees when reading The Lorax. His books were in regular rotation at bedtime for my own son. Imagine my shock when reading an article about his less than savory attitudes early on in his career that was recently circulated via social media.
It turns out that the erstwhile ‘good doctor’ harbored racist beliefs that were portrayed in some of his cartoons. I cringed when reading about it, shaking my head in disbelief that someone who seemed like a good influence could espouse such hatred. At that moment, I swore never to read his work again. I then took a deep breath and realized when doing some additional reading that his on-going writings may have reflected an awakening and altering of his attitudes.
Perhaps his classic Horton Hears a Who, with its line, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” is a signal that he changed his mind about those he demeaned with his drawings.
When he became an environmental champion with The Lorax, I could get behind his clarion call. The main characters are a little boy, The Lorax, and the Once-ler. At the start of the tale, the child comes upon the Once-ler who compels him to listen to the story he is about to unfold. He tells him that the barren land on which his home sits was once a lovely landscape. Greed and disregard for the environment, putting profits before people and the almighty dollar before environmental sustainability created the travesty that resulted. The Lorax was the voice of reason that attempted to have the Once-ler and his family change his ways; to no avail. The Once-ler pleads with the boy to help create a fresh start and cherish the land.
Beloved cartoonist and filmmaker Walt Disney also carried racist, sexist and anti-Semitic views, per those who knew him well. Some of his illustrations that made their way into his films carried with them typecast images. Kid-classics he created reinforce stereotypes that most of us drank in without even considering their meaning. Not sure that Disney ever redeemed himself. An article entitled Fact Checking the Age-Old Rumors of Walt Disney’s Dark Side that offers accounts of his personal and professional views and behaviors, responds to these accusations.
Bill Cosby stands as an example of someone whose public image and private persona were not in harmony. As an accused sexual assailant, his credibility with those who admired his creativity and outspoken advocacy of education, was strained.
Musicians, performers, artists, writers; public figures all, have histories of violence, hatred, addiction, and relationship strife. I often contemplate how anyone can consciously choose to support the work of someone who wreaks havoc and inflicts harm on others in word or deed. Keeping in mind the adage that “hurt people hurt people,” I have rarely known anyone without historical provocation, who has lashed out intentionally. Multi-generational, culturally reinforced attitudes abound and require conscious decision to overcome.
A few years ago, I interviewed a musical icon who in his early adulthood had a sexual encounter with an adolescent groupie. I was not aware of this when we spoke. While doing research for the article, I discovered it. He had been arrested and served time. Even though he had paid for his crime and regretted his actions, and one would never imagine this of him, it was an experience that plays itself out every day, since it is considered a privilege granted celebrities where an unequal power differential exists. I consulted the publication for which I was penning the piece and we both felt it was the better part of valor to withdraw it. It would serve no purpose to reveal this blemish on an otherwise stellar career and if I did not speak of it, and a reader discovered it, it would cause potential damage to the site. As an ethical journalist, I face such dilemmas on occasion. When I listen to his music these days, I can enjoy the artistry, since he had made amends.
Is it cognitive dissonance that shapes my choices about whose work I continue to follow despite their misdeeds, or simply the idea that we each have an opportunity for do-overs? For those who have passed on, all that can be judged is the legacy they have left behind; for those whose hearts still beat, there is a chance for a change of heart.
In the (healed) spirit of Dr. Seuss:
When anger and hate pester and fester,
let’s gather together in one great big ‘nest-or’
a garden, so in this way, our hearts don’t harden.
Imagine a world where love abounds, and fear and violence don’t run us aground.