Sometime shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen-name, Dr. Seuss, made some extremely disparaging remarks about the Japanese people. The normally open-minded and liberal Geisel made no differentiation between the Japanese people responsible for the attack and the entire Japanese race. His position was that if America wanted to win the war then they had to kill the Japanese (actually, he used a racial slur for Japanese people that I won’t use here).
Geisel, like many Americans, was relying on emotion rather than reason surrounding this tumultuous time in world history. His emotions drove him to develop a passionate rhetoric of hatred and violence toward the Japanese.
He deplored racism toward Jewish people and African Americans in the U.S., however his animosity toward the Japanese never waned throughout the war. He used his cartooning skills to contribute to the American propaganda machine. Along with cartoons lampooning Hitler and Mussolini, he also depicted ALL Japanese as fascists and traitors.
Then, something happened after the war. Geisel traveled to Japan. During that trip, he went to schools all over Japan asking children to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. The trip made a deep impression on him. His animosity toward Japanese people disappeared. His opinion of the Japanese people literally made a 180-degree turn. He suddenly saw all people as people. It was while falling in love with the Japanese people and examining his own prejudice that he wrote the words that would eventually be said by his now legendary elephant, Horton – “A person’s a person, no matter how small”.
In fact, the entire book, Horton Hears A Who, is not simply a whimsical children’s book. It’s a moral compass. Horton Hears a Who is an allegory for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the American post-war occupation of Japan. Author Thomas Fensch describes the moral message of Horton as “universal, multi-national, multi-ethnic. In a word: Equality.”
Over the last 60 years, Horton has implored us to be accepting of all of God’s people. Horton possesses a Zen-like wisdom and a deep sense of empathy that sustains him as he alone fights for what is right. The fact that it was preceded by a call to hatred and violence from the exact same author is quite remarkable. Dr. Seuss is legendary for countless reasons but not the least of which is his willingness to dig deep into his own heart and turn something that was ugly and ungodly into something that is beautiful and sustaining.
A violent reaction to injustices, whether real or perceived, seems to be part of the human condition. We can all be pushed toward an attitude of hatred and violence. The question is, what do we do then?
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David Dreisbach serves as Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.