Tuned In

Lou Dobbs Vs. Kids’ Movies: Does Children’s Morality Have a Well-Known Liberal Bias?

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It’s got to be challenging right now to be a conservative pundit looking for things to scare the audience about, in the current moment of culture-war one-upmanship. I mean, once Rick Santorum has gotten to the point of warning against college education as a scheme of liberal indoctrination, where do you go from there?

For Lou Dobbs, the answer is: kids’ movies. In a commentary, since gone viral, on his Fox Business network show last week, Dobbs warns that the new movies The Lorax and The Secret World of Arriety are examples of “the President’s liberal friends in Hollywood” attempting to “indoctrinate” children by exposing them to the anti-capitalist credos of Occupy Wall Street.

(MORE: Lou Dobbs: The Lorax Is Indoctrinating American Children)

A grown man attacking the politics of kids’ movies looks ridiculous on its face, and we could just leave Dobbs’ overreaction at that, but that would be simplistic. Kids’ stories do have messages—that’s one of the reasons fairy tales exist—and they absolutely can have politics. But like Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress, I think that Dobbs’ critique looks even more absurd if you take it seriously, and actually look at the sources for the works he’s attacking.

I haven’t yet seen the movie adaption of The Lorax—having seen the previews, with the human characters added apparently to pad out the story, I dread my kids will develop an interest in going—but I’m extremely well-familiar with the source book, which Tuned In Jr. at one point heard enough times to recite mostly from memory before he could read. And it’s not unfair to call it liberal, in the very-small-l sense, which (at least in his works) Dr. Seuss more or less was. The book is not nearly as topical as, say, The Butter Battle Book, a commentary on the nuclear arms race. But it did make an argument, at a time when environmental consciousness was just rising, that we needed to take better care of the planet, and in particular that we needed to watch out for industrial pollution. (In that sense, The Lorax is maybe as “liberal” as, say, the Nixon administration was at the time.)

But the important thing that Seuss does in the book is not to simply decry business’ pollution and greed for what it does to cute creatures like the brown barbaloots and hummingfish. The real problem that deforester and Thneed-maker the Once-ler runs into is that cutting down truffula trees faster than they can grow back is also bad business. He makes money hand over fist for a while, yes, but: “No more trees… no more Thneeds.”

In other words, Seuss’ final argument against the way the Once-ler runs his business is a practical one: if you over exploit a resource, besides whatever damage you do to the environment, you eventually undercut your long-term interests. That’s not ideology so much as physical fact–akin to, say, the problem faced by the overworking of a fishery. It’s not inherently political to say: there is only so much of certain resources.

Now, what you do to avoid that problem is where politics comes in. A business like the Once-ler’s needs to look out for the long-term, even when short-term interest (say, the demands of shareholders) pressures you to make as much money as you can, now. You could argue for businesses to look out for their interests voluntarily; you could say this will never happen without regulation. But all Seuss says is that it’s a big problem, and “someone like you” needs to care about it, “a whole awful lot [or] nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Now maybe Dobbs thinks that making that admission—caring itself—can only lead to anti-business attitudes and big-government interventions. But if he thinks that, the fault is with Dobbs’ apparent lack of faith in the business sector to look out for its own, and the planet’s, long-term interests—not with The Lorax.

Dobbs’ critique of Arriety is harder to take seriously. His argument, essentially, is that the half-century-old story of the Borrowers (little people who live off the leavings of humans) encourages some kind of hippie, communal, anti-capitalist Freegan Occupy culture. Which I suppose it could, if you wanted it to. You could also see it, more rationally, as an example of frugality, which last I checked was a value conservatives have no problem with.

Really, the notion of little creatures surviving off the leavings of humans is ancient and myriad—just off the top of my head, it’s the economy of animals and little creatures in stories like Beatrix Potter’s (hilarious) The Tale of Two Bad Mice [1904] and the scrounging critters in A Cricket in Times Square [1960]. To me, it’s a popular motif because the idea of little human-like worlds within our world is fascinating, and the idea of making a self-sufficient life with humans’ leftovers is fun and empowering to kids—whose lives, after all, are all about depending on what grown-ups will give them. (At least until we can start giving them jobs as janitors in their elementary schools.)

I see it that way, but of course my job isn’t whipping up new liberal boogeymen to give my audience a scary new bedtime story every night. (I can’t wait until Brave comes out, so we can hear that it’s propaganda encouraging little girls to swear off traditional marriage.)  I would like to think that at this point the alarmism of guys like Dobbs will become so ridiculous that it will go out of style. But I doubt it. As long as people like Dobbs care a whole awful lot—about convincing their audience that young people are being brainwashed to disagree with them—nothing is going to get better. It’s not.