horton hears a migrant worker

In order to grasp the moralities and consequences of social non-existence, and incidentally to demonstrate that non-existence partially registered in American understandings of its Cold War conundrums, especially our self-envisioned role in Asia, one could do worse than a close reading of Horton Hears a Who, which was published in 1954, roughly a decade after Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel had transitioned from drawing editorial cartoons to writing politically charged children’s books.

The relevant scene takes place just after Horton the Elephant—who unlike other residents of the Jungle of Nool, had very large and sensitive ears—heard “yelps” for help coming off a speck of dust. The wind was blowing the speck and its inhabitants into Horton’s bathing pool and certain death. Even before he learns that the Who-ville is “a town that is friendly and clean”, Horton saves the invisible society because he ascribes to a morality in which “a person’s a person no matter how small”.

Alas, not so in the Jungle of Nool. As the other animals cannot hear the Whos, they determine that Horton is talking to a speck of dust. They decide that in order to cure Horton of his insanity, they must destroy said speck. Ultimately, the Whos of Who-ville band together and scream loudly enough—“We are here, we are here!”—so that even an animal with small ears and a closed mind, a kangaroo, for example, can hear them. To this end, the Mayor of Who-ville calls upon all Whos, especially those unproductive of sound—“not a yipp! Not a chirp!”—to rise to the occasion:

“This,” cried the mayor, “is your town’s darkest hour! The time for all Whos who have blood that is red to come to the aid of their country!” he said. “We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts! So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!” Thus he spoke as he climbed. When they got to the top, the lad cleared his throat and he shouted out, “Yopp!”

As everyone who has read Horton Hears a Who knows, that “yopp” saved the day because the kangaroos finally heard the Whos and realized their duty to take care of the previously invisible society.

Horton Hears a Who neatly illustrates a terrifyingly robust definition of “social non-existence”: the ignorance of those more  powerful will get you killed. At stake in “social non-existence” is not the question of whether or not a society exists as such, but the fact that its survival ultimately depends upon recognition by institutions with “a boil first ask questions later” attitude and a different zip code. “Social non-existence” refers to the general invisibility of a society—and its concomitant dependency—within a larger political formation. The Whos’ survival, for example, depended upon external recognition by the animals of Nool, rather than upon the fact that they were alive. In other words, Horton Hears a Who describes a political negotiation to secure recognition for Who-ville within the Jungle of Nool.

According to Richard Minear (1999), Dr. Seuss wrote Horton Hears a Who as an allegory about the American presence in postwar Japan. The call for recognition of Japan reversed Geisel’s previous antipathy toward the country. During World War II, Geisel’s editorial cartoons had been explicitly anti-Japanese and called for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. However, during his 1953 visit to Japan, Geisel changed his opinion about Japan and wrote Horton Hears a Who to convince Americans (and the kangaroo courts of public opinion) to take the righteous position of protecting this smaller, defenseless society.

In retrospect, as we navigate the post Cold War era and the rise of Japan as a global economic power, it seems that Dr. Seuss’ morality tale about the democratic values of respectful listening and inclusive speaking can be read otherwise; the production of “noises in greater amounts” seems as much a metaphor for the moral necessity of industrialization as it does for democratization. In many ways, Horton Hears a Who anticipated the East Asian Miracle and how American learned to “hear” or politically recognize Asian societies. Crudely speaking, the rising volume of Who screams might be understood as rising GDP.

Consider that those Whos who did not holler, including small Jojo playing (silently!) with his yo-yo were called “shirkers”. Indeed, in light of accounts of child labor throughout the world, how are we to interpret the fact that the animals of Nool only recognized Who-ville after the Whos had put their children to work screaming? Consider also that the total Who-ville effort to be heard effectively transformed the Whos from a town of families and shopkeepers and teachers and playful children into a mono-society of screamers, exposing the brutal fly in pax-Noolian ointment.

Although the Whos saved themselves from being boiled in beezle-nut oil by learning to scream, nevertheless, by being forced to become a town of screamers (in order to secure political recognition), they were no longer what they had been. More importantly, the integration of the Whos into the Jungle of Nool meant that the continued existence of Who-ville depended on the good will of Horton, the Noolian kangaroos, and the Wickersham gang of monkeys; the Whos were no longer an independent society, but rather a dependent member of Nool.

Reasons enough to keep screaming.

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