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The Sneetches and Other Stories

The Sneetches and Other Stories - Dr. Seuss This book made me think of different things, when I re-read it at different times in my life. The text was the same, but its meaning shifted, like light distorted through the prism of new experiences. RacismLet's start with the obvious. On its simplest level, this is a parable about racism. The Sneetches are bird-like creatures whose society is stratified, with class divisions between those with stars on their bellies and those without. An opportunist- Sylvester McMonkey McBean (SMM)- fleeces the Sneetches by offering procedures to either add or remove stars from their bellies. In the end, he splits town, leaving the bewildered and penniless Sneetches blinking dumbly at one another, in various states of confused belly adornment. I think it is easy for kids to see that the presence or not of a star has little to say about a Sneetch’s inner worth. With luck (and perhaps some parental assistance) kids should be able to synthesize the conclusion that skin color and other bodily features are not an indicator of a person’s character or value. Nice. A good lesson, well-learned.Second ReadingBut then… the presence of a star or not is not quite the same as ethnicity. In the beginning, some Sneetches had natural stars and some did not. A racism existed among them, which they only "resolved" because the hallmark of race- the star- became too fluid and commodified to represent a genetic heritage. The Sneetches didn't really "solve" racism. It's more like they lost their grip on it. The pat ending seems a bit suspect. Did they really recognize the error of their ways? I don't know.Tattoos and Body ModificationThe ease with which stars were applied or removed also calls into question whether Suess was ever really talking about race. I kind of think he was, but maybe it was just more generally about appearances. That is a very different conversation. Sylvester McBean's devices allowed every Sneetch to determine for himself whether he bore a star on his belly or not. In this sense, stars were like tattoos... kind of a ventral tramp stamp of the Suess universe. If we're talking about tattoos, does the lesson still apply that physical appearances don’t reflect one’s innermost value? That’s a nice sentiment, and my first inclination is to say they don't… but it gets a little dicey. How one chooses to decorate himself can be a powerful statement about his character or judgment. This new context completely changes the story's end. Now it’s a cautionary tale about vanity. The Sneetches bankrupted themselves on a fashion fad. The story turned from deconstructing prejudices based on race to somewhat supporting the idea that poor choices about personal cosmetics/body adornment reflect poor insight or judgment. Which, surprisingly, leads me to...Homosexuality is Not a Choice (or, "my first crush")Whoa! How did we get here? These are very controversial waters, but having raised the subjects of prejudice and choice, I think I almost have to address homosexuality. It's an age-old prejudice with a twist, because some people think it's a choice (to be gay). That treats homosexuality the same as a tattoo, which I don't think it is. I think it's more akin to race- something inherent which cannot be altered. I'm not gay, but I don't need to be to believe that sexual preferences and attractions are hardwired into our brain from a very young age... long before one gets around to learning about sex, relationships or the rest. How do I know? 1) First-hand testimony: I have a friend who says he knew he was gay from grade school. So I did a Google search with the phrase "knew I was gay from a young age". There are a ton of blogs out there to that effect. It appears to be a very common sentiment- not all-pervasive (look at Meridith Baxter Birney) but common enough to bear consideration. People know. In fact, it would be weird to think somebody didn't know who they were attracted to, and had to sit down and "decide" they would be attracted to "A" but not "B". That wouldn't even really be "attraction" in my book- something different.2) Personal experience: I knew I liked girls before I actually knew whatall was involved with sex. The attraction didn't have anything to do with the mechanics of intercourse; I wanted to be around the girls I thought were pretty. I know I never made a decision to be heterosexual; it just happened. I was debating whether to share this story, but what the hell: my first big crush (if you can call it that in kindergarten) was a girl named Emily, who -among other things- was ethnic Chinese. She was like the pinnacle of beauty in my kindergarten mind. Also, she was nice to me. That always helps, although I've made exceptions in my past on that count (to my detriment). My young affections must have been obvious and memorable, because twenty-five years later, on meeting my Japanese fiancé, my mom told her "Oh, I always knew Brian would marry an [Asian*] girl, ever since Emily." (* actually Mom said "Oriental", because she's oldschool and doesn't know it's faux pas**)Urngh... "thanks", Mom.(** actually, my wife didn't know it is faux pas, so no harm done, I suppose) Well, who knows what Mom really knew. I married my wife for the totality of her person... but it is fair to say that before I knew her, I was inclined to go talk to her because I found her attractive. There are probably 150 wrong ways you can take that story, but my only point is that these patterns of attraction are established at a very young age. Some patterns are easier to spot than others, but we all have them. So there you have it; the heart wants what the heart wants. Laboratory MedicineIf you aren't interested in clinical chemistry or laboratory medicine, you might want to skip this part. Clinical chemistry is the science of measuring different substances in body fluids: blood sugar, hormone levels, the concentration of various substances in urine, etc. In modern laboratories, those tests are all automated, but different machines use different methodologies, which each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The chemists who develop those machines have devised brilliant strategies to link concentrations of various ions to electrical, colormetric, or other easily-measured signals. What does this have to do with the Sneetches? (I can hear you saying that through the monitor) In the Sneetch story, the Sneetches wanted to rely on the appearance of a star as a signal for quality of character. It's all about measuring one thing, and trying to extrapolate conclusions about some completely different thing. We do it all the time in laboratory medicine, and there are strategies to help determine how reliable those sort of tests are. Taken as a parable about racism, the Sneetch story warns that physical appearances are a poor indicator of character, because they lack SENSITIVITY (i.e. some truly good people may not have "the right look"). Taken as a story more about body adornment, the story warns that physical appearances are a poor indicator of character, because they lack SPECIFICITY (i.e. all of the Sneetches acted stupidly, but only some of them had the star). If you really want to get into more detail about this, click on the spoiler, but I realize this may not be everybody's cup of tea, so I'll spare the rest of you from a long boring monologue about predictive values of lab tests.==================================ELABORATION ON SPECIFICITY, SENSITIVITY, POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE PREDICTIVE VALUES OF TESTSUgh… this is a little bit off track, but I should explain:So whenever you have a test, you are relying on some signal to tell you about reality. Unfortunately, no test is perfect, and when you start discussing imperfect tests, you need to recognize that what the test says may not necessarily represent reality. So if we use a test to look for the presence of “X”, there are four possible outcomes:1) the test is POSITIVE, and “X” REALLY IS PRESENT. This is called a TRUE POSITIVE (TP)2) the test is NEGATIVE, and “X” REALLY IS NOT PRESENT. This is called a TRUE NEGATIVE (TN)3) the test is POSITIVE, but “X” REALLY IS NOT PRESENT. This is called a FALSE POSITIVE (FP)4) the test is NEGATIVE, but “X”REALLY IS PRESENT. This is called a FALSE NEGATIVE (FN)Let's pick up the Sneetch example now. The whole prejudice theme is based on the idea that somebody can be very good, even if they look a way that (misguided) society teaches is "bad". So that means that you're missing what you're looking for. You're looking for good character, and your test is "good" appearance.Going back to our terms:1) TRUE POSITIVE= person has a "good look" and a good character2) TRUE NEGATIVE= person has a "bad look" and a bad character3) FALSE POSITIVE= person has a "good look" but a bad character4) FALSE NEGATIVE= person has a "bad look" but a good characterSo bear with me... I want to discuss four ways of assessing a test.The terms SENSITIVITY and SPECIFICITY, POSITIVE PREDICTIVE VALUE, and NEGATIVE PREDICTIVE VALUE are rigidly defined mathematical definitions calculated from the above. They describe how likely a given test is to represent reality.In plain language, SENSITIVITY tells you if something is truly positive, how likely you test will be to detect it. For our example, it tells you that if somebody has a good character, how likely they are to have a "good" look. That's the point of the first interpretation of the Sneetch story: you shouldn't treat people poorly based on their looks, because they might actually be good people, even if they don't have the "right" look to you.In plain language, SPECIFICITY tells you if something is truly negative, how likely it is the test will be negative. For our example, it tells you what percentage of bad characters really have a "bad" look. That's what the second interpretation is getting at: all of the Sneetches acted stupidly, but some of them still had a "good" look.In plain language, POSITIVE PREDICTIVE VALUE tells you how likely a positive test is to really be a true positive. For our example, it tells you what percentage of characters with a "good" look are actually good people.In plain language, NEGATIVE PREDICTIVE VALUE tells you how likely a negative test is to really be a true negative. For our example, it tells you what percentage characters with a "bad" look are actually bad people.==================================That's important, because even though they are two sides of the same very thin coin, the first interpretation stresses the good in people, and the second interpretation is much more weary of human nature, and preoccupied with detecting the bad. And it gets even more twisted...This story has a character who has gone unexamined so far: Sylvester McMonkey McBean. What's up with that name, anyhow? It's pretty common knowledge that the "Mc-" prefix is associated with Scottish surnames. And it may not be as commonly known as it used to be, but an older stereotype of the Scots is that they're cheapskates. Sylvester McMonkey McBean's mercenary entrepreneurialism seems to play into that image. Could it be that Seuss's little morality play about the evils of racism is actually propagating a negative stereotype? My first response to that would be "Lighten up". It's a fairly harmless cliché, more of a joke than anything, and I don't perceive that the Scots have been aggrieved in the same way that true victims of racism have (e.g. African Americans or Native Americans). ...But that idea is a bit murky around the edges, because I sympathize with Native Americans who dislike the portrayal of Indians on sports logos, even though I suspect they are mostly intended harmlessly, or even as a misguided form of homage: (Cleveland Indians baseball)My threshold for sympathy is lower for Indians than for Scots, because I'm more attuned to the injustices Native Americans have suffered these past 400 years than prejudices targeted against Scots [Edit: but I have since been informed there have also been against Scots] But I'm not sure my thresholds should be any different for these two groups, because basing my idea of what is racist on past injustices strips my idealism of any protective function... as if I'm not willing to accept that a group deserves protection from racism until they've already been afflicted... and that doesn't sit right with me either. This is something with no easy answers (except the cheapskate Scots; that's easy) that we're all going to have to work through together. Greed is Good?Besides his implied Scottish heritage, the other striking thing about Sylvester McMonkey McBean is that he's the only primate in the Sneetch story. Check it out: he's even got "Monkey" in his name! He's human, and his contribution to the story is that very human invention: commerce. He fans the flame of the Sneetches' pre-existing racism to his own benefit. In the end, the Sneetches learn the error of their ways. Is this the voice of Gordon Gekko speaking? "Greed is Good"? The amoral market eradicated racism by bringing all Sneetches to the same level (abject poverty)? That seems like an interpretation that the Alex P. Keatons of the world would revel in, but it rings hollow. Sylvester McMonkey McBean couldn't give a damn if the Sneetches rid themselves of racism or not. In fact, he'd probably be happier if they didn't- then he could return with his machines once they managed to rebuild their savings. He's a symbol for Madison Avenue- turning a profit from the exploitation of insecurities about one's physical appearance. I'm sure he would defend that he's only giving consumers what they want, but their wants are manufactured by him, and when they consume his product, they aren't really any happier. To clarify, racism was extant before commerce; commerce was not the cause of it, but it should also not be credited as the solution in this book. I don't think Suess intended it to be; an anticonsumerist feeling permeates the book, and that's probably a good thing for kids to hear. So, to wrap up: I think this is a wonderful book for children and adults. It addresses a lot of hard issues in an endearing, simplistic way. It should probably be on everybody's bookshelf.