COLUMN: To those who would divide us, remember the Sneetches

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, March 13, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune

To those who would divide us, remember the Sneetches
By Aaron J. Brown

People could once disagree about politics and still share a meal without posing an existential threat to each other. Generations of resentful Midwesterners have done just this, and done it quite well.

Today’s disagreements seem to cut deeper grooves in the turf, even TV shows or natural disasters are just scoring opportunities in a political game that has no end and seldom produces a result that lasts more than six weeks. Take the weather. Even the weather starts arguments now, your position within determined by whether you watch Fox News or own a Subaru.

It is thus with a heavy heart that I bring up the word that will send you, whoever you are, into a fit of rage for or against something, or not. That word is “Wisconsin.” In saying Wisconsin, I probably inspire some variation of hot political buzzwords, lighting up your brain’s reptilian lobes like a fish finder. So I’ll start with one you don’t expect: Sneetches.

Dr. Seuss wrote a story called “The Sneetches” in which flightless bird-like creatures learn an important lesson. The star-bellied Sneetches begin the story looking down upon the plain-belly Sneetches. A fast-talking entrepreneur shows up and begins selling cosmetic star-bellies to the plain-bellies, making all Sneetches indistinguishable. At some point the snooty original star-bellies pay him to remove their stars so they can maintain a sense of superiority. Starred plain-bellies follow suit. This goes on until all the Sneetch money is gone, leaving them sprawled out on Sneetch Beach, broke and acutely aware of their folly.

This story is often applied to the concept of prejudice (you know, against it) but I always take it as more of a cautionary tale about the danger of being exploited by arbitrary differences among people. As Seuss’s “Fix-it-Man” says: “Just pay me your money and hop right aboard!”

Indeed, had the Sneetches deduced earlier what they would later conclude, that, “Sneetches are Sneetches and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches” they’d have had the resources to build just the kind of large, comical machine that the charlatan uses to apply stars while extracting all their money. And, see, that’s a better story, if you’re a Sneetch.

The issue in Wisconsin over whether public workers should be stripped of collective bargaining rights, pay and benefits has many layers. We should talk about it since the fight will affect Minnesota, too. There is a valid argument at the heart of the matter, but we’ve yet to scrape it. So let’s consider the emotions that guide our combatants, seeing we live in the Pathos Age.

First, there’s the changing American economy, the decline of manufacturing, job losses here on the Iron Range and across the Rust Belt. Private sector workers have seen their benefits and pensions stripped, their pay reduced relative to the cost of living. In the old days they could count on making more than public sector workers, who traditionally accepted lower pay in exchange for job security and a solid pension. Now, they feel public sector workers are doing slightly better than many private blue collars (sometimes true), while unemployment remains high. 

Then there is the changing nature of public workers. For instance, teachers now require lifelong education, they’re as much social workers as they are educators. They emerge from 4-6 years of college with more debt and no hope of job security for a decade. Challenges also confront other public sector workers. The argument for cutting their pay seems more related to how bad it is for others.

None of this is fair. This is a no-holds-barred slugfest to the bottom of the economic ladder, a race between private and public workers for who can be the most miserable. It seems as though some “fix it” man somewhere is exploiting the natural fears of Americans, each trying to provide for their families and future. The question shouldn’t be what we should do to push public workers and their families out of the middle class? The question should be what should we do to fix the unemployment and declining wages of all American workers?

With that, a-hem:

What a day it would be if we wondered aloud, how the economic crisis was fueled by that Wall Street crowd. Why is it that the bosses make more, even as Ma and Pop lose the corner store? Teachers and miners do different work, but both are important, don’t be a jerk.

Yes, what a day. “That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.”

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. So are the good Sneetches the ones who favor the status quo with public employees unions or are those the bad Sneetches?

  2. I believe the metaphor has its limits, if I didn’t already exceed them.

  3. I think it is because the Sneetch metaphor is inaccurate. There are very real differences and they aren’t manufactured by third parties for profit. It would be ever so much easier if there weren’t such real differences.

    For all the talk about Tea Party rhetoric it is in Madison that we saw silhouettes of Gov Walker marked on sidewalks, threats of decapitation to the Sen Majority Leader, real violence in breaking into the state capital building (both in damage to the building and in overwhelming the state troopers on guard) and in assaulting the bus carrying the Republican legislators. Those aren’t people with whom I have policy differences. Those are people who don’t understand what “democracy looks like”.

    With someone who doesn’t support the mob but thinks Walker is mistaken in his policy approach I can have a discussion. With those folk I don’t have much to talk about.

  4. I guess I’m not familiar with the examples you’ve given. I wouldn’t want to negotiate with such people either.

    I don’t know how helpful it is to dredge up the similar things done at tea party rallies. Rather, I would suppose two things. 1) Both major parties have their fringe elements, which should be rejected and/or controlled by their mainstream elements (this used to happen, now almost never does). 2) The tea party proposes to replace the status quo with a more libertarian, fairly radical new plan. I don’t necessarily mean radical as a pejorative, I mean that the theories have not been tested in the modern age. The Madison protesters are protecting what they see as a vital part of the status quo, worker “rights” loosely and public sector pay and benefits specifically. There is a difference there.

    I didn’t have room to go to the next level on the discussion about public sector vs. private sector unions. They are different in some ways, but I don’t believe the way workers are treated should be different. We could probably have a great chat about that.

    What I am upset about is the part of the argument where teacher or public workers’ pay is waived in front of the unemployed, underemployed or otherwise squeezed private sector worker as some red meat to be annihilated. The American economy is based on This is how I’ve taken some of the coverage/rhetoric, and is the origin of this piece.

  5. I think my initial point was what happened in Madison went well beyond what happened with the tea parties. And it is joined at the hip with the public employees unions.

    It is interesting to see a couple of things in how you characterize the tea partiers. First that they are libertarian. I think some of them certainly are but in generally the tea party stuck to what would be common ground between conservatives and libertarians and does not generally deal with libertarian distinctives. Predominantly limiting taxation and restoring a relationship between expenditures and resources.

    Second item is that these ideas are new. They are actually the traditional American understanding of such matters. The sort of deficits we face are approaching entirely new territory in the American experience. Neither party would have tolerated them going back a few decades or even less. And the entitlements are a relative novelty in the American experience and the scale that they are reaching as a percent of budget is truly well beyond precedent.

    Your last paragraph here is interesting. My father was a teacher, so were my uncle and aunt, my wife taught elementary school in the inner city prior to our marriage and I’ve held a MN teacher’s license for many years so I’m not entirely unacquainted with the lay of the land. During my latter years in the military I also supervised federal civil servants and had to be familiar with how federal civil service works.

    Ideally you are right, it would be great not to pit public sector benefits against those with less. It is also true though that the wages and benefits of the public sector worker have to be placed in the context of what the wages and benefits are of the bulk of the private citizenry. So the issue does have merit and requires discussion.

    Additionally when the public employees unions decide to conduct the level of public discourse at the level they have in Wisconsin then it is unrealistic to expect their opponents not to use the disproportionate wages and benefits provided to public employees as a wedge issue. Once you’ve vilified your opponents as Nazis, child-haters, dung and in two instances teachers who have taught Gov Walker’s children used them publicly in banners to attack Governor Walker. At that point an entirely civil discourse gets tough.

    And I would like to say one reason I read you regularly is you don’t do those sorts of things and there is a civil discourse here. But if the unions want that with the Governor and Legislature in Wisconsin they’d better remember the rules apply to both sides.

  6. There is always 2 sides to every issue. My problem with politics is neither side will look honestly at the others point of view. Although I disagree with Aaron on important issues, I used to share his liberal ideology, I thank him for his blog. When we talk about Wisconsin I resent the Left saying it’s all about Walker taking away the unions “rights”, those “rights” were legislated in by past law makers and now are being legislated out by current law makers. If the good folks of the Badger state don’t like it, vote in new law makers next election. Collected bargaining is a statute not a “right”. As far as the economic crisis, I agree Wall Street greed was a factor but no more than sub-prime loans. The fact that Democrats Frank and Dodd, with the help of congress, pressured banks to give out loans to under privilege folks who didn’t qualify and put 1% or nothing down. Was anyone surprised that people walked away from millions of homes because they didn’t qualify and had no money of their own in the game? Plenty of blame to go around…. If I go to the bank, get a loan, build a business, while taking all the risks, don’t I deserve to make money? If that business fails it’s totally on me to pay back that loan I took out to get started, I’m the owner “boss”. It’s an individuals decision to be a miner, teacher or entrepreneur all 3 jobs come with some advantages and disadvantages, but the public owes you nothing in all 3 jobs. We have equal opportunity guaranteed by our constitution, there is nothing about guaranteed results.

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  8. The difference between private workers and public workers is how their jobs originate. Quite often public jobs are spelled out in state laws and the state constitution, while private jobs are at the will of the market. No job necessarily provides more or less importance to the general population. Booth are important for the economy to move forward, and both need to share some pain.

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