Monday, April 03, 2006

A Sneetch is a Sneetch

In The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss creates a society with a two-tiered caste system. Star-bellied sneetches are socially dominant and plain-bellied sneetches are oppressed. Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean. McBean has a machine that will put a star on a plain-belly, making it indistinguihsable from the biologically star-bellied. Thus, for $3 each, the plain-bellies are offered social advancement.

The genetically-endowed star-bellies are horrified at having lost their class indicator, but assert that the distinction still exists; they are still, they claim, the best sneetches on beaches. McBean then shows him his abilities to remove belly-stars thus re-establishing an easily observable distinction between upper and lower class. For $10, the star-bellies can once again be different from the common sneetch of the beach.

This starts, of course, "star wars" -- "in again, out again, round and about again," sneetch fashion changes with the moment. The sneetches spend all of their money trying to make sure that they are in the in-crowd. Once their money is all spent, McBean laughs all the way to the bank.

Now, there is no doubt that the system that oppressed plain-bellied sneetches was morally problematic and the star-bellies who perpetuated it were acting wrongly. But what about McBean? Does profiting from an immoral system make you complicit? If demand for your product or service is based on exclusion that you didn't create, is there anything wrong with providing that good or service? Was McBean liberator or manipulator? And if you happen to liberate while manipulating, does that excuse the manipulation?