I repost it in full, only because you need to read all of it to understand the point I'm making (and, given my own experience with reading assignments in High School, I don't trust you folks to actually do it yourselves!):
Dr. Seuss' story of the Lorax is an environmental classic (as is the television version that I've just seen). The conventional interpretation is that it's a tale of market-driven environmental ruin. The greedy Once-ler ignores the Lorax's warnings of environmental ruin as he turns truffula trees into thneeds (for a thneed, after all, is a thing that everyone needs!). As the truffula trees disappear the animals run off in fear, smog fills up the air yet the Once-ler doesn't care. Eventually the Once-ler cuts the last truffula down, and his entire corporate empire folds up and leaves town.
Environmentalists love to present this as a parable of modern industry's exploitation of the natural world. The relentless pursuit of profit leads to environmental -- and economic -- ruin. When the last truffula falls, so does the natural base for the Once-ler's wealth. And unless humans learn to care for the natural environment, and control industrial development, we will produce ecological devastation. But is this the best interpretation?
Paul Feine of the Institute for Humane Studies suggests the Lorax is subject to alternative interpretations. Viewing the tale of the Lorax through an institutional lens, ruin is not the result of corporate greed, but a lack of institutions. The truffula trees grow in an unowned commons. (The Lorax may speak for the trees, but he does not own them.) The Once-ler has no incentive to conserve the truffula trees for, as he notes to himself, if he doesn't cut them down someone else will. He's responding to the incentives created by a lack of property rights in the trees, and the inevitable tragedy results. Had the Once-ler owned the trees, his incentives would have been quite different -- and he would likely have acted accordingly -- even if he remained dismissive of the Lorax's environmental concerns.
The story ends with the Once-ler giving a young boy the last truffula seed. He tells him to plant it and treat it with care, and then maybe the Lorax will come back from there. The traditional interpretation is simply that we must all care more for the environment. If we only control corporate greed we can prevent environmental ruin. But perhaps it means something else. Perhaps the lesson is that this boy should plant his truffula trees, and act as their steward. Perhaps giving the boy the last seed is an act of transferring the truffula from the open-access commons to private stewardship. Indeed, the final image -- the ring of stones labeled with the word "unless" -- could well suggest that enclosure, and the creation of property rights to protect natural resources, is necessary for the Lorax to ever return.
Now I am not suggesting for a moment that this is the interpretation Dr. Seuss intended. Yet the Lorax, like any text, is open to multiple interpretations -- and this institutional interpretation is certainly compatible with the text. As is, perhaps, another interpretation in which the Lorax is himself an owner whose property rights are ignored by an unaccountable corporation. Either way, the Lorax is easily seen a story about property rights -- or the lack thereof -- and the inevitable environmental consequences of poor institutions. Something to think about the next time you hear the Lorax mentioned in an environmental policy debate.
So--let's break this down to the roots. A story that has a dominant, superficial message (corporate greed leads to environmental destruction), and, as the critic admits, probably was intended to forward precisely that message, still contains within in it traces of other meanings which subvert and undermine the primary interpretation and the accompanying ideology.
If this sounds familiar, that's because this is precisely how post-modern literary critics make their living. Yet here, we have a conservative blogger using the same method to make a conservative argument (replacing a traditional liberal environmentalist model with a conservative one emphasizing property rights).
I've registered my own support for this type of method before--but that shouldn't be surprising, since I'm a liberal. What is interesting is seeing how conservatives have adapted this style in their own arguments, probably without realizing its roots. Another example is conservative blogger Steve Bainbridge defending under "Just War" theories the destruction of Alderaan (that's right, we're talking Star Wars. For another "neo-imperialist" argument by a prominent conservative, see here in The Weekly Standard). In another post, which unfortunately points to a broken link, Bainbridge notes that just because they wear black, doesn't make them evil. The point is that the imagery of Star Wars is clearly designed to point the viewer to certain conclusions (sometimes overtly--who names their own ships and installations "Death Star," "Executor," "Tyrant," etc.?), but look underneath the surface and the meaning isn't inevitable (despite the clear intention of the author). This parallels almost exactly the indeterminacy theories forwarded by much of the academic left.
What's funny is that conservatives claim to loathe these theories (see, for just one example, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL)). Indeed, Bainbridge himself has called it "bogus." Yet, here he is, engaging in precisely the critical endeavor he claims to abhor. What gives?
Other parts of the critical movement are rapidly making themselves known in conservative circles as well. Storytelling scholarship, despite often coming under criticism, is used by virtually all members of the political spectrum (as Richard Delgado puts it: "who has not run into the conservative or anti-PC detractor who begins by recounting: 'I know a story . . . .' and then tells of a mythical professor who was so hounded by PC fanatics that he hung up his coffee cup and retired" [Richard Delgado, Rodrigo's Book of Manners: How to Conduct a Conversation on Race -- Standing, Imperial Scholarship, and Beyond (Reviewing "BEYOND ALL REASON: THE RADICAL ASSAULT ON TRUTH IN AMERICAN LAW" by Daniel A. Farber and Suzanna Sherry), 86 GEO. L.J. 1051, 1072 (1998)]). In an article published in a campus political journal, I noted how conservative arguments for ideological diversity on campus mirror almost exactly liberal arguments for racial diversity--and how the responses of both "embattled minorities" is very similar: Both political minorities and racial minorities tend to separate themselves out from the rest of campus, form groups specifically designed to advocate and protect their interests as well as offering a safe space for members to congregate, and advocate vociferously to defend encroachments on their dignity while at the same time trying to avoid the backlash that is concurrent with being seen as a "pushy minority." Indeed, conservatives seem awfully comfortable with critical theory--aside from the fact that they hate it.
Although part of me does rebel about such a lovely story as The Lorax being co-opted to the conservative cause, I am far more pleased to see a philosophy I find important and compelling being adopted across ideological divides. Indeed, while I expect to hear protests and assaults on post-modernism for years to come, judging by what conservatives are saying, the Crits have already won.