Arresting the Grinch
On December 3rd, CBS News tweeted out a video of the Grinch being arrested at a Christmas tree lighting in Hewitt, Texas. Indeed, a quick google search reveals that arresting the Grinch seems to be a holiday tradition across the United States. These events, presumably organized and staged by the cities and police departments, are no doubt intended as a playful joke.
“The Grinch, the fictional, Christmas-ruining green monster, was prevented from ruining Christmas!”
Looking at the actual content of these events, however, and the kind of culture necessary to create them, can tell us a lot about how Americans have come to see materialism, crime, policing, and justice.
If you were wandering the streets of a European city in the 13th century, you may well have come across a troupe of actors performing a morality play on a wagon-stage. In these plays, characters with allegorical names like “greed” or “generosity” would perform scenes ranging from fart jokes to biblical reenactments. Common to many of these scenes was a fairly obvious moral —some version of “don’t be evil and do be good.”
The character of greed would act greedy and be punished. The character of kindness would be kind and win.
Such stories were simple, but compelling. By using allegorical characters literally named after their primary trait, these plays would make sense to both complete newbies and fanatics — the former would know what to expect given their names, and the latter would come to anticipate the reappearance of their favorite characters.
Over time, however, playwrights began toying with these characters. Because their audience expected Greed to act, well, greedy, writers could entertain and compel by subverting that expectation. In Piers Plowman., (a hugely popular written work for the 14th century), the woman named Greed (Mede in the Middle English) argues effectively with Conscience (another character), nearly convincing her that greed is a beneficial trait before she is eventually re-villainized.
So what does this all have to do with the green Christmas monster called the Grinch?
In a way, the Grinch is a modern allegorical morality play. A green monster wants to ruin Christmas because he’s greedy, jealous, and mean. After witnessing community and kindness, however, the Grinch changes his ways and fixes the harm he caused.
At the same time, the Whos are also shown to be greedy and materialistic. After facing poverty, however, the Whos realize that their holiday is really about community, only to be rewarded with the return of their material pleasures.
The Grinch, not unlike Mede, is introduced as a villain, given a chance to challenge that characterization, and (unlike Mede) eventually overcomes it.
The moral of this story, then, is that even green monsters can be reformed and moved to undo the harms they’ve caused — if given the opportunity to learn. There are no police in Seuss’s Whoville, and those that appear in Jim Carrey’s version don’t seem equipped to imprison, much less harm, the Grinch. Rather than seeking revenge, the Whos instead refocus on their community, creating a nurturing environment that ultimately reforms the Grinch and undoes the harm he caused.
In Carrey’s movie version, this is taken a step further when it is revealed that the Grinch’s antisocial behavior is a direct result of the abuse he received for his green complexion and odd habits. That same abuse forced him into a condition of abject poverty and incredible isolation.
In either story, but the latter especially, the moral appears to be that greed, jealousy, and the crimes they inspire can be blamed on materialism and the failings of community — and can be solved by the recreation of that community.
This is precisely the opposite message that the city of Hewitt and its police chose to send by arresting the Grinch.
American prisons are hellish places. Nearly 5,000 Americans died in jail before going to trial in 2019. Thanks to Covid-19, that number is certainly higher for 2020. Prisons in the US are disease ridden, filled with rotting food, overcrowded, and worst of all, they breed violence.
Were the Grinch really arrested, he would be traumatized at best, and die in prison at worst. There is no room in our justice system for Seussian rehabilitation (in spite of evidence showing rehabilitative systems reduce crime in the long run). Were the Grinch to survive the US criminal injustice system, he would almost certainly come out of it more bitter than ever before.
Dr. Seuss and the Hewitt Police both produced morality tales — but their morality could not be more opposite. Seuss introduced an allegory for jealousy, and like his late-medieval counterparts, had that allegory break its molds to teach a lesson; HPD reduced that back to a green monster deserving of torture and existing only to be inarcerated.
Where Seuss’s Whos were able to bring the Grinch back into the folds of their society, HPD threw him out of it. Where Seuss’s Grinch taught the Whos a lesson about materialism and acceptance, HPD’s taught children that the slightest transgression should be met with force, social isolation, and even possible death.
And most of all: where Seuss imagined a world in which community itself is the antidote to crime, HPD (with the help of CBS news) insisted that a better world is not possible.