A friend told me a few months ago that she won't let her son read Thomas the Tank Engine stories -- or watch the TV series -- because of the anti-semitism contained within them.
That caught my attention.
I had been watching Thomas and Friends on TV for over a year (maybe once every two weeks or so) with George first, and now Cole too. I had found the episodes mildly entertaining. They mostly functioned as an opportunity for me to get up and do the dishes while the boys stayed on the couch.
Sure, I had noticed that irritating catch-phrase, "You are a really useful engine!"
And come to think of it, certain values -- industriousness, respect for authority, devotion to duty -- seemed to underlie the stories.
And, well, now that you mention it, Sir Topham Hatt, the bald, black-top-hat-wearing Chairman of the Railway, has a kind of obsessive, ruddy-faced concern for the status quo...
But what of it?
For a few months I scoffed at the idea that the series is "anti-semitic." My friend's comment seemed in line with the regrettable tendency for political pundits, when cornered, to compare their adversaries to Hitler. But her comment continued to nag at me.
So I started thinking about the show in its particulars.
Written by an Anglican minister, the Reverand W. V. Awdry, beginning in 1943, for his son Christopher, these stories have a modest, typically English concern for the trivial concerns of everyday life. (Orwell wrote marvelously about how the English character, molded by the familiar details of small town life, resists the dangerous lure of abstraction, in his essay, England Your England.)
But everyday life in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine comes with a difference. It is hyperclean, without regrets, unreal. Watching the episodes of the TV series "Thomas and Friends" you will notice immediately a kind of utopian dream in the clouds and greenery that introduce the Island of Sodor. We enter an idealized place, where everything can and will be resolved within the span of a single episode.
Bridges may need repairing, helicopters may threaten the trains' self-image, Cranky the Crane may dump a crate of fish on a newly-washed train (usually James). But everything is manageable. It's all good for a laugh.
There's certainly something clean-as-a-whistle and safely conformist about this island and its inhabitants.
Then too: the lines of authority on Sodor are unmistakable. Sir Topham Hatt's word is supreme. The trains are encouraged to run on time, avoid risks, help others, and most of all, obey.
Vanity proves wasteful. Paranoia proves unfounded (rest assured, that red hot-air balloon will not take business from the trains after all; it will merely provide another attraction on the island!).
Kafka would have a lot to say here. The Kafka of Sodor would grapple with all those sticky, ugly little concerns which are otherwise pushed under the oncoming trains. But Sodor has no Kafka. It has no subversive current running through it at all.
You start to realize that if only these primary-colored engines (Thomas, Percy, James... the whole gang) could just repress any vestige of unique personality, they would show themselves to be, at last, once and for all, "really useful engines."
On the surface all of this is harmless. And I don't worry about any damage I may have inflicted on George and Cole's psyches.
But it got me thinking: "Wouldn't it be great if just once a rainbow-colored, feather-bedecked engine came whistling down the track?" "Wouldn't it be great if this engine didn't have to justify itself by proving its usefulness?"
Which brings me back to the anti-semitic charge my friend made.
No, I'm not saying that Jewish people have a proclivity towards rainbows and feathers (though a visit to the open-air stalls on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley on any given Saturday may suggest this surprising connection). But let's revist the arguments in 1930s Germany directed against the Jewish population of Europe.
Anti-semitism has always used the language of "usefulness." Relegated to minority status, and in most cases restricted from owning property, Jews throughout Europe developed roles outside of the traditional agrarian ones. They charged interest (gasp!) for money-lending, and their religion's reliance on the word of the Talmud led many Jews to find work in journalism, academic pursuits, literature and the arts.
Degenerative Art. "The Non-productive few." Pseudo-scientific concerns about hygiene (in the amazing documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah, the Nazis who are interviewed reveal their disgust for the dirt and disease of those in the ghettos -- which they mistake for a cause, instead of an effect, of their actions). It would all seem perfectly natural in the world of Sir Topham Hatt.
I don't mean to say that Sir Topham Hatt is a closet Nazi. I don't mean even to say that the Thomas the Tank Engine series is overtly anti-semitic. Or that W. V. Awdry was a Nazi sympathizer while writing children's stories for his son during the aerial bombardment of his country by the Nazis.
But the parallels are there. The conformist outlook in the series does match that of regimes (throughout history) which favor social control and work to restrict, or even criminalize, individualism.
What kind of values do I want my children to internalize? I would prefer individualism, thank you.
In the end, we kept our Thomas books around. I still read them to the boys some nights. But my dishwashing innocence is gone. I am now more aware of the need to balance out the conventional values of the Thomas books with the downright weirdness of my bedtime stories.
Less trains meeting their schedules.
More pirate ships which sprout orange trees from the mast...
only to be eaten in one gulp by a giant squid...
which then spits the orange seeds out, along with the rum-drunk pirates...
until they land, in a heap, orange seeds, eye-patches and all, on the shore... making an orange-flavored pirate rum cake.
Something like that anyway.
Let weirdness prevail in all of your bedtime stories.
For a taste of Thomas the Tank Engine (fittingly, an episode called "Escape"), see below.
For a taste of the subversive current running through England ("God Save the Queen / the Fascist Regime / That made you a Moron / Potential H-Bomb..." etc.), see here.