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Reader Eric K. writes:

Dear Hunter. I am a real person and not at all imaginary, but I live in Canada so you probably wouldn't know me. Anyway, I was wondering about the sociopolitical messages of common children's songs. Could you discuss, perhaps using "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" as example?

This is quite the coincidence, Eric, as I had been pondering on this myself today, and even had turned my attention to that specific song. As you know, old nursery rhymes and songs often had their roots in surprisingly dark places; most people now recognize Ring Around the Rosie as a grim reminder of plague and death, and London Bridge Is Falling Down is an obvious reference to the sudden financial collapse of the London Bridge trading company, an event that continued to scar many financially savvy English children even decades afterwards. While not as famous as these examples, the rhyme you named is indeed rife with larger social and fiscal messages. Let us examine the text (ignoring regional variations, etc., as they are outside the scope of this analysis):

The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun and dried up all the rain
And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.
Short and to the point, this common children's fable makes little attempt to disguise its dark message. It is foremost a tale of the futility of work and of struggle; no matter how many times the spider attempts to better its position, larger forces conspire to defeat the arachnid and return it to its original, lower state. The spider never reaches the top of the spout; there is never a moment of accomplishment, or even a moment of rest; from within the dark tunnel of the spout, the spider eternally sees the sunshine that marks the end of its journey, but will never make it there, not even once. It matters not whether there is one repetition of the verses, or ten, or a hundred years' worth; the fate is absolute. The child is invited to imagine himself or herself as the spider—an exceptionally small and insignificant creature even among spiders, the text suggests, as the spider is not anonymous but is instead given the title of itsy-bitsy spider, and twice within four short lines, as if to emphasize its barely perceptible status even among the ranks of other spiders. Its declared small mass identifies it as among the lowest caste of spiders, a spider that even other spiders are prone to dismissing.

During this opening phrase, the children are taught a simple pantomime motion representing the spider's purported climb, a jacob's ladder-ish movement involving only two fingers on each hand, or four fingers total. The spider, presumably, has eight strong legs with which to climb, but at best only four are in use. What has happened to the other four? A literate analysis would suggest that there are four forces "enabling" the spider's climb; we might apportion them as follows:

1. Internal: Perseverance; dedication to work; self-betterment.
2. Educational: knowledge giving the spider strength and proper training for the climb.
3. Social, or External: A supportive family and community.
4. Governmental: Electoral representation, allowing incremental gains via marginally wider, though never seemingly universal, spider rights.

Each of these represents, in the repeating four-fingered pantomime, both a stable base of support for the spider's next small advancement and, alternately, the next rung to be climbed towards. What, though, are the other, missing four appendages? In the pantomime, fully half of the spider's limbs have been rendered useless, no longer able to assist at all in the spider's movement. The poem does not specify which of these rights, opportunities or other social constructs have been taken from the spider, or whether their current paralysis was the result of violent action or through more subtle means, say, due to insufficient safeguards in what can be presumed to be an unnatural and possibly chemical-infused workplace, but nonetheless the spider undertakes its already-doomed climb badly hindered, and with only half its strength.

In the second line, however, the spider is quickly denied its financial or social advancement by, according to the poem, nothing less than the arrayed forces of nature itself. Regardless of arachnid determination, the spider's attempts to better its social status are not merely rebuffed, but met with an opposing deluge of such ferocity that it not only impedes the spider's progress, but washes it from the spout of fiscal advancement entirely, returning it to its original caste position with speed and with violence. One can imagine the terror of the spider, which if it is itsy bitsy can be presumed to be smaller even than one individual raindrop, as it clings to the interior of the spout, looking up eagerly towards the bright light of economic stability, only to see unimaginably large forces gather at the top of the spout, pause ever so briefly, as if examining the creature and its plight, and then plunge down the pipe with all possible force in order to block the spider from its climb and punish it aggressively for even daring the climb at all. The sense of ennui or worse in these lines, of silent despair against insurmountable forces—the chanting child is faced with it all in an instant, and as if nothing out of sorts has happened at all. The matching pantomime for the line consists of a cold mimicry of the innumerable raindrops as they fling themselves at the doomed, foolish lower class, and in the motion all fingers are used, not merely a few, representing the vastly greater strength of the upper castes in their attempts to block our lowly garden-tender from reaching any higher, more industrially advanced position.

The last two lines of the song may, however, be the saddest of all. Only when the spider has lost all progress does the rain stop, and not a moment before; only when the spider has been returned to his original, lowest position does the sun deign remove the impediments that have so cruelly blocked and brutalized it. Only then is the sociopolitical state returned to an equilibrium, encouraging the spider, which always remains at least alive after the deluge, to begin its long, futile journey once again. The top, however, will never be reached. The climb is eternal, as is the failure. The spider will never reach the bright light at the end of its lifelong tunnel; never will it taste the free, warm air, except as filtered through the long, dark pipe that defines its struggle. Whether it be economic conditions and the abuses of the upper classes, as is represented by the rain, or the fleeting and inconsistent governmental protections against those abuses, represented by the ever-too-late sun, the spider will never improve its lot even an inch, save as temporary perch.

A careful reader might rebut the dark message and substitute a marginally less malevolent, more plutocratic one. Why is our spider climbing a water spout in the first place? The spout is not the natural habitat for a spider; it belongs instead in trees, or in shrubberies, or in tall grasses in a field somewhere. Perhaps the spider has stubbornly doomed itself, in attempting to climb a spout that it has no ownership of, nor has ever once seen the much-sought-for top of in the first place? Note, however, that the spout is literally the only concrete, solid object in the spider's universe. There are no trees in the poem. There are no bushes, no grasses, no insects—nothing of nature at all, in fact, save the cyclic appearances of sun and rain. The cold steel (or aluminum, or iron—the composition is never identified) of the spout is the only named possible refuge for the spider; the only choices present are to remain at the empty, featureless bottom or attempt a climb to the presumably more advantageous top. All else is a void.

What has happened? Has deforestation wiped the trees and shrubs of the spider's original habitat from the map completely? Has suburban sprawl so overtaken the landscape that nothing else has survived? It is, in this bleak, minimalist vision, not specified. But there is nothing, save the man-made spout. There are no external forces, save the downward rain and the uncaring, always-too-late sun. There is nothing for the spider but the spout, the light at the top, and the struggle. In this manner the singing child is, via trite lyric and abstract hand gestures, prepared for its eventual fate as doomed cog in a featureless industrial wasteland, a creature whose only purpose is to struggle for self-advancement in a sheer, impossibly vertical landscape, crippled even before the start, marked for eventual punishment and downfall long before ever achieving any higher position, treated by the dominant sun as non-entity, as mere afterthought in a relentless cycle of regulation and deregulation, of economic ebb and flow. A minor, minuscule creature whose only allowed choice is to attempt the long climb or be content in the utter nothingness of the sub-spout world, and to gain nothing from the attempt, eternally.


Thank you for your question, Eric K. Feel free to use this exegesis, uncredited, as part of your next literary assignment, as I believe the rough outlines can be made to apply to all works of the written word to one extent or another. The anti-populist message of this particular spider-oriented work is, at least, a welcome change of pace from the dark fascism of Three Blind Mice, or the plutocratic thuggery that led Jack and Jill to be brutally murdered for the supposed crime of obtaining water from a higher elevation than was their presupposed lot in life. As far as teaching these things to children, however, I would recommend none of them.



Blast from the Past. At Daily Kos on this date in 2010Obama's Chamberlain impersonation fuels new progressive uprising:

Summer of 2009, Democratic lawmakers were swarmed by phone callers and town hall attendees by the then-nascent teabagger movement, furious at the creeping socialism of a government-run health insurance option. You see, Republicans were so worried that the government-run program would be so efficient, effective, and affordable that it would drive the private insurers out of business. And their teabagger allies rose up in unison to defeat this great threat while progressives, burned by serial Democratic capitulation, essentially sat disgusted on the sidelines.

Democratic leaders ignored signs of an intensity gap in 2010, and proceeded to further capitulation and inaction on issue after issue important to base Democrats. In December 2009, I literally had David Axelrod argue with me in the Green Room of ABC News' This Week that the base would come home because -- I shit you not -- Obama would score big points for negotiating the START treaty. That's when I knew we were doomed in 2010.



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