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chapter 4: A Story of Social Justice? The Liberal Consensus in Monsters, Inc. (2001)

chapter 4: A Story of Social Justice? The Liberal Consensus in Monsters, Inc. (2001)

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the interior design of Sulley’s apartment to the sites and buildings of

Monstropolis to the Monsters, Incorporated factory. Even minor details

such as a TV commercial for the Monsters, Incorporated company have

been fashioned accordingly.

1

Monsters, Inc. hence animates Monstropolis in a decidedly 1950s

aesthetics—and with its narrative about issues of (energy) scarcity, abundance, and meritocracy, Monsters, Inc. also refers to broader notions of

American culture in the 1950s.

Thanks to his hard work, his exceptional talents, and his moral integrity,

Sulley is not only the most successful worker at the factory and will eventually be promoted to CEO but embodies core ideas of the liberal consensus—which the meticulous and computer-intensive animation of his

million hair strands similarly motions to. With its idealization of the ingenious worker in a meritocratic society, the liberal consensus of Monsters,

Inc. further challenges our present neoliberal zeitgeist. In contrast to the

postmodern playfulness of Toy Story 2, this animated film explicitly illustrates “a kind of prophetic vision of post-9/11 life in the U.S., where the

production of monsters allows the governing elites to scare a population

into quietude while generating profits for their own dastardly schemes”

(Halberstam 52). This animated vision of the good society, however,

ignores the contingent aspects of meritocracy. As John Rawls asserts, the

appreciation of particular talents, say the scaring of children, and the success of an individual depend on what a society deems valuable. In portraying Mike as a green, one-eyed, emasculated, and greedy monster, Monsters,

Inc. draws on long-standing tropes and stereotypes of Jewish masculinity in popular culture and, thereby, reproduces the normative features of

the 1950s liberal consensus. With his cheerful ignorance, his entertaining

ineptness, and his moral dubiousness, however, the schlemiel figure Mike

will eventually contest the meritocratic myth of the liberal consensus since

this failed other transforms the energy production system, saves Monsters,

Incorporated, and rescues millions of children from their nightly fears.

Set in a world populated by a highly diverse and dissimilar cast of

nonhuman monsters, Monsters, Inc. cannot draw on visual references to

familiar figures of American culture. In contrast to the preoccupation with

digital representation of familiar exceptionalist figures—the sheriff and the

astronaut—in the previous chapters, this chapter asks in what ways the

absence of popular symbols of American culture shapes the re-animation

of its myths. Even as the film may find novel and unprecedented visual

representations for the liberal consensus in the illustration of Sulley, thanks



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to the potential of digital animation, the green schlemiel along with the

many enchanting, flamboyant inhabitants of Monstropolis speak to the

complex aesthetic mediation of the animated myth.



MONSTERS OF PLENTY

In the 1950s the notion of an affluent, urban society encountering an

increasing scarcity of resources shaped questions about American identity

and the ideological confrontation of the Cold War. For David Potter in

People of Plenty (1954), for example, experiences of abundance incite and

invigorate in US Americans “their nationalism, their democracy, and their

individualism” (154). Referring to the abundance of natural resources, the

geographical vastness of the North American continent, and the ingenuity

of US citizens in exploiting this environmental wealth, Potter uses ideas

from Werner Sombart’s Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?

(1906)2 and Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to respond to

Cold War anxieties about the loss of American hegemony in the 1950s.

Particularly the frontier thesis with its sense of a vanishing American exceptionality after the closing of the frontier—the loss of geographical abundance—functioned as a blueprint for American fears in the 1950s as the

Soviet Union seemed to contest America’s position as a global superpower.

Expanding the notion of the frontier to mean “‘the edge of the unused’”

(157), Potter broadens its definition as “science has its frontiers, industry its frontiers, technology its frontiers” (157). Consequently, the anxiety

about the closure of the frontier expressed fears about the disappearance of

merely one frontier, while neglecting “the frontiers of industry, of invention, and of engineering [which] have continued to bring into play new

resources quite as rich as the unbroken sod of the western frontier” (Potter

157). In shifting from a geographical to a metaphorical definition of the

frontier, Potter prolongs its fundamental idea and describes the abundance

of the “unused edges” of science and industry—indicated by the standard

of living (cf. 157)—as characteristic of American culture. The United

States were exceptional, Potter thus maintains, because of the abundance

of space, natural resources, and particularly the ingenuity of its people.

In Monsters, Inc., the monster society experiences a similar moment of

anxiety as increased consumption and the growing immunity of human

children to the scaring techniques of the Monsters, Incorporated employees begin to threaten energy abundance in Monstropolis. Although individual ingenuity will eventually solve the menace of power shortage, in



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the animated film, this quest is intimately linked to the moral dilemma of

whether the pursuit of profits and the production of energy security justify

the exploitation of the weakest and most vulnerable: human children.

For the inhabitants of Monstropolis this is an intricate issue, since human

children are believed to be the most toxic and deadly thing in existence: a

“single touch could kill” (Monsters, Inc.), the predominant opinion states.

In order to protect Monstropolis from anything child-related, the Child

Detection Agency (CDA) fiercely monitors any potential contamination by

isolating, quarantining, and brutally disinfecting any monster that comes

into contact with human objects. Thus when Sulley accidentally brings a

human child into the monster world during the course of his work, this

fallout not merely endangers his well-being and his career, but jeopardizes

the existence of Monsters, Incorporated and the safety of Monstropolis.

In order to evade harsh consequences, Sulley decides to hide the

human girl, Boo, at his apartment. Together with his friend Mike,

Sulley contemplates how to avoid incarceration by the CDA. Their selfish motivation, however, quickly changes after Sulley and Mike experience the joyful harmlessness of the innocent girl. Particularly after the

two friends learn about the clandestine plans of their boss and company

owner Henry J. Waternoose III to increase energy production by abducting children from their bedrooms to a secret lab in the factory in order to

extract screams through a machine, Sulley and Mike encounter an ethical dilemma. Although the technologization of scream harvesting would

solve the energy crisis, the insidious machine literally sucks the scream out

of the child in a painful and excruciating procedure.

Unsure whether to return to his old life as a regular worker or to protect

his human friend from the dreadful machine, Sulley eventually realizes the

agonizing consequences of his work. When he is obliged to demonstrate

his scaring abilities, the furry monster terrifies his human friend with his

frightening and horrifying performance. Filmed by multiple video cameras

and relayed to some nearby screens, Sulley watches his distorted, menacing grimace right next to the images of the petrified Boo. This experience

transforms Sulley fundamentally as the blue monster decides to protect

his human friend and expose Waternoose’s illegal schemes. Doing so, he

and Mike eventually “put the company in the toilet, and […] hundreds

of people […] out of work” (Monsters, Inc.) for the sake of treating children humanely. Issues of wealth and abundance become secondary when

contrasted with the ethical treatment of the weakest, most innocent, and

defenseless.



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In a final twist, however, Sulley discovers the potential of children’s

laughter as the emotion of joy contains ten times the energy of fear.

Aligning production methods accordingly, Sulley secures the employment

of his colleagues, saves the company, and solves the energy shortage of

Monstropolis. Whether understood as a contemporary tale about environmental consciousness3 or as a cautionary fable about the hazards of fear,

Monsters, Inc. privileges an ethics of care over the logic of profit and greed.

As the film is, simultaneously, invested in the idea of the ingenious individual balancing ethical aspirations without neglecting the material abundance of the affluent society, the animated feature mediates the premises

of People of Plenty in particular and the concept of the “good society”

(Schlesinger 92) envisioned by the liberal consensus in general.



THE LIBERAL CONSENSUS OF MONSTROPOLIS

In the United States the prevailing political and intellectual paradigm from

the 1930s to the 1960s, the liberal consensus, represented an ideological

response to the rise of fascism in Europe and the threat of communism for

many Americans. Intellectuals such as David Potter began to conceptualize the United States as an exceptional society in which neither the totalitarian ideology of fascism nor communism were able to flourish because

of an American liberal tradition.

Louis Hartz, for example, rationalized the “ideological victory” of liberalism in the United States with the (by now familiar) assertion of the

“magnificent material setting […] found in the New World” (17). In his

The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hartz reasons that this magnificent material setting of the North American continent with its vast space

and its abundance of natural resources propelled the farmer “to become

capitalistically oriented, to repudiate save for a few early remnants the village organization of Europe, to produce for a market and even to enter

capitalist occupations on the side such as logging and railroad building”

(17). Similarly, “the American worker [began] to think in terms of the

capitalist setup” (Hartz 18) as the liberal tradition not only shaped conquest and settlement of the continent, but also formed “factory industrialism” by instigating a “job mentality […] rather than the class mentality of

the European worker” (Hartz 18). Echoing yet again the prominent misconception of the absence of a socialist movement in the United States,

the overarching assumption of this liberal tradition in US history denotes

a definition of liberalism beyond the partisanship of a particular political



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movement or party. Instead, by defining “the American community […]

[to be] a liberal community” (3), Hartz asserts the dearth of feudalism

to have prohibited the establishment of a socialist alternative since “[t]he

hidden origin of socialist thought everywhere in the West is to be found

in the feudal ethos” (6). In the absence of an aristocratic regime, communism had to fail in the United States which, in turn, manifested its

exceptional position in the world (cf. Hartz 3, 21). Transcending Potter’s

“historical and behavioral approaches to national character” (xiv), Hartz

identifies the (alleged) absence of feudalism to have fashioned a superior

political system—liberal democracy.

Consequently, liberalism was not merely one particular intellectual

idea which fueled individual political movements and shaped the social

frame of the United States. Rather, as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., argued

most prominently in The Politics of Hope (1962), liberalism is the defining

social, political, and economic feature of the United States: “American

liberalism, in the broad sense, is an expression of the total national experience” (70). For Schlesinger and his colleagues, “all of America is liberalism” (Schlesinger 63) because even the Communist Party in the United

States throughout the 1930s and 1940s, McCarthyism in the 1950s, or

the election of a Republican president in 1952 all yielded to a liberal consensus. The former “succeed[ed] only as they profess[ed] a relationship

to liberalism” (Schlesinger 65) while the latter “accepted as permanent

the changes wrought in the American scene by a generation of liberal

reform” (Schlesinger 68). For Schlesinger, then, a liberal and a conservative current within the broader stream of liberalism exist (cf. 65), but

“since independence, American political conflict has taken place in an

atmosphere—sometimes felt rather than understood—of consensus” (64).

In order to ensure an egalitarian society of equal opportunity and

individual freedoms, consensus liberals advocated for an interventionist

state—particularly in the economic sphere. Since the capitalist excesses

leading to the Great Depression were considered to be as threatening to a

just society as the overbearing bureaucratic apparatus of socialism to a free

society, the New Deal legislation of President Roosevelt was understood

to have achieved an equilibrium between the need for economic security

and individual liberty in the eyes of consensus liberals.

The broad liberal objective is a balanced and flexible “mixed economy,”

thus seeking to occupy that middle ground between capitalism and socialism whose viability has so long been denied by both capitalists and socialists.



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American liberalism, it should be emphasized, is antisocialist, where socialism retains its classical connotation of state ownership of the basic means of

production and distribution. This is partly because American liberals doubt

whether bases for political opposition and freedom can survive when all

power is vested in the state; liberty, if it is to be guaranteed by anything but

the self-restraint of the rulers, must have resources of its own inaccessible

to the state. And the antisocialism of American liberals derives also from an

estimate of the administrative difficulties of a socialist system. If substantial

abundance and equality of opportunity can be achieved through a system

of mixed enterprise, why throw up a rigid and oppressive structure of state

bureaucracy? The humane, as distinct from the institutional, goals of socialism can be better achieved, American liberals feel, through diversifying ownership rather than concentrating it. (Schlesinger 69–70)



But the Keynesian politics of the liberal consensus did not merely aim

to foster consumerist abundance; instead “[t]he object of strengthening

government is to give force to the idea of public interest and to make

possible the allocation of resources to necessary public purposes” in order

“to bring about a higher quality of life and opportunity for ordinary men

and women” (Schlesinger 92). For Schlesinger, this higher quality of life

revolves around questions “of fighting for individual dignity, identity, and

fulfillment in an affluent mass society […] of education, health, equal

opportunity, community planning—the issues which make the difference

between defeat and opportunity, between frustration and fulfillment, in

the everyday lives of average persons” (92). This emphasis on the quality

of life rather than absolute wealth had been motivated by the (ideological)

Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union as the United States needed to

“justify her claim to leadership of free peoples—a claim which cannot be

founded on wealth and power alone, but only on wealth and power held

within a framework of purpose and ideals” (Schlesinger 93).

This middle ground between wealth and ideals is essentially established in Monsters, Inc. after Sulley initiates the shift from scare-based to

joy-based energy production to ensure the ethical treatment of human

children and the abundance of electricity. In contrast to Sulley’s liberal

consensus position, his boss—corporate industrialist and child kidnapper

Henry J.  Waternoose—embodies the threat of unregulated capitalism.

Although initially characterized as a benevolent patriarch who still teaches

his young trainees the fundamentals of scaring, frequently chit-chats

with his employees, and regularly visits the factory floor of his company,

Waternoose exposes his greedy, immoral nature once efficiency and prof-



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its can be maximized. Visually reminiscent of a stereotypical nineteenthcentury capitalist, the three-piece suit and bow-tie already foreshadow

Waternoose’s corrupt and crooked nature. Expressing nothing but contempt for ethical behavior, Waternoose declares that “I’ll kidnap a thousand children before I let this company die, and I’ll silence anyone who

gets in my way” (Monsters, Inc.)—even if laws are to be broken, monsters

to be laid off, and children to be hurt. But while laissez-faire capitalism is

demeaned through the figure of the greedy, ill-meaning Waternoose, the

animated film remains invested in liberal capitalism nonetheless. After all,

Sulley is eventually promoted to CEO by the end of the film, because his

individual ingenuity advanced energy production, increased profits, and

adhered to an ethical code of conduct.

Analogous to the negative portrayal of laissez-faire capitalism, an

intrusive government is also envisioned to be incapable of ensuring

the well-being of society. While the CDA plays a vital role in ending

the scrupulous scheming of Waternoose, its totalitarian surveillance of

Monstropolis extends beyond what Schlesinger had celebrated as “affirmative government” (92). Although government interventions are a fundamental feature of a just society in Monsters, Inc., the film also attributes

an Orwellian quality to the CDA. Dressed in uniform yellow bodysuits

distinguishable solely by the number on their fronts, these agents relentlessly purify any potential child contamination by incinerating all human

artifact brought into the monster world and decontaminating every monster in contact with such an object without the consent of the latter—

shaving off fur and washing off any residue. In a particularly telling scene,

the CDA deploys several military personnel carriers, various helicopters,

and dozens of agents to secure a wider area of the city after a child alarm

at a downtown bar. As civilians and innocent bystanders are arrested for

decontamination and helicopters patrol the vicinity, the CDA eventually erects a huge force field around the contaminated part of the city.

Instead of being a first aid mission to help potentially injured monsters,

this display of efficiency, force, and capacity to incarcerate a part of the

population exhibits the authoritarian, intrusive quality of government.

In contrast to this display of competency and power the CDA has been

unsuccessfully attempting to expose the criminal activities at Monsters,

Incorporated for more than two years. Despite its far-reaching capabilities and resources, the government agency failed to unearth the illegal

schemes of Waternoose. Only after Sulley and Mike face off against their

ill-meaning boss are his plans exposed.4



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Parallel to the pursuit of wealth in Monsters, Inc., an interventionist

state “per se can no more be a sufficient end for a good society” (italics in

original, Schlesinger 92). Rather, the film animates the liberal consensus

idea of an affirmative government as the state provides and enforces a just

legal framework which enables individuals to pursue their ideals for the

benefits of society: Sulley was not just the exceptional scarer at Monsters,

Incorporated, thwarted the sinister plans of his employer, and ensured

the safety of an innocent child, but by the end of the film the furry monster has also single-handedly solved the energy shortage in Monstropolis,

saved Monsters, Incorporated from bankruptcy, and secured employment

for his colleagues.5 While affirmative government guaranteed “individual

dignity, identity, and fulfillment in an affluent mass society” (Schlesinger

92) against the encroachment of excessive capitalism, the state also had

to stay limited to prevent its totalitarian overreach. The liberal consensus,

thus, envisioned government regulations for the sake of ensuring the freedom of the individual, because solely individuals could warrant a better

society.

And thanks to his ingenuity, hard work, talent, and ethical conduct,

Sulley advances from his blue-collar occupation to become CEO of

Monsters, Incorporated. Swapping hard hat for tie, Sulley embodies the

liberal consensus a last time as his social upward mobility epitomizes the

meritocratic society of “every American boy and girl hav[ing] access to

the career proportionate to his or her talents and characters, regardless of

birth, fortune, creed, or color” (Schlesinger 92).



A GOOD SOCIETY OF MONSTERS: INDIVIDUALISM,

MERITOCRACY, AND AFFIRMATIVE GOVERNMENT

In the current neoliberal era, the ideas of equal opportunity and meritocracy continue to be of vital significance to articulate alternatives to the

dominant market logic. Walter Benn Michaels, for example, in The Shape of

the Signifier (2004) and The Trouble with Diversity (2006), powerfully condemns the inequality produced by neoliberalism, maintaining that “[i]f we

think that globalization should be resisted, we ought to spend […] more

time worrying about the disappearance of any credible alternative to unfettered capitalism” (Trouble with Diversity 165). His intellectual campaign

against inequality and for progressive politics demands the development

of novel social, political, and particularly economic models with the aim

of “help[ing] put equality back on the national agenda” and minimizing



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“the reality of economic difference” (Michaels, Trouble with Diversity 16,

203). This model favored by Michaels resonates with the liberal consensus idea of a meritocratic society protected by an affirmative state: because

children cannot be held responsible for their social situation—wealthy or

poor—a just society compensates for this unmerited inequality by offering

every child the same opportunities “whether my father was an exploited

slave or a spendthrift playboy” (Michaels, Shape of the Signifier 165).

For Michaels, equality is rooted in “a fair chance to earn […] property”

(Trouble with Diversity 133) rather than simply inheriting wealth (or poverty); again echoing the tenets of the liberal consensus, a just society for

Michaels offers everyone the same chance to be successful by establishing

a system in which “the people who stay poor […] deserve their poverty

[…] [and] the people who do succeed […] deserve their wealth” (Trouble

with Diversity 133–134). A just society, therefore, guarantees the equality

of opportunity to all its members, while hard work and talent will automatically regulate the distribution of wealth in a fair and impartial manner

(cf. Michaels, Trouble with Diversity 135). Thus when Sulley advances to

become CEO of Monsters, Incorporated, the animated film mediates the

meritocratic imperative of a just society envisioned by the liberal consensus

for contemporary audiences. As Sulley advances professionally, the malevolent Waternoose loses his inherited property: justice is served when hard

work, talent, and ethical behavior foster social (upward) mobility.

Seen from this perspective, Monsters, Inc. illustrates a progressive economic and social agenda which exposes the immoral and dysfunctional

qualities of an excessive market logic.6 As equal opportunity, meritocracy,

an ethical code of conduct, and an affirmative government define a just

society in Monsters, Inc., the animated feature denounces the neoliberal

idea of “the free market as the essential mechanism of social justice”

(Michaels, Trouble with Diversity 75) by exposing its unethical, antisocial, and injurious qualities. Through the depiction of its villain in the

stereotypical attire of a robber baron, the film links twenty-first-century

neoliberalism to nineteenth-century unfettered capitalism and highlights

the detrimental excesses of the contemporary neoliberal zeitgeist.

The aesthetical and narrative references to the liberal consensus highlight

what Jack Halberstam deemed subversive about animation films, as Monsters,

Inc. “offer[s] an animated world of triumph for the little guys, a revolution against the business world of the father […] [and] animate[s] a new

space for the imagining of alternatives” (47–48). Indeed, as the Monsters,

Incorporated workers at the end of the film put aside their hard hats and



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stop masking their friendly nature, the transformation of their assignment

from producing fear to generating joy also liberates the physically diverse

and colorful group from the alienating duty of horrifying children for profits. Whereas the stern workers initially had to disguise their good-hearted

personalities by using menacing props such as enlarged teeth or exposing their frightening spikes and talons to the sinister sound of orchestral

music, the monsters eventually labor without their intimidating masquerade

and in tune with their kind disposition to bring happiness to children as

laughter is heard on the vibrantly decorated factory floor. This corporeal,

polymorphous animation of an emancipated working class—that includes

amorphous gender and sexuality—exhibits “[t]he antinormative nature of

animated film [which] arises out of the wacky juxtapositions found in animated worlds between bodies, groups, and environments” (Halberstam

181). These concluding shots, then, contrast a sense of (working class) community and diversity with the (capitalist) egoism Waternoose touted earlier.7

The complex procedure to creating animated protagonist James

P. Sullivan, however, questions the seemingly communal alternative which

“connect[s] individualism to selfishness, to untrammeled consumption,

and […] oppose[s] it with a collective mentality” (Halberstam 47). Since

the Pixar computers needed “eleven to twelve hours to render a single

frame of Sulley because of his 2.3 million individually animated hair

strands” (imdb.com), the technological means to bring the furry monster to life rather highlight an individualist quality. Monsters, Inc. mediates

the liberal consensus with its ideas of equal opportunity and affirmative

government to explicitly formulate—in contrast to Toy Story 2—a social

critique of the contemporary market logic, yet its digital embodiment also

symbolizes individual ingenuity. From the perspective of American cultural

history, then, the hairy blue protagonist with his millions of independently

animated hair strands epitomizes the ingenious, incorruptible, and hardworking ideal of the liberal consensus for contemporary audiences—but as

an unusual symbol of the American consensus myth, the digital monster

also exhibits “the ‘openness’ of the language of animation as an interrogative tool in a quasi-realist context” (Wells 154).8



ANIMATING THE GOOD SOCIETY?

While a furry appearance and a heart-warming personality set in yet

another fabulous environment populated by all the more endearing

characters function as forms of digital enchantment in Monsters, Inc.,



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sidekick and close friend Mike Wazowski appears to disturb this digital

“affirmation of wonder” with his questionable morality and his gawking, even unsightly appearance. Similarly, his idle, pretentious, often

selfish conduct should predestine the green monster to stay confined

to his menial professional position. Yet, the shift to laugh-based energy

production provides the (often unwillingly) entertaining Mike with the

opportunity to branch out from his initial vocation. Although he is most

suitable to make children laugh because of his (unintentional) slap-stick

humor, his success story also exhibits the contingent quality of equal

opportunity, meritocracy, and the liberal consensus; and due to his lighthearted inadequacies Mike eventually animates an idea of social justice

beyond the American consensus myth.

Working as an assistant to Sulley, Mike leads an easy-going life at the

company. While his status and income may leave the green monster unsatisfied, the careless approach to his small duties characterizes his laid-back,

even unmotivated approach to work. Mike advances his career only after

his blue friend alters the mode of energy production. As the green monster has willingly and unwillingly demonstrated his entertaining qualities

throughout the narrative, his talents are most suitable for this novel, joybased approach. This promotion, however, is neither a result of his hard

work (he repeatedly forgets to file his paperwork), nor the consequence

of honing skills as Mike is never shown training; and is definitely not

because of his ethical attitude as the green monster scolds Sulley on different occasions for wanting to help Boo. Rather, his talent to entertain

becomes a valuable asset only after Monsters, Incorporated switches from

fear- to joy-based energy production. Consequently, the opportunity for

Mike to climb the social ladder with his witty humor and slapstick performances does not depend on equal opportunity, hard work, or ethical

behavior, but upon what talents a society deems useful. The figure of the

green monster, then, challenges the rhetoric of equal opportunity and

hard labor, because his case demonstrates that equal opportunity—one

fundamental principle of the liberal consensus—is a contingent concept.

What “a society happens to value at any given time” (Sandel 162)

is beyond the influence of the individual, Michael J.  Sandel asserts in

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009), and the success, recognition, and benefits people reap from their particular talents, therefore,

are “morally arbitrary” (162). Since talents have been valued differently throughout history, a just society has to acknowledge the unequal

appreciation of particular abilities, because whether these are deemed



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