Canceling the Dr. (Seuss)

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Once again we face a dilemma of whether an act of censorship is another step towards racial parity, justice and inclusivity or if it is an example of political correctness running amok and ‘cancelling’ a national treasure. The subject of this debate is a decision made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the firm responsible for publishing and licensing its namesake’s intellectual properties, to permanently discontinue a half-dozen of the author’s works due to racist depictions in their illustrations and texts. While the six books involved are not among Theodor Geisel’s best known or most popular works (all but one predate The Cat in the Hat), the very thought of ‘canceling’ any of the beloved author’s books would understandably shock many and outrage some.

A bit of background might be beneficial before launching into a meditation on the company’s decision. The United States has recently entered what might be called a new phase of the so-called culture wars. During the reign of Donald Trump, a social activism movement emerged, powered largely by social media and ostensibly dedicated to identifying and punishing entities (usually celebrities, public figures and corporations) for insensitive and harmful actions and words. This has been accomplished by calling for boycotts and carrying out campaigns of public shaming. This came to be known by its targets and its detractors as cancel culture. Its practitioners have been dismissed as ‘snowflakes’ (and worse) for being overly sensitive, hostile to ‘real talk’ and too weak to handle an honest conversation. By contrast, many of the individuals involved in the ‘cancelling’ would contend they are simply holding people and organizations accountable for the offensive, abusive and dangerous things they broadcast. Targets of cancelling have included far-fight agitators (e.g. Milo Yiannopoulos), mainstream writers (e.g. J.K. Rowling) and media programs (e.g. Fox News’ Hannity). In each of these examples there was an effort to A) prevent an opinion from being disseminated, B) force a retraction or apology for a voiced opinion or C) pressure third parties to take action against the offender. The impact of such actions have ranged from merely symbolic to modest, but there has been enough success (whether real or imagined) that many right-wing political figures and their ideological parrots in the media have called for nothing less than a crusade against what they have labeled as an existential threat to freedom of speech.

The overall merits or dangers of ‘cancel culture’ are not the subject of this essay. Suffice to say, I am generally in favor of whatever non-violent tactics people choose to employ to make the world even a little less hateful, even if it might be a bit silly or of dubious effectiveness. Meaningful activism is becoming harder and increasingly polarizing, particularly in the United States, so most anything an individual can do to contribute to a cause is not wholly in vain. That being said, I struggle with the issue of censoring art, especially books that contain meaningful messages or provide enjoyment completely unrelated to what we might call incidental racism. Of the six Dr. Seuss books being discontinued, I only recall If I Ran the Zoo. The other five (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and definitely The Cat’s Quizzer) hold no particular value, whether sentimental or otherwise in my mind. The only reason If I Ran the Zoo holds any place in my memory is because we had a copy that I read to my daughter when she was younger. Therefore, I can only speak to the examples of racism I identified in that book.

There are two illustrations that seem to have landed this title in trouble. The first is of some men, one carrying a bird-like creature called the Bustard and the others carrying a tiger-like creature called a Flustard. These animals, we are told, hail from a place called Zomba-ma-Tant. What is problematic to the present-day reader is that the people are described (and depicted) as “wearing their eyes at a slant”. Now, even if one has never read the book, this description almost certainly conjures up an image and one would probably not be far off from the reality. The men are caricaturized in the fashion of 1940s propaganda material targeting the Japanese. They are bedecked in robes, their arms are crossed in front and covered by billowy sleeves. They wear what appear to be wooden sandals and sporting Fu-Manchu mustaches as well as buck teeth, all textbook features of the stereotypical Chinaman caricature.

Should we grant leeway to writers and artists who have created their material in earlier times? Or are any problematic images, whatever the time in which they were originally created, subject to
criticism and even censorship?

The second illustration shows the tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka being carried by two apparent natives of Yerka. Although there is no accompanying textual description of the men, it is mentioned that the island is located in Africa and the two exhibit many of the stereotypical features we have seen in old film and books. Looking at the illustration I am reminded of the tribesmen in the original Tarzan films from the 1930s and the various incarnations of the Little Black Sambo tale from throughout the 20th century.

The natives of Yerka seem more ape than human.

As mentioned earlier, I have read this story and encountered these pictures before. I had noticed these caricatures but did not consider them particularly outrageous. Maybe it was because the focus of If I Ran the Zoo is not on the people but rather the strange creatures Gerald McGrew collects for his park. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to delve into a discussion of racist imagery with my preschooler. Maybe I just chalked it up to “a different time” and moved on. In any case, I did not reflect too much on the illustrations and thought nothing of them until recently when Dr. Seuss Enterprises finally pulled the plug on this and the other offending books.

The cries from the political right have been predictable: this is the work of leftist pressure groups looking to besmirch Geisel’s legacy and further endanger freedom of speech in the United States. The reality is far less exciting, but it does bring into question the motives of Dr. Seuss Enterprises to discontinue these particular titles at this particular moment in history. According to various sources, this decision was not the product of any recent pressure or organized ‘canceling’ but rather was the result of discussion and reflection on the firm’s part. It was also, arguably, a defensive move to prevent further criticism and, potentially, a more concerted ‘cancelling’ effort in the future.

As with most of these types of decisions (e.g. Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and the Washington Redskins), there is also an unmistakable business element. Despite years of criticism, those other brands only in the last year or so made genuine strides to address those criticism, not because their parent corporations suddenly ‘saw the light’ but rather to appear ‘woke’ and participate in the social movements of the moment. If Black Lives Matter had not emerged as a major movement in recent years, there is little doubt in my mind that the Quaker Oats Company would not have made the costly decision to rebrand their popular pancake syrup and the Redskins’ executives would not have troubled themselves with recreating their team’s entire appearance.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a bit different as they won’t have to go through the time, expense and effort of redesigning logos or creating new packages. Discontinuing these six books might reduce the company’s revenue slightly, but these particular titles were already lower earners than comparative blockbusters like One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish or Fox in Socks. The loss of these controversial titles will not hurt the licensor or the publishers. What’s curious is that this decision to discontinue these books probably drew more attention to them than they had enjoyed in many years. While it’s true that bringing to light these examples of Dr. Seuss’ less wholesome canon could be a noble and just thing, it also makes the decision far more controversial than it would have been if the titles had simply faded into obscurity.

This is the risk one takes when you decide to make a public statement and perform woke-ness. If Dr. Seuss Enterprises had quietly discontinued these six books, the vast majority of ordinary consumers would likely never know. These are not the tales that come to mind when we take our children to the library to find early reading books. Maybe some of us have old copies of these books stashed in the attic, but we probably haven’t thought about them in a long time. However, with this announcement, it becomes a topic of discussion and debate, a lightening rod for dialogue and demagoguery. Was Dr. Seuss a rabid racist whose work is long overdue for a good purging or was he simply a white man drawing in the style and form of the time? Should the presence of even a single problematic illustration be examined and removed or should we resist the long arm of political correctness and fight to preserve all speech regardless of its offensiveness?

The reality is there’s no correct answer. Is it weird that you can go into most bookshops (including Amazon) and find brand new copies of Mein Kampf for sale but you won’t be able to find any of these Dr. Seuss books except on eBay for hundreds if not thousands of dollars? Where do we draw the line of demarcation between literature and propaganda, historical evidence and mad ranting, hurtful illustrations from 60+ years ago and potential talking points for racial understanding? On the whole, keeping or losing any or even all of these particular Seuss books won’t do much to bring about truth and reconciliation or usher in radical change in race relations. What it will do is further complicate the situation between those who would prefer outdated, offensive images be removed from circulation (even if it draws accusations of censorship) and those who would use the First Amendment as protection for even the most disgusting and insulting ‘speech’.

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