It’s probably old news by now, but the commotion around Dr. Seuss and so-called cancel culture still warrants some reflection. I’ve attempted in the following to organize my own responses into three basic points:
The optics here make this an absolute gift to the Trumpian right. While it’s true that the books And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, If I Ran the Zoo, Scrambled Eggs Super!, On Beyond Zebra! and The Cat’s Quizzer were voluntarily withdrawn from publication by Dr. Seuss Enterprises rather than forcibly banned by agents of the government, the episode has only reinforced the stereotype of progressive zealots suppressing hitherto innocuous free speech on behalf of social justice. The same people who would happily defund PBS or lynch Anderson Cooper – the same people who probably disapprove of the environmentalist message of The Lorax or the communal anticapitalism of How the Grinch Stole Christmas – can now posture as steadfast defenders of unfettered expression, a status once enjoyed by Salman Rushdie and the American Civil Liberties Union. It used to be only uptight rednecks who wanted to take books off the market; the pendulum sure has swung. Sure, authors or their representatives can choose to pull titles from circulation for any number of reasons (as Stephen King did with his pseudonymous Rage, about a high school shooting spree), but the Seuss decision recalls nothing so much as a friendly witness outing his old Communist pals to avoid a career-threatening inquisition by Joe McCarthy. However apologists want to rationalize this, it’s a not a belated stand against bigotry but a preemptive cave to power. Way to score on your own goal, Yertle.
What, exactly, is the harm? As much as we might deplore Dr. Seuss’s allegedly offensive depictions of Africans, Arabs, and Chinese (in works which, remember, show imaginary animals and surreal landscapes offensive to all reality), it’s very hard to posit a direct connection between illustrations in children’s reading matter of the last century and specific incidents of racism against Africans, Arabs, and Chinese people today. Reevaluating outdated documents from yesterday is easy; resolving today’s tangle of social issues, not so much. The old standard which maintained that permissible speech did not include the right to shout Fire! in a crowded theater – because it posed an immediate threat to public safety – is clearly not violated by cartoons aimed at six-year-olds. There are, in fact, countless other publications which might themselves be decommissioned for suddenly “problematic” language or images, yet the correlation between them and any contemporary police harassment, sexual assault, or other complaint is impossible to demonstrate. Purging libraries and backlists of celebrated material which now looks insensitive, if it’s to be done consistently, will leave very, very little on the shelves. Meanwhile, in the real world, no one is left any safer, happier, or more free. Unlike the Cat in the Hat, we can’t read with our eyes shut.
They’re only books. I predict a dystopian future where the mass of humanity is confined to their residences and public life as we’ve known it has ceased to exist. In this nightmare projection, our only encounters with the outside world are mediated through electronic and (occasionally) print communications, all of which are frantically debated by partisans for their political acceptability or lack thereof. No one ever meets people from outside their “bubbles” face-to-face; basic physical needs of food and shelter are all subsidized by the state, so the last remaining points of contention among social groups are representations found in the entertainment and information available to them in abundance. Where once healthy democracies wrestled with practical issues of war and peace or wealth and want, there will only be stupefied serfs fighting over abstract outrages projected by celebrities, screens, and even by the pictures in old books. Hard to imagine, of course, but the dark prophecy of Theodore Geisel may yet come to pass: Oh, the places you’ll go.