Before we get into the question of whether anyone has “canceled” Dr. Seuss for racist imagery in some of his books — uh, he hasn’t been canceled, of course — let me first say that “wokeness” can be overzealous and that claims of racial or gender bias are not always what they seem. (See: the question of race and Smith College.)
And furthermore, this can be a tricky issue. Is the casual use of the N-word in Huckleberry Finn a reason to not read the book or (far worse) ban it from school libraries? I’d say obviously no, but that it clearly should be accompanied by an explanation because context is everything. And the context in one of America’s great novels is not the same as, say, the context in one of America’s most important, but clearly racist, films — Birth of a Nation, or, for that matter, Gone With the Wind.
But if you watched any part of the CPAC convention — I confess, I only watched clips before tuning in to a certain former president’s speech in full — you know that “cancel culture” is now the reason America must be saved from Hollywood, socialists, professors, Big Tech, journalists, Mickey Mouse, progressives, probably my grandson’s elementary school, which is in the midst of its annual No Place for Hate Week, and, of course, anyone deciding not to publish Josh Hawley’s book. I mean, how can you still make America great again if Josh Hawley is forced to change publishers?
So-called cancel culture — the latest battle in the culture wars; I forget, has Christmas been saved? — is the leading edge of conservative politics of the moment. I’m not against cancellation, per se. I’d like to see, for instance, violent right-wing extremism canceled. I’d also like to see Andrew Cuomo cancel his remaining time as governor of New York.
But the cancel-culture warriors got a freebie when six Dr. Seuss books were withdrawn by their publisher. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in a statement that coincided with the late author and illustrator’s birthday.
The hurtful part can be clearly racist. We know that Theodor Geisel, who wrote as Dr. Seuss, drew some imagery he later conceded was racist in his pre-Seuss days. And if you’re reading the book, If I Ran the Zoo, you’d turn the page where you’d go to the island of Yerka and “bring back a tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka,” which is the usual delightful creature that could be invented only in the imaginings of Dr. Seuss. But carrying the tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka, are two African men drawn in the undeniably racist stereotyped images of the day.
Withdrawing that book — one of six — is not canceling. It’s the family’s recognition that Dr. Seuss, a treasure whose works are a gift, should not be despoiled by a few racist images and that parents and children, most of all, should not trip across them by surprise. I mean, you explain that to your 5-year-old.
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I bow to no one, including Ted Cruz, in my appreciation for Dr. Seuss. But turn on Fox News, and there’s Don Jr., just as one example, saying, “This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head. This week alone, they canceled the Muppets … you have Oreo cookie chiming in on trans rights …”
The Muppets have not been canceled. Every Muppet episode is available on Disney+. There is a warning before one episode in which a Confederate flag was prominently shown. Is that cancel culture? If it is, I’m fine with it. I’m also fine with Disney’s decision to actually cancel — or take out of its rotation, anyway — the obviously racist Song of the South. Racist Black images do matter.
The Mr. Potato Head cancellation may be the best overreaction of them all, and the potato head maker, Hasbro, is partly at fault here by not immediately making clear what it was doing. It is branding Mr. Potato Head as Potato Head as in the Potato Head family, giving Mrs. Potato Head equal billing. They’re both still alive (well, you know what I mean) and well and available, in a five-pack of characters, for $24.99.
One of the Dr. Seuss withdrawn books was among my favorites, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It was read to me as a kid. I read it to my daughter. It was Seuss’ first children’s book, but as Washington Post book critic Ron Charles points out, the 1937 book “contains an illustration of a young Chinese man that looks like a pre-World War II stereotype. Because it is.”
This has been an issue for children’s librarians for a while, and the fact that the Seuss people have confronted it is a good thing.
“Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families,” it said.
That conservatives are now racing to call this cancel culture is pretty funny on its face. Maybe we’ll soon see on Fox a piece about the books that are most often banned in school libraries. This will not surprise you — eight of the 10 most challenged books in 2019, according to the American Library Association, contained LGBTQ content.
Instead I’ll just pull out one of my favorite columns, written by my friend Tony Kornheiser upon the death of Dr. Seuss, in trying to explain it to his children, Michael and Elizabeth:
“Michael and Lizzie,
We’ve just lost a friend
But though Seuss isn’t here
His books won’t ever end
Providing there’s mommies
And daddies who’ll read
To their kids before bedtime
To their kids who’ll take heed
To celebrate words
Of this rare, silly goose
This genius, this giant
This great Dr. Seuss.”
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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