Dr. Seuss, many Americans learned this Across America Day, which schools often have observed with Seuss-themed events and costumes., has been canceled. Headlines and chyrons on conservative websites and cable TV shows agree: gone too far. Are they silencing the beloved, whimsical voice behind “Green Eggs and Ham” and “The Cat in the Hat”? Unconscionable. Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Geisel, has been sanctified as something of a children’s lit deity in American culture. His books have been lauded for instilling kids with good values: self-esteem, open-mindedness, kindness and acceptance, and environmentalism. His most beloved titles — “The Lorax” and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” — are go-to gifts for new parents and graduates; his March 2 birthday is celebrated as National Read
Geisel also wrote and illustrated This book is one of six that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to withdraw from publication because of such content.for children and adults with grotesquely racist imagery and ideas. Much of this work appeared early in his career when he worked as a political cartoonist and a children’s author. His earlier oeuvre, especially, is a muddied alongside calls for tolerance and equality. The latter values mostly won out throughout his career, and in his , he even made amendments to some of the more egregious pages of his kids’ books. And yet, in 2021, a parent might pick up a copy of “If I Ran the Zoo” at a library or bookstore, sit down to read it to their child, and turn the page to a jaw-droppingly offensive illustration of African people and depicted with exaggerated features reminiscent of blackface.
What does it mean to describe this decision as a cancel culture? What is cancel culture, and how does it work? A recent HuffPost/YouGov poll found that only about half of Americans have heard the term, though two-thirds of that group are frightened. Even those who have heard of it might be hard-pressed to define it. In a 2018 investigation in The New , Jonah Engel Bromwich archly argues, “If you announce that someone is canceled, they’re canceled.” This is how the anti-cancel-culture brigade treats the concept, which explains their constant state of alarm: It’s straightforward to cancel someone when all you have to do is declare it aloud. No wonder there’s such an epidemic!
But this is akin to declaring an epidemic of people having opinions: It’s neither new nor particularly terrifying that we can each decide, at any moment, that we never want to pay to see an Armie Hammer movie again. Without the label of cancel culture, this would just be called drop-in box-office clout. “Cancel culture” serves primarily to gesture away from what happened in a given scenario — usually a regular, benign, or unexceptional event that did not break in favor of conservative interests — and toward a generalized sense of right-wing grievance. “Cancel culture comes for Dr. Seuss” has a far more sinister ring to it than “Seuss estate decides, after a long review and consultation process, to no longer publish six of his many books due to shockingly racist content.”
Here are some events and situations that have been assailed as “cancel culture” in recent months: These are all wildly different things, and they’re also things that have always happened. They are thewithin workplaces, businesses, and people’s minds. Books go unpublished or are pulled from print; call to resign; buildings get renamed — presumably when they’re renamed after a wealthy donor rather than a Black community leader; this is not deemed cancel culture. For decades, women, LGBTQ people, and people of color have been forced out of their chosen careers after facing , lower pay, harsher performance reviews, fewer opportunities for advancement, and the chilling sense that they are alone and without support in workspaces dominated by white, straight, cis men. This, too, has never been labeled cancel culture.
Not publishing a children’s book because of offensive or scandalous content is a new concept. It is baked into the entire children’s publishing industry, in which editors select and publish manuscripts they believe will appeal to parents, teachers, and children rather than ones they anticipate provoking horror or psychic harm in their young audience. This has historically applied even to loved prolific figures in children’s literature. Consider the Belgian series Tintin, which stars a plucky, boyish blond journalist whohaving adventures with his adorable dog. One of the earliest volumes in the original series, “Tintin in the Congo,” is rife with racist depictions of Black Congolese people — racism so overt that some publishers balked. The volume was not published in English until 1991, 60 years after it first appeared in Belgium.
The furor over Dr. Seuss comes amid a dizzying rise in anti-Asian, fueled by the racist and xenophobic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Somehow, the debate has turned to the threat posed to our children by removing specific Seuss classics from the shelf when the dangers of leaving them should be much more terrifying. It’s the library and stumbles across a lurid, demeaning cartoon of an African man. It’s the white child who absorbs racist images wrapped up in playful verse and primary-color illustrations and subconsciously takes note that it’s OK to treat people of other races as punchlines.
On Wednesday, Slate’s Care and Feeding column published a letter by a parent whose 9-year-old son had been suspended for bullying anstudent by accusing him of starting the pandemic. “I have no idea where he heard these messages,” the writer notes, “because neither my husband nor I have ever even come close to suggesting anything like that.” In her insightful response, columnist Nicole Chung pointed out that not personally modeling this behavior was no guarantee that a child won’t be exposed to racism because “Our in the same country we do.” These messages are everywhere — even in books many Americans grew up loving — and they’re not harmless.
Dr. Seuss has not been deleted from bookstores or the public consciousness. Most of his work will continue to be published, including those upon which his reputation as an inspiring and humane influence on children rests. Cancel culture is a tool for evading the actual, tough argument the anti-canceling partisans would otherwise need to make here: not “Why is such a beloved and wise children’s book author being senselessly canceled?” but “Why should we continue publishing and marketing to innocent kids, six specific books containing vile racist depictions?” It’s a much more difficult case to make.