The right has attached itself to the latest casualty of the cancel culture wars: Late children’s book author Dr. Seuss.
On Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization which owns the rights to the books and characters of Theodor Seuss Geisel—better known as Dr. Seuss—announced that it would no longer distribute or license a handful of Seuss books that include outdated racist caricatures and contradict their “mission” of “hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.”
“[Dr. Seuss Enterprises], working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer,” read the statement. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
As NPR’s Code Switch noted last week, the portrayals have not aged well (emphasis ours):
But some of Seuss’ classics have been criticized for the way they portray people of color. In And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example, a character described as Chinese has two lines for eyes, carries chopsticks and a bowl of rice, and wears traditional Japanese-style shoes. In If I Ran the Zoo, two men said to be from Africa are shown shirtless, shoeless and wearing grass skirts as they carry an exotic animal.
Code Switch added that this racism was also reflected in Geisel’s personal life, which includes writing “an entire minstrel show in college and perform[ing] as the main character in full blackface.”
Geisel’s racism is old news in the same way that Roald Dahl’s antisemitism is: It might not be common knowledge, but those who know, know, and while it may not tarnish the brilliance of The B.F.G or Matilda, it’s unfortunate all the same. Those in charge of Dr. Seuss’s cultural legacy, understandably, would prefer not to elevate Dr. Seuss books promoting stunted racist stereotypes that were unfortunately common in the 1920s, but are widely acknowledged as archaic and unacceptable in the 2020s.
There’s a reasonable concern to be had over the urge to strenuously edit and censor the racism out of classic literature: a decade ago, such an effort was made with Huckleberry Finn. Editing books to be more palatable to contemporary values is a well-meaning but flawed way of reckoning with the past, and they should be taught and analyzed as products of their time.
But this isn’t about Huckleberry Finn, this is about a handful of miscellaneous, lesser-known Seuss titles that the average person has never heard of and certainly hasn’t read. They lack the cultural relevance of true Seuss classics like The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham, and are unlikely to be missed from store bookshelves or classrooms. Concern over racist undertones in Seuss’s books is not a new one: Literary and library organizations have been addressing it for years. And now, the Seuss organization decided to file a handful of the worst offenders to their archives, and that is their prerogative. It’s not worth starting a culture war over.
Unless you’re on the right.
On Tuesday, Republicans have gone from Fox News to the halls of Congress to opine that so-called “cancel culture” has come for Dr. Seuss.
Donald Trump Jr, shitposter and son of the former president, appeared on Fox and Friends to declare that this is an absolute travesty.
“This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head, this week alone they canceled the Muppets, they’re canceling Dr. Seuss from reading programs,” Trump said. “I mean, these are books—I literally know the Cat in the Hat by heart without the book there because I’ve read it so many times to my children. These things are not racist. You have Oreo cookie chiming in on trans rights. I mean, what is going on?”
Trump was referring to Mr. Potato Head losing the “Mr.,” Disney Plus adding content warnings for “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures” before select episodes of Jim Henson’s ‘70s hit series The Muppets, and the official Twitter account for Oreo tweeting “Trans people exist” the day the House was voting on the Equality Act. These are non-issues that shouldn’t keep anyone up at night. But Trump’s claim that Dr. Seuss has been banned by reading programs was flat-out inaccurate.
The Loudon County school district in Virginia decided to de-emphasize Seuss’s prominence in their annual Read Across America Day festivities and highlight a more diverse array of children’s books. This is no different than recent guidelines suggested by the National Education Association, which founded Read Across America Day in 1997.
(Read Across America Day was partnered with Seuss Enterprises from its inception until 2018, and it’s no coincidence that the holiday often landed on March 2, Seuss’s birthday. But when their contract with NEA ended, the NEA decided to tone down the exclusive connection between Seuss and Read Across America.)
That’s it. That’s all. There isn’t a national effort to cull Dr. Seuss from America’s classrooms, and there’s no mass burning of Hop On Pop. It’s just one school district saying that they want to encourage their students to read books with some Black and brown kids in them.
But the right has already embraced this nonexistent Seuss ordeal as their own in a desperate attempt to preserve his legacy.
Congressman Madison Cawthorn told Fox News that he was “fired up” about the claim that Dr. Seuss books are racist.
“You’re telling me that the actual priorities of the Democrats [are] renaming a post office and now canceling Dr. Seuss?” Cawthorn said. “Americans are actually struggling, and this cancel culture does not help us. If we want to heal America and end this major partisan divide, we need to stop canceling our neighbor and start communicating with them.”
Cawthorn is opposed to a $15 federal minimum wage hike, so his concern for struggling Americans rings hollow. Still, he was probably just happy not to have to talk about resurfaced sexual harassment allegations against him.
And now, Seussgate has received a mention on the House floor: During a debate over the Voting Rights Act, Republican House Minority Header Kevin McCarthy said, “First, they outlaw Dr. Seuss, and now [Democrats] want to tell us what to say.”
Republicans are manufacturing a controversy that doesn’t exist, because it’s a lot easier to maintain the role of the aggrieved average Joe living under the tyranny of handwringing liberals than do something useful like, passing a massive stimulus package and pushing for a living wage. We’re in the new golden age of children’s literature. Children’s books have never been more creative or more inclusive of their readership. And instead of celebrating that, the right is busy salivating over the legacy of Dr. Seuss, a man whose books are still available for purchase and still sit in every library across America.
If this isn’t a “Kim, there’s people that are dying” moment, I don’t know what is.
Update, 2:53 p.m.: Well, it somehow got worse.