Monday Morning Thoughts: Dr. Seuss Was Not ‘Canceled’

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Source: ABC News

By David M. Greenwald

A student opinion article (Please Don’t Cancel Dr. Seuss) has triggered a lot of good discussion on so-called cancel culture.  But, like many, I think there are key facts that have been overlooked in this discussion that I wish to highlight here.

As anyone working in the realm of journalism, I’m a big proponent of free speech and a big opponent of book banning.

At the same time, there has been this notion that we have a “cancel culture” which I think has been misplaced.  Here I would argue that in this country we have done an exceedingly poor job of coming to terms with our past.

Take confederate statues—people like Robert E. Lee were not only defending the institution of slavery, one of the world’s great atrocities, but also are honored for being a traitor to the US by seceding and then fighting a bloody civil war.  Should we be honoring that?  Particularly when most of those statues date not back to the Civil War, but were placed there in an effort to intimidate Blacks out of seeking civil rights and as a symbol of defiance to efforts to give more rights to Blacks.

I would argue, therefore, that it was probably inappropriate to put those statues up to begin with, given the motivations, but now especially—as we attempt to reconcile our past—it is vitally important not to honor such a legacy.

Calling it canceling history, I would argue, does a disservice to these efforts—which is the point of labeling it as such.

Therefore I see removal of the Confederate Flag and statues from statehouses as fairly clear cut.

Less clear is how to deal with things like books.  It’s ironic that conservatives are suddenly up in arms about banning books—after all, for years it was liberal books that faced book banning.  This is not a one-size-fits-all issue.  It is one thing to call for, say, To Kill a Mockingbird to be removed from schools—after all, it was if anything an anti-racist book, at least in its time.  It’s another thing to remove books that truly had racist depictions.

And that’s the point being missed here—are we really bound by 1940 standards of decency in the current world?  After all, if the Dr. Seuss books in question were attempted to be published today, they would not be allowed to do so.  Racial progress means that things we might have tolerated 80 years ago, should not be tolerated today.

What’s really interesting about this is that largely the move to depublish these books was made internally, not really as the result of public pressure.  Yes, you might be able to cite some sort of push by critics and librarians, but I was actually not able to locate an opinion piece calling for the removal of Dr. Seuss books in a major publication over the last year.

If anything, this was the work of the Dr. Seuss Foundation attempting to protect the legacy of Theodor Geisel.

“Dr Seuss Enterprises has made a moral decision of choosing not to profit from work with racist caricature in it and they have taken responsibility for the art they are putting into the world and I would support that,” Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State told the Guardian.

The Guardian continued, saying that “the controversy left many perplexed, since the decision was made by Dr Seuss Enterprises and not as a result of public pressure that has preceded other such decisions.”

Nel explained the decision to no longer publish titles including caricatures of people of African, Asian and Arab descent “showed just one way to address problematic material.”

“[The books are] not going to disappear,” he said. “They’re not being banned. They’re not being cancelled. It’s just a decision to no longer sell them.”

The idea that this was canceled is actually false.  They have simply decided not to publish anymore.  Books go out of print all the time.  There will remain books in circulation.  They will have the option to print them again in the future if they so choose.

One of the things I learned here is that Geisel himself recognized some of his work was problematic—even during his own lifetime.

The Guardian noted that Geisel himself made efforts to tone down racial stereotypes in books.

Such revisions “were imperfect but well-intentioned efforts that softened but did not erase the stereotyping,” Nel said, noting that Geisel also made a joke of the changes, “which served only to trivialise the importance of the alterations.”

This wasn’t the first time that Geisel recognized his work was problematic.  The NY Times reported that, from 1941 and 1943, he drew political cartoons for New York newspapers, “including some that used harmful stereotypes to caricature Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Decades later, he said he was embarrassed by the cartoons, which he said were ‘full of snap judgments that every political cartoonist has to make.’”

That should be telling here.  The Dr. Seuss foundation is attempting to protect the legacy of his work and they recognize that some of the works, which may have been insensitive in their time, are no longer within the current bounds of decency.  I fail to see why we are bound by past morals in making future decisions.

This is not government censorship nor is it a private individual reacting to the threat of government censorship.  Instead, this is a family attempting to protect the legacy of a cherished member—something that the author himself recognized was a problem during his own time.

Free speech advocates always worry about where you draw the line.  I agree.  Government should not be getting involved here.  This is not a first amendment issue at all.  But I think we need to do a better job of recognizing that we lived in a very racist culture 80 to 100 years ago and things that were acceptable then, would never get published now.  Some of those things continue to have value, however—others we can let fade into the recesses of history.  This is one of them.

Who gets to decide?  Again, not the government.  The people ultimately—in this case, it was the foundation and the family who made the call.  I’m all right with that and think that’s the way it should be in these cases.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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35 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Dr. Seuss Was Not ‘Canceled’”

  1. Keith Olsen

    Maybe Biden’s AG pick Merrick Garland should be canceled?

    President Joe Biden’s attorney general nominee Merrick Garland as a college student at Harvard University wrote in a review of a musical that a song about rape was one of the play’s “hilarious group numbers.”
    In a Harvard Crimson article published January 22, 1976, he wrote in a critique of the play (emphasis added):

    A combination of factors, however, keep the vocal problems from becoming disastrous. Most important are the Jones-Schmidt songs themselves, simple and engaging melodies with a few tender ballads like “Try to Remember” and some hilarious group numbers like “it Depends on what You Pay,” which provides a shopping list of rapes for sale (e.g. “the military rape–it’s done with drums and a great brass band.”)

    https://clarion.causeaction.com/2021/03/07/biden-ag-nominee-merrick-garland-wrote-in-70s-that-song-about-military-rape-was-hilarious/

     

    1. Keith Olsen

      I think we all know who are the real snowflakes of today.  For example look at the college students protesting and cancelling speakers whom they don’t want speaking on their campus.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        Says the person offended by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. There is a level of hypocrisy here that is really off the chart.

        1. Keith Olsen

          You just proved my point.  I used my ‘free speech’ to show my disgust for Kaepernick’s ‘free speech’ of taking a knee during the anthem.  I never denied him the right to do so but the college snowflakes canceled conservative speakers from talking on campus.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Actually you did.

            As did the collusion of the owners reacting to people like you expressing their opinions. And don’t tell me that you’re not responsible for that – because in reality no one person is responsible for it, thus there is collective responsibility. You’re trying to have this both ways and there is no both ways here.

      2. Tia Will

        Keith

        As always, I find it counterproductive for you to tell us what we “all know”. What I “know” and what you “know” are frequently in diametric opposition. My version of “snowflakes” today would be all those whining about the “unfairness” of an election that was demonstrably not “stolen” and the fact that there is likely to be accountability for at least some who tried to overturn the factual results…a clear attempt to “cancel” millions of votes.

        Cancelling can occur regardless of one’s political affiliation. I believe the most successful “cancellers” of our time were both GOP. Senator McCarthy and Donald Trump. In the case of the Dr. Suess books, at what point would one no longer allow “self-monitoring” or “cancellation”?

        1. Keith Olsen

          As always, I find it counterproductive for you to tell us what we “all know”.

          I find it presumptuous of you to consider yourself included in my “we”. Now if I had said ‘everyone’ …

  2. Alan Miller

    It’s ironic that conservatives are suddenly up in arms about banning books—after all, for years it was liberal books that faced book banning.

    Once again your dangerous fallacy of ‘us vs. them’, progs vs. evil, dems vs. repubs.  There are those who only want the other sides’ books banned – libs on conservs of extremism.  Both are evil.  There is a large swath of us who recognize all book banning is evil.  It’s not us vs. them, it’s sane vs. insane.

    The Dr. Seuss foundation is attempting to protect the legacy of his work and they recognize that some of the works, which may have been insensitive in their time, are no longer within the current bounds of decency.

    That’s all fine and I agree with on that point.  But you hypocritize yourself by earlier implying cancel culture isn’t real by calling it ‘so-called’.  You defend Geisel for being decent and growing in his beliefs, yet cancel culture has repeatedly gone back through the archives of comedians, actors and talk show hosts and brought out acts they committed years or decades ago which for many they themselves have stated they have grown beyond, but the on-line cancel culture mob besmirches their reputations and harms their careers.  Or simply for holding conservative values they believe in (that doesn’t mean racism, dumb arses, there are decent conservative values).

    You can’t have it both ways.  Oh, I forgot YOU can.

    1. Ron Oertel

      The Dr. Seuss foundation is attempting to protect the legacy of his work and they recognize that some of the works, which may have been insensitive in their time, are no longer within the current bounds of decency.

      The Cat is already out of the Hat, regarding That.

    2. Bill Marshall

      It’s not us vs. them, it’s sane vs. insane.

      A remember a phrase my grandmother taught me… just can’t remember if it was ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or Amish origins…

      “All the world is mad (old meaning, ‘insane’), except me and thee… and I sometimes wonder about thee.”

      Even in discussions of tolerance/acceptance/”celebrating” differences of thought/opinion, it seems that the principle of that quote applies…

      But just my opinion…

    3. Tia Will

      It’s not us vs. them, it’s sane vs. insane.”


      I don’t believe this has anything at all to do with sanity. I believe this has to do with money and power. He who controls the messaging controls more peoples’ thoughts regardless of the veracity of that messaging. This is true in education, in religion ( or lack thereof), in medicine ( direct to consumer advertising), and in politics. 

  3. PhilColeman

    “Here we go around the mulberry bush . . .”

    Now that that worthless back-and-forth finger-pointing was revived once more, I thought that some of you might be interested in a Davis-based ancillary issue that the Dr. Seuss book ban created. This story probably falls into that box, “Law of Unintended Consequences.”

    As soon as the partial ban of publication of Seuss books was announced, Logos Books in Davis received visits and phone calls from book collectors. These cease-published Seuss books had instantly jumped in monetary value. Logos was asked to grab any that came in and notify the collector to purchase at the typical bargain rate.

    In case you wondered how Logos Books decided to handle the notion of collecting “racist” books for the economic advantage of a few, Logos ignores these specific requests.

     

     

     

     

    1. Richard_McCann

      That’s fine to collect them and take them out of circulation. Copies of Mein Kampf also probably go for a high value. The Seuss family isn’t making any money off of these.

  4. Richard_McCann

    I don’t see what the problem is with “cancel culture”. Being entitled to free speech doesn’t mean being free of consequences of those statements. This is what civilization is about. We use all sorts of social norms to keep people in line (and some object). Gays suffered from “cancel culture” for two millennia. Conservatives pushed cancel culture on Hollywood for the mere association with Communists. Each group is entitled to push back against each cancel culture on the merits of the issues, and to support free speech when appropriate.

    Especially in the current world where social media and the Internet have amplified the ability of individuals to spread their message at little cost, the most effective counter is to go after the economic interests of the person who spoke. Economic boycotts were the most effective tool during the civil rights movement. Anyone who think that Blacks would have gained equal rights if they had just peacefully protested in the streets is naïve. Cancel culture is just another effective counter tool. Those on the other side can react if they want to.

    1. Alan Miller

      Cancel culture is a form of bullying.  As are all the disgusting practices you mentioned.  These are brought on by groups and effect individuals.  I see no parallel between bullying and economic boycotts.  Disagreeing is fine.  Shaming individuals into capitulation or causing them to lose their jobs over their political views is disgusting be it cancel culture or McCarthyism.

  5. Jacob Derin

    As the author of “Please Don’t Cancel Dr. Seuss” I suppose I’m obligated to weigh in.

    I would first like to suggest that framing this issue as a “liberal vs conservative” question is not very helpful. For instance, I would not call myself a “conservative.” I know you’re not trying to imply that I am, but I should stress that what I’m saying here does not come from a place of support for American right-wing values.

    Neither does it come from a place of support for left-wing values. I think that this should be, in large part, a non-partisan issue.

    I certainly take the point that the Seuss Foundation has the right to take this action. They own the copyright and are perfectly entitled to stop publishing these books. My point, however, is that this is not an action I would have taken.

    Old literature is full of offensive stereotypes. Pick up virtually any European novel written before the 20th century which contains depictions of non-whites and you will find these sorts of caricatures. I don’t think it’s appropriate to cease the publication of those books simply for that reason. It’s important to remember that these books were products of their time. In fact, it’s quite helpful to preserve them as evidence of how standards of decency and racial tolerance have changed.

    There is a more fundamental issue though, and here’s where I take a hard line, something I rarely do in political discussions. Art can be offensive. That reason alone is not sufficient to justify removing it from the public sphere (even in the limited sense of ceasing publication).

    If the artist themselves decide that removing it is appropriate, they can do it. That’s their right. If it turns out that Geisel is on the record supporting the removal of the books, then I have no issue with it. If he’s not, however, and the decision was made simply because the books offended the political or moral sensibilities of people in the Dr. Seuss Foundation, I can’t get behind removing them from publication.

    What justifies so strong a stance?

    The purpose of art is, I think, twofold: it expresses and it innovates. A commitment to both of those ends requires reserving the right for art to offend. Many of the great works of literature, painting and drama upset their audiences. Crime And Punishment received scathing criticism from Russian and French left-wing circles for its attacks on socialism. As I noted in the opinion article, Ulysses was subjected to an obscenity trial. So was “Howl.”

    This argument that racial stereotypes and caricatures is tangibly harmful recalls, for me, the right-wing condemnation of video games after the Columbine shooting, or of any number of media for depictions of sexuality. I don’t think either is a good reason to justify censorship.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Jacob: I think the fundamental question is in fact the last point that you raise – is what we are seeing here, in fact, censorship?

      1. Jacob Derin

        I would say that it’s censorship. Like anything, there are different degrees of censorship. It’s certainly not as extreme as a book burning or a government ban, but taking a book out of print because it’s politically unpopular is, in my view, a form of censorship. Technically, censorship is any action which “suppresses” speech. Exercising a copyright to forbid the publication of a book seems to meet this standard.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I would argue it is more than politically unpopular. It’s in fact inappropriate and racially insensitive. There is no doubt that it would not get published today. So if you are the family and hoping to protect his legacy, why wouldn’t you depublish it?

        2. Eric Gelber

          Yes it’s censorship. Self-censorship. Something we all (one hopes) do in monitoring our own speech, etc. In this case, the legal representatives of the Seuss estate apparently made a decision to cease publication of books they felt expressed views that were not appropriate for the intended target audience (young children). Who are we to question their judgment? The decision was, in fact, the further exercise of the freedom of expression, not the suppression of speech.

  6. Jacob Derin

    I would stop the publication only if I had good reason to believe it’s what the author himself would have wanted. Otherwise, depublishing it against his wishes would be a strange way of protecting his legacy, given that it’s not how he himself would like to be remembered.

    Whether or not it’s racially insensitive or “inappropriate” simply wouldn’t enter into my decision. I might agree that it is, but also agree that Geisel should be given the opportunity, even posthumously, to express himself that way.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      We do have good reason to believe that. First, his statements made publicly about the inappropriateness of his 1940s cartoons and second, the efforts he made to tone down some of the caricatures towards the end of his life.

      1. Jacob Derin

        Neither of those things is good reason to think he wanted these books taken out of circulation. He had ample opportunity to do that in his lifetime. If that’s what he wanted, why didn’t he?

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          He died 30 years ago. Things that were acceptable in the 80s are not acceptable now. Just like things that were acceptable in the 50s, were not acceptable in the 80s.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Things that were acceptable in the 80s are not acceptable now. Just like things that were acceptable in the 50s, were not acceptable in the 80s.

          Sounds like “we” have a lot of work to do, still.

          Then, we can start on the 70’s, 60’s, revisit the 50’s, . . . .

          A top-to-bottom, thorough house-cleaning.  🙂

          Thank goodness that we’re all so enlightened, now.

        3. Eric Gelber

          I believe those in charge of his estate have a fiduciary duty to do what’s in the interests of the estate, not necessarily what Dr. Seuss would have wanted.

        4. Ron Oertel

          As far as what’s good for the estate, this controversy might be “made-to-order”. Certainly, it has brought more attention to Dr. Seuss – 30 years after his death.

          When do you suppose that the rap music industry might engage in self-censorship, for the supposed good of society?

          Is anyone going to “revisit” that?

        5. Ron Oertel

          I didn’t say that I would like to see any self-censorship.

          Instead, I choose not to listen to it.  What a concept.

          But, I’m sure that you’d find plenty of “material” there, if you’d care to look into it.

          Why do you suppose that few are concerned about it?  (I have a theory, regarding that.  Would you care to hear it? It has to do with the fact that society is only concerned about “white male” misogyny, racism, etc.).

        6. Jacob Derin

          He died 30 years ago. Things that were acceptable in the 80s are not acceptable now. Just like things that were acceptable in the 50s, were not acceptable in the 80s.

          I completely agree with this, but it’s not what I find relevant. The question is whether Geisel would have wanted the books taken out of print, not whether or not our moral standards evolve over time.

        7. Ron Oertel

          Personally, I think the determining factor should be whether the public wants to be deprived of such works, subject to the whims of supposedly-evolving ethics.

          In general, companies aren’t necessarily known for “doing the right thing” for any particular reason, other than self-interest.

          And in this case, it appears that the move was made out of anticipation of fallout, from those who are interested in denying access to others.

          Probably important to keep in mind that the controversial portions are not likely the focus of the books, and that they may have redeeming qualities (given the talent of the author).

          Glad that they haven’t pulled Gone with the Wind, yet. Though I seem to recall some kind of ridiculous “warning label” discussion, recently.

           

  7. Jacob Derin

    The market will decide which artistic ventures succeed and fail, but it shouldn’t decide which ones are attempted. That’s up to the artist.

  8. Alan Miller

    The market will decide which artistic ventures succeed and fail, but it shouldn’t decide which ones are attempted.

    Art can be offensive.

    Long live Piss Christ!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piss_Christ

    Things that were acceptable in the 80s are not acceptable now. Just like things that were acceptable in the 50s, were not acceptable in the 80s.

    Is Piss Christ “acceptable” in the 2020’s ?

     

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