The estate for Doctor Seuss
Has made a public call
It’ll keep publishing his books
But it won’t publish them all.
Six different titles
Will no longer be dispersed.
But is it a reasonable reaction?
Or cancel culture at its worst?
In case you missed it between the raging pandemic and urgent warnings over potential tsunamis, the second highest-earning dead celebrity has caused a few ructions this week.
The company that manages the catalogue for Dr Seuss has announced it will no longer continue to publish six of his titles because they contain racist or insensitive imagery.
Of the books that will no longer be published, the only ones I recognised were To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street, and If I ran the Zoo. All the other real Dr Seuss classics – Greens Eggs and Ham etc – will continue to be published.
Of course, those on the frontlines of the Twitter culture wars haven’t wasted time seizing upon the decision and working themselves into a state. Some politicians in the U.S say Dr Seuss is being cancelled. Others say Dr Seuss was racist.
I think you always have to consider these things in the time and context in which they were created. Times change. People change. Attitudes change. Values change. Standards change. So, for example, if a white person dressed in black face make up at a party twenty years ago, I don’t think they should be judged strictly by the standards of today. People should be allowed to change. I think some modern outrage neglects to recognise the context in which people made decisions.
It applies for dress-up parties, and it applies for artists. It applies for Dr Seuss. I don’t think he was deliberately trying to impart lazy racial tropes or images upon the World’s children. If he submitted those books for publishing today, I doubt the publishers would accept them. But like all of us, I think he was a product of his time. I’m sure there are plenty of artists working today whose work we’ll look back on in years to come, and think... whoa... actually, that wasn’t very cool.
I also think that as far as problematic racial images go, Dr Seuss’ pictures were hardly the most offensive or damaging slights known to the literary World. Yep, Dr Seuss has been published extensively. Yep, I understand there is a collective weight to stereotypes when they’re repeated in society often enough. But perspective is valuable, and sometimes the term ‘racist’ becomes a binary label for historical figures. They’re either racist or they’re not.
Last month, the San Francisco School Board announced dozens of schools should be renamed because they celebrated problematic racist historical figures. Among those to be renamed: schools named after Abraham Lincoln. That’s ludicrous, obviously. And it’s the sort of thing creates false equivalencies, gets disproportionate media attention, and undermines the greater effort to address racial injustice.
Of course there are now plenty of people who say that this is an open-shut case of books being banned. It’s not. No censor has stepped in and said children can’t read these Dr Seuss titles. There isn’t a Seussian bonfire being lit outside of Wellington’s poor old public library. They’re just not going to continue to publish a few of his books. Most of them, I’m guessing, you didn’t even know existed. If you really want to read them, you can. If you have these books at home, and you think showing your kids the offending images and using them as a learning opportunity is a better way to handle this kind of thing, that’s totally fine.
The problem with the culture wars
Is everything becomes a fight
And if Dr Seuss were alive today
He’d say this issue isn’t black and white.
In the author’s mighty legacy
This is just a little quirk
Regardless of whether those books caused much offense,
They weren’t the Doc’s best work.