This column originally ran in the March 21, 2021, edition of the Beaumont Enterprise.
The decision by Dr. Seuss’ estate to cease publication of six of his books has caused a furor among those who see the decision as an example of “cancel culture” run amok. These Chicken Littles are running around once again screaming about censorship and that democracy’s sky is falling. First the (fake) war on Christmas, now we are killing the Cat in the Hat, they wail, claiming to fly the banner of freedom from censorship.
First of all, let’s get the censorship question out of the way. Censorship is the prohibition of speech or expression by a governmental agency. If Twitter chooses to not allow hate speech, it’s not censorship. It’s simply their policy. On the other hand, if the government tries to force Twitter to restrict speech through punitive measures, then that is censorship. A private company is free to enforce restrictions as they wish.
Similarly, if a business chooses to enforce a mask mandate even though Gov. Abbott misguidedly decides it’s fine, they are not infringing upon your rights. You have the right to choose to shop there or somewhere else. But if you choose to shop there, know that you have to wear the mask.
But I digress. The Seuss books have not been censored. Only less than one-tenth of his more than 60 titles have been voluntarily withdrawn by his estate. Nobody forced them to, it was their decision, presumably, to protect Seuss’ legacy — that’s kind of their job.
I teach a political cartoon history course, and Theodor Geisel is an important part of the early 20th-century studies. His political cartoons are wonderful for the most part. Ironically, considering the source of his recent support, Geisel (we all know that was Dr. Seuss’ real name, right?) was an anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-Nazi activist. His cartoons attacked the America-firsters, led by Charles Lindbergh, whom he saw as undermining American values. He drew wicked caricatures of Adolf Hitler, Mussolini and other fascists.
Art Spiegelman, author of the graphic novel “Maus,” wrote that Geisel’s cartoons, “rail against isolationism, racism, and anti-semitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most editorial pages.”
When America went to war with Japan after Pearl Harbor, Geisel turned his pen against the Japanese. And his cartoons were as caustic against the Japanese as they were against the Nazis. But looking at these cartoons now, his depictions of the Japanese is problematic.
They are harshly stereotypical, with slits for eyes and buck teeth. There is no doubt that these images would not be tolerated today, but that was a different time and Geisel later said he regretted them. Geisel traveled to Japan after the war and “Horton Hears a Who” is dedicated to a Japanese professor he met there, a sort of mea culpa.
We cannot apply the sensibilities of today to the world of the past. Cartoonist Thomas Nast was a fervent abolitionist and supporter of Abraham Lincoln, yet the depictions of some of the downtrodden African Americans of the South have an uncomfortably “piccaninny” feel to them. In class, we talk about how Nast should be judged for his abolitionism — and his cartoons were powerful and influential, and reached a wide audience — rather than the unsubtle product of his pen (cartoons, by nature, often deal in stereotypical imagery, and Nast’s images would have been immediately recognizable to the reader. Nowadays we are, hopefully, more aware of the potential for offense).
A recent article in The Guardian newspaper argued that rewriting children’s books to remove offensive content is nothing new. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, in their original form, contain what we now would consider to be racially offensive depictions. Even E.L. Travers made adjustments to the Mary Poppins books in 1981. She reworked a chapter where the children travel the globe, changing the people they met to animals to avoid offensive descriptions. And don’t get me started about the original Oompa-Loompas.
Speaking of reworking children’s classics, reading the excessive violence on the original Grimm fairy tales is traumatic for adults, let alone children.
“Cancel culture” is a useful buzzword to rail against the perceived loss of a way of life — a “white” way of life. We hear all the time that this is eroding societal values. Surely, society’s values mean adapting and changing, to be empathetic to others. Ah, but there seems to be the problem — the “other.” These same people had no trouble canceling the Dixie Chicks, as they were known before they dropped the “Dixie” (and why did the band drop it? Ah yes, because they were considerate of those who might have trouble with Dixie’s association with slavery). But those doing the canceling were not “other.” I guess cancel culture is only a problem when it’s the right culture being canceled.
So, Dr. Seuss had some problematic imagery in a few of his minor books. It doesn’t mean he was racist, just that his estate decided to withdraw them. It was their choice. Nobody forced them to do it. And the books have been in print for years, so they are still out there. If you feel the desperate need to make a point and buy one so you can display it next your confederate flag and rail against “cancel culture,” you have that right.
No one is stopping you. And that’s the point.
Andy Coughlan is a journalism educator and adviser at Lamar University and a visual artist and playwright. He has drawn the local Sunday cartoon for The Beaumont Enterprise for more than 25 years. His writings can be found on his blog at andycoughlanart.wordpress.com.