CONTROVERSY OVER DR. SEUSS
CALLS FOR BALANCE, PROPORTION
In this day when pop culture has embraced a rainbow of gender identities and sexual tastes, it’s hard to believe that there was once a time when people were shocked at salacious remarks and indiscreet behavior on television.
Does anyone remember Terry Rakolta (an in-law of Mitt Romney), who mounted a national boycott against the raunchy 1980s sitcom, “Married…with Children”?
In that bygone era, anyone disturbed by broadcast smut — no matter how deeply offended they might be — was met with the dismissive remark…
“Well, you don’t have to watch it, you know. Just change the channel!”
And if they objected…
“But this stuff is so pervasive on TV, children can’t help stumbling onto it.”
…the standard rejoinder was…
“It’s up to you to monitor what your children see. Besides, kids aren’t as impressionable as all that. They won’t be destroyed by an off-color joke or a little glimpse of tushie.”
…which inevitably led to the elevated pronouncement…
“One person’s moral values shouldn’t impinge upon someone else’s artistic freedom.”
Ah…such an innocent time that was.
Today, race and ethnicity vie with sex as the primary field of social controversy (there are too many genders to keep track of, anyway). A verbal expression, or an image, or even just a vague implication will raise all kinds of hackles if it’s deemed culturally insensitive or suggestive of prejudice.
As for the sanctity of artistic freedom? Well, that’s gone by the wayside. The subtlest, most ephemeral, most abstract ethnic allusion — real or imagined — can bring down the meat clever of Cancel Culture.
By now, everyone has heard of the fuss over certain Dr. Seuss children’s books. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that administers the creative legacy of the late Theodore Geisel (the famous author-illustrator’s real name), is dropping six volumes from the official Seuss canon:
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
If I Ran the Zoo
On Beyond Zebra!
Scrambled Eggs Super!
The Cat’s Quizzer
That announcement was timed to Geisel’s birthday, which has been observed for several years with special programs to encourage children to read. The reason given?…
“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
I used to read Dr. Seuss books to my kids when they were little, though I can’t recall having any of these particular volumes. Maybe most of them came along later.
Anyhow, my son and daughter were more into “The Cat in the Hat.” I think they were rather intrigued by the mayhem caused by Thing 1 and Thing 2.
But among the banned titles, at least one — If I Ran the Zoo — has gained the status of a business cliché. Numerous times I’ve heard someone proclaim how differently things would be done in a company “if I ran the zoo.”
With all the hubbub unfolding, I checked out some of the Dr. Seuss images deemed offensive. And there’s no denying the stereotypical images of Black and Asian characters. Not that figures assumed to be White are treated with much greater dignity. Nevertheless, the complaints are valid.
There’s been a lot of generalizing throughout this controversy. Geisel has been called a flat-out “racist,” and his works aimed at children have gotten all rolled in together with his earlier political cartoons and advertising illustrations — which did, indeed, reflect the casual racism of his time. I think, however, that it’s necessary to separate these various creative categories.
Especially as regards his World War II propaganda drawings that trafficked in Oriental clichés so as to put a repulsive face on the Japanese enemy.
Offensive? Perhaps. But America was hardly alone in its use of racial stereotypes.
The Nazis raised Master Race imagery to the level of a high art, with grim anti-Semitic visuals providing a counterpoint. In the Pacific Theater, Imperial propaganda put forth Japanese militarism as a stand against White rapacity (as suggested by this Japanese representation of Franklin Roosevelt on the left).
We should maintain some perspective about Geisel’s wartime output. Consider, for instance, these two caricatures below. Does the (European) Hitler fare much better than the (Asian) Tojo in satiric representation?
Admittedly, Theodore Geisel wasn’t always able to transcend ethnocentric tendencies in his kidlit work. At the same time, his books often focused specifically on themes of inclusiveness and the embracing of differences. One thinks of Horton Hears a Who, which stresses the fundamental “humanity” of the Whoville inhabitants, even though they’re too minute to be seen…
“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
No doubt, the times and the standards of acceptability have changed.
It’s not hard for an old White guy like me to appreciate that Black or Asian people would be put off by the more questionable race-suggestive details in Dr. Seuss books. Despite the eagerness of Geisel’s defenders to tag this controversy as political correctness run amok, the images are there, and they are pretty insulting.
But in fairness, one has to ask…
Do people of color never say anything disparaging about Whites?
Are all non-White artists and cartoonists so high-minded as to never distort the features of Caucasian characters?
And don’t give me any blather about how only Whites can be racists because they have all the power. As Dr. Seuss might have put it…
A racist’s a racist, no matter —
well, no matter how their skin is toned.
(Forgive me. The poetry doesn’t work, but you get the point.)
The Dr. Seuss controversy takes us back to that elevated pronouncement made by defenders of 1980s TV smut…
“One person’s moral values shouldn’t impinge upon someone else’s artistic freedom.”
That might have been too smugly condescending a dismissal of Terry Rakolta and other objectors at the time. But the TV defenders weren’t entirely wrong. There was a principle involved.
Granted, the principle isn’t clear-cut or easy to defend. We’ve been grappling with its many intricacies and contradictions ever since the First Amendment was added to our Constitution. It remains a central concern of basic liberty. And I don’t see an answer to our moral dilemma on the horizon.
Much as we might wish to avoid offensiveness, we can’t allow the impressive creativity of Theodore Geisel to be canceled with the “RACIST!” stamp. He made too great a contribution — to learning and to childhood joy. Rather, we must evaluate his legacy with a proper sense of balance and proportion.
At least, that’s what I’d do, if I ran the zoo.
Tristin Hopper, a reporter and columnist for Canada’s National Post, runs down six illustrations that have drawn fire, and recounts some of the criticisms which have been directed at Dr. Seuss — including over a particular political drawing…
“One 1942 cartoon even endorses Japanese-American internment by showing Japanese-Americans as disloyal citizens stockpiling explosives and ‘waiting for the signal from home.’”
Hopper notes, however, that Theodore Geisel was “an early advocate for strong U.S. action against Nazi Germany,” and observes that, even though he used racial stereotypes…
“Geisel could simultaneously take stances against racism and prejudice, even when those concepts were against the mainstream.”
Check out Hopper’s report at…
Britain’s Daily Mail observed the outrage at cancelling Dr. Seuss books. Included were complaints about eBay dropping Geisel’s work while continuing to carry Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the anti-Semitic writings of Louis Farrakhan…
Writer Emily Zanotti views the Dr. Seuss controversy from the vantage of her own family situation, and sees a certain irony…
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson looked at the Dr. Seuss issue, and highlighted the extent to which Theodore Geisel tried to emphasize tolerance and social unity, despite the occasional lapses into ethnic clichés. He noted that Geisel’s view — one which might be described as traditional liberalism — is unacceptable to today’s Left…
Tom G. says
(Beaten, bloodied, and gasping for air on the side of the road, Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss warn all who pass by….)
Friend, beware the Tater-Haters!
Look!… The Grinch is on the loose!
Both swear Western Culture’s evil,
And they’ve come to cook its goose.
Coca-Cola’s in their cross-hairs,
So is 2 plus 2 is 4.
They’ve arrived to cure The Cancer.
(They’re the ones they’ve waited for.)
* * *
It’s the Juggernaut of Nonsense
Doing all the dirty work.
Learned scholars from the dark side,
Social planners gone berserk.
It’s the latest Night Maneuver…
From the Upper Echelon.
Bedlam’s current Pilate Program
(Pray the dark before the dawn.)*
Indeed, looking on the bright side
Of this wretched slipp’ry slope,
Soon you’ll see the Son appearing,
Daybreak!….Promised Blessed Hope.**
* * *
* He who made the Pleiades and Orion
And changes deep darkness into morning,
Who also darkens day into night,
Who calls for the waters of the sea
And pours them out on the surface of the earth,
The Lord is His name. – Amos 5:8
** Titus 2:13
Joe S. says
He was a liberal Democrat who opposed fascism in the forties and President Nixon in thee 70’s. He was a preachy liberal.
It makes sense, cause the liberals are the racists.
Joe H. says
A voice of sanity.
Dorothy M. says
Why is a small group of people controlling our planet?
How did they get this power?
Art H. says
This should be required reading in DC.
Steven D. Greydanus says
“there’s no denying the stereotypical images of Black and Asian characters…the complaints are valid”
“Not that figures assumed to be White are treated with much greater dignity”
Glib and incorrect.
“Offensive? Perhaps. But America was hardly alone in its use of racial stereotypes.”
Great. We were bad, but the Nazis were worse!
“Does the (European) Hitler fare much better than the (Asian) Tojo in satiric representation?”
Considering Seuss’s racist caricatures of Japanese included cartoons depicting Americans of Japanese descent as traitors and defending internment camps, I think there’s a difference, yes.
“Do people of color never say anything disparaging about Whites?…don’t give me any blather about how only Whites can be racists because they have all the power”
Actually, the problem isn’t that people of color can’t be racist. They can. The problem is that racism is a cultural problem that is bigger than individual people of any skin color, and the cultural heritage that we *all* labor under is white supremacy.
“One person’s moral values shouldn’t impinge upon someone else’s artistic freedom”
No one’s artistic freedom has been impinged upon. The trustees of Theodore Geisel’s estate have elected to stop publishing six books out of the more than 60 that he wrote. No book stays in print forever. The books are still available in libraries. It is reasonable, though, not to continue to market harmful images to impressionable children.
(NOTE: Steven D. Greydanus is a Catholic writer and film critic.)
Bill Kassel says
Thanks for taking time to read my blog post and offer your analysis.
This kind of thoughtful discussion is what’s too often missing on social media.
Stu T. says
Dr Seuss? Mr. and Ms. Potato Head? What’s next?
Marty F. says
Great article. Common sense.
Susan P. says
Bill Kassel, that is pretty good. But personally, I don’t know why anyone should think Geisel’s funny pictures are about him personally. The way I feel about it is that I just do not care if someone is offended.
On the other hand, I once saw part of “Married…with Children,” and I thought it was disgusting, not for sexual references, per se, but because of how badly the people in it were treating each other. It was low and crude, and I felt nauseated by it. However, I just chose not to have a television.
I did not start a campaign saying what everyone should do so, although I secretly wished they would. I did not go around breaking televisions, although I have unplugged a few in public places when I could get away with it.
Anyway, I have zero sympathy for the point of view of those who want to cancel Dr. Seuss.
Ree L. says
The Zoo is our country today, and the “inmates” are in charge.
Al F. says
The voices of the outlanders on “either” side of any argument “cancel” themselves out in their absurdity and redundancy. Sanctimony is nauseating whatever the source.
Amy S. says
What I’ve read is that they stopped printing those books a few years ago because they just weren’t selling well and were not beloved favorites. If they hadn’t announced it, no one would have noticed. Books go out of print all the time for not selling well, including some I know I’ll never find again, so I hang on to the shreds.
I’ve also read that Geisel changed his attitude toward his choices of racial caricature later in life. Lots of people change.
The days of propaganda cartoons have given way to… new kinds of propaganda cartoons, I suppose; but we don’t lose anything by allowing embarrassing, outdated stuff to fade away. I have a copy of one or two of those discontinued books somewhere, but heck if I have any memories.
There were so many others which left the very best kind of new grooves in my little grey cells. Horton Hatches the Egg was a sweet moral tale read aloud by my mother, and it remains well-loved and in print. Oh! The Thinks You Can Think! was my psychedelic awakening, and it is still there to blow the minds of impressionable 5-year-olds everywhere!