Bias Bigotry Education Reform Literature Racism

Dr. Seuss and “Cancel Culture”

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The publisher of the many books written by Theodor Geisl (“Dr. Seuss”) announced that it was suspending publication of six books that contained demeaning drawings of Asian and African figures.

The books that will no longer be published are:

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”

“If I Ran the Zoo”

“McElligot’s Pool,”

“On Beyond Zebra!,”

“Scrambled Eggs Super!”

“The Cat’s Quizzer.”

Having written a book in 2003 called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn, I have a long-standing interest in censorship of books, textbooks, and tests. In that book, I came down on the side of free speech and freedom of expression. I did not grapple, however, with the real dilemma presented by books that contained hateful images, even if they were not seen as such when they were first published. I was looking instead at organized efforts to cleanse publications of anything that might offend anyone, like a reference to a cowboy or a landlady or a man wearing a sombrero or an elderly person using a cane.

I wrote about campaigns to remove Huckleberry Finn from class reading lists, to revise Shakespeare to remove bawdy language, and to remove all gendered roles from books.

If I had the chance to revise The Language Police, I would express a different opinion today. I don’t think that children should be required to read books that contain images that are insulting to people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, or religion.

Dr. Seuss wrote wonderful books that did not contain objectionable images. His work will survive. I actually met Theodor Geisl (Dr. Seuss) at a dinner party at the home of Robert Bernstein, the publisher of Random House. He was not a racist or a sexist. The messages that I got from the books I read to my children were humorous, funny, anti-authoritarian, and very appealing to children. My sons learned to read because we read Dr. Seuss so often, again and again, books like “Cat in the Hat” and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Those books taught them the playfulness of language. We also read “I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew,” which had a very important lesson about not imagining that there was some ideal place out there “where they never have troubles, at least very few,” and that it is best to confront the problems you have in the here and the now. I memorized the opening lines of “Happy Birthday to You” because of its wonderful, wacky rhymes. Another favorite “Yertle the Turtle” was an implicit critique of big shots who tried to lord it over everyone else.

So I write as a mother and grandmother who admired Dr. Seuss’s works. Those that contain racist and insensitive images dishonor him. Any offensive images should be cut out.

Republicans have suddenly become big fans of Dr. Seuss, who was a liberal Democrat and a passionate anti-fascist (Antifa). They say that withdrawing his books because of racist imagery is “cancel culture.”

Donald Trump Jr. has been especially vocal about the harm of “cancel culture.” He is suddenly a fan of liberal anti-fascist Dr. Seuss. Real “cancel culture” is trying to cancel the results of a national election because you lost. Real “cancel culture” is suppressing the votes of people who are likely to vote for the other party. The worst “cancel culture” is using your power to cancel democracy.

The wounded Republicans who decry “cancel culture” are worried that the white male dominant culture in which they grew up is slipping away. Trump Sr. said he would put an end to “political correctness,” so that it would once again be fine to make jokes about women and people of color.

Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect expressed his opinion in a Seussian poem:

Kuttner on TAP
If We Ran the Zoo
A lefty named Ted used his art to fight bigots
His books and cartoons were like tolerance spigots.
He located his parables on islands and zoos
And adopted the sweet pen name of Doctor Seuss.

Some of his Sneetches had bellies with stars
They dissed other Sneetches with none upon thars.
The north-going Zax dumbly blocked the way
Of the south-going Zax so that neither could play.

So many of his stories had the same takeaway:
No one is privileged, no race should hold sway.
Our kids grew up with Ted’s tales as teachers
Absorbing the lessons along with the creatures.

Some of his stories were merely in fun
But Ted Geisel’s great cause was to put hate on the run.
His wartime cartoons in the great conflagration
Attacked every brand of discrimination.

In The Lorax Geisel was an early enviro
On gender roles, he was also a tyro.
When Mayzie the bird got weary of egg duty
Horton pitched in and hatched a beauty.

Of course good Doctor Seuss lived in a time
When stereotypes were as common as grime.
Once in a great while, one crept into his whimsy
But against his good deeds the charge of bigot is flimsy.

So swap out some pictures
But please keep the text
And watch who you cancel
For you could be next.

My hunch, having met the real Dr. Seuss, is that if he were alive today, he would change the illustrations in the offending books. And he would applaud the decision to revise them. He was born in 1905; he lived in a time when racism was commonplace and acceptable. It is not any more. And it should never be again. And Dr. Seuss would agree.

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