By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Welcome to this week’s episode of “Why the current outrage du jour is based on misunderstandings and false information.” Last week we discussed Mr. Potato Head. Today we’ll be discussing Dr. Seuss.
Me and Dr. Seuss, we go way back. When I was a little kid, my great-aunt Chris scoured yard sales and bought me dozens of Dr. Seuss books. I loved Dr. Seuss. I loved his crazy illustrations and rhymes. In fact, when I was in fourth grade and we had an assignment to give a presentation pretending to be a famous author, I picked Dr. Seuss.
I feel this makes me well-qualified to discuss this week’s bizarre outrage: six Dr. Seuss books are no longer going to be published, and people are losing their minds.
This, they say, is yet another example of liberal cancel culture run amok. Is this the end of The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat? Is nothing sacred? How long, oh Lord, how long? Etc. etc. etc.
First off, here are the six books that are no longer going to be published: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; If I Ran the Zoo; McElligot’s Pool; On Beyond Zebra!; Scrambled Eggs Super!; and The Cat’s Quizzer.
As someone who is such a fan of Dr. Seuss that I once dressed up as him for a class project, I can tell you that of these six books, I’ve only read the first one and I’ve only ever heard of the first two. The heavy hitters aren’t lapsing from publication; The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat are safe, and you will continue hearing excerpts from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” from exceptionally lazy commencement speakers at high school and college graduations for centuries to come.
Secondly, no one is “cancelling” these six books. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which owns the rights to his material, voluntarily decided to cease publication of these titles.
It seems to me that the capitalist argument would be that a private corporation has the right to do whatever it wants with an intellectual property it owns outright. But maybe I’m missing something.
Third — and here’s the main thing — these six books contain some pretty racist material, and that’s the reason Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided to cease publication.
Here’s one example: “If I Ran the Zoo” features an illustration of three Asian caricatures carrying a caged beast. The text describes them as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.” And that isn’t the only example from that specific book.
When “If I Ran the Zoo” was published in 1950, no one would have batted an eye at this. Heck, it would be another 11 years before “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” came out and audiences got to yuk it up at Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi, a character so searingly racist that even David Duke would probably describe the performance as “a bit broad.”
There’s a tendency to look to the past and say, “Back then, people knew how to take a joke!” I disagree. I think people knew how to endure a joke and bottle up their pain.
I have a friend I’ve known since elementary school. Back in the day, he had a fairly wide nose, and I remember other classmates would tell him he looked like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. He would laugh at the jokes, but I knew even then he wasn’t laughing on the inside.
I can only imagine how many times over the last 71 years that a child has gone up to an Asian classmate, pointed toward the Asian caricature in “If I Ran the Zoo,” and said, “Look, it’s you!” Anyone who doesn’t believe that exact situation has played out has clearly never met any children.
To be clear, I don’t believe all of this means Dr. Seuss was a bad person. He was a product of his time. He was born in 1904, for crying out loud. And it’s well worth pointing out that even he changed his opinions as he grew older. While he was strongly in favor of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II — truly one of the most shameful actions in our nation’s history — he changed his mind in the years following the war. In fact, “Horton Hears a Who!” is considered his allegory for the post-war American occupation of Japan, and he dedicated it to a Japanese friend.
If Dr. Seuss were still alive today (at the ripe old age of 117), I feel like he would have supported letting these books lapse from print. He demonstrated himself to be a man willing to change his mind when presented with new information, a skill in mighty short supply these days.
But to those who are still horrified by the decision to remove these six books from print, I encourage you to purchase some Dr. Seuss books. I’d specifically recommend two personal favorites: “The Lorax,” which is one of the finest books ever written about the importance of preserving the environment, and “The Butter Battle Book,” which is an anti-war parable about the dangers of nuclear escalation and mutually assured destruction.
That’ll stick it to those cancel culture liberals.