The uproar over the announcement that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which controls the legacy of the late children’s author, is discontinuing six titles because of "hurtful" racially offensive images could be seen as the proverbial tempest in a teacup. But the Dr. Seuss brouhaha does raise some genuinely troubling questions about the state of our culture — and just because it’s being cynically exploited by the likes of House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Fox News host Tucker Carlson doesn’t mean the issues are not valid.
Left-of-center commentators who mock the alarm as right-wing hysteria argue that nothing is being banned or "canceled": A publisher has simply decided to let several books go out of print, as happens all the time.
Yet in this case, the decision to drop the books was not based on lack of demand but on the belief that they were offensive.
Are they? In one case, yes: "If I Ran the Zoo," first published in 1950, has an image of two Africans that can only be described as a racist caricature and refers to Asians with "eyes at a slant." But the rest is quite innocuous. "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" (1937) shows a Chinese man in traditional Chinese garb with a rice bowl and chopsticks. (The original edition gave him yellow skin and a pigtail; Dr. Seuss himself later made changes.) In other cases, the "problematic" language is "Eskimo" — offensive to some indigenous activists — and "a Japanese."
Theodor Seuss Geisel, who died 30 years ago at 87, had a complicated history. Some of his cartoons in the 1920s reflected the era’s casual racism and anti-Semitism. During World War II, he became a ferocious critic of both anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism — but also drew racist propaganda cartoons vilifying Japanese-Americans (which he eventually regretted). Later, he was a strong voice for human equality, an author whose books are still used in anti-racism curricula.
Yet today, the withdrawal of the six books comes amid a larger push to stigmatize Dr. Seuss as a bigot. The campaign began with a 2017 paper by anti-racism activist Katie Ishizuka which not only ignores Geisel’s anti-racist work but reads racism even into such beloved classics as "The Cat in the Hat." (Such readings are often based on distortion: Thus, Ishizuka claims there’s a racist subtext in the book’s sequel when the mischievous Cat smears the narrator’s house with ink, without mentioning that the ink is pink.)
This effort has led the National Education Association to uncouple Read Across America Day from Dr. Seuss’s legacy — even though the date is his birthday.
In this context, the move by Dr. Seuss Enterprises looks less like a pure business decision than an attempt to protect its brand from hostile activism by sacrificing a few titles. Most are minor, but "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" is a Dr. Seuss classic — and his first children’s book.
The anti-alarmists assert that the books will still be available. But given that they are being dropped as "racist books," don’t be so sure: They are being scrubbed from eBay and removed from public libraries in Chicago, with other library systems considering similar moves.
Yes, right-wingers whose interest in free expression is opportunistic are exploiting this kerfuffle to stoke the culture wars. But the leftists who shrug it off as the free market at work would undoubtedly take a less benign view if these were, say, pro-LGBTQ books targeted by conservative evangelicals. Who are hypocrites now?
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.