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The liberal Dr. Seuss probably would have thought 'cancel culture' was bunk

A copy of the book "And to Think

A copy of the book "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," by Dr. Seuss. It was published in 1937. Credit: AP/Steven Senne

It is ironic that conservatives have come to Dr. Seuss’ rescue. It is unlikely that he would have wanted to sit down and have a beer with any of the right-wingers who are out there defending the bigotry depicted in some of his children’s books.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, or Dr. Seuss as we know him, was a staunch liberal. He once worked as a political cartoonist for a left-leaning New York newspaper, called PM. By today’s conservative standards, the publication would be called "fake news."

He was so progressive in his day that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could have been his proteges. He was a zealous anti-war advocate, who supported Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Many of his cartoons were critical of Congress and the Republican Party, in particular.

If the author were alive today, he likely would think the idea of "cancel culture" was bunk. Most liberals consider the catchphrase to be nothing more than an excuse to hang on to antiquated ideas that have no place in today’s society.

Perhaps he would not have cared that his books soared to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list shortly after Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which controls the author’s books and characters, announced that it would no longer publish six of his books because of the "hurtful and wrong" way they portrayed people of color.

The books — "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" — quickly sold out from online sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Maybe collectors snapped them up. Maybe some folks were lured to forbidden fruit. But maybe the anti-cancel culture coalition bought them all to show liberals just how tough they could fight back.

To stretch the political divide, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went onto the House floor last week and accused Democrats of "outlawing Dr. Seuss." He later posted a video on Twitter of himself reading "Green Eggs and Ham," though it is not among those being discontinued. McCarthy said he did it because "I still like Dr. Seuss."

If that was an attempt to enrage liberals, he failed. Lots of us still like Dr. Seuss. "Green Eggs and Ham" remains one of my personal favorite children’s books, along with Margaret Wise Brown’s "Goodnight Moon."

No one is telling anyone to suddenly start hating Dr. Seuss. Without a doubt, some of Dr. Seuss’ earliest work was bigoted. Some readers have struggled for decades with the racially charged caricatures that seemed to undermine his brilliant work.

It was hard to understand how someone so socially conscious could be so insensitive.

His first book, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," published in 1937, encourages children to use their imagination. Consider the impression they might have gotten from the Chinese man with two lines for eyes, wearing a pointed hat and carrying chopsticks and a bowl of rice.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss’ intent was to add diversity to the story, but he promoted a stereotype. Maybe he never considered that the depiction would paint a picture in the minds of children of all races that Asian Americans are different from everyone else, even strange.

In "If I Ran the Zoo," two African characters resemble monkeys without shirts and shoes. It is puzzling how an anti-racism advocate such as Dr. Seuss couldn’t see a problem with this.

The book was published in 1950, a few years after he drew political cartoons for PM opposing World War II. He deplored anti-Semitism and racism, and used his cartoons to bring attention to the horrible conditions Blacks were experiencing at home in America.

In an interview with the BBC, cartoonist Art Spiegelman said Dr. Seuss’ wartime political cartoons were drawn "with the fire of honest indignation and anger."

They "rail against isolationism, racism, and anti-Semitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period … virtually the only editorial cartoons outside the communist and black press that decried the military’s Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism," he said.

But Dr. Seuss was also a man of many contradictions. His political cartoons also included incendiary depictions of Japanese leaders and portrayed Japanese Americans as disloyal.

Some have tried to blame his bigoted material on the times, saying that such things were acceptable during that era. But there never has been a time in history where bigotry was OK. Dr. Seuss was smart enough to know that.

We will never know why Dr. Seuss drew such hurtful pictures. Maybe he suffered from unconscious bias, in which he held social stereotypes about certain groups of people without realizing it. Maybe he created a "woke" public image to cover up his bigotry.

All we know for sure is that, like everyone, he was flawed.

Still, there is much to admire about him if you are a liberal. But if you are a far right-wing conservative, Dr. Seuss wasn’t your kind of guy.

Dahleen Glanton wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.

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