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If curtailing racist imagery in Dr. Seuss is 'cancel culture,' what, exactly, is your culture?

"If I Ran the Zoo," by Dr. Seuss.

"If I Ran the Zoo," by Dr. Seuss. Credit: AP/Erin McCracken

My 4-year-old son recently received some books a family member had sent as a Thanksgiving present. Yes, recently - but this is not a story about the U.S. Postal Service. It is, instead, about the way in which stated concerns about "cancel culture" can serve as Spackle for frustrations over a changing world.

One he was sent was Dr. Seuss's "If I Ran the Zoo," a book I had as a kid that I remembered fondly. In it, a boy imagines what he'd do with the local zoo were he in charge. It's Seuss, so the boy's conjurings are wild, weird creatures whose names rhyme with their points of origin.

I sat down to read it with Thomas and rambled along in rhythm. Then I turned the page to the "African island of Yerka" on which lived the Tufted Mazurka. In Seuss' drawing, the bird-thing is perched on a pole being held by two caricatures of African men that are so obviously and immediately racist that it was almost breathtaking. It would be like watching an interview with Tom Hanks in which he suddenly started casually dropping racial slurs, a grotesque act accentuated by astonishment at the source. This was Dr. Seuss, the benchmark for authors of children's books!

"If I Ran the Zoo" is one of the six Seuss books that will soon be out of publication, a decision made by Seuss's estate given its obviously racist imagery. And this being March 2021, one response was obvious and immediate: Wow, they're canceling Dr. Seuss!

No one is "canceling" Dr. Seuss, a phrasing by now so detached from reality that it doesn't even make any sense. The author, Theodor Seuss Geisel, is dead, for one thing, which is about as canceled as a person can get. The vast, vast majority of his books, the ones without racist images or references, will still be sold. If Dr. Seuss' profile wanes a bit as a result of the attention being paid to his drawings - the only form of "canceling" at play here - to whom is harm being done?

The answer, of course, is people who perceive criticism of the casual racism of the past as criticism of their own behavior or as a reminder of how the world around them is changing. It's not that some Dr. Seuss books are being taken out of rotation. It's that Seuss is a benchmark for a particular sort of American upbringing. Calling out Seuss' - infrequent! - racist imagery is therefore an attack on that view of American identity.

It's a short hop from here to rhetoric demanding that we make America great again. This was always the value that Donald Trump offered to his supporters: unwinding the clock to a point in which everything was stable and unchanging and systems worked explicitly, if often unwittingly, to the advantage of White men in particular. Challenging Seuss drawings exposes the racism that usually undergirded those advantages.

This has been an undercurrent to our political conversation for decades. It used to be that "political correctness" was the poison undermining the United States, a phrasing that emerged in response to a limited effort to change how things were described but that eventually served as a shorthand for "attacks on traditional culture."

In the first Republican presidential primary debate of 2015, Trump was asked about past comments in which he'd disparaged women. He joked about having done so at first but, when pressed, offered a pat response.

"I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct," he said to applause.

The fight against "cancel culture" is now a mainstay of Republican rhetoric because it extends that complaint. Attacking "cancel culture" simultaneously allows the right to reinforce a sense that the world is changing around them and to blame the left - read: the media, technology firms - for attacking tradition or conservative values. The theme of the Conservative Political Action Conference last week was "America Uncanceled," a theme that became a bit ironic when organizers had to cancel a scheduled speaker when past anti-Semitic comments came to light.

That's the thing about all of this: The complaints about cancellation often reveal more about the complainer's views of power than about whatever's being "canceled." Antisemitism is a political problem for CPAC. Because of the composition of CPAC's base, a 70-year-old children's book featuring racist caricatures is, instead, an opportunity. Mr. Potato Head became a point of tension last week because Hasbro decided to make the brand gender-neutral. The outcry (largely a misunderstanding, as it turned out) derived in no small part from the idea that there was something ridiculous about de-emphasizing expected gender norms, a tacit suggestion that those norms were necessary and important simply because they were norms. It's all an objection to change that de-emphasizes the primacy of one particular group.

None of this is to say that there aren't examples in which there are efforts to police language or actions that, intentionally or not, risk chilling people's willingness to speak frankly. This line is obviously blurry and individual instances can be blurred, making criticisms of "cancel culture" a potent political tool.

That qualification, though, shouldn't mask the undercurrents of power and race that are central to the complaint. Consider another example: When I was a kid, we all told each other Polish jokes, disparaging the intelligence of people from Poland. Those seem to have been retired, and I don't remember any great outcry as that happened. My world is not emptier for my not being able to make those jokes, and the lives of kids of Polish ancestry have probably improved.

What's more, if a speaker at CPAC made such a joke, it's safe to say that some people in the room might object. That's in part because Polish Americans are no longer associated closely with Eastern European immigration, which was to the United States a century ago what immigration from Central America is today. Polish people were targets of discrimination and seen as something other than White, Western Europeans. Over time, that perception faded and the jokes went from discriminatory insults to hurtful anachronisms.

Seuss's caricatures are hurtful anachronisms. What's more, until a few weeks ago, my son didn't know this book existed. So where's the harm in his not seeing its images? Why would anyone think it is less problematic for a kid to be exposed to racist caricatures of African (or, at a different point in the book, Asian) people than for him not to be?

This isn't some toxic "cancel culture." If it were, what would that say about the culture that you're defending?