To understand how far cancel culture has come, go back to March 2, 2010.
Children crowd into the Library of Congress for the 13th-annual Read Across America Day, an event that coincides with the birthday of beloved children’s author Theodor Geisel. On the stage, surrounded by red and white balloons, sits First Lady Michelle Obama. In her hands is a book, “The Cat in the Hat.” Its author was Geisel, who wrote under the pseudonym of Dr. Seuss.
At one point in the story, children are confronted with whether to confess the outrageous events of the day. Obama pauses and tells the children: “Always tell your mother the truth.”
We wonder what those children are thinking now.
Today, Geisel is undergoing a cultural reappraisal. Dr. Seuss didn’t lead a Confederate battalion in the Civil War, he didn’t shake hands with Nazi leaders, he didn’t send racist or sexist Tweets. He didn’t even sell pancake syrup.
He wrote and illustrated children’s books, enduring classics that explored themes of ecology (“The Lorax”), acceptance of others (“The Sneetches and Other Stories”) and staying true to your word (“Horton Hatches the Egg.”)
His characters were whimsical and often anthropomorphic, but there were exceptions. The company that manages Geisel’s estate pulled six of the author’s lesser-known works for stereotypical, offensive imagery of Blacks and Asians, a move that’s not unprecedented in publishing.
That didn’t stop the cancel machinery from kicking into gear. Learning for Justice, a liberal education advocacy group, claims the works of Dr. Seuss are steeped in “orientalism, anti-Blackness and white supremacy.” A school in Virginia dropped its annual Dr. Seuss celebration. President Joe Biden omitted any mention of the author in his Read Across America Day proclamation.
Maybe it’s time to put Geisel into context with his times. Don’t you know someone out there, possibly a grandparent or great-grandparent, who was much loved but said things that made you squirm?
Prior to World War II, Geisel supported FDR and drew cartoons for a liberal magazine. His work at the time targeted anti-Semitism, Jim Crow racism and isolationism. That’s part of it. The other part came after Pearl Harbor, when his political cartoons became more crude and contained ugly stereotypes of the Japanese.
A similar dichotomy could be found in his children’s books. The point here isn’t to suggest that he should be canceled, because most of his work is still fun and meaningful, or that he should be absolved, because some of the images were offensive.
The problem is that these days you’re either Bull Connor or Mother Theresa. In looking at Geisel, and cancel culture in general, it might be time to step back and comprehend that there’s a lot of ground in between.