Cancel culture reached new levels of absurdity in the past couple weeks when Dr. Seuss became the newest piece of beloved culture deemed racist. Responding to a growing controversy, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that owns the right to the Seuss empire, decided it would remove six of Seuss’ titles from publication.
Some of those defending the move point out this isn’t censorship, as the company rightfully owns the books and has every right to make marketing decisions based on shifting consumer demands. If this were just a private company’s decision, they would have a valid point. This went far behind that, however, and it’s why people should be concerned about the way cancel culture creates a de facto censorship.
Even if it’s not a product of government action, it is quite political: President Joe Biden removed any mention of Dr. Seuss from Read Across America Day; some public libraries are removing Seuss’ works from their shelves; and eBay prohibited any listing of the books in question after sales of the offending books skyrocketed. (Interestingly, you can still use eBay to bid on copies of Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf.)
Facebook posted fact checkers’ warning on memes suggesting the Cat in the Hat had been canceled. While it’s true that title was not among those no longer being published, much of what led to the rebranding of Dr. Seuss as a racist was a misleading 2019 study, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” This study argues that the Cat in the Hat embodies “racist tradition” and Horton Hears a Who! “reinforces themes of white supremacy.” Don’t be surprised if the mob soon comes for the rest of Dr. Seuss’ titles.
Dr. Seuss instilled values that should be welcomed by any progressive liberal. The Lorax contains a parable about saving the environment. The Butter Battle Book is a satire about the Cold War. The villain in Yertle the Turtle mirrors the rise and fall of Hitler. In The Sneetches, two groups of birds — some with stars on their bellies and some without — come to realize these superficial differences don’t really matter.
To be sure, the way Dr. Seuss drew some of his characters display racist caricatures, and some of his work can be seen as a defense of Japanese internment during World War II. It’s true that this man, whose brilliance birthed a love of reading for generations of children, probably had more than a few flaws. But by the standards of the cancel culture mob, any artist whose work is more than a few years old won’t be able to pass their rigid moral purity tests and will certainly become the target of its wrath.
The cancel culture mob’s intolerance is not only diminishing our ability to appreciate large swaths of great art, literature, and movies, it’s ruining our sense of humor. In a New York Times column defending the canceling of Dr. Seuss, Charles M. Blow called out the Warner Bros. cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew as furthering “rape culture.” For those of us who grew up laughing with these cartoons, we know Pepe Le Pew as the guy you don’t want to be. This overly confident fool never got the girl precisely because he was too proud to recognize his own flaws. That’s the joke, and like any joke, it’s not going to be funny to anyone who has to have it explained to them.
The pervasiveness of this censorious mob is what makes it such a toxic threat. It can easily turn so many against the wonderful works Americans have produced throughout our history, leaving us with a pool of ever-shrinking content deemed acceptable.
America’s legacy, like all great civilizations, contains some huge imperfections, but this nation also gave its citizens the liberty to create some of the best works of music, art, literature, theater, and cinema the world has known. It’s all now being reviewed under impossible standards. When cancel culture isn’t limiting our access, it is teaching a new generation that these works have no value to appreciate.
There really aren’t any easy solutions to this problem. We can’t legislate cancel culture away. The best way to counter this toxic culture is to not cancel it. Read Dr. Seuss to your kids. Teach them about the shortcomings of his works — and that their flaws are no reason to dismiss entirely the value they have. Those who ban books have never been the good guys, and with the right guidance, kids today will leave cancel culture to the dustbins of the history where it belongs.
Editor’s Note: Following this there was a move to do away with Pepé LePew and Speedy Gonzales as they were racist. Depicted as a French striped skunk, Pepé is constantly on the quest for love and is a cartoon character who was introduced in 1945. As of March 7, it was announced he starred in the first Warner Bros. Space Jam movie back in 1996, however, Pepé Le Pew will not be showing up at all in the upcoming theatrical sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy on July 16.