My very first entry in this blog, posted almost six months ago, was a critique of Philip Nel’s recent book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (Oxford University Press, 2017). Although the book included important historical material, if quite selectively, it ultimately seemed to be dogmatic and marred by internal contradictions. Now Nel has posted on his blog an assault on the use of the Cat as a mascot for the NEA’s “Read Across America Day.”
Once again, Nel manages to choose only specific examples of Seuss’s racism, which no thinking person will deny or minimize, without contextualizing these within his long career.
Nel has an easy and patronizing answer to my discomfort with his need to send Dr. Seuss to a re-education camp. I am no doubt “wrapping (my) self in an unreflective nostalgia,” and failing to realizing that “then you bear responsibility for the pain that this art inflicts” (Nel’s italics to emphasize the moral idiocy of anyone who questions him. He cleverly anticipates anger with his dictatorial attitude…
…by conceding that we don’t have to remove Dr. Seuss’s work from our classrooms, “though that is of course an option.” The self-satisfied and smug nature of Nel’s explanation for the shortsightedness of anyone who finds profound moral examples in Dr. Seuss’s work, along with serious instances of racism, is stunning. He uses psychological terminology to denigrate those less enlightened than he is:
“I realize this is a hard truth to face and that some who read this will – instead of facing themselves and acknowledging their responsibility – attack the messenger. Some may indulge in projection, locating in the messenger that they refuse to admit in themselves. Others will find different strategies of denial, displacement, or dismissal.”
I can only describe this pretentious and arrogant misuse of psychology with one term: chutzpah.
Speaking of chutzpah, I can only reiterate my earlier critique of Nel’s work, which applies to his recent post. Although Dr. Seuss was an early and ardent champion of the Jews of Europe on the verge of extinction, publishing many strong and principled cartoons about this threat, and the threat of American isolationists who ignored it, Nel pays relatively attention to this part of his work in his book, and none in his recent post. He produces here some of Dr. Seuss’s repugnant racist images, as well as others attacking racism and urging that Americans suffering from the “bug” of racism, “fumigate themselves,” although his literal-minded interpretation of the latter fails to do justice to Dr. Seuss’s developing awareness of a terrible problem. Why not show readers of his blog images such as these:
Just to be clear, as any reader of my blog knows, I am extremely concerned about racism, sexism, and lack of inclusiveness in children’s literature. I agree with Nel that presenting books flawed by prejudice in a way in which children can learn and understand their dangers is the best response. As for Nel’s assurance that he is the arbiter of what does and does not constitute commitment to progress and human dignity, I can only quote his own assessment of Dr. Seuss, “Dr. Seuss was the “woke” White guy who isn’t as woke as he thinks he is.”
On a related note, the children’s author William Joyce wrote a moving response to Nel’s characterization of his The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore as racist. Read it here (comment #13).