Uncomfortable Conversations: More about Dr. Seuss

I have been following with great interest and some frustration the controversy regarding the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to end the publication rights to six of the author’s books. I thought that I had possibly exhausted what I had to say about the matter, but then I read an interview with Professor Philip Nel in Esquire. Here is my response to Professor Nel, adding to my previous posts about Dr. Seuss (here and here and in my very first blog post).

First, I agree with Professor Nel that the right-wing ideologues of Fox News and their followers have no moral legitimacy in attacking the so-called process of “cancel culture” because they themselves constantly try to “cancel” opponents of their views.  This seems to me to be beyond dispute. The problem is in using the utter hypocrisy of the right wing as an excuse to not engage in discussion about the serious issues of censorship and intellectual freedom.

Professor Nel dismisses the entire idea of censorship by using the term only in its narrowest sense: an actual government prohibition against publishing or reading certain works.  Obviously, we do not have this type of censorship in our country, or at least not yet. For a while there, we were coming perilously close to it.  There is another widely accepted use of the term, which is making a book inaccessible through putting the pressure of market forces on authors, publishers, and outlets for literary works.  Professor Nel approaches the discrepancy between these two uses of “censorship” by mocking it: “No one’s setting these on fire. No one’s saying you cannot read them. No one’s saying they must be removed from libraries. No one’s saying they must be removed from your home.”

In fact, many people are saying that these, and other books, must be removed from libraries. Historically, most of those people have been on the right. “Banned Book Week” is an awareness campaign promoted by the American Library Association and other groups, urging the public to be aware of the threat of censorship. It is dishonest to claim that censorship and book-banning are not operative terms in the case of Dr. Seuss because Seuss Enterprises made the decision to render the books inaccessible.  It’s also a little ironic to see a progressive scholar like Philip Nel championing the right of free market capitalism to control whether a book should be published. Local libraries or school districts that remove books about progressive social issues, LGBTQ stories, or children’s novels containing “witchcraft” usually claim that they are protecting community standards.  In neither case is actual legal censorship taking place.  It would also be reasonable for Seuss Enterprises to specify the “panel of experts” cited as key to their decision.

Against all the facts as we know them at this moment, Professor Nel also belittles the idea that the six books are now virtually inaccessible. Has he checked the major used book sites lately? Unscrupulous sellers are getting hundreds of dollars for them, and for other Dr. Seuss books, which they anticipate might be next on the chopping block, to use a Dr. Seuss metaphor from The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Perhaps his optimism is justified, and the sellers will not be able to command these high prices. However, right now, for him to refer to “the imagined scarcity of the marketplace” is as fantastic as one of Dr. Seuss’s creatures.  Again, belittling concerns with intellectual freedom by referring to book burning or by denying the reality of outrageous prices for the books is an easy way to dismiss the real questions raised.

I will also credit Professor Nel’s acknowledgement that “the most egregious” racist images are those in If I Ran the Zoo. Some reporting on the subject groups all the books and their pictures together, when, in fact, the pictures and their respective contexts are quite different.  I’m not going to analyze individual ones here. If, as Professor Nel insists, the books are widely available, perhaps readers might look and judge for themselves if the offensive depiction of an Asian man in And To Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street, and some of the other inflammatory images, may all be considered equivalent. As Nel points out, the picture in Mulberry Street has already been altered in later editions of the 1937 book, but his response to the possibility of editing picture books is that bowdlerization is ineffective because “the offensive bits are coded into the narrative of the story.” In the case of some works of literature, that is true. It seems unclear, however, why a book which shows the exercise of a child’s vivid imagination through depicting fantastic creatures would remain ineradicably offensive after removing the one picture in question.

I would also agree with Nel’s conclusion that Dr. Seuss Enterprises may or may not have had purely ethical motives in withdrawing these books: “I don’t know if it’s a brand issue. Maybe they realized racism is bad for the brand, and so to sustain the brand, they need to address it.” My opinion is that Dr. Seuss Enterprises did choose to make this statement in order to protect their brand. These are not books that sell many copies, nor is there currently merchandise based on them.  They could also have simply let the books go out-of-print without fanfare; the prices on the secondary market would then not have climbed outrageously.  I think that they tried to get ahead of the ongoing controversy over Dr. Seuss’s legacy by sacrificing his now obscure early books, hoping to prove their organization’s antiracist credentials. But in doing so, they may have miscalculated, because those committed to the argument that Dr. Seuss’s whole body of work is compromised by racism will likely not be assuaged. 

Nel contributes to that possibility by suggesting flaws in other works by Dr. Seuss, including sexism in The Cat in the Hat.  (He cites the late distinguished critic of children’s literature Alison Lurie in making this case.) Of course, there is a dearth of female characters in Dr. Seuss’s work.  I am a committed feminist and I consider myself to be acutely sensitive to sexism and misogyny in children’s books. I also use historical context when judging works of literature, and I know that there are many,  many books to complement, question, or mitigate the effect of one particular work.  Rejecting any children’s book which does not include an empowering vision of women and girls will automatically exclude hundreds of books with outstanding literary value, as well as many forgettable ones.  Parents and educators need to read critically with children in all cases.  Children also use their imagination in interpreting books.

Since Professor Nel insists that readers must be willing to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about racism, a proposition with which I agree, I would like to suggest that he seems to be incapable of having such a conversation about Dr. Seuss’s legacy as a premature anti-fascist, and specifically as a champion of Europe’s Jews. The cartoonist spoke out loudly and persistently in his work, particularly for the leftist magazine PM,  about the Jewish people who were on the brink of genocide. Although Nel has briefly alluded to these cartoons in his work, he always and deliberately underestimates their value, because it would compromise his view of the author as an unregenerate racist.  In this interview, he again refers to “World War II cartoons that have grotesque caricatures of Japanese Americans and of the Japanese.”  If Nel is referring to Dr. Seuss’s awful defense of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war, that was indefensible.  Support for one beleaguered group of people does not excuse  oppression of another group. However, many Americans are barely aware of Dr. Seuss’s interwar cartoons published in leftist magazines. It is important to be intellectually honest about the author’s contradictions. Nel’s reference to Japanese, as opposed to Japanese Americans, is ambiguous.  The author drew numerous cartoons in leftist publications attacking Tojo, Hitler, and other fascist leaders and their followers.  Those are completely different from his disgraceful attacks on Japanese Americans.  I hope that Nel does not consider caricatures of Tojo to be any more unacceptable than those of Hitler or Mussolini.  Where are his detailed references to the Dr. Seuss cartoons lambasting the America First movement, Lindbergh, Hitler, and other fascists? 

Finally, Professor Nel’s conclusion is that anyone who questions the repercussions of Seuss Enterprises’ decision refuses to engage in discussions of racism. It is difficult to refute this argument because it becomes circular. If someone believes that scholars, educators, and ordinary readers have a legitimate interest in having access to all of Dr. Seuss’s work, that person is merely avoiding discussions of racism. But effectively removing the books only negates any possibility of analysis or discussion. Any library or book collection contains hundreds of books which I personally find offensive, and a subset of books which I would consider appropriate for adults, but not for children.  Here is a link to the Library Bill of Rights.

Nel applauds the decision, whatever Seuss Enterprises’ motives, to issue this “product recall,” of “defective” works. “First, you need books that offer positive examples.” No, that is only one very small part of literature’s role.  You can watch Paw Patrol on t.v. with your children for practical moral lessons. It is an enjoyable show full of nice role models and no pretense to artistic quality.  “You need books that do not caricature people.” In that case, Dr. Seuss is out, since almost his entire body of work employs caricature, both verbally and visually. (I can’t help wondering what Maurice Sendak might have to say about these criteria.) Finally, “You need books to tell the truth.” Some of us are slightly less confident than Professor Nel that we can so easily determine what constitutes truth for each and every reader in every book.

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