If, in 1987, the editorial boards of the major newspapers learned that a fanatical cult of angry moral scolds, representing a small sliver of the population, was successfully campaigning to remove books from the public eye with the not-so-subtle encouragement of the president and his political allies, they would have been outraged. In fact, liberal pundits were outraged — by far-less disturbing developments than these — and in the Nineties, they were re-enraged by suggestions that even the most deliberately offensive art should not enjoy a public subsidy, nor scarce space among museum displays.
So, what changed? The Left used to be against banishing books, banning books, burning books. Now, scarcely a week goes by without some breathtaking new advance in its campaign to bury this or that book in order that the public might never be infected with its ideas. Just six years ago, when Barack Obama was publicly praising Dr. Seuss on March 2, Read Across America Day — a day specifically chosen by the National Education Association to honor Theodor Geisel’s birthday — you would have called me a paranoid wingnut if I had told you that books such as On Beyond Zebra! would soon be yanked from bookshelves across America at the behest of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Yesterday, that’s exactly what happened.
The memory of (perhaps) the single most beloved author in America was insulted by having that title and five others pulled as an anti-birthday present and the traditional presidential mention of Dr. Seuss on a day built around his work was absent. It was as if all mentions of George Washington were scrubbed from the official celebration of President’s Day. (That’ll never happen, though. Not until at least 2022.)
Geisel’s illustrations sometimes strayed into awkward racial stereotypes, but it is a massive stretch to label them “racist.” “Racist” implies racial hatred. As Geisel’s stepdaughter put it, “There wasn’t a racist bone in that man’s body.” The body of his work identifies him as a progressive humanist, undoubtedly a man of the Left, who lampooned various kinds of prejudice. Some of his stories, notably The Sneetches, are brilliant allegories about the stupidity and vileness of racism. Dan McLaughlin points out in his excellent essay that most of the six books yanked by Dr. Seuss Enterprises seem to have been targeted for trivial details that only the most hypersensitive hysteric would deem “hurtful and wrong,” as the Seuss outfit now labels them, declining to specify exactly what it finds offensive. McElligot’s Pool seems to have been nixed simply because of a harmless drawing of an Eskimo; On Beyond Zebra! for its depiction of a proud-looking camel-riding Arab nobleman, dubbed Nazzim of Bazzim. The Dr. Seuss books stand accused both of depicting too many white people and for including non-white people in its blithe comical sensibility.
Our friends on the left are ridiculing conservatives for defending Dr. Seuss’s work; this tendency isn’t censorship, they point out. (No, but it was college roommates with censorship, and they played a lot of hacky sack together.) It’s a private company’s decision, they say. Yes, but it’s a private company whose strings are being pulled by an alarming cultural regime that wields immense power despite being opposed by most people. You racists only like Dr. Seuss now that he’s been revealed to be racist, racists. But Geisel very obviously wasn’t a racist, and ordinary sensible people object to huge swaths of imagery and speech being retroactively classified as racist, just as we find it ridiculous that it is becoming hard to have a mature discussion about anything from math to Muppets without some hysteric poisoning the wells of discourse with a claim of racism. This isn’t cancel culture, it’s a company withdrawing its legal property from circulation, and anyway there are 50-odd Seuss books that remain in print. Though the word “cancel” is, like “snowflake,” becoming so trite as to be on the verge of uselessness, what single better word is there for forcing books out of print because they supposedly offended someone, rather than due to lack of sales? This is simply good cultural hygiene, and slippery slopes are a myth, critics say, as the mountain turns to mud and slides into the ocean. Reports the Los Angeles Times: “The Cat in the Hat, one of Seuss’ most popular books, has received criticism, too, but will continue to be published for now.” For now.
Note that the six withdrawn Seuss books are lesser titles; the Woke Brigades for Cultural Sanitation haven’t come for the really beloved ones yet. But they’re just getting warmed up, aren’t they? No one who acquires immense power ever says, “I’ve had enough of control now.” Babar the Elephant, Curious George, Little House on the Prairie, et al. are now in the crosshairs. The progressive Left enjoys greater control over the educational establishment than any other institution, and it senses an opportunity to revise the canon of young people’s literature so that every title in it advances the propaganda imperatives of today. The Sneetches, for instance, rings with Civil-Rights-era idealism by saying it’s silly to pay attention to race when we’re all the same underneath the skin. Today, that is now a right-wing vision of race. The Left today obsessively focuses on race with the purpose of apportioning good things according to the accident of skin color rather than the content of people’s character. Once the educational establishment has fully turned its guns against Laura Ingalls Wilder, it’s a short step to getting her removed from libraries, then bounced from Amazon. As the shelf of America’s children gets emptied of the classics and the boringly nonpolitical stuff, it is being busily restocked with books that overtly advance the activist Left’s agenda on illegal immigration, “white privilege,” capitalism, and everything else.
I’m old enough to remember when liberals saw looming Christian theocracy as the most pernicious threat to liberal values, and when banning books was the single most horrible manifestation of that tendency that they could imagine. Now that we’re in the early days of the establishment of a woke theocracy, they’re eagerly looking for more books to throw on the cultural bonfire. Look out, The Cat in the Hat. There’s a fable promoting Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax that’s eager to take your place.