On ‘Canceling’ Respect, Questions

Terry H. Schwadron

March 7, 2021

To hear the repeated Republican criticisms about the decision not to print more of six Dr. Seuss books, lefty Joe Biden, out-of-touch Democrats, a victimizing cabal of anti-Americans have teamed up to wipe out an American institution that, like Confederate statues, requires defending.

Wait, there’s plenty to discuss, but can we revisit what happened first? And, in attacking or supporting “cancellations,” are we missing the bigger task of teaching and explaining?

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the owners and publishers of the personal work of Theodor Seuss Geisel — Dr. Seuss by pen name — decided not to republish six books that have some imagery they regret as upholding stereotyped racial impressions for the very young. No Biden, no Democrats, no Antifa, no leftists — just the owners of the material who want to assure readers of all stripe that they want to be respectful of differing backgrounds.

As journalist Jack Schafer noted in a Politico column, these are individual pages in six books that are largely out of print and unavailable.

“Judging from Amazon and Barnes and Noble searches, some if not all of the titles have effectively been out of print for some time, available only at libraries and used-book outlets. The Dr. Seuss Enterprises decision also appears to predate the Loudoun County, Va., school system initiative to deemphasize (not ban) his books. It’s a little like a prestigious restaurant formally announcing that it’s no longer offering an unpopular dish it hasn’t cooked in several years,” he noted.

The list of books that communities over the years have decided were too racy or that highlighted decisions crossing current local standards is too long to repeat. We’ve long lived with cancel culture against books perceived as promoting messages of racial or sexual equality and experimentation.

OK, Cancel This

“If you listened to the Republican Party over the past week, it might have been easy to think that the core planks of its platform were defending a deceased children’s author, a decades-old children’s toy — and a subspecies of human that went extinct 40,000 years ago,” noted The Washington Post.

Maybe this debate ought to be about “cancel culture,” as in school systems effectively burning books or right-wing nutjobs trying to cancel elections altogether, but this one isn’t. Indeed, it celebrates the very enterprise-oriented marketplace Republican theology always has touted. In fact, since the publicity, you can find social media notices offering to pay up to $500 for some of the discontinued books as collectors’ items.

Now, as we can know if we look, Dr. Seuss was human, a creature of the morality of his times, and always on the edge of offending someone in depictions that go back to his youthful days as a college cartoonist — this despite a professed preference for more progressive governmental politics, when he had an opinion.

“Critics have railed for decades against selected depictions in Seuss’ books, noting racist and anti-Semitic stereotyping ,” noted Schafer. Even then, much of the Seuss w0rk has been loved and sought by generations of parents reading mostly nonsense rhyming words to children who like Thing One and Thing Two

This publisher decisions aside, this incident, these books, provide a teaching opportunity. If you’re going to read books or explore imagery produced in a different time or place, as a parent or reader, you may need to explain that there were important social conditions evident that we now question.

Try reading Peter Pan aloud, for example, as we have with our grandchildren, and watch how many paragraphs you find yourself skipping over either because they are too stuck in a time for a child’s level of understanding or unthinkingly make racial or class references that require explanation. Or actually stopping to offer some words to seek understanding of a different culture.

The Wider Campaign

Write this large, and — depending on your point of view — you perceive that speakers are canceled, holidays demeaned and lots of disrespect being aired no reason other than disagreement with your own point of view.

But this is not limited to conservatives, who think they are special victims of some imagined elite. Conservatives have absolutely no hesitation about “canceling” liberals, vocal speakers of color, powerful women and others — and support actions that go well beyond calls for “canceling” that actually endanger anyone living in a way different from some idealized television sitcom lifestyle that has no roots in reality.

We’re seeing different, competing interpretations of cancel culture on campuses, in conventions, in Congress itself. We’re seeing it in the imagery of protesting protesters, in marketing decisions over sale of toys like Potato Head dropping its practice of assigning gender to plastic potatoes, and we’re seeing it in word-pictures drawn to attack the other side for perceived grievance. Hell, even the recent conservative CPAC conference ejected one speaker for being too anti-Semitic, even as they called out cancellations by the left.

Indeed, Republicans , or at least the most Trump-oriented, are abandoning all pretense of actual engagement on governmental issues to mount a nonstop obstruction campaign in and out of Congress that is against anything Biden wants — but based on tropes drawn from these cultural issues in which Biden and Democrats do not even play a real part.

Yet, when it comes time for the same people to take a stand against actual anti-social, racist actions, we too often get silence and acceptance.

Stop it already with the “cancel culture” gripes. These are people who don’t want to have to defend words and images that may offend. In the end, the question is what are you doing, what are we doing, to underscore a chance to teach about respect — like showing some?

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

Journalist, musician, community volunteer