This past week’s victim of the Umbrage Gestapo is Dr. Seuss. Apparently six of his books contain insensitive remarks or pictures and have been taken off the market. I looked up the names of the offending titles and discovered I was familiar with only one of them: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It’s unclear to me how this story offends, though it does include a Rajah with rubies and a Chinese man who eats with sticks. Both are pleasant looking fellows, happily participating in a parade.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to pull the books after internal discussions that took into account feedback from parents, teachers, academics, and specialists in the field. None of the six titles were big sellers, so the act sniffs out as something like Cain offering up bruised vegetables, only to the gods of Required Reading. But appeasement didn’t satisfy Hitler’s appetite for lebensraum, nor will it satisfy the Umbrage Gestapo. The day after the Enterprises announcement, Barnes & Noble and eBay climbed on the ban wagon. Principles have a way of shriveling when there’s money to be lost.
All the fuss roused my curiosity, of course. I turned to YouTube to give a listen to the five black-listed books I didn’t know. Three of the books seemed rather dull, which explained their tepid popularity, but there were two that I liked very much: If I Ran the Zoo and On Beyond Zebra.
Why do people like Dr. Seuss books? Clearly they do—they’ve bought 700 million of them. One obvious reason: Seuss often provides valuable lessons. Horton Hatches the Egg promotes faithfulness. Horton Hears a Who is about caring for those in need. Green Eggs and Ham is a standard used by parents to coax their children into trying new foods. More fundamentally, it is about making snap judgments prior to gaining experience. Yertle the Turtle speaks against dictatorships. How the Grinch Stole Christmas insists that Christmas is about relational joy rather than Stuff. The Zax should be required daily reading for members of the U.S. Congress. The Lorax advocates environmental stewardship. And how can we forget The Sneetches On the Beaches, which ridicules racism. Hmmm.
Another attraction to Seuss is his gleeful employment of dumb rhymes, while frequently concocting words to make those rhymes work. This simple, humorous formula drives his stories along, especially when the stories are read interpretively and aloud. Young children want to hear his books over and again. They can’t get enough of “Too Many Daves,” for example. They wiggle in anticipation of the names of Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face and Oliver Boliver Butt. Both If I Ran the Zoo and On Beyond Zebra meet this very fun read qualification.
The most offensive line I found in the condemned books had something to do with an Asian character’s eyes being slanted. This description could be seen as insensitive, of course, but there’s nothing in the context to suggest Seuss intended it negatively. Descriptions are necessary. Can we describe eye shape without offending someone? Might someone not take offense at the idea that there’s something wrong with slanted eyes…or take offense that their slanted eyes are not allowed to be mentioned? If someone called me bald, I might be embarrassed, but it’s a true description. It’s innocent children who are forthright about this sort of thing, while adults sweat, look around nervously, and tremble over potential reactions. We bald people need to cope. I heard a line recently: “It’s not that I’m bald; it’s just that I’m taller than my hair.” Gloria Swanson said of Cecil B. De Mille: “He wore baldness like an expensive hat, as if it were out of the question for him to have hair like other men.” We can take offense, or we can learn to take ourselves a little less seriously. We can learn to be more comfortable in our own skins. Look at 6’3” Elizabeth Debicki. Do you see her walking about stoop-shouldered?
Supposedly, Dr. Seuss’ books are insulting to Asians and Inuits. Have you heard any Asians or Inuits complaining about Dr. Seuss? What is the real source of these recent attacks? Perhaps it has to do with D.T. Rump’s insistent use the phrase “Chinese flu.” Apparently a White House official, in a fit of creativity, used the term, “Kung-flu.” That’s a little bit funny, but this kind of propaganda has helped give rise to negativity towards Asians in the U.S. European Americans may want to recall that many indigenous Americans died as a result of the diseases they imported from Europe. If you want to cast blame you may discover that to cast it is to earn it.
But the good Doctor was under pressure before COVID-19. In 2017, Philip Nel published an academic exposé of “The Cat in the Hat,” arguing that the Cat represented black people, the nefarious result of which was negative subconscious stereotypes implanted into unsuspecting readers. The fact that the Cat is enigmatic, i.e., troublesome and mischievous but also of good intentions, eventually making all things right, doesn’t seem to matter. The fact that the Cat provides considerable entertainment to two extremely bored kids doesn’t seem to matter. Is there any possibility that the genesis of this attack is more about an academic who is desperate to publish? Controversy sells. They say you can’t tell a book by its cover, but if you see a book with a title that generates outrage, (Was the Cat In the Hat Black?) the odds are good the writer has an eye on your wallet (and that the content behind the cover is drivel).
A Massachusetts school librarian who had read Nel’s article repudiated a gift provided by Melania Trump. The gift? Ten of Dr. Seuss’ books. Was she annoyed at Melania for being cheap? Nope, the teacher denounced the collection as “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.” I wonder whether she would have had the same reaction if the gifts had come from one of the Obamas. As it turns out, Michelle Obama once read The Cat In the Hat to a group of children on Read Across America Day. In 2015, when speaking to a group of White House interns, Barak Obama gushed, “Pretty much all the stuff you need to know is in Dr. Seuss,” citing The Sneetches On the Beaches as a lesson on race.
The Asians and the Inuits in Dr. Seuss books are caricatures…but the essence of Dr. Seuss is imaginary creatures, imaginary landscapes, representative types, and…caricatures. Dr. Seuss is never mean spirited, whereas the Umbrage Gestapo is always mean spirited. Go away, Umbrage Gestapo! Go far, far away! Do not stop to tie your shoe. Do not stop to cook a stew. Do not look to left or right. Move on till you’re out of sight!
Dr. Seuss is not the only target of the Umbrage Gestapo of course. Other recent targets: Babar the Elephant, and Tintin have failed the racial sensitivity test. Other books that have come under fire in recent years include Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (even though it was highly influential in moving the nation to end slavery), The Little House on the Prairie, Kim, and Dr. Dolittle. Patrick Duggan recently made this observation: “Over time, ingeniously and patiently, high schools have reformulated their basic teaching mission from ‘how to think and how to write’ to one of ‘what to think and what to write,’ a reset world where the banning of books from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ to Dr. Seuss is normative; a world where logic, indeed, is rendered obsolete.” Even Signe Wilkinson, a left-leaning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, put out a cartoon entitled, “Safe Space Library.” The Cat’s striped hat can be seen poking out of a trash can. A cranky librarian sits with folded hands in front of empty bookshelves.
The Uncle Remus stories have taken a lot of heat for their use of deep South negro dialect. Removing the dialect from these books would ruin them. To read Uncle Remus out loud is truly challenging, as well a genuine delight! Part of the point of the stories is that Uncle Remus is a simple, uneducated black man who is brimming with good humor and wisdom. The valuable lesson is that educated people can be idiots, while uneducated people can be the salt of the earth. Perhaps the Umbrage Gestapo are just too damn educated.
I have read most of the books in the preceding two paragraphs and they are great books. Take them off the shelves? Forget it; they should be recommended reading. You don’t throw a hot artisan pizza in the trash just because you saw a fly land on it. Unless you’re the Umbrage Gestapo.
Evidence of Dr. Seuss’ deep-seated racial bias was further unearthed by research into a number of his WW2 political cartoons. He has been skewered particularly for his disrespect for the Japanese in those cartoons. But let’s be frank about this. Dehumanization of one’s enemies in times of war is a patriotic rule, not an exception. Americans called the Nazis “Krauts”, North Koreans “Gooks” (which was revived for use when we fought the North Vietnamese), “Rag heads” when we fought the Iraqis, and so on. When your fellow citizens are being killed by an enemy, and it is your duty to kill them back, there is a psychological need to dehumanize them in order to go about your horrifying business. If we are serious about ending racial hatred, we had better look to the abolition of war. In the meantime, it’s more than silly to demand pleasant references to our enemies even as we demand their extermination. Seuss’ early work cannot be judged fairly when taken out of context.
Dr. Seuss regretted some of his own work, and his later books make that clear. In fact, he has done some revising of his work. For example, in And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, he changed later editions so the Chinese man’s face that was originally yellow became a neutral color, while he removed the original pigtail. Such sensitivity edits are far more justifiable than putting books through the shredder.
It’s ironic that the American Left, a movement that prides itself on individual freedom, is making this push for ideological conformity. A 2015 Conversation newsletter wrote this about ISIS: “In the overarching scheme to ‘command right and forbid wrong,’ ISIS militants will often physically destroy all material artifacts and edifices they define as shirk [reverence for anything other than Allah].” Book burnings had become rare in the West. But now in the 21st century, we have ISIS and the Taliban destroying cultural artifacts, and we have book-banning from the Progressive Left. “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” – Heinrich Heine.
Maybe the Left wouldn’t be so inclined to cancel Dr. Seuss if they understood that he has always been on the left of the political spectrum. The line “a person’s a person, no matter how small!!” from Horton Hears a Who! has, understandably, been used widely as a slogan by the pro-life movement in the United States. Geisel (Dr. Seuss) objected to this. In the 1980s he threatened to sue an anti-abortion group for using the phrase on its stationery. The group capitulated and removed the phrase.
The Left does have its sacred cows, though. Beth Rutherford observed, “In ‘The Descent of Man,’ Charles Darwin clearly communicated his ideas of the superiority of the white race when he deemed the ‘savages’ to have ‘insufficient powers of reasoning’ and ‘low morality.’ I wonder how he has avoided cancellation.”
Finger-pointing is arrogance. Jesus said, Judge not, that you be not judged.For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7.1-5
Perhaps the greatest challenge of every new day is that we must speak. Words come out, and then we own them. It’s a terrifying responsibility. Our words can be wonderful, helpful, and full of blessing; but often they are foolish, mean, dishonest, and destructive. Not all good words are pleasant, of course; sometimes a hard criticism is exactly what is needed. And to be fair, the impulse behind culture cancelling is the intention of being rid of evil ideas. But as Samuel Johnson said, “Hell is paved with good intentions.”
The first problem with caustic criticism is its assumption of certainty and authority over right and wrong. We all have moral “grids” that we use to measure the righteousness of actions. This is good. A moral grid is crucial. But moral grids differ, and all human moral grids are flawed. This is the first reason Jesus warned against judging others. All our judgments are somewhat wrong. Some of them are terribly wrong. It’s possible that in our red-faced screaming we are only sending people back into a fire instead of warning them away from it. Whoops.
The second problem is the assumption of purity. Whatever our moral grid, no matter whether it is nearly perfect or as full of holes as a slab of Swiss cheese, we will fail to conform to it. Whatever laws we insist on we will fail to keep. We make demands of others that we ourselves can’t keep. Perhaps remembering this would temper our tempers.
Even if we could manage to keep our own laws, there’s no way possible to keep everyone else’s laws. These laws are mutually contradictory. This problem is magnified as society splinters and loses its common assumptions about the meaning of good. People say, “live and let live,” out of one side of their mouths, but the other side is saying, “You’ve broken my rules, which proves you are reprehensible.” This is the Spirit of the Umbrage Gestapo. To choose to live by this standard is to choose to die by it. When all the statues have been pulled down and the culture has been made “pure,” a new reckoning will follow. Power will be seized by new reactionaries, but they will be chanting the same old Queen-of-Hearts-command: “Off with their heads!” Dr. Seuss was of German descent. During World War I, he and his sister experienced anti-German prejudice. Perhaps those who criticize Dr. Seuss are closet anti-German racists. This calls for an investigation.
There’s always something to be found out, and there are always people who are hell-bent on the finding. “What is it that causes people to want to be in a state of perennial outrage?” asked Pete Wehner. “They are eager to be offended.” Those determined to find fault will surely succeed.
We have all said things we regretted, but we usually come to recognize our errors and we repent of them. Still, we bury them in shame. Generally speaking, that’s exactly what we should do. Forgiveness and mending are needed between offenders and those offended. For the rest of us, it’s none of our business. A person may choose to take offense, but that is different than being offended. Taking offense is aggression; taking offense is offensive.
Dr. Seuss was a wonderful man. He was not flawless. Does he need to be? Is being flawless possible? Does it make sense to destroy everything and everyone who have flaws? When Jesus says we should not reach for the speck in our brother’s eye he is saying, “You’re making a fuss about a little flaw in your brother, but you’re forgetting about your brother. This proves you have a bigger problem than he does.”
James Parker said, “We’re half-finished down here, always building and collapsing, rigging up this and that, dropping hammers, and flapping tarps everywhere. Revise your expectations downward. Extend forgiveness to your idiot friends; extend forgiveness to your idiot self. Make it a practice. Come to rest in actuality.”
The world is forgetting the concept of grace. We need to extend grace freely, and we need to receive it or we will all be ruined. This is true in order to have hope for a life to come, and it is true for living in the present. Woe to anyone who is unwilling to extend grace. The measure that you use will be used against you. But if you use the measure of grace, the lovely implication is that it will also be used for you.
The books that are being “retired” are, for the most part, not Dr. Seuss’ best work. I mentioned two I think worth keeping, though. In particular I would like to draw attention to “On Beyond Zebra” as a book with a valuable message. It starts out with Conrad Cornelius O’Donald O’dell proudly reciting the alphabet, while associating specific letters with bits of knowledge. He concludes with the sophomoric proclamation, “Now I know everything anyone knows, because Z is as far as the alphabet goes!” The story’s narrator contradicts him by proposing imaginary letters, representative of imaginary creatures. After a lengthy exploration, the narrator concludes: “You really don’t know all there is to be known.” What an important lesson for kids and for adults. Sometimes our thoughts can’t break out of their little boxes. Sometimes we really think we have it all figured out. I am suspicious that, while skimming through this book in search of sour jots and tittles, those who decided to condemn it missed the point of the book entirely. And that is the problem. The umbrage Gestapo is forever throwing out the baby with the bathwater.