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Dr. Seuss and the Question of Artistic Censorship

Dr. Seuss Stamp

Dr. Seuss Stamp

Like many children of my generation, I love Dr. Seuss and always have, but this post isn’t about what you think it is. You’ve probably heard that Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) has pulled six Dr. Seuss books from publication, and it’s likely you already have an opinion about it. Nothing you read here is likely to change your mind, and that’s fine. This post isn’t about that; it’s about what happens next, the inevitable slide down the slippery slope, and where that leads us.

What Dr. Seuss Enterprises Actually Said

Some background will help avoid confusion. Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) issued the following statement on March 2, 2021 (links and emphasis added), and thus ignited the firestorm of indignation we’re now seeing online:

So, all of these books are now cancelled, if you will, including their adorable covers:

Offensive Dr. Seuss Books

Offensive Dr. Seuss Books – Courtesy of CBC News

And this is of course the right of any rights owner (like DSE) or publisher. I imagine the question in conservative minds is whether left-wing activists are cancelling Dr. Seuss by applying pressure to the publisher in censorial ways?

Is Dr. Seuss Being Censored?

There’s a lot of argument online about whether DSE pulling the books is censorship or not, but all this misses the point. There is government censorship, which we generally oppose as a nominally free society (but which happens all the time), and private sector censorship that we generally support (and which happens all the time). If you take away people’s ability to get information, that’s censorship.

Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information. This may be done on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or “inconvenient.” Censorship can be conducted by governments, private institutions, and other controlling bodies. – Wikipedia

All of which is academic. It’s only a legal issue if the government does it by force in contravention of free speech, etc., whereas private companies have every right to publish or not publish just about anything they want. That’s how capitalism works. So, yes, pulling the books is legal, standard, everyday private sector censorship. Forcing DSE to keep allowing the publication of books it doesn’t want to would be compelled speech, which conservatives allegedly object to.

What’s funny to me is that this type of censorship, pulling books from libraries or publication due to public outrage, is Politics 101 for American conservatives. How many books containing sexuality have they successfully pulled from local bookshelves? How many books have they banned for other reasons? I have no idea, but it’s a lot, and you can read more about that here. My point is that conservatives whining about censorship they themselves engage in with enthusiasm is hypocritical, disingenuous, and more than a little humorous. They practically invented this stuff. Welcome to the world you helped create.

What’s Wrong with these Dr. Seuss Books?

Dr. Seuss’ work dates from during and after World War II, and is inevitably going to reflect a different culture and norms than what we see today. That said, there are still parts of these books that are clearly racist and troubling. So, let’s take a look at the specific issues with each book. (Many of the images here are courtesy of the National Post and other sources.)

UPDATE: You can see all of the books in their entirety on the Internet Archive, at least for now, including all offensive pages.

And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937)

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street has a young protagonist fantasizing about a parade including “a Chinaman who eats with sticks,” a “Rajah, with rubies” and two fur-wearing people being pulled by a reindeer. So, yeah, that’s a little racist.

If I Ran the Zoo (1950)

If I Ran the Zoo‘s young male protagonist takes an imaginary hunting trip to Zomba-ma-tant where the Asiatic natives “wear their eyes at a slant.”

And the book also shows Black characters from the African island of Yerka, portrayed as pot-bellied, big-lipped monkey folk:

Dr. Seuss - At the Zoo Offensive Page 1

And something Middle-Easterny going on here:

So, again, not much to debate. These are clearly racist pictures of oppressed cultures.

McElligot’s Pool (1947)

McElligot’s Pool has another young boy, this time dreaming of what he’ll catch while fishing, including “Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay” with little fur collars. You could argue it’s not the image itself that’s intrinsically offensive–How many little dogs do you see dressed up in little coats on social media?–but it’s coupling with the “Eskimo” caption. Either way, yeah…

On Beyond Zebra! (1955)

This one I’m guessing at based on conjecture online (DSE didn’t specify what was offensive in each book). On Beyond Zebra! adds imaginary new letters to the alphabet, and includes an image of Nazzim of Bazzim riding a camel-like creature called a Spazzim. So…yep. I get it.

Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)

Scrambled Eggs Super! has a kid bragging about crazy rare eggs, because why not, including one from Mt. Strookoo Cuckoo that he obtains with the assistance of turban-wearing Ali. He gets another egg from the Arctic nation of Fa-Zoal, whose people wear fur and paddle skin-covered boats. Another clear reference to native peoples:

The Cat’s Quizzer (1976)

The Cat’s Quizzer seems to be problematic due to an image of a yellow character in a coolie hat captioned with the question: “How old do you have to be to be a Japanese?” There is also some mockery of pygmies, but I can’t find any examples of the offending imagery online.

UPDATE: I found the following image on the Internet archive, but I see no indication of a cartoon with the text quoted above:

Cats Quizzer Japanese Cartoon

The text here might be at issue (“Do the Japanese eat with pogo sticks or joss sticks?”) but I’m not sure.

But Cat in the Hat was NOT Pulled

Best-selling but still problematic books like The Cat in the Hat, which is allegedly inspired by Black minstrel characters, were not pulled, which tells us something. Namely, that DSE is focused on the bottom line, and that they pulled books for strategic economic reasons. 

Publishing is Struggling & Change is Inevitable

Publishing industry revenues have been flat or falling in real numbers for more than a decade. This is due to many factors, including the influence of Amazon.com and self-publishing, but if you can be sure of one thing it’s that these companies are all about finding ways to make more money while holding onto their legacy assets.

Statistica: Publishing Industry Revenues

Statistica: Publishing Industry Revenues

So you can be sure any given book publisher that pulls a book is doing so, possibly for idealistic reasons, but certainly for financial ones. And this includes rights owners as successful as DSE:

The estate of Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) nearly doubled its income in 2020, earning an estimated $33 million in a very Grinch-like year. The bigger payday is thanks to a smart new strategy from the team at Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which transformed the beloved children’s author’s 60-plus books into a multimedia universe.  Forbes

All of which means that publishers and rights owners including DSE will do whatever they can to grow new audiences while holding onto the old. Hence, why they pulled six relatively unpopular Dr. Seuss books while holding onto equally problematic assets like Cat in the Hat. My guess is they might even update and re-release these books in the future, thus gaining the PR value and sales for the retraction followed by secondary sales of the new versions. That’s just good business, if a little cynical.

Publishers Know Controversy Equals Sales

Just look what happened to American Dirt, a novel by a white female author about a Latina woman running to the USA to escape a Mexican drug lord. It has all the immigration porn stereotypes, and BIPOC authors and readers objected to its promotion when it wasn’t written by a LatinX author (See #OwnVoices). Did the publisher pull the book? No, possibly for principled or legal reasons, but also because it knew sales would boom, and they did. American Dirt sold far more books due to the controversy than it would have otherwise.

Publishers Change Book Titles & Content All the Time

One of my favorite examples is the popular and archetypal murder mystery And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. This book was originally published under the title Ten Little Niggers (sorry), and Ten Little Indians in the US, until they finally stopped finding new ways to be offensive and came up with a completely new title. Was this censorship? Well, I guess if you really wanted a book with an offensive title, but no. It’s just good business and a good if slow awakening to moral reality.

We Should Support Publisher & Owner Changes

Lots of authors write at a time when something arguably bad is acceptable, or when they have too little editorial oversight, or they just get away with stupid stuff. One great example is Stephen King’s It, a fantastic horror novel featuring one of the stupidest and most exploitative scenes you can imagine — children having sex (a gang bang, really) in a sewer to keep the group together. I would love for SK to authorize an update to It without this idiocy.

And the same is true of The Stand‘s portrayals of African Americans (e.g., the infamous ‘black junta’ scene) and its caricature of mental disability. If these changes are not made, the assets that is SK’s legacy will fade faster than it has to, publishers will lose money, and we’re all worse off for it. In other words, if you really want older and “classic” works to survive into the future, you have to admit that (a) some of them are problematic in non-trivial ways and (b) allowing them to change is the only way to save them.

My guess is many books and book series will be pulled or updated in the coming years, not to censor them but to allow the greater body of the authors’ works to survive into the next century. This is a good thing, inevitable, and hardly new. Numerous other books have been pulled or updated based on newer standards of representation, including:

  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie for its original titles (see above).
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder for its depictions of Native Americans, including the line, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
  • Should we Burn Babar? by Herbert R. Kohl, which appears to celebrate colonialism when the MC returns to the jungle to “civilize” other animals.

And so on. All of these changes seem both reasonable and necessary, not censorial.

There’s a Much Bigger Problem for Dr. Seuss

And that is the true goal and motivation of many Seuss-haters, the thing that DSE is fighting against, not the removal or changes to a subset of Dr. Seuss books — it’s the wholesale removal of all Dr. Seuss books from school curricula, etc., due to the problematic nature of some and the history of Theodor Geisel himself.  Because for every antifascist cartoon we like to remember him for…

Theodor Geisel America First Nazi Cartoon

…there is a blatantly racist portrayal of Japanese, Black and other people:

Theodore Geisel Racist Island Cartoon

As a result, there are many who argue with passion that all of Dr. Seuss’ works are tainted and should be removed or at least de-prioritized on school reading lists. And this is the real problem. DSE is trying to appease a group of people with a far larger axe to grind, and this token removal of a few books isn’t going to appease them. The question is whether it should. In other words, do we want a country or world in which entire bodies of work are removed or disparaged due to a (truly) problematic history of the artist and/or a few examples of (legitimate) bigotry? Because that’s the larger question being asked as we squabble over these six books.

Rap Music & Misogyny or Homophobia

Don’t get anxious. I’m not saying anything is or isn’t equivalent to anything else. I’m just asking a question. Let’s look at some troubling rap lyrics just by way of example. This is Dr. Dre rapping in N.W.A.’s “One Less Bitch:”

Yo, I tied her to the bed
I was thinking the worst
But yo, I had to let my n*ggas fuck her first, yeah
Loaded up the forty-fo’, yo
Then I straight smoked the ho

Which you can see and hear here if you like:

My question isn’t about this song or any number of other songs by Black or white artists, whether misogynistic, homophobic, or just violent and ugly. My question is about principles. If our principle as a diverse society is that an artist and his or her entire body of work should be ignored / not purchased / de-listed / censored or whatever the contextual syntax is, based on a subset of that work, then we should apply that consistently.

In other words, if it’s morally right to denigrate all of Theodor Geisel’s work, then we should do this universally and consistently. All of N.W.A.’s music and all of Dr. Dre’s work should be unpublished and removed from distribution by the owner. Any artist who has ever made a substantial negative comment or contribution toward any group, or displayed bigotry of any kind, should have all work taken down and pushed into obscurity, forever. Because that’s the slope we’re sliding down.

So What are our Principles?

I couldn’t care less that DSE had some some problematic Dr. Seuss books unpublished. No, that’s not right; I’m glad they did. I have no problem if they do the same to Cat in the Hat because of it’s problematic history. No one, and especially not children, should be forced or encouraged to read or listen to anything that fills their minds with racism, sexism, misogyny or bigotry generally.

HOWEVER, and that’s in all caps for a reason, I strongly object to the idea that an artist’s entire life work and body of creation should be purged from common distribution because of this. This would be true cancel culture that would make reactionary book-banning conservatives…right. And that’s freakin’ intolerable. Sadly, it also seems like that’s where we’re heading, and this process began long before DSE’s recent announcement.

once-ler-unless

See, I told you this wasn’t about what you thought it was.

Peace.

2 Comments

  1. Erin

    Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) is NOT a publisher. They are a rights owner. They OWN the publican rights for this properties, and they have the right to grant publishers access to publishing or not publishing the works as they choose. This is the group that Dr. Seuss entrusted with his work to decide what should happen in the future with his material, giving them full rights to manage his legacy as they believe is appropriate knowing HIS wishes.

    They are not a publisher. This is the equivalent of a living author deciding to pull a publication from their publishing roster. None of those books have been cancelled by the publisher. This is nothing more than a rights owner exerting their rights over their property.

    THIS is exactly how publishing is supposed to work. We don’t have the right to force someone to publish the work they own just because we think they should publish it. Please amend your post to be more accurate because mis-information like this is creating all kinds of issues.

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