Dr. Seuss: The irony of progress and the slippery slope of social justice

Progress can only be measured by a comparison to the past.  If we erase the past that doesn’t measure up, we live in a perpetual present where no one can possibly measure up and no legacy can be safe.

We should all readily agree that Dr. Seuss’s canon contains images and verbiage that are shocking to modern sensibilities.  There is no doubt that If I Ran the Zoos depiction of a chieftain in a turban exhibited at a zoo complete with African characters portrayed as monkeys and Asian characters with “eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell” would never, ever be written today, nor should it be.  Outside of his children’s work, he regularly drew black people as cannibals and Asians with animal-inspired features, using racial slurs like “Japs.”

Nor are these the only examples.  There are more, many more.  Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, from the Conscious Kid Social Justice Library, identified 2,240 human characters across 50 Dr. Seuss books, only 45, or 2 percent were people of color.  The great majority of these appear as racial caricatures, according to a summary on Vox, either exoticized, subservient, dehumanized, or a combination of all three.  None of them are women or even speak out loud. 

It’s also possible that beloved classics like The Cat in the Hat had racially insensitive origins.  English professor Philip Nel believes the inspiration for the cat was actually a woman elevator operator, who wore white gloves with a sly smile.  This woman, Annie Williams, was black. Since Dr. Seuss performed in minstrel shows in college, the look of the cat could have taken cues from the disgraced medium and blackface.  “The Cat’s umbrella (which he uses as a cane) and outrageous fashion sense link him to Zip Coon, that foppish ‘northern dandy negro,’” writes Nel. “His bright red floppy tie recalls the polka-dotted ties of blackfaced Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) and of blackfaced Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). His red-and-white-striped hat brings to mind Rooney’s hat in the same film or the hats on the minstrel clowns in the silent picture Off to Bloomingdale Asylum.”

As a result, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced earlier this week that they would no longer publish six of his books, claiming they reached this decision in collaboration with experts and educators.  The books are all obscure, including And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.  The goal was to support “children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.”  In addition, the National Education Association appears to have cut ties with Dr. Seuss entirely.  The organization failed to renew a contract with Dr. Seuss Enterprises that expired in 2018 and choosing to focus Read Across America today on children’s books by authors of color, making no reference to the once beloved author.

Racist imagery and slurs are not the sum total of Dr. Seuss’s legacy, however.  In fact, Dr. Seuss was close to a radical progressive in his day.  He loathed Jim Crow laws, fought against anti-Semitism and the policies of Nazi Germany, and decried the dangers of American isolationism.  In the 1999 book Dr. Seuss Goes to War, Art Spiegelman writes that the author railed “against isolationism, racism, and anti-semitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period.” He noted even further that Dr. Seuss drew “virtually the only editorial cartoons outside the communist and Black press that decried the military’s Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-semitism.”

Of course, the one doesn’t cancel out the other, but it does point out the irony of progress in our age:  A champion of civil rights in his era is a racist in ours, placing a beloved legacy at risk of further cancellation, meaning the very nature of progress requires a continual erasing of the past.  Putting the question another way:  If Dr. Seuss is irredeemably racist by our standards, and certainly some of his work suggests that, why should he continue to be read at all?

Personally, I find this to be a very destructive way of considering our history, one which by its nature causes us to lose sight of progress itself.  It’s an undeniable fact that historical figures, either from the recent and especially from the distant past, were wrong about almost everything.  For example, we don’t fault Isaac Newton because he failed to discover Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin because he didn’t know about DNA, but, of course, racial issues are far more sensitive than the progress of science.

Progress, however, can still only be measured against differences with the past regardless of the field of human endeavor.  We revise, improve, rebuild, reimagine, and ultimately revolutionize culture as much as anything else.  Therefore, we are far more sensitive to the depictions of minorities today because we have recognized what was acceptable in even the recent past was harmful and wrong.  It is a measure of our progress that we consider some of the actions of our ancestors to be deplorable.

This process is healthy, but the continually revision that accompanies it is not.

In my own lifetime, for example, it was considered a socially acceptable form of ridicule to compare people to individuals with special needs: the r-word and jokes about the short bus.  Likewise, insults based on homosexuality were also fair game.  When we were children, you could say what now are slurs in front of teachers and parents without any consequences.  Today, however, both are considered wrong, as they should be, but does that mean that just about everyone born before 1980 was irredeemably ableist or homophobic?

Of course not, likewise Dr. Seuss used racist imagery and slurs in his work while championing civil rights.  How do you align these two seeming opposites?

You can start by considering the era.  The sad reality is that the imagery and slurs Dr. Seuss used were widespread at the time.  Blackface was commonplace.  As noted earlier, many big name actors appeared in films dressed up as people of color.  There was an entire genre of Hollywood films called “happy darky,” and let’s just say the depictions weren’t positive.  I remember watching Cabin in the Sky in a film class in high school and being shocked even by the sensibilities of over 20 years ago, much less those of today.  The Japanese were also a convenient target during the war period especially, with even Popeye the Sailorman getting in on the act in the racist “Zap Them Japs.”  On a side note, Donald Duck was a Nazi recruit in one little remembered Disney short.

While it would’ve been amazing if Dr. Seuss and others recognized the error of their ways in real time, that’s rarely the way the human experience works.  Even great thinkers and artists are tied deeply to their own time, peering into the future in a specific, narrow domain that they can control while living with the rest of the world they inherited.  No single person revolutionizes everything.  One of the reasons history is interesting is the precious few moments of real change:  What caused them, why people didn’t see it earlier, what comes in their wake.

Only then can you acknowledge that things are better today, even as they are still far from perfect.  If progress is a good thing, it usually is, shouldn’t we be celebrating how far we’ve come?  How can you celebrate how far we’ve come without understanding the past, celebrating the good and analyzing the bad?

The alternative is the most slippery of slopes. I’m not a big fan of that phrase, but  the question remains: Is there any limiting principle at work?

If the standards of our time are going to dictate our appreciation of prior times, it follows that the great, great majority of human history will have to be cancelled at some point and the only thing preventing it is the popularity of the figure.  Putting this another way, if an historical figure that was an acknowledged progressive in their day, one that wouldn’t have been considered racist in their period, can be retroactively branded such and their works re-evaluated in that light, why should anything survive?  From George Washington to Dr. Seuss, why would any legacy be safe?

Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, everything should be cancelled, it’s only the popularity, sentimentality, or other arbitrary intangible that prevents us from doing so.  Right now, Dr. Seuss is too big to cancel, too many people in my generation and even later grew up with his books to eliminate them entirely, but that’s only because he sold a lot of copies.  In principle, however, he should be cancelled by these standards, otherwise we’re selling morality out to the marketplace.

If racism is wrong, it is, and if he was a racist, by our standards he was, then why does he deserve to persist in any form?

Again, I find this to be a very destructive way of viewing history and progress.  Far be it from me to put myself in the place of black mother raising a child, wondering how to explain the sins of the past without eliminating the past entirely, but I would think there are plenty of teachable moments to be had by looking at the bad with eyes wide open and simultaneously cherishing the good.

Yes, Dr. Seuss created images and wrote things that were shocking and hurtful even then, but at the same time he created things beloved by millions, bringing joy and learning to generations of people.  We should acknowledge when he was wrong, but view his errors in the light of the progress we have made.  How else can we judge progress at all?  Otherwise, you are only living in the present.

Children, in my limited experience anyway, can be surprisingly observant.  They will understand how times have changed for the better, but that doesn’t mean all of the past was irredeemable.  They’ll also get a valuable lesson in the flawed nature of humanity; nobody is perfect and nobody lives up to even the standards we set for ourselves every day.  We should be extremely wary about judging people by their worst moments rather than their best.

Both are valuable lessons we could all use a lot more of these days, in my unsolicited opinion.

Please note:  I understand that ceasing to publish six relatively obscure works doesn’t constitute a full cancellation.  At the same time, eBay immediately stopped the sale of existing copies of these books, meaning we’re going to pretend they don’t exist from here on out.

4 thoughts on “Dr. Seuss: The irony of progress and the slippery slope of social justice”

  1. Thank you Christian for helping me understand why some Dr. Seuss books are offensive. To me it was just a neat way of teaching my children to read. It’s like people who draw those pictures you pay for and they exaggerate your most prominent features. I would have been one long lanky white girl covered in freckles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very welcome. Thanks for the comment, appreciate your taking the time to read the post. Personally, my caricature would have a huge head, an even bigger forehead on top of a stick figure. 🙂

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  2. I agree with Kathleen. It’s been a while since I read green eggs and ham and the cat in the hat to my children and grandchildren. So thanks for explaining things I hadn’t known before and so thoroughly. But I’ve been watching as the world of woke has indiscriminately pulled down statues and cancelled (burned/books and thinking that people are rewriting (whitewashing? history. Hasn’t it been said that the victors write history?) Your intro into the article, said much better what I’ve been thinking: ” Progress can only be measured by a comparison to the past. If we erase the past that doesn’t measure up, we live in a perpetual present where no one can possibly measure up and no legacy can be safe.”

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    1. Thanks, I completely agree with that. If these instances were one-offs, I don’t think there would be reason for alarm, but something like this happens every week, if not multiple times per week. It’s obvious that this is coordinated and supported by some not insignificant number of people.

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