Controversy erupted earlier this week when Dr. Seuss Enterprises (Seuss), which holds the copyrights to the works of Theodore Geisel, announced that it had decided last year to cease publication of six of his books. Those books were And To Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, If I Ran the Zoo, On Beyond Zebra, Scrambled Eggs Super, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Seuss made this decision on the grounds that the books in question contain negative and hurtful stereotypes, but no sooner had the announcement been made than politicians, pundits, and everyday readers chimed in to denounce the “canceling” of one of the America’s most beloved children’s authors. But was this really a case of cancel culture? The reality is more complicated, but a deeper look at this case helps to illustrate what’s wrong with the reflexive denunciations of “cancel culture” so prevalent in the media today.
Dictionary.com defines “cancel culture” as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.” But Seuss enterprises wasn’t pressured by activists, on social media or elsewhere, to discontinue the publication of the six books in question. Questions about Seuss’s illustrations and themes had been raised for decades, in particular with respect to his wartime political cartoons that portrayed Japanese people in blatantly racist fashion. More recent critiques have taken aim at the themes of books like The Cat in the Hat (allegedly for similarities with minstrelsy) and The Sneetches (for allegedly promoting a colorblindness that erases the experiences of racial minorities). But none of these books are going out of print, and indeed remain big sellers.
And that fact may better explain Seuss’s decision. Whereas books like Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and Oh The Places You’ll Go regularly sell several hundred thousand copies a year, And To Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street sold only five thousand copies last year, and McElligot’s Pool and The Cat’s Quizzer haven’t sold any copies in years, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Far from being an instance of cancel culture, what we appear to have here is instead a simple business decision to cease spending money printing copies of books that no one was buying anyway, but which did contain depictions of racial minorities that threatened to tarnish the Seuss brand.
Since the announcement, sales of Dr. Seuss books have skyrocketed. Copies of And To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and McElligot’s Pool were selling for hundreds and even thousands of dollars on Amazon and eBay, according the New York Times. But it wasn’t just the books being taken out of print that saw increased sales. “Dozens of his books shot to the top of Amazon’s print best-seller list; on Thursday morning, nine of the site’s top 10 best sellers were Seuss books.”
Seuss no doubt got an assist in this regard from the very pundits and politicians who castigated it for its decision. Green Eggs and Ham wasn’t on the list of discontinued books, but when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted a video of himself reading it on YouTube, and falsely claimed that Democrats were outlawing Dr. Seuss, he almost certainly gave it a sales boost. But his blatant lie about the origin and nature of Seuss’s decision to discontinue some of its titles is also indicative of a dark symbiosis between woke capital, on the one hand, and conservative media and political figures, on the other. As many journalists have pointed out, the recent Conservative Political Action Conference that wrapped up in Florida last week was very light on policy, but heavy on cultural grievance. Corporations, meanwhile, have found that they can stay in the left’s good graces regardless of low wages and poor working conditions, as long as they implement implicit bias training and mouth the right platitudes about “diversity” and “equity.” As long as the narrative centers around a culture war being fought between woke capital and movement conservatives, both will see increased profits and power.
So the Seuss scandal isn’t a case of cancel culture, but rather a case of woke capital once again manipulating media narratives to promote its own profitability, which conservative media and the Republican Party then parasitize to promote their own personalities and agendas. But unlike the Sneetches in the eponymous book by Dr. Seuss, we can and must break the cycle created by the McBeans of our current media ecosystem before we spend all our time and money on pointless fights that only enrich the already privileged. Doing that will be hard, because it will require that we refuse to give into the temptations of tribalism and self-flattery, but the reward will be a more thoughtful public discourse. To that end, I’ll give Dr. Seuss the last word.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”