What can we learn from ‘canceled’ works?

by Pete Mazzaccaro
Posted 3/12/21

The latest chapter of the culture wars was opened last week when the publishers of Dr. Seuss’s extensive catalog of illustrated books announced it would pull six of them from …

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What can we learn from ‘canceled’ works?


The latest chapter of the culture wars was opened last week when the publishers of Dr. Seuss’s extensive catalog of illustrated books announced it would pull six of them from print.

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” read a statement the publisher released to explain its decision. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”

The fallout was swift. On Fox News, Dr. Seuss became the most important story of the day. Media Matters’ Matthew Gertz noted that the network had mentioned Dr. Seuss 85 times in a single day before 4 p.m. It was evidence that Democrats had gone too far, never mind the fact that the books were pulled by their own publisher.

The Fox News producers understand that Americans feel strongly about “cancel culture,” and because everything is partisan now, progressives quickly took the side of the publisher, with defenses ranging from no one read the six books in question anyway to Dr. Seuss has had this coming for a long time and the publisher hadn’t gone far enough.

To tell the truth, I don’t feel strongly about the Seuss case. Of all the problems we face today, cancel culture isn’t high on my list of worries. It’s far less pressing than COVID-19, climate change, the economy, etc. Times change. And as they change and opinions change, it’s not hard to see how the smart thing for Seuss’ publishers to do is remove books from its catalog that it feels are possibly hurtful today. Still, I’d prefer a solution that didn’t include taking any book out of print.

Every time one of these moves is made, I can’t help feeling like an opportunity is lost. Suess, who even some of his detractors would admit held fairly progressive ideas, was born in 1904. The world in which he grew up is so vastly different than our own. That he thought nothing of including some of the images he did – caricatures that we today find offensive – is worth study. It is important for us to be able to see all of his work and try to understand it in context. It’s hard to get that context if the work is inaccessible.

Context and nuance, of course, are not things we as people do very well. We like absolutes and not adjudication.

Some of the things that were part of our culture 50, 75 and 100 years ago are probably best left forgotten today – a possibility that becomes less and less likely in an age when all media is a Google search away. But these things should be the subject of ongoing discussion – a window into what passed as convention in the past with the opportunity to understand how – and more importantly why – that convention has changed.


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  • hsgray

    If adults want to study these books and their images I am sure they will be able to access them, given that copies of the books still exist and images of them will forever exist online.

    But children at the library need not be confronted with racist images of themselves or others when checking books out from the children's section, from a very popular author.

    Which of these books https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/dr-seuss-got-away-anti-asian-racism-long-rcna381

    would you feel comfortable reading aloud at a children's story time? What if the audience was Asian American parents and children? What if the audience was black parents and children? Would you feel it is appropriate? Do you feel like you are qualified to explain the "context and nuance" to these families?

    As this piece https://theconversation.com/from-erasure-to-recategorizing-what-we-should-do-with-dr-seuss-books-156929 says:

    "Retiring racist texts from children’s literature is a crucial step in interrupting the racist legacies that continue to hurt and divide us. With careful contextualization, these historical materials can help document and teach people about the realities of racism that are so often belittled or denied. It also makes space, literally and figuratively, for new texts by diverse authors featuring diverse characters that provide a fuller picture of the world that better reflects the rich variety of people, experiences and perspectives it has to offer.

    This is especially important considering how much work still needs to be done in galleries, museums, libraries and archives. These institutions are still overwhelmingly white and male."

    Friday, March 19 Report this