Cancel Culture

Why Dr. Seuss Is Worth Defending

Banishing him from library shelves is a slippery slope.


Oh, the extreme places they'll go. Last week, when Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would no longer publish six Seuss books said to contain racially offensive imagery, foes of cancel culture (this author among them) cried foul. Many others shrugged, noting correctly that this isn't an issue of censorship: A book publisher is free to decide it wants to cease publishing a very old book.

But now those books are being pulled from the shelves of some public libraries as well. "We are part of the broader community who have identified these books as being harmful," Manny Figueiredo, director of education for a school board in Ontario, Canada, said in a statement. "The delivery of education must ensure that no child experiences harm from the resources that are shared."

A journalist for the Toronto Star issued an impassioned plea for more libraries to take action—and for Dr. Seuss Enterprises to make amends for its historical failures.

It's not just Canada: The Chicago Public Library system agreed to remove the six books in question—And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot's Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, If I Ran the Zoo, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat's Quizzer—pending an investigation.

Disappearing books from library shelves gets us closer to the classic example of censorship, though of course a physical library possesses a finite amount of space and thus has to consider certain priorities. What's happening to Dr. Seuss is the result of a very specific kind of prioritization, however: One decided upon not by readers or the public at large, but by activist educators peddling a false narrative about the beloved child author's books and characters.

This narrative—the result of a highly misleading 2019 report on "Orientalism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy in Dr. Seuss's children's books"—has quickly become influential, motivating much of the recent shift away from Seuss among certain government officials, educators, libraries, and even private publishers. Learning for Justice, an outgrowth of the undeservedly well-regarded Southern Poverty Law Center, cited the report as evidence that it had misjudged The Sneetches, a Seuss story about a group of birds—some with stars on their bellies, some without—who eventually come to realize that their superficial physical differences don't matter at all:

At Teaching Tolerance, we've even featured anti-racist activities built around the Dr. Seuss book The Sneetches. But when we re-evaluated, we found that the story is actually not as "anti-racist" as we once thought. …

The solution to the story's conflict is that the Plain-Belly Sneetches and Star-Bellied Sneetches simply get confused as to who is oppressed. As a result, they accept one another. This message of "acceptance" does not acknowledge structural power imbalances. It doesn't address the idea that historical narratives impact present-day power structures. And instead of encouraging young readers to recognize and take action against injustice, the story promotes a race-neutral approach.

They actually had it right the first time. But nonracism—the idea that skin color should be overlooked—has lost popularity among progressive activists, and anti-racism—the idea that skin color matters a great deal—is in vogue. The former is an egalitarian message at the heart of many Dr. Seuss books; the latter is a smokescreen for all sorts of policies that have very little to do with combating racism: like abolishing standardized tests or spending more time renaming schools than reopening them.

There is certainly no obligation to read or teach Dr. Seuss, nor should Seuss defenders feel some moral or practical imperative to gloss over his imperfections. The man did draw racist caricatures, and some of his work can be read as a defense of Japanese internment. He was a flawed genius—but a genius nonetheless, and a towering figure in the world of children's literature. There is a disturbing trend among modern liberalism to seek to cast out all such flawed figures, which has the rest of us reasonably worried that no art or artist more than a few years old can possibly stand the test of time. (For another example of this, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently accused Pepe Le Pew, the lovesick skunk from Looney Tunes, of perpetuating rape culture.)

There's not really a law or policy that could fix this problem—though Sonny Bunch's proposal to release now unpublishable works into the public domain is an interesting one—and so much of the pro-Seuss grousing in nonliberal circles can feel as performative as the anti-Seuss extremism. Yet there's good reason in this case to regard the slippery slope with suspicion. The report that led to the cancellation of the six books also stipulates that The Cat in the Hat embodies a "racist tradition" and that Horton Hears a Who! "reinforces themes of white supremacy."

I would not be surprised to find the entire Seuss canon under attack a few years from now. To quote the last lines of The Butter Battle Book, "Who's gonna drop it? Will you or will he?" (To which the narrator's grandpa replies: "Be patient. We'll see. We will see.")