Don't Cancel Me, Bro

On potatoes, Dr. Seuss, and some dunderheads

There have been two less serious stories floating around over the past week that are supposed to be emblematic of our country’s current obsession with “cancel culture.” And I say, “our country’s” obsession because even though I think it’s mainly the Left trying to “cancel” things (and sometimes that’s bad!), I also think the Right loves to overreact to every instance of it that they see.

A good example of an overreaction: Mr. Potato Head being “cancelled.” It is really strange to me that Mr. Potato Head going “gender-neutral” is now completely accepted as fact amongst the public, when in reality the entire outrage is based on a poorly summarized press release from the Spud’s manufacturer, Hasbro. On February 25, 2021, the company issued a press release in which they announced changes to the Potato Head line:

Hasbro is officially renaming the MR. POTATO HEAD brand to POTATO HEAD to better reflect the full line. But rest assured, the iconic MR. and MRS. POTATO HEAD characters aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. and MRS. POTATO HEAD.

Launching this Fall, the CREATE YOUR POTATO HEAD FAMILY is a celebration of the many faces of families allowing kids to imagine and create their own Potato Head family with 2 large potato bodies, 1 small potato body, and 42 accessories. The possibilities to create your own families are endless with mixing and mashing all the parts and pieces (my emphasis).

That is directly from Hasbro. Pretty clear, right? The actual problem came later, when the press release was summarized by the Associated Press. They wrote it up and slapped a headline on it that said, “A mister no more: Mr. Potato Head goes gender neutral.” Because AP is a wire service, other outlets (like ABC News) picked up their story and also posted articles with the false headline. AP has since corrected their original piece and given it a more “neutral” headline: “Mr. Potato Head drops the mister, sort of.” Still wrong, but whatever.

To me, that is more of an example of a widespread media failure than cancel culture. We will still see Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head on store shelves this Fall.

The Dr. Seuss controversy is much more substantive, because while there has definitely been an overreaction - Fox News has been discussing the story non-stop for the past 48 hours - you can have a nuanced debate about the benefits of exposing children to (let’s say) problematic literature.

I think it helps to get the obvious out of the way first: Theodor Seuss Geisel was definitely a racist, but that should not be surprising because he was born in 1904. Dr. Seuss, like many people during World War II, supported the internment of Japanese Americans and illustrated cartoons in which he called them a “fifth column” in the U.S. Some of the illustrations from early on in his career are shocking.

You can see how some of this imagery spilled into his early works. For example, one of the six books that will no longer be published by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, If I Ran the Zoo, features similar designs. It is, to me, explicitly racist:

The other thing to note is that Dr. Seuss’s views changed as time went on. Although Geisel always regarded himself as a “liberal” who opposed fascism (he supported FDR during WWII), his later works argue in favor of racial equality and explicitly oppose anti-Semitism. It’s almost like none of us should be tied to the things we did and wrote in our 20s for all of eternity!

Funnily enough, some of Geisel’s later, more explicitly lefty books, like The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book, were so hated by conservatives for their progressive messages that some organizations called for them to be banned. Even in 2012, conservative writer Ross Douthat described the central premise of The Butter Battle Book, “morally dubious, if not repugnant.” The reality here is that Geisel’s views were more complicated than the way we currently treat American history, where everyone who was racist is bad and everyone who was anti-racist is good. Most people, like Geisel, were somewhere in the middle.

Many of Geisel’s early political works, for instance, are heavy critiques of the “America First” movement that opposed our intervention in World War II. The movement itself was incredibly anti-Semitic in its rhetoric and it infected a huge chunk of the Republican Party in the 1940s. One of my favorite books is called The Illustrious Dunderheads, which is a collection of (mostly) America First Republicans expressing their opposition to our entry into World War II. There are lots of just plainly insane quotes in the book, like this one from Clare Hoffman, a Republican from Michigan:

Many of us doubt that Germany wants any more than has been asked down through the ages by every people, by every nation, which has found itself with territory too small to contain its increasing millions, or with men capable of fighting not needed in peaceful pursuits and with leadership at once efficient and ambitious. - C.R. February 6, 1941, p. 753

Some of the nuttiest quotes are from Senator Robert A. Taft, who was the son of President William Howard Taft:

I believe in the end we could have a negotiated peace; better than England could now secure, but probably with a Hitler dominant on the Continent. Europe must work out its own salvation, and we have no power, even if we have the will, to be its savior.

Taft also said, “War is even worse than a German victory.” Dunderheads is a collection of quotes compiled by Rex Stout, who usually spent his time writing mystery novels. Stout - much like Geisel - was a “left-liberal” who supported FDR and the War effort. At that time, many of the people on the Left were in opposition to a growing anti-Semitic movement in the U.S. that opposed the War. Even though they were the “good guys” back then, not all of them held morally perfect, 2021-approved views. And what’s even more confusing: There are people on the Left today who have their own flirtations with anti-Semitism.

I am citing to Dunderheads because I think it’s neatly relevant here. For one, it provides some context for Geisel’s political views when he was in his 30s. For another, picking up a copy of Dunderheads today will run you about $920, because the book is currently out of print (No Elisabeth, we are not selling our copy). The six Dr. Seuss books that will no longer be published are meeting the same fate, meaning that they aren’t going anywhere; if you have a copy you can still pick it up and read it.

Dr. Seuss’s earlier works - much like Dunderheads - contain offensive imagery and language that can be shocking for some readers. That said, I’m still not sure that the answer is to completely “erase” those books from a child’s life syllabus. The Nashville Public Library actually has a great resource on how to have a conversation with children about the imagery in the Dr. Seuss books (and it was published in 2019, well before this came to a head). They acknowledge the messiness of doing so, especially with the image from If I Ran the Zoo that I shared above:

Naturally, their opposable thumbs must mean they are human and I must ask my daughter the question.

Me: “What do you think of these guys?”
Anja: “Those aren’t guys, those are monkeys.”

Cue my heart jumping into my throat then dropping to my stomach.

Me: “What if I told you they are supposed to be people? They are supposed to represent someone that is black or from Africa. Do you think there are people that look like that?”
Anja: “No way.”
Me: “Do you think mommy looks like that?”
Anja: “No.”

This helpfully illustrates that you can have disagreements in good faith about the efficacy of “canceling” certain books. Maybe we should all just concede that there are no real easy answers here.

When I lived in New York, I attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and I will never forget something Tim Keller said during a sermon: “Your kids are going to grow up and think some of the things you are doing right now were crazy in hindsight.” Put differently, one day “cancel culture” will come for us all. Will my kids have to one day sit in a college classroom defending their parents’ choice to drive a gasoline-fueled car for the first 15 years of their marriage? Will we all one day have to answer for our use of convenient, life-altering cell phones that were built by vulnerable people being paid pennies on the dollar? If history judges me poorly, do I become immoral? These are penetrating questions that will drive you crazy if you let them.

We all need a little bit more grace, especially Dr. Seuss.