If 2020 was the Year of the Unprecedented, 2021 may well go down as the Year of the Absurd.
Mr. Potato Head is now just “Potato Head.” Lola Bunny now looks like – gasp! – a normal, humanoid bunny, which I can’t believe is a sentence I just typed with a straight face. And in a supreme twist of irony, an actress most famous for appearing on the USA Network may have just torpedoed the British monarchy, a feat even a Nazi sympathizer and an alleged pedophile couldn’t manage.
Into this squall of stupidity stumbles Dr. Seuss, the beloved children’s author. Last week Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they would cease publication of six titles because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
Conservative polemicists took that as their cue to send in the clowns. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted a video of himself reading Green Eggs and Ham…despite the fact that Green Eggs and Ham is not one of the six books in question and will continue to be published and widely distributed. Tucker Carlson wrapped himself in the shroud of hyperbole by proclaiming that “if we lose this battle, America is lost.” Even everyday Americans lost their minds; at the local Barnes and Noble where my roommate Brendan works, one woman bought $330 worth of Dr. Seuss books.
Those of us with sanity left after surviving twelve months of a pandemic tried to preach rationality. No, Dr. Seuss wasn’t being “cancelled;” publishers discontinue books all the time for all manner of reasons, and McElligot’s Pool wasn’t exactly one of Seuss’s best-selling works. A cynic could argue that the decision may have been a pre-emptive cancellation of sorts, removing the titles before a “liberal mob” could find them and call for Seuss’s condemnation, but companies are allowed – encouraged, even – to follow the whims of their consumers. Welcome to the free market, baby.
Then again, others argued, maybe “cancelling” Dr. Seuss was the best decision after all. There are almost no Black characters in his books, and no women of color. Some of his sketches for cartoons and newspapers are steeped in racist, derogatory tropes. Theodore Geisel (the man behind the nom de plume Dr. Seuss) participated in minstrel shows in college, where blackface performances are common. English Professor Philip Nel has argued that The Cat in the Hat is “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans.”
We’re in the middle of a public health crisis that has killed over 500,000 Americans. Our president is launching airstrikes into a country already blown to smithereens. And we’re here quibbling about whether a fictional cat in a red and white striped top hat may or may not be kinda sorta racist.
Yes, this all feels patently ridiculous. But maybe we’re reveling in the absurdity because it’s easier than confronting the controversy. Like it or not, many influential figures from the past have troubling views on race, gender, and culture. How are we supposed to handle these problematic elements of our history? What do we do when our heroes, our idols, our icons, no longer represent the values of our contemporary society?
I have to confront this question often as a historian, particularly as one who specializes in the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers and the ideas of the Revolutionary Era are nothing if not complicated. They boldly proclaimed that “all men are created equal” while holding some 300,000 Black Americans in bondage. As English writer Samuel Johnson succinctly put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
The Founding Fathers were undeniably racist. The country they created exemplified that racism: the Three-Fifths Compromise, a desensitized mathematic solution to an inhumane problem…the Second Amendment, an insidious measure to protect the liberty of white Americans from the specter of slave revolt…the Importation Clause, a pitiful display of procrastination in a time that demanded action.
It’s easy to write these sins off as errors of context, mere foibles of people who were “products of their time.” To an extent, this is true – George Washington was a Virginian aristocrat; to expect him to scream “Black Lives Matter” and “Trans Rights are Human Rights” is a reductionist attempt to project our own battles onto someone else’s war. But to shrug and dismiss such actions as “products of their time” is to ignore the fact that the men who were “products of their time” laid the foundations for the injustices of our own era.
Indeed, seemingly everywhere we look we see the results of someone’s prejudice. Highways are racist, bulldozing Black and Brown neighborhoods to pave miles of white tarmac. Our education system, that great equalizer, is anything but equal. Everyday items like six-packs of beer and screwcap tops are supposedly sexist in origin.
Liberal activists talk of “cancelling” problematic elements of our society, carving out the tumor of injustice from the body politic. But the tumor is too massive. It’s in our bloodstream. It is impossible at this point to draw a line between the actions of a few bad elements and the symptomatic expressions of a much deeper disease.
We cannot solve injustice in society by cancelling unjust elements. We cannot destroy highways built on discriminatory policies. We cannot give back millions of acres of land to the Native Americans whose ancestors fought in vain against the encroachment of Western conquerors. We cannot unlearn centuries of racism with diversity trainings and angry Twitter threads. We cannot…we cannot…we cannot…
But what can we do?
The past does not exist to be cancelled, or changed, or erased. It exists to be learned from. It allows us to see the repercussions of our mistakes with a clear head and avoid similar pitfalls in the future. We may not be able to destroy racist highways, but we can make sure that new infrastructure projects are designed in a way that promotes equitable living arrangements.
In a similar vein, it would be hard to destroy Dr. Seuss. He is the face of children’s literature; National Read Across America Day is celebrated on his birthday. Already the books that have been pulled from publication are going for hundreds of dollars on rare book websites. The past, no matter how distasteful, is not so easily put back on the shelf.
Instead of viewing this decision as a cancellation of the past, view it instead as the first step towards a more promising future. Dr. Seuss’s work still has plenty of merit, and many of his stories—though certainly not all—deserve to be classics. But by making children’s literature more inclusive, we can hope to create new classics. We can give the next generation of young readers stories that resonate with their experiences and depict them in ways that are more honest and empowering.
The past will always be our foundation. But it does not have to be our future.