The brouhaha over some of Dr. Seuss’ early children’s books has raised an important distinction within the censorial world of cancel culture: when the author of multiple books, like Dr. Seuss, has written a handful of pages that do not pass muster with cancel culture critics, should they merely cancel the offending pages? Or should they cancel the person, along with his entire genre, including non-offending items?
In the case of Dr. Seuss, his own estate has withdrawn several of the offending books, but continues to give permission to publish the others. Some zealots however, have suggested cancelling Dr. Seuss himself and removing all of his books and writings from libraries, school curricula and social media. President Biden cancelled the traditional reference to Dr. Seuss in his statement regarding Read Across America Day, which is also Dr. Seuss’s birthday.
If cancel culture were to accept the notion that a person should be totally cancelled based on only a portion of his output, we would have to comb the libraries, book stores and eBook sites for offenders. Near the top of the list would be Fyodor Dostoevsky, perhaps the greatest writer of modern times. In addition to his monumental novels such as "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Crime and Punishment," he wrote an essay that could easily have been mistaken for a chapter straight out of "Mein Kampf" by Adolph Hitler. In his essay on "The Jewish Question," he rails against the Jewish faith, culture, and people. He claims that Jews hoard gold so that they can easily carry it with them to the promised land. He accuses them of duel loyalty, deception and other sins.
Should Dostoevsky be cancelled along with "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Crime and Punishment?" I, for one, assigned his anti-Semitic essay to my students, so that they could try to understand how so brilliant a writer could be so blinded by bigotry.
Should Renoir be cancelled because of his sexist and degrading views toward women— he said they belonged only in the kitchen and bedroom—which are reflected in some of his paintings? Or for his racism and anti-Semitism? What about Picasso?
The list of people who have expressed bigoted views in their writings includes Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, T.S. Eliot, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Sanger, Walt Disney, Malcolm X and Roald Dahl.
Although Cancel culture is informal and has no published rules, if it is to have any credibility, it must have a single standard, either explicit or implicit. It should not simply cancel people or books on an ad hoc basis depending on whose ox is being gored. It should not be weaponized by either the left or right for partisan advantage.
The disgraceful treatment accorded Kate Smith is a case in point. The totality of this great singer’s career was positive, but she was cancelled, as was her stirring rendition of God Bless America, because it was discovered that when she was young she recorded several songs that by today’s standards contained racially insensitive lyrics (which she didn’t write).
In the end, it is the citizens who decide whether cancel culture is to be accepted. The decision by the Seuss estate to cancel half a dozen of his books seems to have backfired: all of his books, including the cancelled ones, became overnight best sellers. But that is because they were still available to be bought and read.
Sometimes, cancelation makes it impossible for readers or viewers to obtain access to the cancelled material. That is the case when the social media or cable or satellite providers totally deny access to the alleged offender and thereby deny access as well to innocent people who want to view or listen to the cancelled person.
In Dr. Seuss’ case, the person–Ted Geisel–certainly doesn’t deserve to be cancelled. He deserves to be honored. He devoted most of his life to advocating racial, ethnic and religious equality. Many of his books promote these and other values, such as protecting the environment. It is true that earlier in his career, he occasionally employed racial and ethnic stereotypes that were common back in the day. But the totality of his life was very positive.
I hope that on future Read Across America Days, President Biden and his successors will remember Geisel’s remarkable contributions to children’s literacy, while reminding us all that he, like all other great Americans, was by no means perfect.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of "Guilt by Accusation" and "The Case Against the Democratic House Impeaching Trump." Read Alan Dershowitz's Reports — More Here.
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