Everyone knows How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
But have you heard How the Woke Cancelled Wumbus?
Among other Seussisms, “A Chinaman who eats with sticks” (from And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street), was recently declared to be offensive.
On March 2nd 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises issued this statement:
Today, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises celebrates reading and also our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.
We are committed to action. To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.
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.
“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.“
You have to admit though: that Wumbus high on the hill from On Beyond Zebra! looks pretty happy.
Land rights for gay whales anyone?
No-one uses chopsticks anymore, right?
What about the “big” magician?
Should robust magicians everywhere suddenly be up in arms as they recall their traumatic childhood being force-read Dr Seuss?
In his recent article And then they came for ON BEYOND ZEBRA!, the American linguist John McWhorter said:
The book is not only entertaining but educational, in ways that a linguist like me especially values. It gently gets across the key fact that our letters only approximately reflect the language we actually speak. Note, for example, that there is no way to indicate with an isolated letter, or even a group of letters, the sound of u in put – if you don’t see it in the word itself, no other approximation works: ough, oo, eu, eugh … see how nothing works? English has 26 letters to about 43 sounds, and Zebra introduces the idea, in its goofy way, that there could theoretically be more letters.
But now we are to see the book as some kind of controversial contraband, and why? Specifically, on one page a man of no delineated race (and thus we would declare him “white,” I assume) is riding a kind of camel and has a mustache. A building in the background seems like, if anything (which it isn’t) some kind of pagoda. The man has the billowy pantaloons we would associate with an “Arab.”
I understand, formally, the idea that this picture signals that this is a Middle Easterner. However, I cannot be honest with myself and view it as a “stereotype.” In no way does this picture ridicule the man (or the animal), and in fact, the camel is a special kind (called a Spazzim) with elaborate horns that carry assorted objects which if anything make this man a mid-twentieth century homeowner.
I don’t know whether Dr. Seuss Enterprises felt pressure from within or without, but the action to which it has committed itself is an example of political correctness having reached dizzying new heights lately as the word woke has become part of our language.
Wokeness speaks to a keen awareness of social and racial injustice. We hear calls to “stay angry, stay woke”. The derivation is from African vernacular meaning that someone was sleeping but now is awake (“I was sleeping but now I’m woke“).
It’s not at all impossible to relate to such an awakening…
But with wokeness has come cancel culture.
Books from Dr. Seuss, along with other classics, are being cancelled.
Now, I lean pretty far left politically and ideologically. I’m a Green voting vegan atheist. I support freedom of speech, expression, and belief.
But it is arguably precisely these things that are under threat by cancel culture!
Nevertheless, I think we have to resist a new index of forbidden books, no matter what form it takes.
Besides, if you did want to cultivate such an index, why on earth would you stop with modern classics?
Why not go after writings about (or by?) the vindictive, jealous, zealous god of the Old Testament, to name just one holy book?
Unless you think that burning witches or stoning adulterers or killing children if they’re disrespectful or slavery or drowning most of the world’s population are acceptable acts?
Or that damning people to Hell (New Testament) because they don’t utter the right magic words is okay?
No? Well, out with a bunch of books from the Bible then too!
But what counts as harm? What counts as injustice? What should be done about it?
If you look closely, you’ll notice that cancel culture is thoroughly anthropocentric.
How ordinary. How boring. How 20th century.
Not to diminish the importance of addressing the injustices still being done to people in various parts of the world, but why stop with human injustice? Why not upgrade racism to speciesism?
It’s easy to imagine a different group of outraged people applying Seuss book bans for treating other species, even if fictional or outlandish, as things to be used. And I don’t mean Thing One and Thing Two.
Those poor old mistreated Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs. And don’t forget that the Nazzim only has the Spazzim because he’s handy for travelling. Or how about the udder (groan; dad joke) convenience of an Umbus?
But Seussisms encourage a playfulness with language. And the corny humour never really gets old.
All Dr Seuss characters are essentially caricatures, including the chinaman with sticks, the Spazzim, and the magician.
There will always be someone to offend in this ultra-individualistic world we’ve created.
We have to stop worrying that something we write or say might be considered offensive to some group of people in the future and instead consider writings in their historical context.
That doesn’t mean that we should set out to hurt, to deliberately offend… Of course we shouldn’t…
And of course, we should stand against harm and injustice.
But what’s next: no Irish jokes? No jokes that start like: a priest, a rabbi, and a buddhist monk walk into a bar…
No question should be forbidden. No topic should be taboo.
Unless you think we’re special in some sense, except to one another, irrespective of any special capabilities we may have.
We’re better than those others in some part of the world that is not ours. Right?
We’re smarter and superior to every other species. Right?
We have to reimagine ourselves as being a part of nature, the very nature that we seem so keen to distance ourselves from.
Not separate from nature. Not a special creation.
On this, especially, all holy books are misguided or misinterpreted. Usually both.
We are all biased beyond belief about one thing or another.
We are all flawed in some way.
Not one of us is perfect.
We need less judgement, misdirected anger, self-righteousness certainty, talk of those other people…
We need more understanding, thoughtful conversation, tolerance of difference, kindness, forgiveness…
All easier said than done, I know…
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.(The Lorax, Dr Seuss)