And to think that I saw it in my Facebook feed: A few words about those Dr. Seuss books

Relax. No one is proposing to tear down the statue of Dr. Seuss in his hometown of Springfield, Mass. (Photo by Steve Alexander)

Last week Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) decided to let six of the famed children’s book author’s books that almost no one was buying anyway go out of print because they were said to include racist imagery. Of course, the right-wing outrage machine went into overdrive.

I was surprised, however, when a few of my Facebook friends joined in — albeit in a much more thoughtful way. All of these friends are about my age (the category now commonly described as “aging boomer.”) All of us are white. I’m pretty sure all are, like me, Jewish (I’ll get to the relevance of that below). Our politics probably range from militant centrist to Warren/Sanders Democrat.

That they found a decision to simply let these books go out of print so upsetting is, I think, a testament to the extent that right-wing “culture war” poison has seeped into our consciousness and tapped into the deepest fears even of people who loath the likes of Fox News and Donald Trump.

So instead of just posting long comments, I thought I’d consolidate my dissent in this space.

What did Dr. Seuss Enterprises actually do?

Consider the numbers:

Number of Dr. Seuss books: 60.

Number of books ordered burned or otherwise destroyed: 0.

Number of books that bookstores have been forced to return: 0.

Number of titles that will now go out of print: 6

So for starters, no works of Dr. Seuss have been “banned.” And there is nothing in these numbers to indicate that Dr. Seuss is himself under attack. Similarly:

I am aware of no calls to tear down the statue of Dr. Seuss in his hometown of Springfield, Mass.

I did a quick Twitter search to see if hashtags such as “#BoycottSeuss” or “#BoycottDrSeuss” were trending. Not only were they not trending, I found a grand total of seven recent tweets using either hashtag — and several of them were from conservatives objecting to what DSE did.

In fact, though it was a cursory search, I could find among all the tweets supporting the decision to stop publishing the books, none criticizing Dr. Seuss himself. (I’m sure there are some, there must be — it’s Twitter — but you get the idea.)

What should Dr. Seuss Enterprises have done?

I agree with one of my friends that the best approach would have been simply to change the offending illustrations. Second best: Let the books go out of print without a big announcement. Some have argued that that DSE didn’t do that because they wanted the backlash, figuring that it could only help business. If, in fact, that was their calculation, they were right — sales have soared. (So keep that in mind, Fox News: Every time you rail about this as an example of so-called “cancel culture” you’re putting money in the pockets of those who did the alleged canceling.)

But whatever the reason and however it was handled, I think letting the books go out of print is the right decision.

What are the images in question?

The first thing that surprised me about my friends’ comments is that, in some cases, it appeared they expressed their strong disagreement with the decision without looking at the images in question. I sought them out and found some of them. I think The New York Times was right to describe them as “egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes.” One of them, a stereotypical depiction of an Asian man had been the subject of objections — led by other children’s book authors, in 2017. There also is what I think is a highly-offensive caricature of Africans in If I Ran the Zoo.

And that, of course, raises a dilemma of its own. I could reproduce the images here — but that only further disseminates it. So I choose not to. I hope readers will make a conscious decision to seek them out before making a judgment.

As for why some of my liberal friends might conclude this was an awful decision without seeing the images, the Times story offers an excellent explanation:

“Folks are not remembering the text itself, they are remembering the affective experiences they had around those texts,” said Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “White children or parents might not have noticed the offensive anti-Asian stereotyping in ‘Mulberry Street.’”

When she was a child, she added, “I certainly didn’t.”

WWDSD?

The idea that this is some kind of attack on Dr. Seuss himself fails to consider what he might have said and done were he still alive. We’ll never know. But while it is possible that he would be outraged, it is equally possible, given the evolution of his own politics, that he might have agreed to have the books withdrawn or, better yet, as my friend suggested, redone the drawings.

The audience matters

There is a crucial distinction between this controversy and those involving books or films aimed at adults or even at older children. These are children’s books — books read aloud to very young children. I don’t think an unsuspecting parent should suddenly have to do a lot of explaining to a four-year-old because s/he turned the page and came upon imagery that was common in its time, but is, in fact, racist.

Who decides if it’s a big deal?

One of my friends took the position that even if the illustrations are racist, it’s just one picture in a book. It’s no big deal and everyone should, literally and figuratively, turn the page. An answer to that came, indirectly, during the first edition of ABC’s new series Soul of a Nation. In one section, prominent, highly-successful Black Americans were asked: “What was the moment that you realized you were Black?” — meaning, what was your first childhood encounter with racism?

None of those encounters was something a white American is likely to consider a big deal. And yet, it was clear, in spite of everything these Black Americans had achieved, they still stung.

Why inflict pain, large or small, when we don’t have to?

Two hypotheticals

I’ll conclude this essay the way I think my father, who was an American history teacher, would have: with a couple of hypotheticals:

● To my Jewish friends: Suppose you were reading a beloved children’s book aloud to your four-year-old, and suddenly, as you turned the page, you were confronted with an image of two men wearing yarmulkes, with bulging eyes and large hooked noses, salivating over the prospect of the piles of money before them. Would that be a big deal?

And even if our answer is “no, it’s not really a problem,” how would we feel if our gentile friends were the ones who instructed us that the matter was trivial and we should just turn the page?

● Now consider a week in the life of a young Black man. He has a ten-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. One morning, heading to a business meeting with colleagues he was stopped in the lobby and subjected to close questioning while his white colleagues were waived through. Another day, at lunch hour he went to a nearby mall to buy a gift for his wife. He was followed around by mall security. On impulse, he also stopped off at a bookstore and bought a Dr. Seuss book to read to his daughter.

At the end of the week, the trip home was long. He had to walk from the bus stop because the cabs kept passing him by in favor of white passengers. He uses the time while walking to contemplate if it’s time to have “the talk” with his son, and what he will say. He arrives home — his and his wife’s third choice, the first two mysteriously wound up off the market when the realtor saw the potential buyers.

But by evening he can relax. He reads that new Dr. Seuss book to his daughter, who giggles and the rhymes and the illustrations. Then he turns the page …

I don’t think every decision made in the name of equality and inclusion is correct. Having read all 14,000+ words of Don McNeil’s essay about how he was effectively forced out of The New York Times I think the Times grossly overreacted, and we are all the poorer for it.

But Dr. Seuss is another story.

What Dr. Seuss Enterprises did may have been nothing more than an act of crass capitalism. But supporting the decision is nothing more than a very small act of kindness and common decency. It is, perhaps, a chance to restore some small measure of dignity to those of our fellow humans who have parts of that dignity taken from them every day.

I am a reformed journalist turned child advocate. My child welfare work is here www.nccprblog.org This space is for personal observations about everything else.