Cancel Culture Is Not a Movement

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is not a political entity. It holds the licenses for its namesake’s more than sixty books—it licensed everything from “Seussical: The Musical” to Jim Carrey’s “Grinch”—which means it is effectively in the business of operating a mint. Of course, these two enterprises—money minting and politics—can sometimes coincide. On March 2nd, Theodore Seuss Geisel’s birthday, the company announced that six books from its catalogue would no longer be published, because they included depictions, usually of nonwhite characters, that were “hateful and wrong.” The statement was unsigned and stipulated that the decision had been made after consultation with “a panel of experts, including educators.”

Shortly after reading about this, I pulled our household Seuss anthology, which contains two of the retracted stories, from my kindergarten-aged son’s shelf. In one, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” I suspected I knew what the offending image would be: a small drawing, over the verse line “A Chinese man eating with sticks,” of an identifiably Asian man in a conical hat running while holding chopsticks over a small bowl. (I later learned that this was not the original image: by the late seventies, Geisel had redrawn the figure to make him less stereotypical.) The problem with the other story, “McElligot’s Pool,” which features a boy with a fishing rod imagining some fanciful creatures he might catch, was harder to find. In a drawing of fish wearing furry-hooded parkas departing an iceberg (“Some Eskimo Fish / From beyond Hudson Bay / Might decide to swim down; / Might be headed this way!”), a smiling man dressed in fur stood outside an igloo, holding a spear.

It was clear why Dr. Seuss Enterprises had retracted the books but not what most immediately had caused it to do so. In 2017, the company had removed a mural from a Dr. Seuss museum in Massachusetts, after complaints that it featured the “Mulberry Street” illustration. That same year, Philip Nel, an English professor at Kansas State University, published a book called “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?,” which argued that the character had roots in minstrelsy shows. There had been a pair of critical papers in academic journals (one was called “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books”), but there were no reports of any vigorous movement to cancel Dr. Seuss. The criticisms of cancel culture tend to describe a politically correct mob, built around an angry consensus. But there was no mob. The Seussers had acted before it could form. Nel told the Times, “They may be motivated by the fact that racism is bad for the brand, or they may be motivated by a deeper sense of racial justice.” Maybe one more than the other.

When politicians or commentators talk about “cancel culture,” they are typically speaking of a fear that even ordinary people who express ideas that are politically incorrect will be publicly shamed—that social media has enabled a universal speech surveillance, and that people and institutions are now self-policing, out of fear of it. The response to the Seuss news, as with any incident that plausibly falls under the banner of cancel culture, was intense, with conservatives, as usual, seeming most outraged. Senator Ted Cruz implied that the Seuss episode had been part of a coördinated program of cancellation, tweeting, “Who knew Joe Biden was such a great book seller.” The Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that it was “mildly creepy” that the Seuss group had pulled the books but “much creepier that so few people notionally in the free-expression business, so few liberal journalists and critics, seemed troubled by the move.” In fact, I found it hard to get too worked up about the possibility that a tenth of the readily available Seuss catalogue will be a little harder to find. What made it interesting was that it reflected a pattern within what conservatives call cancel culture, in which liberal élites struggle with how deeply to identify with the activist point of view about structural racism, which many of them began to embrace in the Trump era. To Dr. Seuss Enterprises, it might have seemed possible that a progressive mob was waiting, ready to turn on “McElligot’s Pool” and “Mulberry Street.” But it is also possible—to me, it seems likely—that there was no such consensus at all.

I covered the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary and found that its signal characteristic was that the candidates spoke as few others had, on many topics but especially on racial ones. Even milquetoast candidates like Pete Buttigieg spoke earnestly (if in his case also defensively, having failed to connect with Black voters) about the necessity of dismantling systemic racism. Bernie Sanders’s rallies sometimes began with a blessing from indigenous people. Nearly all the candidates spoke of “Black and brown communities”—the “brown” was new in a context like this, and it defined Mexican-American or Filipino-American communities not by their own heritage or experience but by their relationship to whiteness. Democratic Presidential candidates often adopted activist language in even more casual ways: Elizabeth Warren described her intention to “lift up the voices” of marginalized communities. This was striking coming from a powerful senator. Activists “lift up the voices” of the marginalized. Senators (and Presidents) are usually in a different business, the allocation of power. They don’t lift up voices; they decide whether to fund wars, and whether a line cook at McDonald’s should make eleven or fifteen dollars per hour. Democratic politicians’ connection with the cause of racial justice strengthened throughout the Trump era—an expression of their horror at a President they openly described as white supremacist or racist. It strengthened further during the spring protests over the police murder of George Floyd. In June, Nancy Pelosi knelt in the Capitol wearing a kente-cloth stole, an idea that had come from the Congressional Black Caucus. Still, the choice made you wonder how closely she was listening, and how much of this was for show.

Among those politicians who thought it imperative to dismantle white supremacy quickly, a natural question was how to do it. One approach, explored by the Minneapolis city council, was to allow racial-justice advocates a more direct role in defining public policy. Within two weeks of Floyd’s killing, following a week of intense lobbying by activists, a majority of the city-council members appeared at a protest and announced that they intended to “end policing as we know it.” I reported on that initiative, and found that the city councillors had well-grounded criticisms of the old police system but only a vague sense of what would replace it. I kept asking whose idea it had been to pursue defunding. Cam Gordon, a city councillor, named the activist groups: “It was Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective’s baby.” By September, the proposal, which would have first sought ballot approval to amend the city charter’s definition of policing, was functionally dead, after the charter commission voted against approving the necessary ballot initiative. Several of the councillors acknowledged then that they had never really agreed on what it would mean to defund the police, and the initiative lost steam when it encountered what a Times report described as “public opposition.”

Another approach, in San Francisco, was to aim at symbolic targets, in this case the names of schools. As in many other places, the education board had formed a committee to review school names in 2018, after the previous year’s white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and, like the city council in Minneapolis, the committee proceeded deliberately. While schools in San Francisco were closed for the pandemic, the board of education voted, 6–1, to rename forty-four schools in order to “dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture,” including schools named after Abraham Lincoln (for his role in the killing and persecution of Native Americans), James Russell Lowell (an abolitionist who the Committee alleged did not want Black people to be allowed to vote), and the nineteenth-century tycoon James Lick (whose estate funded an offensive statue). By then, the school board had a new president, Gabriela López, a thirty-year-old activist schoolteacher who had moved to San Francisco after receiving her master’s, and it was never clear how much support this broad renaming enjoyed from San Franciscans. The renaming project was botched, probably in part because the committee charged with renaming the schools did not consult any historians. “What would be the point?” the chair of the renaming committee and first-grade teacher named Jeremiah Jeffries wondered, insisting that the history of oppression was plain to see. In pursuit of dramatic change, the committee made basic errors: assuming, for example, that Paul Revere’s Penobscot Expedition had been a colonizing raid against indigenous communities in Maine, when it was actually an effort to capture a British fort. A month after the school board’s plan was announced, it was shelved indefinitely.

In cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis, these kinds of progressive ideas are often associated with the political opposition to gentrification. But they may actually share some of the ethos of gentrification, in that they aspire to wash away a complicated past and replace it with one that is beyond rebuke. Such ideas may also be held, in large part, by gentrifiers: college-educated white Democrats are now more progressive on many racial issues than Black or Hispanic voters, as Matthew Yglesias and other commentators have pointed out. (There’s an echo of this progressive desire to wipe the slate clean in a proposal by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a New York City mayoral contender, and a Black Brooklyn native himself, to revive the borough’s “agrarian economy.” Brooklyn!)

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