No, Dr. Seuss Wasn't 'Canceled.' Enough With the Hysteria About Cancel Culture | Opinion

We were already thinking about Dr. Seuss. On February 26, The Daily Wire informed readers that a Virginia school district was disconnecting its observance of Read Across America Day from Seuss, citing possible racist undertones in his work. "Dr. Seuss Canceled," the headline said. Much more arresting was Tuesday's news that Dr. Seuss Enterprises had decided to cease publication of six of the good Doctor's works because the books contained racist images they could not defend.

The backlash from the right was immediate and intense, and at first, I admit I, too, was skeptical. One of my favorites was on the list of canceled books, And to Think I saw it on Mulberry Street, a book I'd always thought of as having a very wholesome message about balancing celebrating your imagination while also committing to reality. So in light of the news, I went and found a copy—and immediately had my heart broken.

As you may recall, the book has its protagonist trying hard to turn "a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street" into something worth reporting to his father. In his imagination, the horse turns to a zebra, a reindeer, and eventually an elephant, with a rajah riding atop. And then, he finds "a Chinese man, who eats with sticks," wears a conical hat, has little slanted lines for eyes and runs on wood-block clogs. If you remember Charlie from the Mr. Magoo cartoons, you'll recognize the level of stereotype.

Looking that image, it was impossible not to recognize that Dr. Seuss Enterprises had done the right thing. This is not cancel culture, as the right would have you believe; this is living forward through time. This is learning and growing. This is how you manage a legacy.

And here's the interesting thing: In original editions of the book, the character was even more offensively stereotypical and was referred to as "a Chinaman." Later in his life, Seuss became aware of the problem and redrew the character. He also expressed regret over racist stereotypes he used in his early political cartoons. Once the author is dead, though, there's only so far you can go. So if you're in charge of a legacy, you grow and learn. Occasionally, you put aside something you can no longer defend and you support the enormous treasure of the rest.

Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss' never-before-published book, "What Pet Should I Get?" is seen on display on the day it is released for sale at the Books and Books store on July 28, 2015 in Coral Gables, United States. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

And that is exactly what's happening here. For Dr. Seuss has hardly been canceled. The man published some sixty books, during a period when the United States practiced Jim Crow segregation, interned Japanese citizens during World War II, and engaged in almost ceaseless cultural and racist stereotyping. That more than 90 percent of Seuss's work is still considered not merely acceptable but laudable is a triumph, not a cancellation.

Books aren't being withdrawn (though librarians have long replaced some they thought didn't work). Books aren't being impounded. A copyright holder has said it will no longer publish books it recognizes have problematic elements.

If you imagine that the people whose very lives focus on the legacy of Dr. Seuss are canceling Dr. Seuss, you have lost track of what cancel culture is.

And maybe that's the point. Cancel culture is mostly whatever someone says it is, usually someone threatened by some criticism. That is, calling something "cancel culture" is just the current way of bemoaning "political correctness," which is itself just a replacement for "I'm just kidding," which in turn replaced "Can't you take a joke?" which is the traditional cry of the bully and is code for "Shut up and take it or I'll pound you." Or arrest you, or intern you, or deport you, or whatever powers the threatened, "canceled" entity controls.

Complaints about cancel culture really express the fear that culture is moving forward, growing, progressing. People who believe their culture peaked at some hazy moment in the past find change terrifying. They feel canceled and rendered invisible when people criticize cultural icons. In this case Dr. Seuss Enterprises looks not to the past but to the present, and to the future. Some of Dr. Seuss's books engage in stereotyping that renders actual people invisible. His estate has decided to stop doing that. Dr. Seuss is wonderful, a treasure. But he wasn't perfect. Perfect is a fantasy; Dr. Seuss Enterprises is choosing reality.

You might say that those who complain about cancel culture have trouble distinguishing between the fantasy they prefer and the mundane and sometimes complex reality they fear. Crying "cancel culture!" offers a fantastic, if imaginary, parade down Bliss Street. The mundane reality that Dr. Seuss was as flawed as the rest of us and those in charge of his legacy are thoughtfully managing it?

A plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street.

Scott Huler is the author of seven books of nonfiction and has widely published journalism in print and radio. He lives in Raleigh, NC, with his family.

The views in this article are the writer's own.