Hypocrisy, Dr. Seuss, and the Red Herring of Cancel Culture

Hypocrisy, Dr. Seuss, and the Red Herring of Cancel Culture March 5, 2021


In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, perhaps you’d better get back under there because certain uptight conservative Christians are angry about “cancel culture” again. They’re incensed that the estate of Theodore Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, is going to let six of Seuss’s early books go out of print because they contain some racist caricatures and language. None of Seuss’s really excellent books are going out of print, just six of the boring and over-wordy ones like Scrambled Egg Super and To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. You can’t convince me that those were any child’s favorite.

The Christians are claiming this is “cancel culture,” and that cancel culture is exclusively a bad thing.

It’s been pointed out by many people that they’re not very consistent about cancel culture being a bad thing. Conservative Christians are always canceling things they disapprove of. One commentator on social media put it especially well: Please don’t talk to me about cancel culture. I was a Christian child of the 90s. We stopped listening to Sandy Patty & Amy Grant, stopped watching Disney, & avoided Proctor and Gamble products. Christians perfected cancel culture. They just don’t like it when the tables turn.

 And that’s exactly right.

In fact, she’s not even stating the half of it.  I grew up in and out of the Charismatic Renewal and other deeply conservative sects. They were always canceling totally random things. I talked last week about how they canceled the peace sign because of a made-up rumor that it was an anti-Christ symbol. They canceled Halloween and made me go to that idiotic harvest party because they were afraid a witch might come to the door. They canceled cartoons. They canceled Goosebumps books. They canceled Disney. They canceled secular music, so the whole time we were driving to Westerville to homeschooling extracurriculars we had to listen to “Christian Rock” songs about how Heaven is basically a big, big yard where we can play football. And for those of you who have that song stuck in your head now: you’re welcome. They canceled video games: once my Regnum Christi youth leader found my friends playing a game she didn’t approve of, so she said “you shouldn’t have this” and stole it right out of their Play Station. We had to sneak into the foyer while she was busy talking to the other moms and rob her purse to get it back.

The video game episode makes me think of  Spiritual Warfare. Surely I’m not the only Charismatic kid who played Spiritual Warfare. Spiritual Warfare came out of a particular eccentricity in the Charismatic Renewal’s fetish with canceling harmless things, which dictated that you had to not only cancel them but replace them with aesthetically inferior things that had a religious flavor. So we canceled good music and listened to Christian Rock. We canceled secular books and read bootleg preachy middle grade fiction written by Hilda Stahl, or those bizarre Tan first person Lives of the Saints books by Mary Fabian Windeatt. In lieu of Pogs and Pokemon we were supposed to pass around Holy Traders. Instead of interesting TV we were supposed to like Focus on the Family’s dreary productions. And we were encouraged to cancel secular video games and play really bad Christian video games such as Spiritual Warfare.

Spiritual Warfare was kind of like The Legend of Zelda, only not fun or creative. You played the role of an un-named character with no backstory or motivation, who wandered around the city throwing fruit at possessed people. I’m not making that up; that was the whole game. There were different levels representing different parts of town, populated by different kinds of possessed people. Sometimes angels would appear to give you different varieties of fruit to throw. You had a pear that represented joy and wasn’t very powerful, a banana that represented another fruit of the Holy Ghost and moved in a sideways pattern, an apple that could penetrate armor, and so forth. If you threw enough fruit at the possessed people, they would turn into kneeling Christian people and then disappear. Sometimes when they turned into Christians they would release demons, which would possess you unless you threw fruit at the demons. Sometimes the angels who appeared would not give you fruit, but instead would present you with a “vial of God’s wrath” that exploded like a grenade, killing everyone nearby including your character. Sometimes the angels would quiz you on Bible trivia and give you extra prizes for a perfect score. Sometimes, if you accidentally walked into the wrong building like a bar or a casino, the angels would be cross with you and take away your Armor of the Spirit and you’d have to retrieve it from the junkyard before the possessed people killed you. I suppose there was a way to get to the end of the game and win, but we never got past the first few levels without losing our breastplates or being killed by possessed people.

I don’t know that Spiritual Warfare is exactly relevant, but I just felt like bringing it up.

In any case, that’s the world I grew up in. Conservative Christians canceled anything that was even remotely suspect and replaced it with boring, bizarre, spiritually abusive, fruit-throwing nonsense. That was what we did all the time. And you know? All parents and educators cancel things. That’s a reasonable part of raising a child. You have to decide what media you forbid outright, what you censor, what you have to discuss with them before letting them have it, and what you just let them have with no qualifications. My childhood was only so ridiculous because the Charismatic Renewal is paranoid, superstitious nonsense and they thought that harmless things were dangerous. But the principle of protecting children from danger isn’t wrong. We all cancel things.

Now, Dr. Seuss’s estate is canceling a few of its own books– or rather, not canceling but just letting them go out of print, because they realized the imagery in those books wasn’t in line with their values. They didn’t want Black and Asian children to feel dehumanized by portrayals that looked like something out of a Minstrel Show, and they didn’t want white children to think those portrayals of other races were okay. That’s reasonable. Little children have very black and white thinking. They say “this is good” and “this is bad,” and they aren’t yet very adept at understanding nuances like “this is mostly good but some of the things in it are mistaken in retrospect.” As they get older and can think in more complex ways, judicious educators can introduce them to imperfect books from the old days and explain the parts that really aren’t right. But in simple picture books for the youngest readers, that’s not a prudent idea. I kind of wish the Seuss estate had just release new editions of the books with the racist caricatures edited out, but this is the way they chose to do it with their own property.

And conservative Christians are invoking “cancel culture” and accusing the Seuss estate of censorship. Last I heard, they were panic-buying all the Dr. Seuss books, including the ones that haven’t been taken out of print. I don’t know what they’re going to do when they find out that Dr. Seuss cared about ecology and had views on nuclear war as well. But at least their children will have something to read besides Mary Fabian Windeatt. It might improve their lives.

There’s no getting away from cancel culture, because cancel culture doesn’t exist. Human beings are always critiquing the media all around them and deciding not to consume or produce anymore based on their critiques. The only question is whether their critique is a reasonable one or not. Seuss’s estate made a critique.

“Cancel culture” never really existed in the first place. We all belong to cultures, and our cultures cancel certain things they think are inappropriate for their audiences.  That’s unavoidable. The question is whether the judgement you’ve made is a good one.

Seuss’s estate made a valid judgement, in my opinion. Those who are offended by this don’t have such a good track record.


Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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