Dr. Seuss Enterprises has chosen to cease publication of a select few of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s books, and the internet erupted into flames. Op-ed pieces create controversy as they decry liberals for censoring the past, while others chime in to say that they thought Dr. Seuss was problematic before it was cool.
The specific books being discontinued have been presented in a conflicting way, with Fox News discussing books like “Horton Hears a Who” and “Green Eggs and Ham” while the actual discontinued books include six lesser-known titles in “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.”
The actual issue and the internet’s response to it aren’t cut-and-dry, which makes them candidates for a more complex discussion than most of what sensationalist opinion writers are saying.
Dr. Seuss isn’t a pillar of goodness that’s being soiled by snake-tongued leftists, nor is he an irredeemable racist that’s being protected by sinister right-wing pundits. Theodor Seuss Geisel was a vaguely anarchistic, anti-isolationist cartoonist who did racist caricatures in some of his work, which he apparently acknowledged and regretted in his later years.
Based on Geisel’s regret, it seems like Dr. Seuss Enterprises isn’t acting against his interests or doing anything he would object to. The reactions to that decision – from left-wing people and right-wing people alike – aren’t necessarily merited in this instance. Opinion writers, news networks, and everyone with access to social media aren’t reacting to a controversy; they’re generating one.
Cancel culture isn’t necessarily old, and neither is alarmist news coverage. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about how Black celebrities and other members of persecuted groups have always been “canceled” by white supremacists or patriarchal authorities. Jon Stewart and his team at The Daily Show have been wise to the dangers of the 24-hour news cycle since the Bush administration, but there’s a new facet to the Dr. Seuss discourse and to every other issue these days.
In his op-ed on cancel culture, Coates says that when people on social media “cancel” something, it’s just the free market in action; products or commodities – like celebrities – stop being profitable or have the potential to stop being profitable and are discontinued. This is, arguably, what happened with that small group of Dr. Seuss’s books.
But the internet isn’t just an extension of the free market, it’s an extension of interpersonal relations. Coates’ column from 2019, and the leftists talking about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head right now, make cancel culture out to be far more clinical and rational than it really is.
People on the internet form parasocial relationships with celebrities and brands, as was brilliantly reported on by Polygon’s Stitch. We feel like we know these controversial figures like we know our family, and react accordingly when we believe they’ve betrayed us.
That Polygon column makes it clear that an actor being targeted by harassers en masse because her character had a line in a show the harassers didn’t like (see the latest Taylor Swift fan community controversy) is a direct result of social media users being far too intimate with strangers.
The news about Dr. Seuss Enterprises recent action is mildly newsworthy – so is the rebranding of Mr. Potato Head and other attempts from corporations to be more equitable and inclusive – but sensationalizing the topic, framing it as a controversy, and being inappropriately emotionally invested in it is a harmful waste of time and energy.