I’ve always been skeptical when hearing that the Regressive Left—in particular its identity politics and call-out culture (often over trivial matters)—was partly responsible for Trump’s election. I’d like to believe that, as I constantly kvetch over the fractionation of the Left, but of course what you’d like to believe is no guide to what’s true. (Needless to say, I’d have much preferred Hillary to be elected.) But now I’m starting to believe that claim, for some Trump voters have sometimes said it, and the often risible machinations of the Regressive Left—involving policing of language, blatant authoritarianism, scattergun accusations that opponents are racists, sexists, and Nazis, and the endless jockeying for the status of Most Oppressed—all of this has been reported by right-wing websites as well as mainstream sites like the New York Times. America comes to hear about this stuff. And things like the following suggest that Ideological Purists, who can’t resist lecturing others in a sanctimonious way, are indeed hurting the Left.
First, though, in 2010, President Obama proclaimed a “Read Across America Day”, which, not coincidentally, was the birthday of famed children’s book author Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel). Here, from the AP, is a photo of Michelle Obama reading Dr. Seuss’s classic The Cat in the Hat (1957) to some students on that day:
Little did the First Lady know she was reading a racist book and promoting a racist man! If only she’d known! But was Dr. Seuss a racist, and The Cat in the Hat an example of “racist propaganda” for children, unconsciously imbuing them with bigotry? Well, a Pecksniffian librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts seems to think so.
It starts with this letter from the new First Lady, who sent a selection of Dr. Seuss books to 50 schools, one per state, to encourage reading.
Regardless of what you think of Donald or Melania Trump, that seems like a nice gesture, right?
Not to Liz Phipps Soeiro, a sanctimonious school librarian at Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who decided to use the occasion to lecture The First Lady on the inappropriateness of the book, the racism of Dr. Seuss, and also to provide Melania with a list of “alternative” books that conform to a Leftist ideology. The letter is reproduced at The Horn Book, a site devoted to books for children and young adults.
Here are a few excerpts from Soeiro’s long letter, which begins with her asserting her privilege (note the snarky comment about the expense of sending it by two-day mail):
Thank you for the ten Dr. Seuss titles that you sent my school library in recognition of this year’s National Read a Book Day. (Sent second-day air, no less! That must have been expensive.) I’m proud that you recognized my school as something special. It truly is. Our beautiful and diverse student body is made up of children from all over the world; from different socioeconomic statuses; with a spectrum of gender expressions and identities; with a range of abilities; and of varied racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.
According to the White House website, you selected one school per state by “working with the Department of Education to identify schools with programs that have achieved high standards of excellence, recognized by State and National awards and Blue Ribbon Awards…” Each of those carefully vetted schools received ten books: Seuss-isms!; Because a Little Bug Went KaChoo; What Pet Should I Get?; The Cat in the Hat; I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!; One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish; The Foot Book; Wacky Wednesday; Green Eggs and Ham; and Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.
My students were interested in reading your enclosed letter and impressed with the beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp, however, we will not be keeping the titles for our collection. I’d like to respectfully offer my explanation.
My school and my library are indeed award-winning. I work in a district that has plenty of resources, which contributes directly to “excellence.” Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an amazing city with robust social programming, a responsive city government, free all-day kindergarten, and well-paid teachers (relatively speaking — many of us can’t afford to live in the city in which we teach). My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science. . . .” etc. etc. etc.
First, she chastises Trump for not sending books to poorer schools, and then goes on to argue that Dr. Seuss’s books are not only a “cliché”, but racist to boot:
So, my school doesn’t have a NEED for these books. And then there’s the matter of the books themselves. You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips. Just down the street you have access to a phenomenal children’s librarian: Dr. Carla Hayden, the current Librarian of Congress. I have no doubt Dr. Hayden would have given you some stellar recommendations.
Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes. Open one of his books (If I Ran a Zoo or And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example), and you’ll see the racist mockery in his art. Grace Hwang Lynch’s School Library Journal article, “Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away from Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books,” reports on Katie Ishizuka’s work analyzing the minstrel characteristics and trope nature of Seuss’s characters. Scholar Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, further explores and shines a spotlight on the systemic racism and oppression in education and literature.
Well, I read a lot of Dr. Seuss books, and I never suspected they were marinated in bigotry.
Finally, again “respectfully”, Soeiro submits her list of alternative books while lecturing both Donald and Melania on immigration policy:
I am honored that you recognized my students and our school. I can think of no better gift for children than books; it was a wonderful gesture, if one that could have been better thought out. Books can be a powerful way to learn about and experience the world around us; they help build empathy and understanding. In return, I’m attaching a list of ten books (it’s the librarian in me) that I hope will offer you a window into the lives of the many children affected by the policies of your husband’s administration. You and your husband have a direct impact on these children’s lives. Please make time to learn about and value them.
You can have a look at that list. The ten books all appear to be good ones, and should be in every school library catering to young people, but of course they’re all on the ideological left: dealing with oppressed minorities, immigrants, and refugees. This is explicitly an attempt to lecture the Trumps about the President’s reprehensible stand on immigration. But this is not the time or place (Soeiro is, after all, a public school librarian acting in her official capacity), and of course every book has a political end to it, which is not going to endear the librarian to either middle America or those, like me, who think that there are good children’s books without a political agenda.
But back to the question: was Dr. Seuss really racist in his books? Did they have bigoted or political ends? What’s clear is that Seuss did draw propaganda art during World War II: caricaturing Japanese (“Japs”) and Germans, and also supporting the reprehensible wartime incarceration in detention camps of Japanese who were American citizens. I can forgive the depersonalization and caricaturing the enemy during wartime more than favoring incarceration of Americans, but both are objectionable. Nevertheless, as Wikipedia reports, Geisel decried bigotry against blacks and Jews during the war, and after the war became pretty much a mainstream liberal:
Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. His early political cartoons show a passionate opposition to fascism, and he urged action against it both before and after the United States entered World War II. His cartoons portrayed the fear of communism as overstated, finding greater threats in the House Un-American Activities Committee and those who threatened to cut the US “life line” to Stalin and the USSR, whom he once depicted as a porter carrying “our war load”.
Geisel supported the Japanese American internment during World War II. His treatment of the Japanese and of Japanese Americans (between whom he often failed to differentiate) has struck many readers as a moral blind spot. On the issue of the Japanese, he is quoted as saying:
But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.
After the war, though, Geisel overcame his feelings of animosity, using his book Horton Hears a Who! (1954) as an allegory for the Hiroshima bombing and the American post-war occupation of Japan, as well as dedicating the book to a Japanese friend.
In 1948, after living and working in Hollywood for years, Geisel moved to La Jolla, California, a predominantly Republican town.
Geisel converted a copy of one of his famous children’s books into a polemic shortly before the end of the 1972–74 Watergate scandal, in which United States president Richard Nixon resigned, by replacing the name of the main character everywhere that it occurred. “Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now!” was published in major newspapers through the column of his friend Art Buchwald.
The line “a person’s a person, no matter how small!!” from Horton Hears a Who! has been used widely as a slogan by the pro-life movement in the U.S., despite the objections of Geisel’s widow. The line was first used in such a way in 1986; he demanded a retraction and received one.
He also said that he explicitly eschewed having a moral point to his books, as that turned off children. Well, even that might have masked an unconscious racism, as the Sanctimonious Librarian implies by asking Melania Trump to read Grace Hwang Lynch’s article on the racism of The Cat in the Hat. That article is pretty much boilerplate postmodernist language policing, cooking up a racist agenda that isn’t at all obvious, hasn’t been obvious to generations of kids, and certainly wasn’t obvious to Michelle Obama.
Here’s part of Lynch’s analysis as published in the School Library Journal, which itself quotes an earlier analysis by Katie Ishizuka:
“In addition to how people of color are portrayed in his children’s books through Orientalist and anti-Black stereotypes and caricatures, they are almost always presented as subservient, and peripheral to, the white characters,” concludes Ishizuka in her study. She points out that the Cat in the Hat, perhaps Seuss’ most famous character, is based on minstrel stereotypes. “The Cat’s physical appearance, including the Cat’s oversized top hat, floppy bow tie, white gloves, and frequently open mouth, mirrors actual blackface performers; as does the role he plays as ‘entertainer’ to the white family—in whose house he doesn’t belong,” says Ishizuka. She isn’t the first scholar to point out racial stereotypes in Dr. Seuss’ picture books. Kansas State University English professor Phillip Nel recently published a book Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism in Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, which examines The Cat in the Hat’s roots in blackface minstrelsy.
Pardon me, but this appears forced, and, I suspect, you could draw such a conclusion from nearly any book if you need to make your living as a scholar by so doing. There’s no evidence that Seuss was an anti-black racist, nor that he intended to portray that in The Cat in The Hat. What we have are unsupported and unconvincing speculations.
Well, was Geisel’s bigotry unconscious? That would be a stretch. Michelle Obama couldn’t see it, nor could many other adults, nor the gazillions of kids who have enjoyed this book. Leave it to Grace Hwang Lynch to set us all straight!
And here we have a problem that tars the Left: policing of literature for ideological impurities, unsubstantiated claims that they’ve found such impurities, and then attempts to censor the books—or at least keep the kids from reading them by offering ideologically more congenial books.
Now don’t get me wrong: Soeiro’s list of alternatives is fine, though narrow, and kids should read them. But that doesn’t mean that children should abjure the eternal classics of Dr. Seuss. What I object to is Soeiro’s ungracious lecturing of Melania Trump, a lecturing that will have no effect on our administration but will alienate Middle America just as it alienated me. People do NOT like to be told what they can or cannot read, or be accused of racism because they like Dr. Seuss. Soreiro is pompous and condescending, and I reject her letter with its hypocritical “thank yous” and “respectfullys.”
This incident has already been reported widely in the mainstream media, including CBS, Boston Magazine, the New York Daily News, the Washington Post, and so on. Despite some approbation of Soeiro’s letter by commenters (there are, after all, some Pecksniffians and eternal Trump-haters among them), Ms. Soreiro doesn’t come off looking good. The Post, in fact, reports that she got sent to the principal’s office for her actions:
The Cambridge school system released a statement saying the librarian “was not authorized to accept or reject donated books on behalf of the school or school district,” according to CBS Boston.
“We have counseled the employee on all relevant policies, including the policy against public resources being used for political purposes,” the district said in the statement. Representatives from the school system did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment.
It is just this kind of sanctimonious virtue signaling, and wild accusations of racism, that is going to get Trump elected in 2020 if it keeps up. Way to go, Ms. Soreiro!
We liberals, of course, need to maintain our principles of defending the oppressed and fighting racism, but this isn’t the way to do it—not by turning a gracious gesture into a lecture on ideological purity. It looks authoritarian, and it is.
h/t: Darren, Grania