More about Dr. Seuss, but with humor

March 5, 2021 • 1:15 pm

By now you’ll know that Dr. Seuss Enterprises has decided not to continue printing six of his books on the grounds of racist imagery. Having seen the images, I do think they’re offensive, and so I don’t mind if those who have custody of his legacy stop printing these books. Here are two of the images, and I have to say that while they may have been mainstream at one time, they don’t belong in children’s books any more:

 

 

 

That said, I certainly don’t think they should be removed from libraries!

Here are the six no longer printed:

  • “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”
  • “If I Ran the Zoo”
  • “McElligot’s Pool”
  • “On Beyond Zebra!”
  • “Scrambled Eggs Super!”
  • “The Cat’s Quizzer”
In response, and according to the Streisand Effect, all of the canceled books have sold out at Amazon and other booksellers, but his other books are doing great business, with 9 of the top 10 books on the Amazon’s bestseller list being Dr. Seuss books. As CNN Business reports, “While Dr. Seuss Enterprises has not announced the discontinuation of any other books, fans and collectors seem to be stocking up just in case.”

As many know, Seuss was also an antiracist later in his life, and one of his books, The Sneetches and Other Storieswas explicitly aimed at showing people that superficial differences in appearance were meaningless. In this case, the Sneetches were birdlike creatures, some of whom had green stars on their bellies. This led to “othering” and a huge fracas. As Wikipedia notes, “‘The Sneetches’ was intended by Seuss as a satire of discrimination between races and cultures, and was specifically inspired by his opposition to antisemitism.” (I presume the green stars were analogues of the yellow Stars of David worn by Jews during WWII.)

But not so fast. Thanks to my colleague Brian Leiter, who somehow found this piece and highlighted it on his website, saying “This is amusing. The anti-Irish racism is indisputable!” Yes, someone has found a way to make The Sneetches not only racist, but anti-Irish as well. Click on the screenshot to read a short and funny parody of Cancel Culture.

 

Here’s a small excerpt of the anti-Sneetch screed. First you’ll have to learn a bit about Monkey McBean; here’s the Wikipedia excerpt of McBean’s behavior in The Sneetches:

An entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean (calling himself the Fix-It-Up Chappie) appears and offers the Sneetches without stars the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars. The treatment is instantly popular, but this upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches, as they are in danger of losing their special status. McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily pay the money to have them removed in order to remain special. However, McBean does not share the prejudices of the Sneetches and allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine as well. Ultimately this escalates, with the Sneetches running from one machine to the next…

Finally, just an excerpt from the post above:

Further, The Sneetches is clearly a swipe at people like [Robin] DiAngelo. After all, DiAngelo, like McMonkey McBean, makes lots of money by offering partial but incomplete solutions to people’s racism. By portraying McMonkey McBean as an absurdly opportunistic sociopath, Seuss is in effect describing DiAngelo as an absurdly opportunistic sociopath. But that’s not fair. After all, DiAngelo strongly encourages us to continue to categorize people by race, while McMonkey McBean’s actions eliminate the possibility of racism by destroying people’s capacity to think in terms of race. There’s nothing more racist than that!

Finally, notice that McMonkey McBean has an Irish-sounding name. As a non-white, Irish person, I’ve notice that Seuss frequently uses the “Mc” prefix in his cartoon names when he wants to make a character seem silly or ridiculous. This reveals Seuss’s own anti-Irish racism–a form of racism which continues to pervade universities to this day, and from which even the high priest of anti-racism DiAngelo suffers. (DiAngelo regards Irish people as white, which means she endorses and perpetuates British imperialism and erasure of Irish identity. It is thus morally imperative that she be cancelled, and if you buy her new book, you are a racist.)  Could you imagine if Seuss used, say, Swahili-sounding names like this in the effort to make someone seem silly or ridiculous? But of course in the United States, a remnant of the British empire, anti-Irish racism is not only permitted, but routinely condoned.

Cancel Dr. Seuss. A world in which no one pays attention to whether sneetches have stars or none upon thars is nothing to celebrate. To dream of a world in which all people sing together “free at last” is a KKK fantasy.

Almost sounds like Titania McGrath, doesn’t it?

53 thoughts on “More about Dr. Seuss, but with humor

  1. The Jason Brennan piece is clearly satire, but the thing that puzzles me is that he thinks of “Mc” as being Irish, whereas a “Mc” name is more likely to be Scottish than Irish (which has the more characteristic “O'” prefix instead). “Mc” names have a satisfying sound and bouncy rhythm, so it’s no surprising he used them frequently in verse. I remember listening to a Dr Seuss record as a kid which had the Sneetches story on it, and I’m pretty sure no Irish (or Scottish) accents were employed for that or any other character. I don’t think I was harmed either way, and didn’t find it hard to spot the *genuinely* anti-racist message. Of course my favourite story on that record was the spooky one about the “pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them” — a prefiguring of Nick Park’s idea in “The Wrong Trousers”.

    1. Well, that sounds about right – if you’re not happy to trash the planet for bucks you don’t belong in the GOP (at least these days).

  2. My d-i-l was looking for a copy of Scrambled Eggs Super for their Kindergartener (school on-line) in BC. Couldn’t find our old copy and amazon wants $990 for it! I think her school is just celebrating Seuss’s birthday and decided on this unit before the s**t hit the fan. I talked to our local used bookseller and he said he sold a copy for $200 recently and the buyer turned around and sold it for $1000. Nuts! I can’t remember what the issue was with this book??

    1. I think “Parsley quite sparsely” whenever I cook.

      I donated all of these books to my children’s school. Knowing that dozens of children got to read them makes me happier than the thought of a few thousand dollar. I also remembering hearing the smile of the teacher when phoned when I phone to tell her we were donating two boxes of books to her classroom.

    2. Doesn’t matter what the issue is about! Now I have two friends who are buying MyPillows, Pepi and Dr Seuss for no good reason other than… fitting in as a good tr*mp supporter, I guess.

    3. My daughter found our copy of SES and said she might put it towards her 5-yr.-old’s college fund.

  3. My children and I loved several of these no longer published books. I find the idea that my future grandchildren will not be able to read them disheartening.

    I hate, hate, hate the Seuss Foundation for depriving future generations of children of the joy of Circus McGurkus and Mulberry Street. They own the copyrights and can legally do what they want with them. I do not ever want to give them a penny for any of the remaining books but still want every child to read them.

    I am very, very angry and I wish people would just let other people live in peace. If you don’t like these books, don’t read them but there is no reason to prevent others from enjoying them.

    1. The very long copyright terms on books (70 years after the author’s death is typical) seem rather odd, especially since patents expire after only 20 years.

  4. Of course the African illustration seems the more objectionable of the two that are shown.

    Someone should compare the kilojoules of energy spent on erasing monuments, re-naming buildings, and banning books to the energy spent in actually promoting anti-racism. We are such strange monkeys!

  5. “… while they may have been mainstream at one time, they don’t belong in children’s books any more:“

    Sorry this is so long – so I summarize : it is important to consider how the ending of the publication runs will settle by proportion in the reading culture of families.

    It had to take people digging into the stacks to root this stuff out. If the six 50-something-year-old books had been left ignored, collecting dust, in their places, nobody would have cared. The top ~10 Seuss books are very well read and celebrated so much so that ignoring his weakest books – of which are more – would have been easy. His most popular books are actually tedious for adults to read out loud, and the sheer volume of new material makes even Seuss’ best books get way less attention even if nobody rooted out “offensive” stuff. New material is so attuned to social issues that kids should be able to understand the pictures that look out of place in the six books – if they even care or notice them, which is a question.

    This move will serve only to deliberately damage and Seuss’ reputation and stature, and will alert kids – who are exquisitely perceptive – to the terror in the stacks, seek it out (I would have a a kid), and hopefully evaluate them on their own terms, and with parents, as an important, but brief, teaching moment at best. It won’t solve any social problems. There are plenty of old books in the reading culture with awkward pictures in them – because this is only about pictures – and parents just explain it when it comes up, if it ever does. There is so much to counter any offense in the pictures that they could have just left them in print.

    Obviously no one person can speak for all families and all libraries, and I wish to refrain from personal details, so all this is one person’s perspective based on years of experience.

    1. I’d like to emphasize a point : kids are not so stupid to be brainwashed by pictures. Ending a production run of these books – while I admit has merit – certainly weighed the possibility that kids will get the wrong idea – that is, expectations are not exactly high.

    2. Emphasis #2: if Seuss’ works were not such a watershed in children’s literature – as many aren’t – more likely, the entire catalog – if one ir two books could be called that – would cease production because of sales alone – awkward pictures or not. In fact I think there are a few out there which fit that category, and indeed production ended decades ago. At the risk of revealing my personal information, I offer :

      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/392336.Busy_Day_Busy_People

    1. The Irish themselves do use Mc or Mac, like the Scots: the two forms of Gaelic are fairly similar. The Irish also use M’: see for instance the enigmatic character misnamed ‘ – M’Intosh’ (pronounced Macintosh) in ‘Ulysses’.

    2. Indeed, though of course the Scots were originally invaders from Ireland.

      I’ve always sort of assumed that Mc/Mac originated in Ireland and was taken to Caledonia/Pictland when the Irish (aka Scots) invaded, but has since largely died out in Ireland itself.

      Anyone have any specialist knowledge of this?

  6. The banned books are available at abebooks(dot)com where, at least some, are fetching prices in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars . Abebooks is a source of used books from many independent bookstores.

  7. “Almost sounds like Titania McGrath, doesn’t it?” – yes, indeed it does. I guess I should laugh, but it would come out somewhat hollow.

  8. I’m still quite puzzled by the notion that the Chinese boy is anymore a racist image than, eg, a drawing of a stereotyped Scotsman in a kilt.

    There are five ethnic identifiers, hat, slant/slit eyes, chop sticks, rice bowl and clogs. The one body feature seems to have attracted the most opprobrium, yet epicanthic folds are common among East Asians. If some people consider them ugly, as do some Asian women, that says something about their subjective aesthetic judgements, not much about racial attitudes.

    1. “ slant/slit eyes“

      I learned recently about epicanthic eyelids – and what is particularly interesting, is that – IIRC – many Asians – not all – have this structure, but also Irish or Scottish!

      I meant to find out more, but now I’ll have to check again.

      1. The flipside is that Chinese apparently refer to Europeans as “round eyes,” in English. Or at least so I learned from a guy with a very unusual pedigree, when I was a postdoc in Sweden. Henri was an American, whose parents were blacklisted in the McCarthy period and fled to England. So Henri was American by birth, had a French name, and spoke both English and Swedish with an English accent. He also spoke Chinese since he had a Chinese wife. In talking on the phone with her in Chinese, I would periodically hear, “round eye,” carefully enunciated.

  9. A couple days ago I decided to download the six banned books to judge the offensive imagery for myself. Using Library Genesis and Mobilism I found all of them. PCC has depicted the two biggest offenders: the excessively caricatured, monkey-like Africans from “If I Ran the Zoo” and the Chinese man from “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” The former certainly doesn’t belong in a modern children’s book; the latter is less offensive in context and at the time of the book’s creation (1937) even the Chinese probably would not have found it offensive. But I can see why nowadays the image would look stereotypical for Asian Americans, including the text about eating with sticks.

    The third book, “McElligot’s Pool,” is about different varieties of fishes and features “Eskimo fishes” and a “fish that likes flowers,” which the narrator says won’t put up much of a fight when it’s reeled in.

    As for the remaining three books, I couldn’t find anything terrible in them. “The Cat’s Quizzer” is completely inoffensive. It has a picture of a Japanese man in traditional dress next to a Japanese gate, but he’s so far in the distance no offensive features are visible. The same goes for “Scrambled Eggs Super.” It shows a character in a presumably Middle Eastern country named Ali, who wears a turban and baggy pants, but his facial features give no cause for complaint. “On Beyond Zebra” has a character in a burnous and keffiyeh riding a camel with antlers. I fail to see how it’s offensive–many Arabs still dress like that! I suppose you could find these books guilty of exoticism, but you’d have to be very touchy to get upset about it.

    So three of the books don’t deserve to be called offensive, one definitely does, and two might give understandable offense. I say all of the offensive or potentially offensive material could easily be photoshopped or excised without really damaging any of the books. Had Dr. Seuss Enterprises any sense or backbone it would have edited the three offending books and then announced it would sell only the expurgated editions from now on. Instead it has created a media circus and provided yet another battlefield in the culture wars.

    1. There are ethical issues involved in editing a book by a deceased author. That seems to be a more troublesome solution than making the decision to stop printing certain books. Also, to be fair, Dr. Seuss Enterprises made this decision a year ago. It only became an issue because some media outlets made a big deal out of the fact that Biden didn’t mention Dr. Seuss in his Read to America speech on Tuesday.

      1. “There are ethical issues involved in editing a book by a deceased author”

        I think this is the crux of the matter – the balance between ethics of editing – to the point where the book will effectively no longer exist – and the implicit admission that the author – who can no longer defend their work – deliberately propagated racist material to children.

      2. In this case I think the ethical issues are easily resolved. If the choice is whether to edit or bury the book, I think Dr. Seuss would have preferred edit. Not just because most authors would rather have their book edited than removed from circulation, but also because we know that Seuss in the past was okay with editing his work for racial sensitivity. I don’t think he’d have chosen racially offensive imagery as a hill to die on. And as I’ve noted, editing the most offensive material in the three above books wouldn’t harm their stories.

        1. Disney has edited some of its vintage cartoons to remove dated stereotypes, such as a Black “centaurette” in “Fantasia” who acts as a servant to the other centaurs, including polishing their hooves. They didn’t pull the whole movie. I think the Seuss estate should do the same thing; remove the offensive material and leave the rest.

          In the 1960s, the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs [the creator of Tarzan] actually encouraged publishers to remove offensive material from the books. I was a huge ERB fan as a kid, but some of that stuff IS past its expiration date. The first Tarzan novel, for instance, features a “comical” Black maid who refers to “hipponocerouses” and “gorillaphants,” for instance, and the narrator matter-of-factly describes Blacks as being less intelligent than Whites.

          In the 1980s, my 10-year-old niece found an anthology of “classic children’s poetry” in the children’s section of a library. It contained a centuries-old, appallingly anti-Semitic poem from England about Jews kidnapping a Christian boy and killing him. Again, this was in a book aimed at children, in the children’s section of a library. And the book was a new edition, not some forgotten relic that had been sitting there for decades.

  10. Anyone see Madagascar?

    Kids love that movie, adults too (in a way), but they have talking chimpanzee characters who live in a zoo, with British accents. Chris Rock voices the Zebra. Sacha Baron-Cohen voices the lemur who lives in the jungle.

    It would take just a slight shift of those cast and characters to spell disaster, if *pictures* and *pictures*alone* – and not many at that – can bring a piece of fiction down to the hell of entertainment.

    Apologies – I’ll restrain myself from commenting at length now!

    1. Just seen David Schwimmer in an episode of Friends this evening – although not through choice! I’m not sure of why that show appeals so much to younger generations – a world in which social media and mobile devices don’t exist and instead you have actual real-life friends? Anyway, Schwimmer is much better as the hypochondriac giraffe Melman in Madagascar, in my opinion.

      Dad auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in Sacha Baron-Cohen ‘s Ali G movie and had a narrow escape, I think!

        1. Through a completely bizarre coincidence, Sasha Baron-Cohen actually got his career kick-started by appearing on the 11 o’clock Show as Ali G at a time when the show was produced by Dominic English. (Other comedians who made their breakthroughs on the show, and there were many, include Ricky Gervais.)
          https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0224452/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

          Dom English was someone I met as a student through his friend Royston Robertson – together they organised local comedy shows and pub quizzes in Sunderland – as a result I saw a very early performance by a 16-year-old Ross Noble. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Noble

          Decades later, I’ve no idea what happened to Dom English, but Royston Robertson is married to one of my ex-girlfriends and his cartoons regularly appear in British publications including Private Eye.

            1. You live in Royston? Oh I’m so sorry.

              I once went into The Jockey for a drink, and it was the most depressing place I have ever been. Please tell me its gone now?

              (Assuming Royston, Herts)

      1. Loved Madagascar! Chris Rock playing the zebra and wondering if he was black with white stripes or vice versa. And they got that zebra’s face to look so much like Chris!

  11. Here is a postcard, postmarked the year after “Mulberry Street” was published-
    The image was taken in California.

    //s.imgur.com/min/embed.js
    I would be willing to bet that each one of those kids used chopsticks daily. My kids do as well.
    I have not had great luck image posting, here or in general.
    But the image shows a group of Chinese/American kids, wearing traditional Chinese dress, one of whom is even wearing the little elevated clogs.
    I just cannot be offended by either of those images.
    The people from the fictional island of Yerka are also wearing clothing typical of a great many people in Africa at the time. These days, it is much more likely to see people in Africa wearing used American T-shirts, which are shipped there in bales by the ton.

    I will go as far as conceding that the books are a bit dated. I cannot be so easily convinced that they are so fundamentally offensive that they must be withdrawn from any sale, and the sale of used versions banned.

    It would be easy to fall into the trap of pointing out that one can still purchase “Little Black Sambo”, or an endless number of things that are much more likely to offend, but I don’t think any of them should be banned. If evil exists, I am convinced that it can be found in the gleeful face of some scold, flinging a book that they could never themselves produce, into the fire.

    My Father in law barely survived the Cultural Revolution. He would have found the atmosphere here and now disquietingly familiar. Nothing any of us care about is safe from the Red Guards. Just caring about it probably puts whatever it is in more danger. They will destroy it just because you treasure it.

  12. I just read Mulberry Street. The book is worth reading and seeing the pictures to understand the context.

    It was first published in the United States for a United States audience in 1937. I don’t have a good sense for how Asian nations were viewed in the 1937 United States, but I’m not optimistic. My take on the story:

    In his writing, Seuss frequently seems to throw in words as an afterthought to rhyme with a word that appears to be the first one he thought of. I think “magician with tricks” came first, and he figured out “who eats with sticks” after by trying to rhyme “sticks”. Who would eat with sticks? Well, they have chopsticks over in Asia, and “chopsticks” is too long. So, he may have just went with “Chinese”, since it sounds good, and “Japanese” was too long?

    The story is a rollicking imaginary kaleidoscope of changing characters a kid invents to spice up a mundane scene on his walk. The pace is quick. Every character flys by. In no way is any character focused on to direct ridicule at or to suggest they are to be feared or any are lesser humans than others. They all serve as an ensemble cast, as equals.

    So my own conclusion on Mulberry Street is that it takes a cynical interpretation for the publisher to end the run, which seems drastic for this fun story.

  13. You thought the Sneetches book is anti-racist? Think again. You are clearly not woke enough:

    “At Teaching Tolerance, we’ve even featured anti-racist activities built around the Dr. Seuss book The Sneetches. But when we re-evaluated, we found that the story is actually not as “anti-racist” as we once thought. And it has some pretty intricate layers you and your students might consider, too.

    “The solution to the story’s conflict is that the Plain-Belly Sneetches and Star-Bellied Sneetches simply get confused as to who is oppressed. As a result, they accept one another. This message of “acceptance” does not acknowledge structural power imbalances. It doesn’t address the idea that historical narratives impact present-day power structures. And instead of encouraging young readers to recognize and take action against injustice, the story promotes a race-neutral approach.”

    https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/its-time-to-talk-about-dr-seuss

  14. I perceive parallels between this de-publishing and the subliminal satanic messages, sex, and drugs, in music moral panics from the 80’s, and the Parents Music Resource Center role in that. That was milder actually – all they got was to put a label on the targeted recordings, which has lasted to this day.

    So – how about a big label on How The Grinch Stole Christmas : “Parental Waning : Contains Racist Power Propaganda”

    … also on Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze….

    1. Oops – can’t edit:

      Purple Haze is just drugs. Not the power thing. Facetious comment anyway

  15. What surprises me is that the rights-holders didn’t just exercise their presumed right to edit out the imagery and carry on publishing. Sure, there would have been an outcry, but there’s no feasible chance of avoiding that, so “Meh!”.
    I’m assuming that the rights were vested into this “trust” to circumvent the thing about copyright lasting until 25 years after the author’s death, or something like that. It has been changed often enough, it’s hard to keep track. But if they hold the copyright, one assumes they also have the right to edit words and/ or illustrations at whim.
    Never having looked inside one, did “Suess” do the artwork, the words, or both? If it wasn’t both, then one assumes there’s also a contract between “Suess” and the artist (or wordsmith) transferring the editing right to the buyer … and a similar contract between “Suess” and the “trust”.

  16. One might look without context at the various things being banned, and assume that we have become a society of puritans. That would be erroneous. One fairly mainstream news source has come out with a couple of articles explaining why the Seuss ban is justified and necessary, and also take the position that their best song of the year selection from 2020, “Wet Ass Pu**y”, is completely
    inoffensive, and anyone bothered by the song or it’s lyrics is at best “misguided”.
    It was against my nature to even write the title of the song with asterisks. I will not repeat the lyrics, although I suggest looking them up to see where we are at as a society. Better yet, watch the video.
    Comparing “WAP” and “Mulberry Street” provides pretty good evidence that we, as a society, are not on any sort of continuous linear moral improvement over past generations.

    1. “Comparing “WAP” and “Mulberry Street” …”

      Interesting – personally, I see concern over the WAP tunes out there as a new version if the same old moral panic over kids easily getting mesmerized by bad ideas – that is, it is essentially nothing new.

      But this kind of de-publishing of books – that’s new. When there is no economic reason to, i.e. a forgotten author.

      1. I do not want to give the impression that I am overly concerned about the song. I find it extremely vulgar, but my normal response to such things would be to just not listen to it. My kids are old enough that their discovering the song is of no concern, either.
        What it is to me is illustrative of the hypocrisy of the woke movement. Any person who would actually be shocked at the idea of their kids reading “Mulberry Street”, but comfortable with them singing WAP, would seem to be suffering from some sort of extreme moral retardation.
        Even if it were one faction shrieking about the book, and another celebrating the song, it would be understandable. But it is the same people.
        And I think you are right about this being new. It is upsetting when some school district succumbs to pressure and removes “The Great Gatsby” from the reading list, or worse, the school library. This new tactic of complete ban on sale is pretty frightening.
        The only comforting thought is that it is very hard for them to really eliminate a book or film these days. I still have the Seuss books, as well as a complete set of Disney classic films. That includes a nice Blu-ray of “Song of the South”, which was, and may still be, sold in Japan with no controversy that I am aware of. Like “Mulberry Street”, a normal person would be unlikely to guess that it is considered offensive without being told.
        I don’t think anyone is actually offended. Enraged that someone would disagree, perhaps.

  17. From Wikipedia, on ‘Mulberry Street’ :

    The book has received only one textual revision. In 1978, Geisel agreed to a slight rewording, renaming the character who appears near the end of the story a “Chinese man” instead of a “Chinaman”.[16] He also agreed to remove the character’s pigtail and the yellow coloring from the character’s skin.[17]

    “Source” :

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_to_Think_That_I_Saw_It_on_Mulberry_Street

    1. Actual source #16:

      Nel, Philip (2004). Dr. Seuss: American Icon. Continuum Publishing. ISBN 0-8264-1434-6.

      Actual source #17:

      Morgan, Neil; Morgan, Judith Giles (1996). Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80736-7.

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