The more I read John McWhorter, the more I like the man and his ideas. He not only thinks well, but he writes well, and, judging by his output, he writes quickly, too. I see he’s posted a new chapter of his book on The Elect, but today’s highlight is McWhorter’s take on one of the banned Dr. Seuss books. Click on the screenshot to read it:
As you know, Dr. Seuss Enterprises stopped publishing six of Seuss’s children’s books on the grounds that they contained offensive images. As far as I can see, two of the books’ images really were pretty offensive, and the decision to stop printing them could be justified (I’m not sure I would, as, after all, it’s the parents who make these decisions for their kids, and couldn’t the grownups make the decision?). But I certainly don’t think the books should be banned from libraries. In fact, they should probably keep publishing them, if for no other reason that they should go into libraries.
The six banned books, as well as all of Dr. Seuss’s other books, of course became collectors’ items the instant the announcement was made: a good demonstration of the Streisand effect.
Here are the images (from two books) that I see could justifiably be used to stop printing the books. The first one, an Asian, was actually defended by a lot of Asians posting on Twitter, saying that “yes, we do eat with sticks and we looked like that in bygone ages. But they are stereotypes, particularly the second one of Africans, which is truly offensive by any standards:
I don’t know which books these are from, nor what was offensive in the other books. But now McWhorter is defending a Seuss classic, On Beyond Zebra—also one of the books they stopped printing. Here’s the “offensive” image that I found from that book on the Internet, depicting a man riding a creature that sort of looks like a camel, but is called a Spazzim. (It’s actually hard to find these images online:
McWhorter is distressed because he loves On Beyond Zebra and reads it to his kids After his interesting take about why it’s useful to consider letters beyond “Z”, he tries to see why the image above is offensive—and fails:
Specifically, on one page a man of no delineated race (and thus we would declare him “white,” I assume) is riding a kind of camel and has a mustache. A building in the background seems like, if anything (which it isn’t) some kind of pagoda. [JAC: I must be missing the other half of the image with the building.] The man has the billowy pantaloons we would associate with an “Arab.”
I understand, formally, the idea that this picture signals that this is a Middle Easterner. However, I cannot be honest with myself and view it as a “stereotype.” In no way does this picture ridicule the man (or the animal), and in fact, the camel is a special kind (called a Spazzim) with elaborate horns that carry assorted objects which if anything make this man a mid-twentieth century homeowner, with
And two three-handed clocks,
And his velvet umbrella,
His vegetable chopper.
And also his gold-plated popping-corn popper ..”
This is “Orientalism”? I understood the outcry when the original cut of Disney’s Aladdin movie included a tossed off joke about dismembering people for crimes. Here, however, I suspect I speak for a great many perfectly enlightened reasonable people in seeing this man on his Spazzim as just a goofy picture.
After all, some people in some parts of the world do ride camels. Why is it an insult to draw that? As to the possible interpretation that this person in the Middle East is the only Middle Easterner depicted and that it leaves an implication that all Middle Easterners ride camels happily, 1) this man is drawn as white (leaving aside just which race we consider Middle Easterners to belong to) and 2) how is it an insult to show someone riding a camel?
And then, upon what empirical basis are we assuming that even if a child places this picture as depicting someone in the Middle East, it will lead them to think “All Middle Eastern people ride camels”? And again, even if my some chance they fell under this misimpression for a spell, is this really the equivalent of their learning that all black people are weirdly-clad servants?
I have to agree with McWhorter here. It’s not a stereotype, we’re not sure it’s even an Arab, much less a camel, and the person is white. It is a humorous illustration, neither racist nor insulting—unless you live in the Manichaean world of the Woke, where things are either “acceptable” or “totally evil and offensive.” And so McWhorter brings up cancel culture:
But the cancel culture mood neglects degree, in favor of oversimplification, absolutism, and ultimately fear. The Seuss people apparently quake in their boots at the possibility that a certain kind of person or organization will accuse them of the cardinal sin of racism, especially given that almost inevitably, as a cartoonist raised in the early twentieth century Seuss, even as a man of the left, penned some images that qualify as unquestionably racist today. So, not only do “natives” have to go, but even Spazzims and O’Grunths.
On degree, the issue is priorities. I, for one, think that the joy my girls get out of the closely rhymed verse and classic wit in On Beyond Zebra is more important than whether they will think, on the basis of a single illustration, that all Middle Easterners exhibit the shame of riding a particular animal and having mustaches.
Especially given that the person, to them, reads simply as a generic “person” — and I asked, to make sure – neither of them realized he “was” anything different, “was” a class of person in some way. They don’t even know yet what an Arab is, and crucially, by the time they do, they will be cognitively advanced enough to take in that camels and mustaches are hardly universal to people from Middle Eastern countries. I simply do not see what harm On Beyond Zebra has been doing to them, to other young minds, or to enlightened thought in general.
I ask those parents who bought Dr. Seuss books for their kids: do you agree with McWhorter? I for one find this image unworthy of being an excuse for deep-sixing a book. But of course I’m childless.