For a lot of reasons, our culture wars have grown so deliriously tiring.
Perhaps the worst element of those wars is how easily a reasonable stance can be weaponized in the name of scoring a cheap political point or two.
Such was the case of Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, whose work became politicized this week after his estate made the decision to take a handful of the dozens of books he published during his lifetime out of circulation, out of concern that the images he portrayed in books between the 1930s and 1970s were culturally inappropriate in the modern day.
The whole thing stinks of bad faith, a topic that loud people can use to keep worried people focused on irrelevant things.
As someone who writes about history a whole heck of a lot, I think I can offer a useful perspective on this debate that can properly contextualize a decision like this. And the context is this: Not everything deserves a place at the front of the history books, and to expect that it should forces a lot of bad stuff into a modern society.
So we should put some stuff in the back, where it can be found, but explained in its proper context. We should reference it in the front, so people know it’s out there and use that to shape their feelings on the body of work. But you actually have to work to find it yourself.
The work of Dr. Seuss, for the most part, does deserve a place in the front. But as responsible stewards of Geisel’s work, the Dr. Seuss estate made a thoughtful decision to not give works that do not match the times the same level of weight as the vast majority of his work. By pruning some of the worst offenders while keeping some that have grown problematic over time but remain culturally important—particularly The Cat in the Hat
, which is believed by some cultural observers to be inspired by racial stereotypes
dating to the Vaudeville era—the Seuss estate is responsibly protecting the balance of the stuff that matters to the culture and to Geisel’s legacy.
The books are still there. But a 7-year-old who may not understand the danger of a racially tinged image won’t be the one to find it—at least not without a teacher or parent to explain it first.