On Dr. Seuss & the Absurd Cancellation of His Liberal Anti-Racism
Earlier this year, when the left waxed woke until six of Dr. Seuss's books were withdrawn from print, and the right went into predictable paroxysms of rage over "censorship," the really interesting part of the controversy went unnoticed by both sides. The real story is that in the topsy-turvy world of the woke, tolerance has become the new bigotry, and race neutrality has become the new racism.
The strange itinerary that brought the popular children's author Dr. Seuss from being an icon of the political left to being considered its enemy is illustrative of the devolution of liberalism itself as it collapses into the successor ideology of wokeism. As the left cannibalizes its own values, equality is being replaced by "equity," tolerance by redistributive "justice," and non-discrimination by bigotry against "oppressor groups."
To understand how Dr. Seuss got caught up in liberalism's strange metamorphosis, we have to dig deeper than examining the six titles that were pulled from stores and libraries, and instead explore what leftists are saying about a comparatively less well-known work, the title story from The Sneetches and Other Stories.
The Sneetches: Real Anti-Racism
Dr. Seuss published The Sneetches and Other Stories in 1961, at the apex of the civil rights movement. The story "The Sneetches" shows the absurdity of racism through the struggles of an imaginary community of bird-like creatures called sneetches.
The sneetches are divided between those who have stars on their bellies and those who do not. The star-bellied sneetches exclude and ostracize the plain-bellied sneetches with their own version of Jim Crow laws.
One day a man named Sylvester McMonkey McBean shows up, claiming he can fix the sneetches' problems. He assembles a star-on machine on their beach that, for a small fee, will put stars on the plain-bellied sneetches. But this only makes the star-bellied sneetches concerned that they will become indistinguishable from the others and thus lose their superiority. So McBean brings out a star-off machine so the first group can be different again, and so preserve their special status. As the mark of distinction keeps changing from starred to not-starred, the sneetches race back and forth between the machines, spending all their money in vain efforts to keep up with the group that has privileged status. At day's end, McBean packs up his machines and leaves, laughing at the silly creatures.
But the sneetches actually learn from their folly. The story ends with them letting go of their prejudices to accept one another regardless of what is or isn't on their bellies.
The significance of this simple story should be obvious, but it may be useful to know some background about its author, and his agenda in writing it.
Dr. Seuss Against the Racists
A native of Massachusetts, "Dr. Seuss," whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904–1991), frequently hid a political message behind his goofy illustrations and his "genial rhyming nonsense," as cartoonist and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman described it. During World War II, Seuss worked as a political cartoonist, often taking up controversial issues that other cartoonists wouldn't touch. In a 2019 article commemorating the 115th anniversary of Seuss's birth, Spiegelman told the BBC that Seuss's wartime output "rail[ed] against isolationism, racism, and antisemitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period." Seuss's cartoons were "virtually the only editorial cartoons outside the communist and black press that decried the military's Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh's antisemitism."1
Dr. Seuss's classic children's works explored many of the same themes as his political cartoons. When he wrote "The Sneetches," he was concerned about racism in general, but particularly about antisemitism.
Not surprisingly, "The Sneetches"became a favorite resource among leftists for teaching anti-racism. For instance, Teaching Tolerance, a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, used the story in a K–5 curriculum designed to teach racial tolerance.
The BBC's commemorative article about Seuss's "radical politics" praised him as an anti-racist and progressive, and specifically mentioned "The Sneetches" for its stance against discrimination. In his book Dr. Seuss: American Icon, Philip Nel echoed the widespread consensus by calling "The Sneetches" an "anti-racism fable," while Seuss enthusiast Charles D. Cohen referred to it as a "groundbreaking diatribe against bigotry."
From Civil Rights to Social Marxism
In short, Dr. Seuss represented the preoccupations of postwar 20th-century liberalism, which found expression in the civil rights movement with its concern for promoting fairness, race neutrality, and anti-discrimination policies.
But even as mid-20th-century civil rights activists were struggling to bring liberal values into mainstream America, Marxist revolutionaries were also engaged in a struggle, hoping to bring the communist revolution to the West. The Christian values in America secured the success of the civil rights movement even as they (for a time) secured the failure of Marxism. But the Marxist revolutionaries didn't go away; they simply changed their strategy.
Instead of focusing on redistributing wealth from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat, mid-20th-century Marxists created an ideology for redistributing cultural capital from the oppressors to the oppressed. Instead of mobilizing workers to take over factories, they mobilized oppressed groups to take over the institutions, and to use institutions to alter values imperceptibly. This Marxism 2.0 is often referred to as social Marxism.
From Social Marxism to Wokeism
Throughout the 20th century, social Marxism was limited to the polysyllabic erudition of intellectuals associated with the Frankfurt School, or in the output of philosophers subscribing to Critical Theory. However, by appropriating the language of the civil rights movement, even while inverting its basic values, these activists gradually succeeded in mainstreaming their ideas in popular culture.
Now, in the 21st century, the Marxists' cultural revolution has finally arrived, and it has a name: wokeism.
Wokeism is a crude, populist version of social Marxism with its emphasis on redistributing power from oppressors to victims. Wokeism seeks to elevate groups with victim status even if this means discriminating against other groups. Such discrimination is justified in the interest of balancing out historic oppression. Activist Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, expressed this idea when he wrote, "the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination." Meanwhile the view of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in 2007 that "the way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," is dismissed as bigotry, a hangover from America's racist past.
Under the influence of such ideas, once-liberal institutions have been quietly rewriting their creeds and even the names of their bodies, replacing the terms "equality" and "tolerance" with "equity" and "justice," replacing the concept of "equality of opportunity" with "equality of outcome," and finally agitating for inequality of outcome in the interest of elevating favored groups and bringing down oppressor groups.
How Acceptance Became the New Bigotry
As liberalism has collapsed into wokeism, the story "The Sneetches" has been recast as racist precisely because of its message of acceptance. Teaching Tolerance decided to stop using "The Sneetches" to combat racism and explained why on its website. Referencing a study that purported to find "white supremacy" and "racism" in Seuss's corpus, Teaching Tolerance asserted that the problem with "The Sneetches" is precisely its message of acceptance:
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.2
Did you get that? Dr. Seuss's story must be canceled because of its message of acceptance and race neutrality. The study alleging racism in Dr. Seuss adds, "In reality, not only is not seeing race not possible, it should not be something children are encouraged to aspire to."3 This is an extraordinary admission, since it posits that even if race neutrality were possible, it would not be desirable. It really does matter which sneetches have stars on their bellies and which ones do not.
We Are All Sneetches Now
And what happened to the organization Teaching Tolerance, which previously used "The Sneetches"to teach non-discrimination? Now that it is taking an explicitly anti-white stance, it has removed the term "tolerance" from its name and instead calls itself "Learning for Justice."
The irony could not be more acute, since these types of ideological reversals are exactly the situation Dr. Seuss describes in "The Sneetches."Like the sneetches, who constantly changed the criteria for determining privilege, wokeism continually changes the parameters of what constitutes oppression. In the world of the woke, acceptance is now recast as racism, race neutrality as white supremacy, and tolerance as bigotry.
The absurd reality Dr. Seuss warned about in "The Sneetches"has arrived, and it is our reality. We are the Sneetches.
is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #58, Fall 2021 Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo58/how-the-woke-stole-tolerance