How Wokeism Turned Against Liberalism and Dr. Suess
This week’s controversy over Dr. Seuss may seem like merely the latest in a series of bizarre cancel culture maneuvers from the radical left. Indeed, it comes after a cancelation extravaganza that has included attempts by Princeton faculty to cancel the literature of Greece and Rome, attempts by Amazon to cancel the book When Harry Became Sally, and even an attempt by our President to cancel women. But in the case of the sudden withdrawal from print of six books from Dr. Suess’s corpus, something deeper is at stake than simply the excesses of cancel culture.
The strange itinerary that brought Dr. Seuss from being an icon of the political left to being its enemy is a cameo of the evolution of liberalism itself as it collapses into a successor ideology. The new ideology—where equality is replaced by “equity,” where tolerance is replaced by redistributive “justice,” and where non-discrimination is replaced by bigotry against “oppressor groups”—strikes at the heart of our very civilization. Let’s look closer to see how Dr. Seuss got caught up in liberalism’s strange metamorphosis.
Dr. Seuss Against the Racists
Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904–1991), who wrote under the pseudonym “Dr. Suess,” frequently hid a political message behind his goofy illustrations and genial rhyming. While working as a political cartoonist in the United States during the Second World War, he took up controversial issues that other cartoonists wouldn’t touch. One such issue was racism.
The cartoonist and graphic novelist, Art Spiegelman, was quoted by the BBC as saying that Dr. Seuss war-time output “rail[s] against isolationism, racism, and antisemitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period.”
Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s works explored many of the same themes as his political cartoons. For example, his concern about racism in general, and antisemitism in particular, found expression in his story The Sneetches.
The Sneetches is a story showing the absurdity of racism through the struggles of an imaginary community of bird-like creatures known as “sneetches.” The sneetches are divided between those who have stars on their bellies and those who don’t. The star-bellied sneetches exclude and ostracize the plain-belly 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 to put stars onto the plain-belly sneetches. But this makes the star-belly sneetches concerned they will become indistinguishable and thus lose their superiority. McBean then brings out a star-off machine so the first group can be different, and thus preserve their special status. As fashions change, the sneetches race from machine to machine, unable to keep up with who has privileged status.
At the end of the day, McBean packs up his machines and leaves, laughing at the silly creatures. But the sneetches actually learned from their folly. The story ends with them accepting one another regardless of their differences in skin.
Dr. Seuss the Liberal
Not surprisingly, The Sneetches has been a favorite resource among liberals for teaching anti-racism and race-neutrality. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s organization, Teaching Tolerance, used The Sneetches in k-5 curriculum designed to teach racial tolerance.
Dr. Seuss represents the preoccupations of post-war liberalism, which found expression in the civil rights movement with its concern for promoting fairness, race neutrality, and anti-discrimination policies.
But the liberalism of the 21st century is a very different beast. As liberalism evolved, it became the enemy of its former iteration…and of Dr. Seuss.
From Civil Rights to Social Marxism
As mid-20th century civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. 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 it 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. (I have discussed this in my article “The ‘Quiet Revolution’ of Cultural Marxism.”) This new variant of Marxism is often known as “Cultural Marxism.”
From Social Marxism to Wokeism
Throughout the 20th century, Cultural Marxism was locked in 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 Marxists gradually succeeded in mainstreaming their ideas into popular culture.
Now in the 21st century, the Marxists cultural revolution has finally arrived and it has a name: Wokeism.
Wokeism is the crude populist version of Cultural Marxism and Critical Theory, with the latter’s emphasis on redistributing power from oppressors to victims. It is what Andrew Sullivan described as “the successor ideology to liberalism among elites, a now-mandatory ideology if you want to keep your job.” Using concepts like “equity” and “intersectionality” and “systemic racism,” Wokeism seeks to elevate groups with victim status even if it means discriminating against other groups. Such discrimination is justified in the interest of balancing out historic oppression.
As Wokeism expands its hegemony, once-liberal institutions have been quietly rewriting their creeds and even the names of their bodies, replacing the term “equality” with “equity,” replacing “tolerance” with “justice” and 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.
The new bigotry of Wokeism can be seen in ritualized guilt surrounding “whiteness,” which now includes bizarre ceremonies such as sending whites to the back of the room or sending white children to the back of the bus. Many businesses and institutions now single out certain individuals, solely on the basis of skin color, and require them to acknowledge and own their participation in systemic racism. Failure to participate in these shaming rituals is itself considered an act of racism.
Of course, these Woke liturgies are only possible to the degree that liberal institutions renounce classic liberal values such as tolerance and non-discrimination. And that brings us back to Dr. Suess’s story The Sneetches.
How Acceptance Became the New Bigotry
As liberalism collapses into its successor ideology of Wokeism, the story The Sneetches has been recast as racist precisely because of its pro-tolerance message.
In commenting on the “white supremacy” and “racism,” in Dr. Suess, the organization, “Teaching Tolerance,” announced that it has stopped using The Sneetches to combat racism. Referencing a study that identified “white supremacy” and “racism” in Suess’s corpus, they explain that the problem in The Sneetches is the book’s message of acceptance and race-neutrality:
“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.”
Did you get that? Dr. Suess’s story must be canceled because of its message of acceptance and race-neutrality! The formal 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.” 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.
This is where Social Marxism in combination with Wokeism has brought us: it has ushered us into a topsy-turvy world where acceptance is recast as racism, where race neutrality is recast as white supremacy, and where tolerance is recast as bigotry.
And what about the organization “Teaching Tolerance” that previously used The Sneetches to teach non-discrimination? Now that the organization is taking an explicitly anti-white stance, they have removed the term “tolerance” from their name, calling themselves “Learning For Justice” instead. Of course, the irony could not be more acute, since these types of ideological reversals are exactly the situation Dr. Seuss described in The Sneetches.
Like the Sneetches who constantly changed the criteria for determining privilege, Wokeism continually changes what constitutes oppression. In the world of the Woke, race-neutrality has become the new racism.Robin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. In addition to working as a ghost-writer for celebrities, his work has featured in a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, Sky News, and the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Phillips 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 Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manuel for Recovering Gnostics (Ancient Faith, forthcoming 2023). He is a contributor to Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives (Sebastian Press, 2018), and Finding the Golden Key: Essays Towards a Recovery of the Sacramental Imagination (Eighth Day Press, forthcoming 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/race-neutrality-is-the-new-racism