Where is the line of defense against de facto censorship?
To be honest, I had never even heard of, much less read, the six Dr. Seuss titles that Theodore Geisel’s estate recently decided to stop publishing. And, of course, just because a private entity makes a decision, which is perfectly within its rights, to stop printing new editions of an old book doesn’t mean that there aren’t still lots of copies in circulation. (Though, to its discredit, eBay won’t allow even used editions to be sold through its site.)
The more fundamental question is something like this: In an otherwise worthy piece of work, how bad does the flaw have to be before the book or movie or song or picture or other work of art is erased?
The problem with the Seuss books in question was that they contained depictions of minority groups that were offensive. (To read a defense of the decision to stop publishing them check out this column by Leonard Pitts.) I don’t disagree that the images were bad, but is that enough to poison the whole book?
There are myriad examples of what I mean. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been attacked as a white savior story. It undeniably is that, along with also being a great piece of literature. Should it go out of print?
Right now, you can watch Gone With the Wind on Turner Classic Movies. Not only does that movie contain stereotyped Black characters that are far worse than anything in Seuss, but the entire movie supports the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War. According to this telling, the South wasn’t fighting to maintain slavery but for a beautiful way of life. And, in fact, I do find that to be both historically wrong and morally offensive. If there was reason to censor Seuss, there are much stronger reasons for TCM and other outlets to stop making Gone With the Wind available for viewing. Is that what should happen?
Well, frankly, I never gave a damn about that movie anyway, so maybe I wouldn’t care. But I love Casablanca. While it’s not nearly as bad as the Margaret Mitchell classic, the character, Sam (who sings as Time Goes By) is also portrayed in stereotypical ways. It’s an otherwise great movie about courage and heroism, the complications of love and loyalty, and the meaning of patriotism. It contains a strong anti-fascist theme. Yet, it also contains some scenes that are clearly offensive by today’s standards. Should we ban it or otherwise make it hard to find?
Or what about music? I love blue grass. Do you have any idea how many blue grass tunes speak fondly of Dixie or Robert E. Lee? Ban every song that someone may find offensive and, well, blue grass is pretty much dead.
You and I could think of hundreds of other examples of great works of art — or simply things that we enjoy — that contain these awkward elements. If we want to go down the Seuss road, then we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves which poison pills in an otherwise fine work are strong enough to kill it. And, as sensitivities become ever more sharp, the list of what is offensive will just keep growing.
I tend to side with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote on Sunday about how liberals, once staunch defenders of literature (especially when it offended someone) are now either silent or even supportive of this kind of cancellation.
In fact, it’s just this kind of thing — the switch from being strong defenders of free speech and other classically liberal values to being willing to sacrifice them in the name of wokeness — that led me to turn in my liberal card and start thinking of myself as a moderate. Liberals had become illiberal.
So, what should happen? Well, I’d say just let individual tastes and a free market of things and ideas work. So, if over time, some critical mass of TCM viewers won’t watch Casablanca, I imagine the network will pull it from its lineup for lack of interest. I’ll be sad, but I can always rent it so that I can see it for something like the 100th time. (By the way, if you think about it too much, the plot makes no sense at all.)
But what should definitely not happen is that TCM allow itself to be bullied by some group of activists into not showing it to an audience that still wants to see it. I don’t need to be protected from myself. I can recognize the offending scenes for what they are and yet appreciate the rest of the movie.
Look, I’m not going to miss those Seuss books because it’s hard to miss something you didn’t even know existed. But I worry about what the unofficial culture censors will come for next.