Silly Season in the Culture Wars

https://www.gocomics.com/johndeering/2021/03/05

If the only message you have is to stoke your base’s grievances, occasionally you have to make some up.


This week contained a lot of important news, so you might imagine that conservative news networks would have a lot to talk about. You might even say they had work cut out for them.

  • President Biden’s $1.9 trillion (with a T) spending bill was being debated in Congress, and the opposition message wasn’t getting through to the American people. In one poll, the proposal won support from 68% of Americans, including 37% of Republicans.
  • The battle against the Covid pandemic had major developments: Biden announced that enough vaccine for all adult Americans would be available by the end of May, two months earlier than previously thought. Meanwhile, Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi were removing mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions from their economies, and others were thinking of following suit — despite the fact that daily case-numbers and death-totals are either worse or not much different than when those restrictions were announced.
  • The Senate has been holding hearings on the January 6 insurrection, including testimony from the FBI director.
  • Police reform and voting rights bills passed the House.
  • Refugees are returning to our southern border.
  • A big-state Democratic governor is battling scandal.
  • The Senate still has Biden nominees to confirm. Surely one or more of them has done something worth getting upset about.
  • Biden is planning another trillion-with-a-T infrastructure bill to rebuild America in ways that Trump promised but never delivered on.

Serious stuff. Worth calling viewers’ attention to. Some of it even invites a conservative spin.

But instead, right-wing hosts like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity filled entire segments of their shows with Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, two purported examples of “cancel culture” that (1) are trivial by comparison to several of the issues I just listed, and (2) don’t stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny.

Let’s examine the reality at the root of these controversies.

Mr. Potato Head. Not quite two weeks ago, Hasbro announced that it was changing how it markets its Mr. Potato Head toys:

Hasbro is officially renaming the MR. POTATO HEAD brand to POTATO HEAD to better reflect the full line.

In other words, Hasbro is de-centering masculinity: Instead of being an “accessory” to her husband, Mrs. Potato Head is now an equal member of the family. Horrors! Your daughter might get the idea that she can find her own place in the world, and doesn’t need a man to define her. And then the Hasbro announcement got even more sinister:

Launching this Fall, the CREATE YOUR POTATO HEAD FAMILY is a celebration of the many faces of families allowing kids to imagine and create their own Potato Head family with 2 large potato bodies, 1 small potato body, and 42 accessories. The possibilities to create your own families are endless with mixing and mashing all the parts and pieces.

So the toy is no longer hetero-normative. If they want, children can build a family with two Mommies or two Daddies. The branding no longer fights that. (Like that matters. I mean, you never cross-dressed Barbie and G. I. Joe, right? Sure. Me neither.) Of course, if you want a Potato Head Family with a Mommy, a Daddy, and a Tater Tot of your own gender, that still works too. (And you can still remove Daddy’s mouth, so he can’t yell at the Tot.) As best I can see, there are no losers here.

https://tribunecontentagency.com/article/20210303edshe-b-tif/

Dr. Seuss. The Dr. Seuss situation is similar: A private enterprise is managing its brand in a way that hurts no one.

When Theodore Seuss Geisel died in 1991, the copyrights on his works passed to his widow, Audrey Geisel, who lived until 2018.

In 1993 she founded Dr. Seuss Enterprises, whose stated mission was to “protect the integrity of the Dr. Seuss books while expanding beyond books into ancillary areas.”

Since then, DSE has done a pretty good job keeping Geisel’s flame burning.

Dr. Seuss — who died in 1991 — was one of the top-earning dead celebrities of 2020, with $33 million in total earnings, according to Forbes. That’s up from $9.5 million in 2015. His estate actually earned more than any late celebrity except for Michael Jackson, whose estate earned $48 million.

So maybe they know their business, and their judgement deserves the benefit of the doubt. Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that six of its more obscure titles would no longer be published.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

None of these six was particularly popular.

“And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” one of the six books pulled by the estate, sold about 5,000 copies last year, according to BookScan. “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” haven’t sold in years through the retailers BookScan tracks.

For comparison, DSE sold over half a million of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!.

So what about these particular six books is “hurtful and wrong”? Unless you have copies lying around — and most people don’t, that’s what it means to be unpopular — it’s hard to judge for yourself. In situations like this, mainstream publications don’t want to call your attention to something just to demonstrate how hurtful it is. (And nether do I, so I’ll provide links you can chase if you’re curious rather than post the images themselves.)

The problem isn’t with the text of the books so much as the illustrations. None of them that I have seen is aggressively racist, like Nazi caricatures of Jews often were, but they contain demeaning stereotypes of Africans and Asians. (The anti-Japanese cartoons Geisel drew after Pearl Harbor, though, are aggressively racist, as many cartoons of the era were. None of them are currently being published by DSE.) You’re not supposed to hate these books’ non-white characters so much as find them different and strange. (The theme of Mulberry Street is that you don’t have to go far to see bizarre things, like “a Chinaman who eats with sticks“.) And a lack of diversity doesn’t help: The monkey-like African natives in If I Ran the Zoo would be less problematic (though still far from acceptable) if they weren’t the book’s only black characters.

(For what it’s worth, I’ll tell a story on myself: When I was three, I had pneumonia and my parents took me to the hospital. In the waiting room, I saw a Black family, maybe the first real-life Black people I had ever noticed. Dark skin was something I only knew from cartoons, when characters fell into mud puddles or got blown up with dynamite. “Mommy!” I announced (or so I’ve been told). “Those people are dirty.”)

If you’ve watched many old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons — a lot of which have quietly been taken out of circulation — you know that none of this is unusual for the era. Explicitly non-white characters were rare, and the ones that do show up represent something “other”; you’re supposed to react to them, not identify with them. So the problem isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a bad man in the context of his time — in many ways his books were more progressive than their competitors — but that some of his work has aged badly.

What should be done about that depends on what you want Dr. Seuss to be in 2021. If he’s to be a historical figure — a leading children’s-book author of the mid-to-late 20th century — then his work should speak for itself. Leave it alone, and organize a conversation around it, as HBO Max did when it briefly withdrew and then re-launched Gone With the Wind. (GWTW is a spectacular example of 1930s movie-making, as well as a valuable artifact in the history of America’s attitudes towards race. So I encourage you to watch it. Just don’t imagine that its Lost Cause mythology is an accurate depiction of the Old South or the Reconstruction Era.)

But if Theodore Geisel’s legacy is supposed to be timeless — Audrey’s vision — if his work is supposed to live through our era and beyond, then it needs to be curated. Parents and grandparents should be able to trust the Dr. Seuss brand. When you sit down to read to your four-year-old, you should be able to pick up a Dr. Seuss book without worrying that you might put something bad into a developing mind.

That curation is precisely what Dr. Seuss Enterprises was doing when it removed these six books from its catalog. By taking this action, DSE is making it more likely that kids will still be reading The Cat in the Hat or How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 2050.

The conservative policy vacuum. To understand the overblown response to the Potato Head and Dr. Seuss news, think back for a moment to Reagan Era conservatism. Whether you loved it or hated it — and even if you believed some ulterior motive was hiding in its background — you knew its defining principles:

  • Bold foreign policy that maintains America’s military strength and isn’t afraid to use it.
  • Free trade.
  • Less regulation, lower federal spending, and lower taxes.
  • Local self-determination with less central control from Washington.

That all went out the window with Trump. He liked to spend a lot of money on weapons, brag about American military strength, and occasionally threaten other nations with “fire and fury”. But he also pulled back from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; distanced the US from allies like NATO, Japan, and South Korea; and let Vladimir Putin do whatever he wanted wherever he wanted to do it. Mao was probably wrong when he referred to the US of his era as a “paper tiger“, but Trump’s America really was one.

Free trade was replaced by tariffs and trade wars. Some regulations went away — particularly those protecting the environment — but others he stretched to interfere more aggressively in the decisions of US and foreign corporations. Big spending (and big deficits) weren’t worth mentioning any more. And no president in my lifetime did quite so much to impose federal policy on cities and states that didn’t want it. (Last summer, only resistance from the Pentagon kept him from invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active-duty troops into American cities.)

As a result of this reversal, and the absence of any new guiding principles to explain it, today’s Republican Party no longer has a policy agenda. The 2020 Republican platform was to support Trump — period. When the GOP controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it couldn’t decide what to do with that power, other than pass one big tax cut for rich people. It couldn’t even fulfill its promise to repeal ObamaCare, because that would leave a void that it had no idea how to fill. “Complain all you want that the covid-19 relief bill has been packed with all sorts of unrelated stuff from the Democratic wish list,” Megan McArdle wrote yesterday. “At least the Democrats have a wish list. What’s the Republican equivalent?”

Conservatism today is defined not by principles or programs, but by a Leader, an identity, and (most of all) an attitude: Conservatives are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. Mad at “Them” — the libs, the Deep State, Big Tech, the blood-drinking pedophiles — who keep threatening and insulting them.

But the Biden administration is policy-centered, so to the extent that Biden is driving the national conversation, Republicans have little to say. If they wanted to oppose Biden on substance, they’d need to have a Covid relief proposal of their own. (Ten GOP senators did make a laughably low-ball offer that they knew Biden couldn’t accept, but even they only represented themselves. The Republican leadership offered no proposal at all.) Or a coherent response to January 6 and the larger problem of domestic terrorism. Or an infrastructure plan. Or an immigration plan. Or something.

With no ideas to offer, they can only keep their base riled by promoting a never-ending string of “outrages”. Otherwise they’ve got nothing.

The cancel-culture freak-out. The essence of Trump’s message to his base (a message no other Republican is in a position to compete with) is grievance: Somebody is trying to take something from you, so you need a strong authoritarian leader to fight for you.

Some of these threats may be exaggerated, but they have at least a foothold in reality. Many Democrats really would like to take away assault rifles and other military-grade weaponry, or at least stop Americans from buying more. But the number proposing to “disarm” the country entirely is vanishingly small. Many Americans do compete for jobs with foreigners abroad and immigrants at home, though trade and immigration also create jobs and the balance is debatable.

But other “threats” are almost entirely imaginary: Non-white races are trying to “replace” you. Gays and lesbians are conspiring to destroy marriage and the family. Liberals want to criminalize Christianity. Big Tech is trying to steal your voice. Covid is a conpsiracy to take away your freedom. It has become a formula: When the Right needs to energize its base, they invent some nebulous force — “Them!” — that is trying to take away something that should be yours.

This week’s Seuss/Potato story has made this technique really obvious, because the frame fits so badly. Nothing is being taken away from anybody. Whatever you had hoped to do with Mr. Potato Head, you can still do. No one is coming for your Dr. Seuss books. And if you want more, you can buy more, except for a few books you probably had forgotten even existed. What’s more, the rights to those books never belonged to you anyway; if Dr. Seuss Enterprises thinks its brand is healthier without them, that’s up to them.

Conservative rabble-rousers did their best to pretend something else was happening. “They are banning Dr. Seuss books,” said Glenn Beck. They. Not the legal owners of the copyrights, or the organization created by Seuss’ widow to protect his legacy, but a nebulous “panel of ‘educators’ and ‘experts’.”

How much more do you need to see before all of America wakes up and goes “This is fascism!”? This is fascism. You don’t destroy books. What is wrong with us, America? Go out and buy those books today. Find out if you can get them. Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, because it’s the end of an era. It is the end of freedom in America.

Beck is so strongly attached to these six books — none of which are being destroyed — that he gets some of their names wrong.

He wasn’t alone. On Fox & Friends, Donald Trump Jr. also warned about the sinister “they”, and seemed to imply The Cat in the Hat had been canceled.

There’s no place that they won’t go. This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head, they canceled the Muppets. They’re canceling Dr. Seuss from reading programs. … I literally know The Cat in the Hat by heart without the book there because I read it so many times to my children.

(I almost forgot about the Muppets. Last month, Disney Plus began streaming all five seasons of The Muppet Show, making it more easily available than it has ever been. But Disney committed the unforgivable sin of putting content warnings on some episodes, like the one where Johnny Cash sings in front of a Confederate flag. But you can still watch it. No one has had the Muppets taken away from them.)

Kevin McCarthy similarly implied that the most beloved Dr. Seuss books were being canceled — not by the organization charged with maintaining his brand, but by people who don’t like Dr. Seuss. He tweeted “I still like Dr. Seuss” and then read Green Eggs and Ham on Twitter. Why didn’t he read If I Ran the Zoo and show us the primitive African natives?

Tuesday morning, as Christopher Wray verified that white supremacist groups were involved in the Capitol insurrection and Antifa wasn’t, Ted Johnson noticed a subtle difference in what news networks were covering.

The Washington Post provided the numbers:

Over the course of the past week, Fox News has spent 4 hours and 38 minutes on Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and Biden’s comments about Neanderthals, according to a tally by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. That compared to 42 minutes from CNN and 39 minutes from MSNBC on those topics.

Fox News on Tuesday alone devoted an hour and nine minutes to Dr. Seuss — more than the combined amount it spent on the coronavirus vaccine and FBI testimony about the Jan. 6 insurrection.

https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/fox-news-dr-seuss-obsession-numbers

So this is what conservative media has come to: If you have nothing to say to America, and yet you need to keep your base riled up, then you need to rile them up about nothing.

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Comments

  • Geo. T  On March 8, 2021 at 10:15 am

    I would add Megan & Harry to the list of over-covered topics. In olden times this would be largely confined to supermarket tabloids.

    • Dale Moses  On March 10, 2021 at 5:47 pm

      The supermarket tabloids are where it was largely confined to until those supermarket tabloids took it far enough for Megan and Harry to leave. And before we say it was “just confined to supermarket tabloids” remember that those supermarket tabloids were a proximate cause of the death of Harry’s mother.

  • fmanin  On March 8, 2021 at 10:22 am

    Wasn’t there a second part to the Dr Seuss story, where some national children’s book reading day (or something) used to be Dr Seuss-branded and isn’t anymore?

    • nicknielsensc  On March 9, 2021 at 6:58 am

      National Read Across America Day. It’s held every year on Mar 2, Theodore Geisel’s birthday. The outrage du jour was that President Biden’s proclamation didn’t mention Dr. Seuss.
      https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-read-across-america-day-dr-seuss-day-march-2-unless-weekend/

      • George Washington, Jr.  On March 9, 2021 at 7:24 am

        Did it mention Louisa May Alcott? Why is “Little Women” being cancelled? In fact, I’ll bet a lot of authors weren’t mentioned. They probably didn’t mention Dav Pilkey (“Captain Underpants”) either. Shameful!

  • Marty  On March 8, 2021 at 11:06 am

    It’s the same with the “war on Christmas”.  It roared into action to help deflect the failing of the Bush the Lesser’s administration and Iraq, the became a self-sustaining yearly grievance/fundraising opportunity. 

    Sam Seder pointed that out in 2005 on this memorable CNN hit with Bob Knight  https://youtu.be/lvWpaneqvsQ

  • George Washington, Jr.  On March 8, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    A private toy manufacturer decides to re-tool one of its products. A private publisher decides to stop printing a few of its publications. To a free-market conservative, these events would be so trivial as to not merit attention, regardless of the reason why these decisions were made. The fact that they’re major news stories in right-wing media is proof that the only conservative “value” is grievance. Maybe the way to communicate this to conservatives is to ask them to think of the Dr. Seuss publisher as a Christian baker, and the offending titles as a gay wedding cake.

  • coastcontact  On March 9, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    We tried to find the Dr. Seuss books we read our children. The most aggrieved books were not in our collection. The books were meant to be silly and fun. If you are looking for faults in every author you are likely to be successful. Language in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was not meant to be harmful. Samuel Clemons wrote in the vernacular of that time. I understand intentional hate. All of us must look at the intent of the artist or author.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On March 9, 2021 at 11:10 pm

      The difference is that Mark Twain was using the vernacular to communicate an anti-racist message, while Dr. Seuss was engaging in the unthinking racism of his time.

Trackbacks

  • By Those Who Dare | The Weekly Sift on March 8, 2021 at 11:39 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Silly Season in the Culture Wars“. […]

  • By The Monday Morning Teaser | The Weekly Sift on March 15, 2021 at 8:43 am

    […] “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric” and “Silly Season in the Culture Wars“, I figured it was time to let the cancel-culture debate rest for a while. But then Matt Bai […]

  • […] previous posts like “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric” and “Silly Season in the Culture Wars“, here’s what I’ve concluded: The rhetoric on “cancel culture” is […]

  • By Hope and dreams | The Weekly Sift on March 15, 2021 at 12:43 pm

    […] of me says I already spent too much time on the Dr. Seuss controversy last week. But there are a couple more things worth mentioning. First, the Seussical poem “The Day […]

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