Category Archives: Social Commentary
Dr. Seuss’ Preemptive Cancellation
A lot of this story’s background was gleaned from a study on Dr. Seuss’s books in 2019, so in lieu of my regular TL;DR following the piece, I’ll be summarizing the study so you can better understand the impetus for Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision.
Yesterday, Dr. Seuss’s birthday opened with an announcement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises that they’re celebrating reading and “their mission to support all children and families with messages of hope and inclusion” by no longer printing six of Seuss’s books due to them “display[ing] people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Claiming it’s being done in an attempt to ensure their catalog “represents and supports all communities and families.”
The six books that no longer fit their social standards are:
– And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
– If I Ran the Zoo
– McElligot’s Pool
– On Beyond Zebra!
– Scrambled Eggs Super!
– The Cat’s Quizzer
They expanded upon their reasoning while talking to the Associated Press. Saying “The decision to cease publication and sales of the books was made last year after months of discussion. Dr. Seuss Enterprises listened and took feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics and specialists in the field as part of our review process. We then worked with a panel of experts, including educators, to review our catalog of titles.”
My mind jumped from their inane announcement to the incredulous thought of them even finding such a panel of individuals – and I caught myself wondering: did someone go headhunting for the people with the right qualifications, or did they just appear at their door one day? Where does someone find a panel of professionals educated on 2021-racism and how it may potentially affect children?
To the announcement, the mob reacted swiftly. It almost seemed like an instinctual reaction, visceral, as of they were under the influence of a feeling that only comes to the fore when [you feel like] your childhood is ‘under attack.’ But my attachment to the books was shallow; I just wanted to have a discussion, so I went for the best-worded argument I could find. Dr. Rebekah Fitzsimmons came to my rescue, and with a PhD from the University of Florida in children’s and young adult literature and culture, she had not only the most cogent argument but, the knowledge to back up the statements she made.
The books we share with our children matter. Books shape their world view and tell them how to relate to the people, places, and ideas around them. As grown-ups, we have to examine the worldview we are creating for our children, including carefully re-examining our favorites. Just because we loved something when we were kids, that is not enough reason to hand it off to our kids. If we want the world to be better, we have to commit to giving our kids better.Dr Rebekah Fitzsimmons
My response on Twitter was a short one, it being a medium made for black-and-white statements where nuance has to be thrown away in favor of 280 character soundbites, I said: “We cannot, because we’re suddenly ashamed of how we behaved, reach back and conform our past to fit our current societal norms… Hiding a painful history from view doesn’t erase the pain it caused. We, as a society, need to face it and learn from it.” And if given space I would have expanded: ‘Running from our racial disparities instead of confronting them head-on is one of the reasons today’s headlines look like they’ve been ripped from the front page of a 50-year-old newspaper. After the civil rights movement, our country stagnated, and we’ve had little to no racial progress.’ I was simply trying to convey the idea that, the worst parts of our history shouldn’t be hidden, they should be preserved and used as an opportunity to educate our children on the perils of our past and how to avoid them.
But Professor Fitzsimmons continued, insisting that to have a fully informed conversation about this, I had to look into the catalyst of the event – what made Dr. Seuss Enterprises even consider removing the books from print – so I did.
It turns out that Dr. Seuss Enterprises didn’t go searching for that esteemed panel I’d dreamt up. The panel was real and came to them – in the form of a 2019 study written by Ramón Stephens of UC San Diego and Katie Ishizuka of the Conscious Kid Library titled, The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books. With the study, Ramon Stephens and Katie Ishizuka intended to answer “How and to what extent are non-White characters depicted in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books?” The study itself is about 33 pages long, and the work they put in to get an accurate count was extensive, so instead of trying to summarize it in-story, I’ll put it in my usual tl;dr section following the piece.
The insight I garnered from the study was interesting, but it didn’t change my almost principled feelings on the estate’s decision. I don’t feel the books should be highlighted in a school library’s feature section, but to remove it from print is to remove a parent’s opportunity for a teaching moment. But it wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized that wasn’t the point.
I decided to write about this piece simply to use it as an allegory of all other modern-day cancellations, the significant difference being: Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to get ahead of the opposition. They removed the opportunity for a parent to say that they read this to their child and the kid was offended. (Or offended-by-proxy, as often tends to happen these days.) But by doing it this way, by bowing to the cancel culture brigade preemptively, they’ve shown their fear. They’ve signaled to the woke wave that is currently kneecapping parts of our society that they’re right and that parts of our past should be snuffed out if they have even the potential of offending someone.
A lot of people have called this action a book burning but I feel what his estate is doing is worse. When Theodor Seuss Geisel was alive, the only amendment he made to any of his books was to the “Chinaman” in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Despite it being first published in 1937, it wasn’t until 1978 that his pigtail was gone, the yellow pigment removed from his skin and his name changed from “Chinaman” to “Chinese man.” It took Geisel 40 years to change his book, with him only saying “That’s the way things were 50 years ago…in later editions, he looks like an Irishman.”
What I’m worried about, is not what a parent decides to say when they have to sit down and explain racism to their child, what concerns me is the new calculous currently taking place in artist’s heads.
Dr. Seuss was trending in the news for nearly five days. Not because the audience was genuinely interested in it, but because both sides wanted to use it to manufacture a story about our rapidly-changing society. Right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro pointed to it as the most recent battle, against liberals, in the culture war. And left-wingers wanted to use Seuss’ WWII anti-Asian propaganda cartoons as proof of his racism – reason enough that all of his books should receive the same treatment.
And the latter is what I’m genuinely worried about. The fear of being canceled is going to do long-term damage to our society. And that’s an idea I’m passionate about, so I should have a piece about it up by the end of the month. But one of the major effects it’ll have is on artists, producers, and creators. An artist cares, not just about his art but, about his reputation – not his personal one – but what his work says about him.
Cancel culture fosters an environment where artists no longer create freely. Rather than dream, they’re forced to become futurists, envisioning the shifting societal norms thirty years in advance to ensure the things he makes today won’t be banned or get him canceled three decades from now.
Theodor Seuss Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss was an incredibly prolific artist. His early work, comics of stingy Jew footballers and black men as gorillas, were first published in his college paper, the Jack O’ Lantern, in 1921. As he grew as a children’s book author, selling more than 200 million books before his death, he continued to create political cartoons, comics, and advertisements for newspapers, magazine companies, and the United States Government; often depicting marginalized groups in dehumanizing and degrading ways.
It was the juxtaposition between that behavior and the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center used his books as part of its Teaching Tolerance initiative that lead Ramón Stephens of UC San Diego and Katie Ishizuka of the Conscious Kid Library to initiate this study. The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books questions the claims that Seuss’s children’s book are anti-racist by inquiring “How and to what extent are non-White characters depicted in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books?
- In spite of Dr. Seuss’ extensive body of explicitly racist published works dehumanizing and degrading Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and people from other marginalized groups, many differentiate and defend the author’s children’s books as “promoting tolerance” and even “anti-racist.”
- Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance uses The Sneetches in their anti-racist curriculum for children in Kindergarten through fifth grade.
- *Summary in Progress*
The Danger of Safe Spaces
How Parler’s CEO Talked His Website off the Internet, and Himself Out of a Job
Unbeknownst to the public, last Friday began the unfortunate next chapter for Parler’s Founder, now former-CEO John Matze. Yesterday, Matze announced that on January 29th the board of Parler sent communications to its employees that he no longer held the position of CEO. News, that may not have been all that surprising to listeners of his interview with Kara Swisher on the afternoon that insurrectionists stormed the Capitol.
What CEO John Matze was attempting to accomplish when he agreed to an interview with Kara Swisher that afternoon is still unclear – but he probably didn’t intend to get his app de-platformed at the height of its popularity. Unfortunately, a lot of people saw that as exactly what he did. Apple’s threat to remove Parler from their App Store and Amazon’s suspension notice both cited Matze’s interview, with him stating “he held no responsibility for any of this [Capitol Riots,]” as the reason for the site’s removal from their store and servers respectively.
From their developers, Apple and Amazon require not only an intent to moderate but a plan to remove people once infractions occur. And with Matze saying during their interview that he didn’t share those guidelines and Parler’s only hard rule was against doxxing, both companies felt that his attitude on freedom of speech was too laissez-faire for them. Ironically, in his memo to the staff Matze claimed the board of Parler removed him because he “advocated for more product stability and what he believed was a more effective approach to content moderation,” despite Kara Swisher asking him numerous times what his ultimate moderation goals were and responding that Parler was simply going to follow the law, “if it’s legal, it’s allowed.” Going on to say “we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law” seemingly misunderstanding, again, that the first amendment protects him from censorship by the United States Government, and has nothing to do with the User Licensing Agreements he agreed to when signing a contract with Apple and Amazon.
In a real town square, he would be allowed to host all the hate-filled speech that he wanted, but online, if it falls outside of the hosting company’s guidelines – that company is fully within their right to kick him out. A fact that at least his lawyers understood when filing their lawsuit against AWS, choosing to argue instead that the “attack” was a personal attempt to take them down, in anticipation of AWS’ new contract to host Twitter (thus asking the court to restrain their suspension so that they could move their platform to another service provider.) Unfortunately for Parler, and ultimately John Matze, their requested injunction was denied. Judge Barbara Rothstein argued that “even after the attack on the U.S. Capitol the company decided not to take down posts threatening public safety” that it was “within Amazon’s rights to punish the company over its refusal.”
In retrospect, onlookers may pause to say that the board’s decision was impulsive – that the 27-year-old founder / CEO deserves the room and time to make mistakes – and in some aspects, I agree. If his only mistake was to unintentionally run afoul of guidelines put in place by the site’s hosts and owners of the stores he needs to reach potential customers – fine. But his mistake wasn’t that he broke the rules. His mistake, and I’m not even sure it can be called that, is that he lacks any understanding of how his management of the company landed them in the position they’re currently in. Following his firing, he continued to say he didn’t understand why he was let go, that his vision was “pretty aligned” with what the board wanted and that there was no way the unprecedented removal from Amazon’s Servers could be blamed on him. He argued that, following their removal from the three platforms (saying nothing of the Capitol Riots), he thought they should design a way to keep free speech at the center of their platform while using “authoritative” A.I. and software to proactively flag content (rather than letting humans flag it, as the site had previously done.) and then have a jury check it if there were any complaints. While his inability to see the role he played in all of this borders on delusion, I believe what ultimately cost him his job was his patent naivete when it came to content moderation. When you market yourself as a free-speech haven, there’s going to be more vile content than there are jurors to oversee the appeal process. His vision for the platform could not scale, and he was unwilling to do it any other way.
– Yesterday John Matze sent a memo to employees at Parler informing them that as of January 29th, he was no longer CEO of the company.
– Just two weeks prior, both Apple and Amazon quoted him saying “I don’t feel responsible for this [the events at the Capitol] and neither should the platform” as their reason why the app would be pulled from their services. Without a moderation system in place, Parler was in breach of both contracts.
– After being removed from Amazon Web Services, Parler sued AWS for an injunction – asking they give them 30 days they felt their contract entitled them to – so they could find another host and transfer all of their website data without any downtime on the user’s-end. The court said no.
– In his memo, Matze claimed he was kicked out because of his “belief in free speech;” that he was “advocating for product stability and a more effective approach to moderation.” But the second sentence stands not only in opposition to the first, but to the point he tried to make numerous times in his interview with Kara Swisher. As a staunch supporter of the first amendment he was unwilling to change his content moderation system, and Parler’s board decided to put survival above principle.