Cancel Culture? Banning Books Is Rarely The Correct Solution

‘I’ ON CULTURE

Cancel culture is getting weird. Right now, Dr. Seuss is a no-no. Yeah, the guy who was criticized by the right-wing for his leftist views now has some of his books banned.

I am not offering a full defense of Dr. Seuss. There is no doubt that he used stereotypical, nastily stereotypical pictures of Japanese people in some of his older books. And there are a couple of pictures of “Africans” in a book or two that had them in grass skirts and pictured in stereotypical ways. Not to mention a bit of degradation for Muslims and Jews. But the man himself, Theodore Seuss Geisel, was actually a liberal who officially opposed racism but generally had the views of those born the year he was, 1904. His books are generally considered extremely humanistic. But some of the pictures are troubling at this point, even for those not part of cancel culture.

As a history person, I look in shock at the forced name changes in schools. I can understand resentment at slave owner presidents, but condemning Abraham Lincoln as a racist seems to be pushing things more than a bit. I mean, shall we now forget the Emancipation Proclamation, hundreds of thousands of dead union soldiers, the Thirteenth Amendment (the one that banned slavery)? Well, what has he done for us lately?

Yes, times change. And some of our cultural heritage can provide embarrassment. A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson, a fairly progressive Democrat for the time, effusively praised the silent film Birth of a Nation that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. A quarter century later, Gone With the Wind was a gigantic hit, which had no issue with glorifying slave owners and providing caricatures for many Black characters. While a few of the sniveling corporate leaders wanted to cancel any showing of the latter film (no one except real film buffs want to see the silent film), TCM did the intelligent thing. A short (four and a half minute) discussion at the start of the movie touched on cultural issues and how things have changed and, unfortunately, in some ways, has not changed.

There are a few films that were hits years ago and enrage some elements of the population. Currently, HBO Max has cultural disclaimers at the start of some of the episodes of The Muppet Show. Right! I do not argue that there are offensive elements in some old-time (and some current) features, but totally canceling items erases elements from history. As Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We need to learn from our mistakes. Explaining works far better than erasing.

The stupidity of all this was forcefully brought to my attention when one of my favorite web sites, www.baen.com, was forced to stop its popular (for at least some science fiction fans) bulletin board site. Why? A Z-level writer complained that people on that bulletin board, Baen’s Bar, called for the violent overthrow of the government. That was ridiculous. Most of the members argue about the assorted books of the writers. I’ve been involved in a longstanding dispute on what would happen in 17th Century England if the changes wrought by author (and proud left-wing labor activist) Eric Flint in his alternative history novels, meant that Catharine of Braganza, queen to Charles II had never been born. Wow! Talk about overthrow. But because of one very low-talent politically active person, the Bar has stopped. And I miss it. And some sci-fi publishers and writers salute the book burner. Remember the book Fahrenheit 451? That was a warning, but the very people who should be most opposed to things like that are often leading the pack to eliminate opinions they do not like.

In Robert Bolt’s wonderful play and subsequent movie A Man for All Seasons, a young man tells Sir Thomas More that if it required chopping down every tree in England to get rid of the devil he was ready to do it. More asked him then, “And where would you hide if the devil turned around and came after you?”

A section of society that can destroy all those whose culture they despise should always remember that they could be setting a precedent that could lead to their own destruction.