Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Symbolism Factor of Cancelling Dr Seuss

My commenters have convinced me that I was wrong earlier.

A young(er) progressive friend challenged the idea that so many things are being "cancelled," noting that his friends tend to ask what exactly this cancellation entails.  It is almost a fair question, but it is ultimately an evasion.  It relies on technicalities to avoid the main point. It is true that sometimes the conservative press will call something cancelled when it is mostly unaffected. It is removed from  a few platforms but is still available. A writer cannot sell their goods at this shop, but can sell them next door. 

I would say this is technically true but overlooks important aspects.  If you can no longer sell your book on Amazon, your commerce is impeded. But Amazon is a private entity and can do what it wants.  That's their freedom, right? Yes, they have legal right, but let us not confuse that with moral rightness. So long as they didn't say it out loud, or disguised their true intention by putting up false excuses, they could decline to carry black authors, or Muslim ones, or South African.  Libertarian types have long defended the right of businesses to set some limits on what they want to participate in.  That these current businesses are precisely the people who do not allow that argument for others is infuriating, but still may be legal.  Yet not moral. It is legal to be a stripper rather than a prostitute, but that doesn't imply a lot of moral space between them. (Big difference in safety, but that is not a moral issue.)

There is the related issue of whether a book or film or essay is being voluntarily withdrawn or being forbidden. Legally that is quite different, but if one is withdrawing something under pressure of possible boycott or bad press, that is not voluntary in quite the same sense. If someone is "encouraged" to resign, is that not a continuum logically and morally whether or not it is voluntary, even though it is a legal bright line?

Dr. Seuss becomes a cause because people recognise it, can remember it, and can identify with it.  Unfortunately, they can easily become distracted by whether they own it, whether they read it to their children and other irrelevant issues that allows the cancelers to hide behind them.

There were two incidents at prestigious Smith College, an initial one where a student made false accusations against the working-class staff and destroyed their lives, and the followup programs to "combat this terrible racism" that an extremely liberal, even radical professor put her foot down about as simply insane and was punished for it. But we don't remember her name, nor maybe the colleges, nor the incident exactly.

Twitter closes down Newt Gingrich's entire account for making a fairly boring and obvious statement.  We probably remember that it was Newt, but the rest of the details are hazy.

"The courts," whatever that means, seem to be doing some bad things about free speech when it doesn't fit the progressive template, but we forget what, exactly.

Some college in the Pacific Northwest censored one of its own professors for blowing the whistle about censorship.  We forget what exactly, but we know we saw it.

A law professor at Georgetown gets fired for pointing out the obvious that affirmative action students are going to have a harder time and are more likely to not pass muster, and she feels bad at grading time every year because so many minorities are at the bottom of her classes..  Which is the definition of affirmative action, but you can't say it.

So all the above are true, but harder to keep in mind, especially for the general public rather than those of us who follow this stuff.  All my examples are very recent, BTW.  Go back two weeks and you could generate another equal list.  Two weeks before that, same.  Dr. Seuss, on the other hand, is easy to remember, so people gravitate toward it.  One could defend the cancelling of Seuss by pointing out that it's really the copyright holders who are withdrawing the books (just coincidentally at the time that there have been negative press stories of accusations of racism.  I mean, what are the odds, right?); and that there are really bad old things that should be cancelled, so the principle is sound, as if anyone was suggesting otherwise.  Or we could pretend that reasonable liberals don't want these things to be forbidden, exactly, just labeled, put away where they are hard to reach...and quietly dropped from syllabi* - all entirely voluntary, you understand, so that in twenty years when no one under the age of forty has read Huckleberry Finn no one will even notice. So the people getting worked up about Dr, Seuss are technically wrong.  Yet at a deeper level, they are onto something.

The lesson of Cowslip's Warren is receding beneath the waves.

The Babylon Bee gets it right, as it often does. Study Finds Book Burners Always Stop With Just a Few Fringe Books, So There's Nothing to Worry About.

*If you want to be very technical, neither syllabuses nor syllabi should be the correct plural.  It should be just "syllabus."  But that's never going to catch on, so don't try and use it.  Language isn't like that.  It goes ahead and breaks whatever rule it damn well pleases.

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