Dr. Seuss has become the most recent victim of “cancel culture.” The Seuss estate has decided that six of his books, including the very first one he published, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, will no longer be sold because they contain ethnic stereotypes that many people find offensive.
My point here is not to take a position on whether the stereotypes in question are, or are not, offensive. My point concerns the dangers of “cancel culture” more generally. Statues have been pulled down and buildings renamed because of a growing awareness of just how equivocal as heroes some of our “heroes” actually are. Monuments to Confederate officers are obviously problematic. Few figures from the past bear close scrutiny, however. Lots of prominent individuals, including, the Reverend Robert Armistead Burwell, for whom an administration building at Queens University in North Carolina was named, turned out to have “direct ties to slavery.” Clyde Hoey, onetime North Carolina governor, after whom Western Carolina University’s auditorium was name, opposed racial integration. Needless to say, the names of these buildings were changed after these facts were discovered. These aren’t the only buildings to undergo name changes as the individuals after whom they were named were discovered to have feet of clay, so to speak. There’s been a spate of such renaming going on recently.
There’s a legitimate question of where such “cancelling” should stop. Again, few heroes from the past hold up well under contemporary scrutiny. Even Abraham Lincoln, a hero of racial justice, looks bad if we shift our gaze from his role in eliminating slavery to his role relative to Native Americans. The Lincoln administration, according to an article in Washington Monthly, “oversaw the removal of the Navajos and the Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory, forcing the Navajo to march 450 miles to Bosque Redondo—a brutal journey. Eventually, more than 2,000 died before a treaty was signed” (“Lincoln: No Hero to Native Americans,” Washington Monthly, January/February, 2013). And that wasn’t it’s only crime.
So, should we pull down the Lincoln Memorial? Lot’s of people have weighed in on the issue of how far “cancel culture” should go, or at what point it should stop. There’s been little, if any, discussion, however, or at least little discussion among progressives, concerning whether it should ever have gotten started in the first place. The problem is, if you start removing traces of racisms from your country’s history, you begin to create a false narrative of the past, a narrative that makes it look a lot better than it was.
Rather than trying to remove all traces of racism from our past, how about replacing old plaques on statues with new ones, ones that would give a more complete picture of the deeds of the individual in question. Or how about erecting new monuments, of more deserving figures, alongside the old. There are better ways of dealing with our racist past than trying to pretending it wasn’t racist.
Denial is not a particularly good coping mechanism. It doesn’t work well for individuals to pretend that they have never done anything wrong, and it does’t work well for cultures. Rather than creating a climate of respect, it breeds intolerance by encouraging a false impression of moral superiority. This sense of moral superiority is not merely relative to other cultures, but relative to individuals within the culture where “cancelling” those who fall short of our constantly evolving moral ideals holds sway.
That we are continually raising the bar of our standards for what is an acceptable way to relate to others is a good thing. That we are trying to eradicate all traces of the horrific moral injustices that characterize so much of our past is not.
If we don’t let the past be what it was, how are we going to learn from it?
(An earlier version of this article appeared in the 10 March 2021 issue of the political journal Counterpunch. I’m indebted to a reader, Olaf Olsen, for the suggestion of new plaques for old statues, and to another reader, G. Crowley, for the suggestion that we ought to create new monuments to “creators and discoverers as opposed to the conquerer and destroyers” that too many of our current monuments depict.)
Is it really “cancel culture” when the estate of an author, under pressure from absolutely no one, decides that it’s not in it’s own best interest not to publish racist books anymore? If you had written a book that years later you realized was racist, and then decided you didn’t want to publish it anymore (again, because you realize that what you earlier wrote was racist), is that really cancel culture? Or do you have some sort of historical obligation to continue to publish your racist book because, even though you now find your earlier book harmfully racist, to stop publishing your racist book would somehow be a bigger crime?
Similarly, this article seems to argue that tearing down monuments to slavery runs the risk of somehow undermining our understanding of history. Yet, nowhere do you mention the history of when those monuments were erected. Rather than being erected as monuments to some sort of idea of historical memory, most such monuments were erected in periods likes the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was winning important victories. And they were erected as a way of fighting back against them. That is, these monuments were not erected in order to remember “history,” they were erected as political symbols whose purpose was to stifle the progress of racial justice, by reminding people about who was actually in charge.
Similarly, I’m sure you’ve heard to joke that tells of a history teacher who is worried about where his students will learn history now that all these monuments are gone? People don’t learn history from monuments; monuments are political objects testifying to what a community asserts as important. And to argue that tearing down these monuments is an attack on history rather than attack on the white supremacists who continue to defend that history (in part, by defending those monuments), seems far-fetched, to say the least. In other words, as each monument is torn down, what we’re witnessing is not an attack on history but an attack on the enduring power of white supremacy. And, as a result, as more and more of these monuments are torn down, as the power of white supremacy is increasingly eroded, we’re simultaneously seeing the rise of historically marginalized groups within conversations about what this country is (and was). We’re seeing exactly the kind of correction of history (rather than eradication of history) that you praise.
But to think that marginalized groups should have to exercise their voices – to think that a condition for the boradening of our historical imagination – is that the victims of white supremacy should have to live their lives alongside the monuments to white supremacy is just naive. The purpose of those monuments is to silence voices, just as there being torn down is an effect of those voices finding the strength to speak.
PS To equate what’s actually happening (the tearing down of monuments to whitesupremacy) with the demolition of the Lincoln Memorial is little more than a straw man. Yes, I know about the case of the school being renamed in the Bay Area, but it would be disengenuous to take that as the example of a movement that’s much more thoughtful than that example allows.