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.)