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The incoherence of Seussghazi


I have no idea why I’m supposed to be upset about the estate of Dr. Seuss taking some minor books with racist imagery in them out of print, and after reading Ross Douthat’s column about it I still have no idea:

This week I learned from a different kind of liberalism that only easily triggered rubes care when offensive books are made to disappear. It was mildly creepy to hear that the custodians of Theodor Geisel’s estate, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, consulted with a “panel of experts” and decided to cease publishing six Seuss titles because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” But it was much creepier that so few people notionally in the free-expression business, so few liberal journalists and critics, seemed troubled by the move.

There were exceptions — Substack exiles with their free-speech absolutism, the occasional libertarian contrarian. But often the Seuss cancellation was dismissed as a boob bait for Fox News viewers and a move to which only someone sunk in white anxiety could possibly object.

“Plus, we were told, it’s only six books. And is Seuss so great anyway? “The vast, vast majority of his books, the ones without racist images or references,” wrote Philip Bump of the Washington Post, “will still be sold.” And if “Dr. Seuss’s profile wanes a bit … to whom is harm being done?” In The Guardian, Lili Wilkinson noted dismissively that “the six books in question were far from being bestsellers,” while Bump’s colleague, the usually perspicacious critic Alyssa Rosenberg, took the cancellation as an occasion to complain about “the tiresome lack of imagination” of people who obsess over Seuss but not, say, Peter Spier.

Now I love Peter Spier, but this is still a censor’s argument. Upset that you can’t get a copy of Ulysses? You can still read Dubliners, which is better anyway. Also, plenty of other Irish authors out there.

Maybe that’s sound logic; as a Catholic I have a certain nostalgia for the Index of Forbidden Books. But it’s seriously strange logic coming from liberal writers and liberal publications.

The very obvious problem here is that there is nothing that can reasonably be called “censorship” going on here. The vast, vast majority of books ever published go out of print, and very few will be as widely available (in used copies, library copies, etc.) as the “cancelled” Dr. Seuss books. Nobody could possibly think that copyright holders taking books out of print per se constitutes “censorship.”

So what, exactly, is the issue here? Copyright holders are allowed to take books out of print…unless they think they have content that is objectionable in retrospect, in which case they’re obligated to keep them in print forever? Again, that can’t possibly be the argument but I don’t understand what the argument is.

The same answer applies to the decision by public libraries in Chicago to pull the books. A lot of books are published every year and libraries have scarce shelf space, which means decisions about what to keep on the shelves have to be made constantly. Personally, I think “these books are directed at young children and have racist imagery” is a perfectly sound reason for taking books off the shelf. Agree or disagree with the particular decision, there’s no grand principle of free speech at stake here.

Of course, these decisions can be disputed on the merits. I (like, I suspect, most of the people outraged or pretending to be outraged at the decision) have no recollection of reading any of these books and hadn’t heard of most of them until last week. But for at least most of these books there’s no serious dispute that they contain racist imagery, and nor (with perhaps the exception of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) does anyone seem to be claiming that these are major works. But this contestation about what art is worthy of attention, finite shelf space, etc is what free speech is, attempts to preemptively end the discussion notwithstanding.

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