Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904–91) wrote and illustrated more than sixty books under the pen name Dr. Seuss. By the time of his death, his books had sold more than six hundred million copies and had been translated into more than twenty languages.
Geisel was a graduate of Dartmouth with graduate studies at Oxford. His work received two Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. For decades, Read Across America Day has celebrated his birthday while encouraging children to read. Like millions of others, I read Dr. Seuss’ books as a child and then read them to our children.
Then came recent accusations that some of his books depict characters in racist ways. A school district in Virginia dropped Read Across America Day as a result. While President Obama marked the Day with a proclamation calling Dr. Seuss “one of America’s revered wordsmiths” and President Trump cited his “motivational words,” President Biden omitted any reference to Dr. Seuss in his recent proclamation marking the day.
In response to this controversy, the company that oversees the author’s estate announced that it would no longer publish six of his books, citing what it called “hurtful and wrong” images.
The company did not elaborate, but the New York Times reports that one of the books portrays a “Chinaman” with lines for eyes who is wearing a pointed hat and carrying chopsticks and a bowl of rice. Another book depicts two characters from “the African island of Yerka” as shirtless, shoeless, and resembling monkeys. National Review notes that another Dr. Seuss book seems to have been targeted for a depiction of an Eskimo and still another for an Arab-looking character.
Then eBay joined the controversy, announcing that it would purge all listings for the six books from its site. Notably, the e-commerce giant will still allow you to sell pornography, Mein Kampf, and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
The Sneetches and the United Nations
I understand the sentiment against cartoons depicting ethnicities in unflattering or discriminatory ways, especially in books that could be influential for children. When the company that owns the formerly branded Aunt Jemima pancake and syrup products changed the brand and dropped a logo known to perpetuate racist stereotypes, I wrote an article supporting their decision.
However, there’s more to the story, a dimension that affects every evangelical Christian in America.
Writing for National Review, Dan McLaughlin focuses on one of the “canceled” books, The Sneetches. He describes the plot: The Sneetches are identical birds, except that some have stars on their bellies while others do not. The star-belly Sneetches look down on the star-less Sneetches. Then a monkey named Sylvester McMonkey McBean offers to add stars to bellies for a fee.
Now that the star-belly Sneetches are no longer superior, McBean talks them into removing their stars so that they can declare star-less bellies to be the new grounds for supremacy. Eventually, everyone loses track of who had what, while McBean makes off with all their money. Poorer but wiser, the Sneetches abandon star-based classification altogether and live in star-blind harmony.
The moral is clear and compelling: we should not discriminate against others based on their appearance. A “star blind” culture is best for all. Everyone deserves the same opportunities as everyone else. The book is so persuasive and its message so positive that in 1998, NATO and the UN distributed copies of the book in Bosnia in the midst of the ethnic conflicts being waged there.
This was essentially the approach of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that all Americans have the equal right and access to vote.
The goal was a culture in which everyone had the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. A “star-blind” society, in other words.
The NEA recommends a book about a cross-dressing prince
That was then; this is now.
McLaughlin quotes the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) with regard to The Sneetches: “The solution to the story’s conflict is that the Plain-Belly Sneetches and Star-Bellied Sneetches simply get confused as to who is oppressed. As a result, they accept one another. This message of ‘acceptance’ does not acknowledge structural power imbalances. It doesn’t address the idea that historical narratives impact present-day power structures. And instead of encouraging young readers to recognize and take action against injustice, the story promotes a race-neutral approach.”
Here’s the point: it’s no longer enough to seek a world in which all Americans have equal opportunities with regard to voting, education, employment, or other civil rights. Now we must be proactive in “canceling” any oppression as defined by any person considered to be oppressed. We must identify “structural power imbalances” and “take action against injustice” as defined by the SPLC and similar groups.
For example, the National Education Association has provided a list of books to consider as replacements for those by Dr. Seuss that have been canceled. It includes Julián Is a Mermaid, about a boy who wants to be a mermaid, and The Prince and the Dressmaker, about a cross-dressing prince.
Why we must “be strong and courageous”
Tomorrow, I plan to explain the worldview behind this movement. For today, let’s note its danger for evangelicals. If you disagree with this ideology, you’re among the oppressors. If you defend biblical morality against an LGBTQ agenda, for instance, you’re an oppressor of the persecuted oppressed. This mentality applies to “minority rights” across the age spectrum from abortion to euthanasia.
This ideology is only going to become more pervasive in a culture that is deteriorating from our Judeo-Christian heritage to post-Christian to now anti-Christian worldviews. We must not compromise our biblical convictions or treat our opponents as our enemies. Instead, we must pray now for the courage to stand for biblical truth with biblical grace.
As we do, we can claim Moses’ word to the Jews confronting the dangers they faced as God’s word to us: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Will you take your Lord at his word today?