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Wall Street Journal

The Next Cancellation Target: Dr. Seuss

by Michael Saltsman

The Briefing

Thursday, March 4, 2021

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It's Thursday, March 4, 2021.

I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Is Dr. Seuss Being Cancelled? Not Exactly — How Should Christians Think About Depictions of Fellow Image Bearers?

They're canceling Dr. Seuss. Well, at least they are delisting, no longer going to publish, six of the titles by Dr. Seuss. What does this tell us? Well, there are some deep worldview issues that are invoked here, but we're also looking at some of the most sensitive and controversial issues of our contemporary moment.

And the headlines about this story, the cultural conversation about the ceasing of publication of six of the Dr. Seuss titles tells us a great deal, not only about our culture and its sensitivities, its moral judgments in this age, but also as we look to the future. This means it's actually an important story.

Now, the substance of the issue is that the company that controls Dr Seuss's books, it is known as Dr. Seuss Enterprises, announced just as a matter of fact, Tuesday of this week, that at the end of last year, it had made the decision voluntarily to cease publication of the six Dr. Seuss books at issue. Not only to cease publication, but also to cease licensing, which means that eventually the only copies of these books that will exist are in private or other libraries. They are no longer going to be published. You'll no longer be able to buy them as currently published books.

This requires some kind of explanation, but let's go back to who we're talking about here. Behind the Dr. Seuss books was Dr. Seuss even more properly, Theodor Seuss Geisel. Dr. Geisel became famous, first of all, as a cartoonist in terms of political cartoons, but far more famous and far more wealthy as the bestselling author of children's books known as the Dr. Seuss books. He took the nom de plume, the pen name of Dr. Seuss taking his middle name and using his doctorate in order to identify the author as Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss became a part of the intellectual hard wiring of many American children in successive generations. His stories, his poetry is unusual rhyme. And furthermore, the storylines of what he was dealing with, they became a part of American culture, but Dr. Seuss had influence not only in the United States and not only in the English speaking world, but far beyond.

The New York times ran an article about this with the headline, "Six Dr. Seuss Books With Offensive Images Will Be Dropped." Jenny Gross, the reporter for the New York times tells us six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because of their use of offensive imagery according to the business that oversees the estate of the children's author and illustrator. Dr. Seuss, by the way, died in 1991.

But let's also look at the fact that as the New York Times tells us in a statement on Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises said that it had decided last year to end the publication and licensing of the books by Theodor Seuss Geisel. The titles include his first book writing under pen name, Dr. Seuss, that book entitled And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. That book was published in 1937 and also the title, If I Ran The Zoo, that title from 1950, add to those two four other titles that are now going to disappear from the current Dr. Seuss catalog.

Now, one of the things we need to know carefully is the cause given for this action and the cause is the fact that Dr. Seuss in the books used offensive and insensitive imagery. Now, there is assuredly more to it than that, but there's not less to it than that. And as we look at this, you have headlines immediately declaring that what's going on here is a cancel culture.

You have others saying, "No, this is just a necessary, morally necessary updating of the Dr. Seuss catalog." And let's be honest here, we are looking at some really interesting issues that have deep worldview significance. For one thing, let's just forget about the current controversy. Let's think as Christians about the artistic and narrative depiction of fellow human beings.

Now here's what Christians have to understand. We are called to love God and love neighbor. We are also commanded in scripture to understand every single human being made in the image of God. We are to celebrate what God has given us in humanity. And that includes the fact that there are individuals, there are people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation, and we are also to treat all persons with respect. Now, treating people with respect means telling the truth about them. Now that doesn't mean you can't have fiction, but it does mean you do not use fiction in order to try to convince people of what is untrue.

You don't slander people. You do not dehumanize people through either the non-fiction or fiction products that end up in books or in any other kind of artistic expression, but let's leave the literature. Let's leave the language world for a moment and let's go to the world of imagery. And here, the Christian worldview has some very important principles.

As you're thinking about artistic representations of humanity, you need to understand that for Christians, this has been a rather controversial issue for a very long time. It's also controversial in historic Judaism. Do you represent a human being in a painting? Can you, or in a figure or a sculpture? Now, the consensus is that yes, you may do so. But the reality is that one of the early instincts of the people of the Bible was that any depiction in this sense and say the figure of a human being, what the Bible says, an English translation, the figure of a man, for example, what you find in Romans 1, it ends up transgressing the commandment against idolatry.

And we have to understand that there's a reason why we would think this. There is the temptation for any image of a human being to become more than an image, but the Christian worldview reminds us that there are other issues here at stake as well. The choice of how artistically to present a human being is not uncomplicated, is not uncontroversial, and that goes all the way back to early art.

Now, just think about the fact that even as you take, say, race, ethnicity, those kinds of issues out to the picture for a moment, just consider asking the question. If someone painted you in a picture or drew a drawing of you, would you be satisfied with the painting or drawing? The fact is the history is replete with artists who have found their art thrown back at them by wealthy sponsors who did not like the artistic depiction of themselves.

And that's because the Christian worldview reminds us we really are operating with what is an artistic gift. And by the way, that gift to a greater and lesser extent. But the fact is that when you are looking at a representation, it is a representation of that person, but it's not that person. That is a depiction of that individual or people, but it's not that individual. It's not those people. And thus, to some degree, it involves the essence, the individuality, the artistic ability, the subjectivity of the artist, as well as the subject or subjects who are being depicted in the art.

Now, let's just say that that's a complicated procedure. The same issue that means that you might not like the photograph of yourself, much less the drawing or painting of yourself or the statue of yourself. If you take that issue writ large, there are entire people groups who do not like their depictions. And sometimes this is justified.

All you have to do is look at the history of artistic depiction and say, just use the word propaganda to understand that intentional distortions of human beings have often taken the form of what's been called art, or at least graphic representation, especially visual representations. Now I started out with language and I turned to imagery because frankly, those are not the same.

As you're dealing with imagery, you are almost automatically inevitably dealing with the difficulty of what it means to respect someone, what it means to honor someone, what it means to honor the truth about someone. If you're going to put an image out that is supposed to depict that individual, or for that matter, that people group, however defined. It is inherently complex. It's also morally risky.

Now a lot of conservatives have immediately jumped on the announcement concerning Dr. Seuss and said, this is just another example of cancel culture. Well, it sort of is and it sort of isn't. I mean, just to be honest, I think most of those who are complaining about the removal of the books would feel a bit uncomfortable if they actually looked at the books themselves. They're likely to feel uncomfortable, not in the sense that Dr. Seuss or Theodor Seuss Geisel was an evil person or that everything he produced was tainted by some kind of evil, but that as you look at these particular depictions, there's an historical context and that context, turns out to be something that might make all of us cringe a bit.

To say this, it's almost impossible to imagine that a book with those same depictions could possibly be published in the United States by any kind of major publisher today. It's actually unlikely. I think that a lot of Christian parents would want to put some of these depictions in the hands or the images in the minds of their own children.

Now that should warn us from immediately jumping on this as if all that's here at issue is cancel culture. Now, again, cancel culture is here. We're going to look at how it's operating in this case, but we also have to understand that we do take responsibility for our use of, or even our enjoyment of our reception of certain kinds of images. Now I mentioned historical context because every art, every piece of literature, yes, but every artistic expression has an historical context.

The historical context of so much of the controversy about Dr. Seuss has a great deal to do with World War II. It has a great deal to do with the fact that before he became a children's author and illustrator, Dr. Seuss was a political cartoonist. He was then simply known as Theodor Geisel, but in his cartoons that were published before and during and after World War II, there were racist depictions. I don't know that there's any question about that. And some of these were fueled by the war themselves.

Now, in order to understand that, you have to look at even the propaganda war that took place on all sides of World War II, particularly in the Axis powers, primarily there, Nazi, Germany and Imperial Japan, but also the allies fighting against the Axis powers. In the United States, even the war posters, the propaganda posters, the advertising that would have been quite familiar to Americans during the period of World War II. They would be quite concerning to Americans now, but here's where Christians have to understand. That historical context is really important.

That doesn't mean that the historical context justifies any kind of artistic misrepresentation. It does mean that the historical context helps to explain. Now sin being sin and the urgencies of World War II. And let's also understand Americans took the sudden invasion of Pearl Harbor with great personal affrontery. And that meant that Imperial Japan became the enemy. They became the enemy because it attacked the United States.

There's a complicated picture behind that, but there can be no question that Japanese military expansionism led to what became World War II in the Pacific, and that there was an unprovoked attack upon Pearl Harbor. And furthermore, Japan then, and now is one of the most ethnically singular nations on Earth. That is to say it's one of the least ethnically and racially diverse cultures or countries on Earth period.

Under the pressure of war stereotypes came very much to the fore. And by the way, that's on all sides of the conflict. That doesn't make it any more morally appropriate. It does put an historical context the fact that objectifying the enemy is one of the casualties of war. There is no doubt that the objectification of the enemy, and this means not only amongst those who fight the war, but the civilians who are supporting the war and sacrificing for the war, this became very much a part of the era.

Now, what does that mean? Well, it does mean that if you're going to understand, just to take an example, America or Britain, or the Soviet Union in the period of the second World War, you're going to see all kinds of depictions that will be very, very offensive. But then even as you take that to the next level, if you look at the racist, caricatures and depictions that were apart of official Nazi propaganda under the Nazi regime. That's going to take on an exponentially greater concern because at this point it's not just talking about nations at war and enemy. It's talking about the final solution, the Holocaust, and the intentional design of the Nazis to eliminate all of the Jewish people from the face of the Earth, most importantly, and primarily from the face of Europe.

Now we hear these days about the wrong of objectifying a human being, but that's a biblical understanding of wrong. That's not a word that's used in the Bible, but mistreating human beings by objectifying whether in pornography or some kind of racist depiction or some kind of cartoonish exaggeration. Well, the fact is there is a warning against objectifying human beings, using human beings, misrepresenting human beings. That should be a Christian impulse.

And we do understand that again, there's risk in every single painting. There's a risk in every single drawing, but let's also understand there is more risk in the kind of illustrations that Dr Seuss was famous for in his books, the kind of illustrations that really became his livelihood in the period before he wrote the books. Let's just say this, political cartoons intentionally take some form of exaggeration of a human representation in order both to poke fun and to identify individuals.

Political cartoons aren't nice. Just think of the exaggerations about political figures, most of us would be quite offended by most of those representations. But when objectification takes the form of objectifying an entire people group on racial characteristics or appearance or skin color, well at that point, we understand that if that is intentionally misrepresented and exaggerated, if it is objectified in a sense that we understand to be demeaning, then we, as Christians should oppose it, period.

Better to have no paintings or drawings of human beings than those that communicate evil and untruth and disrespect. So the bottom line, when it comes to these six books by Dr. Seuss, and I'm actually familiar only with two of them, the two that are mentioned by the New York Times, I'm going to say that Dr. Seuss Enterprises was probably actually acting, not so much out of a moral impulse. They were probably embarrassed by the titles, but out of a commercial self-protection, because frankly, it's going to be very, very controversial for the company to try to keep some of those books in the catalog.

Part

Cancel Culture, the Judgment of Successive Generations, and a Tale of Two Presidents: Dr. Seuss Removed from Read Across America Day

But what about cancel culture? Is that what's going on here? Well, not technically when it comes to removing or ceasing publication of those six books, but cancel culture is here. And here's what we need to note. Where in the culture this is now going? In fact, what's already happened now, in order to get to that, let me tell you something of a tale of two presidents, and we're not going to talk about a Democrat and Republican. Let's just talk about two Democrats, the two most recent Democrats to sit in the oval office.

Let's talk about Barack Obama elected in 2008. And let's talk about Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama's vice-president and President Biden elected of course, in 2020. Why those two presidents? Because we're really looking at a seismic shift and we're really looking at how the cancel culture works when we take public events of those two presidents. And we don't have to go back to the beginning of the Obama term, we go back to 2015.

So we're just talking about six years ago. We're not talking about a millennium. We're not talking about a generation. We're talking about six years. What's the difference? We'll six years ago, you had the first lady, then Michelle Obama welcoming The Cat In The Hat to the white house for the celebration of Read Across America Day. That Read Across America Day was actually timed on the calendar to be at least close to the birthday of Dr. Seuss, the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel.

But you had Dr. Seuss right in the forefront in 2015, The Cat In The Hat, his most famous character was actually appearing in costume at the White House. It was a part of Michelle Obama, the first lady celebration of reading for children, her encouragement to children to read. And Dr. Seuss was right at the center. As Dr. Seuss was associated with the Read Across America Day from the very beginning.

That was 2015, but then fast forward to 2021, and guess who's absent from Read Across America Day? You got that right, Dr. Seuss. It's not just Dr. Seuss's books that aren't going to be published as that Dr. Seuss is effectively here, himself being associated as an evil character whose works simply shouldn't be a part of American culture today. The same kind of impulse has been directed against people, such as Mark Twain, people such as Laura Ingalls Wilder.

And in one sense, this represents some kind of effort, some kind of ambition to sever the present from the past because if you are looking at the history of literature, you're going to find offensive. You're going to find morally wrong realities. That's just a fact, as you're looking at art, as you're looking at literature, as you're looking at just about any kind of human representation or human depiction, any kind of human art. As you look through human history, you're going to find some really offensive, really wrong, really untrue realities. But those are also a part of our culture one way or the other, and any responsible culture has to deal with those depictions in truth.

Furthermore, we have to have some category and Christians do have, I think, a category here for understanding how you have successive generations who do understand the sins of fathers and mothers, but still honor them as fathers and mothers. We do have ancestors. We can't be here without ancestors. Those ancestors will have feet of clay, but they also have established a patrimony and a matrimony, without which we would not have a culture at all. We wouldn't have a language. We wouldn't have literature. We wouldn't have books. We wouldn't have art. We wouldn't have museums, wouldn't have anything.

The Christian worldview doesn't call for, doesn't even justify an indiscriminate embrace of the past. Of course not, just read the Old Testament. You don't even have to get to the New Testament just read in the old Testament where you see people correcting and identifying, lamenting the sins of fathers, forefathers, previous generations.

They're not simply erased. They're not forgotten. They're a part of the Holy Spirit inspired word of God. We read about the heroic acts of the patriarchs. We read about their sins as well. This includes the Kings of Israel and Judah. To make the point, it's true about the Bible. It's true about the New Testament as well. You have human sin, the sin of Saul before he became Paul, it is not hidden. You had the betrayal of Peter. It is not hidden.

In fact, the Bible gives us adequate understanding to know how we are to honor, and to own the past without doing so uncritically, without any kind of theological or moral lens. But we also have to understand that if the Lord delays, we will also be judged by successive generations.

Now you have people on the left who say, "That means you have to get on the right side of history." But of course, we're Christians. We got to say, "No, we got to get on the right side of Scripture. You've got to get on the right side of truth." And because there is going to be a judgment far beyond the judgment of succeeding generations, and that's the judgment of God himself.

And that means that every single idle thought, every single word, every single deed is going to be accountable. And so is every single cartoon, every single novel, every single children's book, every single illustration. All the human beings touch is moral because God made us moral.

It turns out that in 2018, the National Education Association broke the relationship with Dr. Seuss because Dr. Seuss is now radioactive to many on the left because he had indeed been the author of these books. But you have to understand that when I was a teenager and a young adult, Dr. Seuss was also famous then, but as a man of the left, of a moral, progressive. And he was celebrated by the liberals and progressives of that era. He was read by many people who weren't liberal at all. Green Eggs And Ham, Are You My Mother?, Go, Dog. Go! Many of those aren't political at all.

But at the same time, Dr. Seuss did write political books and they were written from the vantage point of the left. He wrote books against war. He was basically something of a passivist. He wrote books against dictatorship. He wrote books against discrimination. But you'll notice how the left operates on this. If you had ever been involved in, say, wartime propaganda, and Dr. Seuss was, Theodor Geisel was, if you were ever involved in writing books, such as the six books that are going to be delisted, then that means that's who you are. And that's who you are forever. There is a basic lack of respect for human beings in this decision taken by the NEA and others in canceling Dr. Seuss himself because frankly, he was moving in their direction. He just didn't get far enough for the left.

Michael Saltzman, responding to this controversy in the Wall Street Journal got it right when he wrote, "The desire to wipe Dr. Seuss's books from elementary schools stems from the same harmful worldview that says Abraham Lincoln's name should be removed from a public school because some of his views fall short by today's standards, or that describes Mount Rushmore as a monument to racism." He then concludes this way, "Our country's history is filled with imperfect people who nevertheless did remarkable things."

Now here's the question: Can that sentence actually be controversial today? Are there people who would argue against that sentence? And here's the warning to us as we think about our culture today and tomorrow. Yes, there are many people in influential sectors of our society who are saying, they do not agree with this sentence. It's not fair to say our country's history is filled with imperfect people who nevertheless did remarkable things. If you're an imperfect person, then your remarkable things don't matter. But you'll notice what that means. It means that eventually that argument consumes itself. And if you want to say that just to understand the Dr. Seuss, the man of the left, the author of the left is now Dr. Seuss consumed by, banned by, no longer really even acknowledged by the left because the left moved on, leaving Dr. Seuss in the dust, along with The Cat In The Hat.

Part

Shaping Young Hearts and Minds in a Loving Way: Why It’s So Important to Put Down the Smartphone and Pick Up a Good Book to Read to Your Children

But next, as we close today, let's just go back to a basic issue we also need to encourage one another about, and that is, we need to read to our children. I still remember my parents reading books to me, my grandparents reading books to me, others reading books to me, especially my parents. I was the oldest child. Eventually I had the honor of reading books to my siblings, but it all started with my parents reading to me.

And as they read to me, they read me books. Sometimes they rhymed. Sometimes we looked at pictures and I pointed out the lamb and the pig and the bear. Sometimes it became a story. And sometimes I fell asleep even before the story was concluded. My parents kept on reading even when I was no longer young enough to sit on the lap. When there were younger brothers and a sister, they're on the lap, but here's something else. You'll notice if you read to younger children, older children will be drawn even to hear you read.

There is something that is expressed in tangible love when parents read to their children. Choose well, read well, read carefully to your children, but yes, read to your children. You're shaping hearts and minds. And furthermore, expressing love to your children in a way you might not think of as a hug.

And one of the axioms of our time that wouldn't make sense to most previous generations, but certainly makes sense of urgency now, put down the smartphone, turn off the television, get disconnected from anything that requires a power cord, other than a reading light. Put a child in your lap and read that child a good book.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

I want to speak to families, parents, young people, if you're considering college, wondering about college, wondering about which college to attend, what college means for you. I want to invite you to a Boyce College Virtual Preview Day. It's going to be held on Friday, March the 26th. It's going to be four o'clock in the afternoon Eastern time. It's going to be a virtual event this time. It's going to include an ask anything, live event with me. I'm looking forward to meeting with students and parents for that event. There'd be live faculty discussions, a virtual campus tour, but we're going to be talking about some really basic questions. Why college? What college? When college? Who college? And I think that who might very well be you. I did that as a tribute to Dr. Seuss. You can register at boycecollege.com/preview if that who is you. Boycecollege.com/preview.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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