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If I Ran the Zoo

My wife got a little heated over breakfast today. Not at me, thanks be to God. No, the object of her displeasure this morning was the story of Dr. Seuss running afoul of the cultural gatekeepers that broke yesterday. Evidently, six books from the well-known author and illustrator will no longer be published due to “racist and insensitive imagery.” Classics like The Cat in the Hat and The Sneetches are safe (for now), but And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo did not make the cut. My wife does not normally have much interest in the culture wars, but, like many, she grew up on Dr. Seuss and this was just a bit too far. “I need a platform to protest this!” she said. I reminded her that I had a platform, modest though it may be. She wasn’t interested in writing a guest post, strangely. At any rate, I don’t run the zoo, but if I did, here are three things I might say. 

First, I wonder what will become of simple curiosity if we continue to eliminate anything that highlights difference in what we deem to be clumsy or offensive ways. As far as I can tell—and I am open to being corrected on this—the reason these six books were discontinued mostly had to do with portrayals of ethnic difference. One can imagine that a child growing up in America in the mid-twentieth century had not encountered many Chinese or Arab or Inuit people or had little exposure to chopsticks or people riding elephants or whatever else. Was Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) mocking and belittling difference? Or was he opening a window to a world beyond what many children would have known about, even if in ways we would not choose today?

One often hears today that inquiring as to someone’s ethnicity is offensive because it implies that they are “other” or “not from here.” Sometimes, clearly. But I think that at least as often, it can simply be curiosity. I know that I am endlessly curious about human beings, where they’re from, what they do, why they do it, what influences formed them, etc. I know that when I travel abroad, I am often honoured to be asked to share my story when it’s rather obvious that I am not from the place I am visiting. Difference is flat out interesting. And I worry that innocent, even laudable human curiosity about difference will be among the casualties of the Dr. Seuss story and the broader trajectories it represents.

Second, I have deep concerns about the project of scrubbing history of any book or piece of music or work of art that does not map on to what we deem acceptable right now. There is certainly much that is offensive in the human cultural record. There is misogyny and homophobia and patriarchy and racism and classism and sexism and every other “ism” and “obia” under the sun. But are we doing ourselves a service by eliminating cultural artifacts that lay these ugly things bare? Do we not need these things to understand where we have come from, to make sense of the long trail of pain and injustice and triumph and overcoming that has led to our present vantage point? How will we ever develop the capacity to recognize and understand the ugly things of our present moment and in ourselves—for they surely exist, no matter how we might prefer to ignore them!—if we are not able to hold up the mirror of the past?

What is true culturally is of course true biographically. How will I know who I am if I excise from memory all the unpleasant parts of my past (were such a thing possible)? I have no tools to understand my growth and progress and regress as a human being if I do not have the memory of my unvarnished past at my disposal. I have said and done many stupid and short-sighted and insensitive things over the course of my four and a half decades on the planet. I said and did things at nineteen that I would not say or do at forty-five. I have endured things that I would have rather not gone through. I cannot understand myself in the present—my opinions, my priorities, my aspirations, my regrets, my hopes for the future—if I cannot access those parts of my own story that propelled me to where I now stand. The same is true for you, obviously. And the same is true for us collectively.

Finally, there is just the maddening inconsistency and paternalism of it all. I suppose there now exists the very real possibility that in a matter of months I will be able to buy a copy of Mein Kampf on Amazon but not If I Ran the Zoo. This seems almost literally insane to me. We will still be able to access a manifesto for the extermination of millions that were deemed inferior but not a children’s book from roughly the same time period that referred to Chinese people “eating with sticks.” The gatekeepers and the criteria are rapidly becoming inscrutable. The only thing that is clear is that we cannot be trusted to think and discern for ourselves. There is a very fragile and unflattering anthropology at work in it all.

For the record, I think we should still be able to read Mein Kampf. We need to be able to access history reliably to understand its fruits, even the most toxic ones. We must look squarely and honestly at the past, with all its ugliness and beauty and mixtures thereof. Even, ahem, Dr. Seuss.

16 Comments Post a comment
    • Thanks for the link, Jeff. Interesting to learn more of the man’s story.

      March 5, 2021
  1. Andrew Dyck #

    Two thoughts in response to your helpful piece. (1) The Bible is an example of retaining the unvarnished, sinful accounts of people intending to follow God. (2) This poem in the National Post:

    March 3, 2021
    • Indeed, Andrew. I thought of the bible as I wrote this. And the NP piece made me chuckle 🙂

      March 5, 2021
  2. Gil #

    Where is the like button on WordPress? 🙂 Andrew, the best line from Robson’s poem:

    “That the past was a plot and that all things were wrong, until history ended and you came along.”

    March 3, 2021
  3. Emery Dueck #

    Well said, Ryan

    March 3, 2021
  4. Linda Swab #

    You have put into eloquent words what I have been feeling since I heard about this insane ruling on Suess.

    March 4, 2021
  5. George #

    You’ve oversimplified the issue. We are all censors but draw the lines in different places. Also, this is about children’s developing minds which is far, far different from an astute adult mind reading “Mein Kampf.” That books like “If I Ran the Zoo” provides a venue for teaching tolerance is again a spurious argument for keeping books that negatively stereotype races and ethnicities. Kids don’t generally register such nuanced depictions until they’re older than the demographic for which Dr. SEUSS was catering. So teaching the damage done by depicting ethnicities through stereotypes as Shylock in Merchant of Venice to senior high school students has a hope of achieving a positive response.

    March 5, 2021
    • With respect, George, I don’t think I’ve oversimplified anything. I don’t think you’re reading what I actually wrote. I didn’t say that the offending Dr. Seuss books should provide a venue for teaching tolerance. I said it’s a dangerous thing to start scrubbing history of books that render the trajectory that led to the present morally intelligible, and that part of what it means to understand any story—our own stories or the stories of a culture—requires the ability to look honestly at the past, with all its warts.

      March 5, 2021
  6. Ryan, there are so very many beautiful children’s books available these days, including dozens of Dr Seuss books, why would we spend any time trying to hold onto language and images that aren’t as helpful anymore? Small children can’t do the historical analysis, but they will absorb everything we put before them. Let’s offer our best words and images.


    March 5, 2021
    • I think kids are capable of a lot more than we often give them credit for and that we do them a disservice by sheltering them from anything that doesn’t map directly on to whatever our current understanding happens to be (which, obviously, is always changing). I remember reading all kinds of books when I was a kid that had cringe-worthy (even then) portrayals of racial and gender norms. If all we are ever allowed to read is what is deemed acceptable at the present, it seems to me that our horizons will inevitably shrink.

      March 5, 2021
      • Gil #

        I think there is also a live question about what kind of culture can emerge long-term when the risks of getting something “wrong” are so high. I think our collective curiosity will be diminished in this kind of hyper-critical monoculture.

        March 7, 2021
    • Renita #

      Laura Ingalls Wilder is next.

      March 5, 2021
  7. Renita: I suspect it can only be a matter of time re: books like Little House on the Prairie, unfortunately.

    Gil: I think you’re absolutely right to point to the damage to curiosity that our monoculture is doing and will do, and to the high cost of being wrong (or perceived to be wrong).

    Ross Douthat had a piece in The New York Times yesterday that highlighted the irony of the very illiberal trends of censorship being promoted by people who would call themselves liberals. It used to be liberals protesting the censorship of (often religious) conservatives. I suppose today’s censorship (self or otherwise) is probably no less religious in nature, even if it would not go by that name. Strange times.

    March 8, 2021
  8. We are at war, brother. The question we need to answer quickly is how do we fight back.

    March 16, 2021

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