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.