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Dr. Seuss! Mr. Potato Head! Why the Culture Wars Have Never Been Dumber

Donald Trump has left a void in the discourse that is being filled with vapid nonsense.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Speaking on the House floor on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy updated Martin Neimoller’s famous post-Holocaust poem. “First they outlaw Dr. Seuss,” he solemnly intoned, “and now they want to tell us what to say.” 

McCarthy was technically attacking H.R. 1, a voting rights bill that is a centerpiece of the Democratic agenda. What, you may ask, does Dr. Seuss have to do with voting rights? Nothing, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered was that Dr. Seuss had recently become the latest “victim” of the woke mob. America is next.

The reaction, both on the right and in the cancel culture–obsessed Intellectual Dim Web, has been seismic. Ohio Representative Jim Jordan tweeted, “If Dr. Seuss wanted to #DefundThePolice, his books wouldn’t be getting canceled.” Fox News has featured endless commentary about the “cancellation” and the Biden administration’s decision to drop Dr. Seuss from a “Read Across America” press release. Fox & Friends, a program for people who like to subject themselves to racist chat before 7 a.m., denounced the “radical” plan to “eliminate” Dr. Seuss’s books. Ben Shapiro announced that he had begun hoarding them. Donald Trump Jr. forced one of his children to read The Cat in the Hat. Bari Weiss tweeted a decidedly un-Seussian attempt at verse: “Enough with dividing/Try instead multiplying. Erasing books is insanity/Stand up for our common humanity.” 

Dr. Seuss was no longer the goofy author of There’s a Wocket in My Pocket or (my personal favorite) Bartholomew and the Oobleck: He was a new Solzhenitsyn, his once canonical works relegated to the status of samizdat. 

What was everyone so worked up about? Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced on Tuesday that it would cease publication of six books because they portrayed people of color “in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” 

I will get to the details of this so-called controversy in a second, but before I do, it’s worth stressing that the entire episode is embarrassing for everyone involved and deeply stupid. It’s emblematic of the state of the culture wars right now, in which bad-faith nonsense is continuously elevated into existential importance. 

Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop publishing new versions of the six books—And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer—after “taking feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics, and specialists in the field” and consultation with a “panel of experts.” These books were targeted because they included offensive imagery. “In And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl,” reported the Associated Press. “If I Ran the Zoo includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.” 

What does this decision mean, exactly? Dr. Seuss Enterprises won’t be publishing new versions of these books—after the existing stock is depleted, they will go out of print. But they’re not disappearing. Far from it. They will still be available in libraries, and used copies will continue to be sold, likely very cheaply given the number of copies that are already in circulation. 

Although Dr. Seuss Enterprises generates an enormous amount of yearly revenue for an estate—over $30 million—these books are not a particularly important piece of Dr. Seuss’s legacy or publishing profile. The most popular of the six pulled titles, Mulberry Street, has sold 636 copies this year; the least popular, Quizzer, has sold two. The other four titles have sold between 216 and 470 copies—a respectable number for backlist, but nothing spectacular. Green Eggs & Ham, meanwhile, sold 14,000 copies last week. 

No one is trying to cancel Green Eggs & Ham. No one is trying to cancel Dr. Seuss. If either of those things were happening, that would certainly be a big story, bolstering the narrative being pushed by those obsessed with illiberalism on the left. Instead, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is updating its standards in a way that has long precedent. The estate of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, for example, did the same thing with some of his works, most notably the infamous Tintin in the Congo. (And if that’s your thing, you can still buy it online!)

What principle is at stake here? It is still not clear. Yascha Mounk conjured a good-faith argument out of thin air, claiming that there was an actual furor driven by people “upset that some books of one of America’s most beloved authors will no longer be published” and that these fans were “genuinely upset” by this news. But again, these are books selling in the hundreds of copies, competing with other, more popular Dr. Seuss titles that litter every child’s bedroom in this country. If people were outraged, it was based on the suggestion that all of Dr. Seuss’s works were being pulled from circulation.

People like Mounk want to elevate this controversy to Fahrenheit 451 levels, making it a question of intellectual freedom and censorship. But the actual argument, as far as I can tell, boils down to this: that racist caricatures of nonwhite people are not a sufficient justification for ceasing to produce new copies of a book. 

This is all reminiscent of another very dumb recent controversy. Last week, the right erupted over news that Mr. Potato Head would now be simply a gender-neutral Potato Head—yet another example, the usual suspects shouted, of the left imposing its values on everyone else. Never mind that Mr. Potato Head is gender neutral by design—you can make it look however you want! Never mind that the allegation also wasn’t true—Hasbro was still making Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads, it had just changed the name of the umbrella brand. And never mind that, in the end, it’s a toy potato. 

The right, having largely abandoned policymaking, has settled on a political strategy that involves never-ending litigation of cultural issues. Desperate to make their opponents seem like Maoists, they will blow up any minor news release into a multiday controversy meant to highlight the left’s totalitarian impulses. They have many non-Republican allies who are willing patsies, happy to launder these controversies as part of a larger project promoting “free speech.”  

There is a silver lining here. This deranged discourse is an example of nature healing. For more than four years, we were collectively white-knuckling it, all understandably fixated on the whims of one profoundly unstable man. Now that man is exerting much less influence over our lives. For the last two months, that void has largely been filled with stupid nonsense.