Dr. Seuss and the Culture of Fear

Only very advanced societies are able to live and let live. We are apparently no longer a very advanced society.

Twitter lit up this week with the news that six Dr. Seuss books had been cancelled by the man’s own estate. Dr. Seuss Enterprises was founded by Theodore Seuss Geisel’s widow in 1993. Since, it has decided that certain portions of Geisel’s own work are racist and therefore at odds with “our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.”

One might imagine that the business entrusted with preserving Dr. Seuss’s legacy of delighting and inspiring children would look for guidance on how to do so from… Dr. Seuss. But ours is an era in which sons stand in judgment over their fathers. It’s characteristic of late-stage cancel culture that the very people trained and empowered by the work of a genius would think they can use that training and power to condemn the man himself.

Seussgate is of a piece with last week’s Amazon blitz, in which Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally was zapped from the online retailer’s inventory. As Sohrab Ahmari pointed out at The American Mind, “given that Amazon controls most book sales in the United States, [this] means Anderson’s book simply doesn’t exist, as far as most book buyers are concerned.” And since Anderson’s book was not a screed but a thoughtful, well-researched argument, “if Anderson’s book is subject to cancellation by Amazon, few other books are safe.”

But there is something distinctive about cancelling Dr. Seuss. Two, things, in fact: for one, it makes the books in question not just difficult but impossible to obtain. They will simply no longer be published: the people in control of their licensing have made them contraband. Irrespective of the business the books may or may not generate, and purely on the basis of ethical purity, those books are now forbidden. Gone.

For another thing, Seuss is a children’s author. This obvious fact is of a weighty significance that is likely to be overlooked. If anything it might tempt us to treat this episode as more frivolous than the Amazon fiasco, less deserving of adult attention. But that is an error that lets progressives get away with a great deal. Conservatives commit it all the time: we sniff at low culture and childish things, as if they were beneath our attention. The Left does not. They understand an important truth: control early childhood education, and you control the country.

From Cradle to Congress

“The best means of forming a manly, virtuous and happy people, will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail.” So wrote George Washington in a letter to his friend, the educational theorist George Chapman. Washington had ancient wisdom behind him: “the beginning of everything is the most important thing,” wrote the Greek philosopher Plato in his Republic, “especially for any creature that is young and tender. That is when it is most easily molded.”

Plato’s student Aristotle went on to write a series of lectures on how education shapes politics: the children who are trained in the nursery grow up to vote in the assemblies and write the laws of the state. “Legislators make their citizens good by training,” wrote Aristotle. “This is the wish of all legislators, and those who do not succeed in this miss their aim, and it is this that distinguishes a good from a bad constitution.” In a representative government like ours, or a democracy like Athens, education is never merely personal. It is also political in the deepest sense: it trains us for participation in government at every level.

Abraham Lincoln, in one of his earliest speeches, insisted on this point: “let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap,” he declared. “Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.” “From out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength,” says Psalm 8: from the nursery on up through the universities and into the legislature, like seeds sprouting into trees and bearing fruit, the lessons we teach our kids play out in our politics.

One lesson progressives are currently teaching our kids is this: those whose views make you uncomfortable should be barred from the public square. They are teaching that lesson very effectively, because they are paying attention to every level of society—down to the very babes and sucklings. This is a cultural lesson, deeper than this or that law: that is why we call it cancel culture.

Nothing that Amazon or Dr. Seuss Enterprises has done is currently illegal or ever was. It is not as if the laws changed, and now the censors are free at last to do their merciless work. Our expectations of one another have changed, our instinctive reactions to things and the unspoken rules of how we do business.

You can feel this at work in your own heart, even though if you’re reading this I doubt you support cancellation as an intellectual matter. Look up some of the supposedly racist images from the Dr. Seuss books in question. They are, in my view, perfectly harmless. And yet I cringe to see them. Why? Because the atmosphere around me, the set of cultural assumptions I encounter every day, has trained me to do so at a subconscious level. We are all, even conservatives, being culturally molded by the Left.

Cultural Solutions to Cultural Problems

To be sure, there are some legal remedies that we can and must seek for this state of affairs. In particular the power that Amazon and Big Tech hold over us — over the flow of information, over our elected representatives themselves — must be broken. I don’t care if we use Section 230 reform, or anti-trust law, or some other new law to do it: this is a foundational, constitutional issue for us. The first amendment guarantees our rights of free expression. Any company which attains the power to nullify that amendment has violated our most basic social contract with one another and stolen our God-given birthright. If the laws do not allow us to defend these constitutional principles, the laws need changing. It’s a good reason to pay attention to the 2022 election.

But laws at the congressional or even the state level won’t fix everything. These cultural matters — these matters of the heart — also require cultural change. The atmosphere itself, the way we treat one another and expect to be treated, is something over which we the people have total collective control. We can, for starters, stop treating that fact as if it were small beer. The time is past to acquiesce, to shrug off petty accusations or menacing looks as inconsequential. It is time to boldly, without apology, act as if we believe what we believe.

And what we believe is: that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to speak our minds. That the endless invention of petty racism where none exists is a tool and a tactic to cow us into silence. That neither the state nor our neighbor has any right to make us feel ashamed of our country or to assassinate our character on charges that change every day and bear no relation to reality. We have to start acting like we believe that.

I am talking here about action on a very subtle level, about shifts in attitude which take place daily and in minor interactions. The great Athenian statesman Pericles, in a speech praising the glory of his native culture, noted this about how neighbors in Athens regarded one another:

Far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

“Those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty”: in those looks, those sidelong glances and clucks of concern, are the roots of all cancel culture’s power. We are so easily swayed by one another, so ready to shrink back when someone looks at us askance. This has empowered the worst kinds of bullies: everyone is familiar now with the hideous scenes of grown men screaming at defenseless women in grocery stores, demanding that they put on masks.

The fact that those men feel comfortable acting that way is a matter of cultural climate: they have been encouraged to spy on and berate their neighbors, to demand compliance, to act as agents of the nanny state. We cannot stand for this any longer. We must not look away when things like this happen. There is no need for violence or even anger in any of this: we must simply stand our ground and defend one another against these crabbed and oppressive forms of social control.

We Can Win

I am going to stress one more time now that this is not a minor thing. It is everything. It is the context within which it becomes possible to be America. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People,” wrote John Adams to the Massachusetts Militia. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams was saying that republican government is possible within a certain kind of culture, and not within others. That cultural context — the strong social and religious fabric in which the country was founded — preceded the country itself and made it possible.

We don’t automatically become virtuous and free by living in a country with a written Constitution. Our virtue, and our insistence on freedom, are what makes the Constitution more than writing. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” said George Washington upon leaving the presidency, “religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”

It starts in churches. It starts in gatherings of the like-minded. And then it grows every time you, or anyone, has the courage to do what is frowned upon in the era of cancel culture. To resist tyrannical lockdowns. To speak your mind honestly in love. To disregard the nasty looks or the social stigma that may come with those things.

And courage is what it will take. Courage is what it always takes: this country was founded at the risk of life and limb. We can summon the guts to resist this new foe, this cloud of censorship and closed-mindedness. When we do, we will find there were lots of people on our side the whole time, just waiting for permission to be brave and speak up.

We can give them that permission, each of us, if we step out in faith. “Do not be afraid,” said the prophet Elisha to his servant: “they that are with us are greater than those that are against us.” And the servant saw that though there was an enemy army outside their tent, horsemen and chariots of fire were waiting to charge into battle.

The cavalry is there for us — but we have to summon them. We have to summon them with daily courage, and with refusal to be intimidated. Do not back down: we can win this fight.

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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