In late January, I published a post advocating that we go ahead and cancel some culture. That piece was addressing the subject of platform responsibility, asserting that Facebook et al should feel free to stop amplifying disinformation, hate-mongering, and (unfortunately) sedition and that it should do so without all the dithering about speech rights. There, I asserted that neither Facebook, nor anybody else, needs to apologize for “cancelling” fascism or, more broadly, any illiberal and violent agenda hellbent on ending democracy.
Still, I am loath to use the term “cancel culture” at all. Like other neologisms, it has been sapped of meaning by grumbling Trumpublicans, who make no distinction between, say, deplatforming a white supremacist and a decision in the creative world where authors and stewards of works amend how they express themselves because it may be offensive to the market.
Can the intent to avoid offense go too far? Yes, in my view, it can. I believe, for instance, that it is illiterate to demand only a sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn, or to apply certain sensitivities so aggressively as to mute authors from expressing honest observations about the human condition. (If a writer creates a misogynist character who never utters a sexist remark, the result would be ridiculous.) But such instincts are not the only path to illiteracy. It is also illiterate not to know that certain forms of expression have always been ignorant or hateful—the most obvious of these would be the anthology of Black caricatures in America—and acknowledging this truth in the present is not a “cancellation” of anything. In fact, it’s culturally additive, if you think about it.
Because while there may be pockets of society that would hyperextend the effort to avoid offending anyone (an impossibility), it does not appear that our cultural output comprises the kind of tedious homogeneity one would expect as a result. On the contrary, cultural works are more diverse and complex than ever; and perhaps it is this fact alone that certain “conservatives” find so offensive. If that’s the case, I would point to their tattered and neglected hymnals and suggest they sing a few verses of the Free Market Is Doing Its Job.
But why this sermon? Because the latest bit of news that has a certain brand of conservative frothing in the media was the announcement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) that it will discontinue publication of six titles. These are 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.
The brief statement by the company declares without equivocation, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” And in response, various pundits lashed out, blaming “post-modernist, woke, liberals” for wanting to erase or scrub the life out of all past works. And as much as I am willing to roll a jaundiced eye at excessive wokeness, that is only a fragment of the scorn I feel for all the hyperventilating reactions to DSE’s decision—especially the copyright nonsense it set in motion.
Copyright law was dragged into the conversation because, of course, it is copyright that enables DSE to cease the production of new copies of these titles. To be clear, however, it is first and foremost the speech right that safeguards us against coerced speech. Any author/rightsholder may choose to stop making a work available because it has become anachronistic, offensive to the market, unprofitable, or simply because the author has changed his damn mind about what the work says. The right to stop speaking is inherent to the First Amendment, and with published works, that right is enforced through copyright law.
Consequently, in response to DSE’s choice to discontinue these titles, some critics on both the left and right began noising that copyright law should be amended to prevent this sort of thing, although the motives for the prevention are obviously disparate. Culture editor Sonny Bunch, writing for the Washington Post, proposed that if an author/owner no longer wishes to profit from a work associated with offensive content, the work should fall into the public domain. But, as any author or copyright advocate can tell Mr. Bunch, merely divesting from the work financially does not dissociate the brand/author from the expression at issue.
But Can Everyone Please Get a Grip?
What I would say to nearly all parties reacting to this story is to please chill the hell out. Put the half-baked copyright theories back the in drawers and, by all means, stop whinging just because a franchise decides that some of its products are no longer appropriate for the children’s book market. Cultural works come and go. And nothing about the great “celestial jukebox” we call the internet has proven otherwise. On the contrary, one can argue that the short-attention-span reality fostered by social media has erased volumes of cultural literacy across all living generations. In fact, I have made that argument.
There’s a reason why illustrations of Pickaninnies and Sambos are found in museums and archives, but not on busses and billboards. Yes, these images are an unflattering part of the American story, and for that reason alone, they should not be erased from memory. But these images are rightly not part of contemporary culture because they are offensive and ignorant and anathema to peace and prosperity. Works come and go. And that’s fine.
Ever read The Castaway? Me either. It was a controversial (i.e. presumably racist) novel about the Civil War published in 1904, and it happened to be the subject of the lawsuit that gave us the first sale doctrine in copyright law. First sale is what allows you to sell or dispose of your copy of a work however you choose. And guess what? DSE’s right to stop making new copies of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1964) does nothing to prevent what may be a few million copies from existing as artifacts for collectors and, eventually perhaps, for archives and museums. Meanwhile, copies of the discontinued six are already selling for a small fortune on eBay and elsewhere. Thank you, first sale doctrine.
If your personal view is that nothing in the Seuss books is nearly so offensive as the Black caricatures I mentioned above, I would be inclined to agree, but that is entirely beside the point. Offense is in the eye of the beholder. And both the speech right and copyright law grant that judgment call to the rightsholder of the work. As a matter of business, DSE has every right to discontinue products it deems bad for the brand and to protect the market for the rest of the franchise. How anyone calling himself a Republican could argue with that is a mystery. But we live in strange and preposterous times.
Meanwhile, copyright law does not need amending to address a problem that does not exist. Authors and their assigns have the right to express themselves and decide whom they are willing to risk offending. And the market has a right to respond. Doubtless, there are hardline conservatives who consider The Lorax a work of liberal, tree-hugging indoctrination. And those people are free to shun the book or even write a parody extolling the economic value of Thneed production.* But otherwise, I really think everyone should chill the hell out.
*I do not subscribe to this view; I still agree there is no need for Thneeds.
See also: Is It Fair Use to Reproduce Out-of-Print Seuss? by Aaron Moss