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Why Fox News is having a day-long meltdown over Dr. Seuss

Biden didn’t mention Dr. Seuss in his Read Across America Day statement. All hell broke loose from there.

Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, in 1985.
Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Conservative media turned 2021’s National Read Across America Day into an epic culture war meltdown.

On Tuesday morning and into the afternoon, programming on Fox News and Fox Business ceaselessly harped upon the purported “cancellation” of legendary children’s author Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, as the latest example of woke liberalism run amok — conveniently ignoring the fact that Dr. Seuss has not, in fact, been canceled.

“The cancel culture is canceling Dr. Seuss,” lamented Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade, adding later, “It’s out of control.”

“People are too scared,” echoed co-host Ainsley Earhardt. “They don’t want to be involved in all of this, so they’d rather just cancel it all ... the places we are going in this country right now.”

This Fox & Friends segment wasn’t an isolated incident. Before 9 am Tuesday, Dr. Seuss had been mentioned more than 30 times on Fox News and Fox Business. Fox Business host Stuart Varney even touted Dr. Seuss’s alleged cancellation as one of the big stories of the day.

Dr. Seuss was an even bigger topic on Newsmax — a Trumpier, further right alternative to Fox News — where it was mentioned more than 20 times during the network’s Wake Up America morning show.

Given what they were being told, viewers of the two networks could be excused for believing that the Dr. Seuss controversy is the biggest news story of the day.

And it didn’t stop with the morning shows. A Fox News reporter asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki a question during Tuesday’s briefing about why Biden didn’t mention Dr. Seuss in his statement commemorating Read Across America Day, and Fox News then tried to spin Psaki’s response (she referred the reporter to the Department of Education) as some sort of scandal. (Fox News hasn’t responded to a question seeking comment about its Seuss coverage, as this is published.)

In a world where 2,000 Americans are still dying each day from Covid-19, and Congress is grappling with issues like a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and major voting rights reforms, this level of focus on Dr. Seuss would be silly no matter what. But making it even more ridiculous is the fact that five minutes of research indicates all the outrage is much ado about very little.

Dr. Seuss hasn’t been canceled

The right-wing outrage over Dr. Seuss can be traced back to a February 26 article in Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire publication about a left-wing educators group that encouraged public schools to stop “connecting Read Across America Day with Dr. Seuss,” citing “racial undertones” in some of his books. The two are linked, as the National Education Association has previously used March 2, Geisel’s birthday, as an opportunity to encourage literacy.

At least one school district — the Loudoun County public school system in northern Virginia — did indeed decide to try to separate Read Across America Day from Dr. Seuss, providing guidance to schools “to not connect Read Across America Day exclusively with Dr. Seuss’ birthday.”

The Daily Wire cited this guidance as evidence that Dr. Seuss was being “canceled.” In response to the outrage the article generated, Loudoun County schools released a statement trying to correct the record.

“Dr. Seuss books have not been banned in Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS),” it says, adding later: “We continue to encourage our young readers to read all types of books that are inclusive, diverse and reflective of our student community, not simply celebrate Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss books have not been banned and are available to students in our libraries and classrooms, however, Dr. Seuss and his books are no longer the emphasis of Read Across America Day in Loudoun County Public Schools.”

Then, on March 1, President Joe Biden released a statement about Read Across America Day that broke with years of precedent by not mentioning Dr. Seuss. This led to headlines like, “Biden CANCELS Dr. Seuss.”

More fuel was added to the right-wing outrage fire on Tuesday, when Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that publishes and licenses the author’s work, announced that six Seuss books will no longer be published because they portray people of color “in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

Why is this reevaluation of Dr. Seuss happening now? In part, it has to do with a 2019 study that found Dr. Seuss’s works traffic in “Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy.” Learning for Justice summarizes the study as follow:

Of the 2,240 (identified) human characters [in 50 Dr. Seuss books], there are forty-five characters of color representing 2% of the total number of human characters.” Of the 45 characters, 43 exhibited behaviors and appearances that align with harmful and stereotypical Orientalist tropes. The remaining two human characters “are identified in the text as ‘African’ and both align with the theme of anti-Blackness.” It’s also important to note that each of the non-white characters is male and that they are all “presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles,” especially in their relation to white characters.

That study led to a reevaluation of some of Seuss’s work, including the six books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises is no longer publishing. But there is no indication this private company’s decision resulted from pressure from the “woke mob,” and it’s not as though Dr. Seuss’s works are being pulled from the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

Conservatives aren’t about to let facts get in the way of their narrative

It’s perfectly reasonable to reassess classic works of culture through the prism of the prevailing values of today. Doing so does not mean that those works have been “canceled” or are worthless — it just means being honest about the ways in which they have fallen short in terms of inclusivity and respect for other people.

But in the months since Donald Trump lost the presidency, right-wing media and Republican members of Congress have leaned into so-called “cancel culture” as a way to make the case against Democrats without having to discuss policy or really anything of substance at all. Instead, Republicans have used insinuations that Democrats want to prohibit traditions that are central to conservative identities. In short, they’re stoking the grievances of their base.

The last week has seen a couple noteworthy examples of this. Perhaps most absurdly, right-wingers spent days getting mad about Hasbro’s purported cancellation of Mr. Potato Head.

It turned out that all the fuming over Mr. Potato Head rested on a misinterpretation of a Hasbro press release. While the brand is now being referred to as “Potato Head,” Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are not being “canceled” by the company — they will live on as characters in the broader Potato Head universe.

Yet even after Hasbro cleared up the confusion, conservatives at CPAC kept bringing up Mr. Potato Head’s pronouns as an example of liberal woke-ism gone wild.

By Tuesday morning, the Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head claims had merged into a single object of right-wing performative outrage. During a Fox & Friends interview, for instance, Donald Trump Jr. used a question about Dr. Seuss to rail against liberal “cancel culture” in general.

This might seem silly — and it is. But Republicans and their media enablers use this sort of culture war grievance to avoid talking about real issues, including those they advocate for that are unpopular.

One egregious example of this came during Fox & Friends First’s interview on Tuesday with Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). Despite the fact that both BuzzFeed and the Washington Post published exposés in recent days detailing numerous accusations of sexual harassment against him, Cawthorn was not asked a single question about that. Instead, he was given an opportunity to complain at length about the fake cancellation of Dr. Seuss.

Later Tuesday, as FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before a Senate committee about the January 6 insurrection and how it was an instance of right-wing domestic terrorism, Fox News was the only network to not cover it live.

Instead, they talked more about cancel culture and Dr. Seuss.

And Fox just kept going with even more panel discussions about cancel culture well into Tuesday afternoon. By Tuesday evening, it was even the lead story on Fox News’s website.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) completed the circle of right-wing disinformation by using a floor debate over voting rights legislation to complain about Dr. Seuss in the sort of soundbite tailor-made for additional Fox coverage.

“First they outlaw Dr. Seuss and now they want to tell us what to say,” he lied.

Beyond the silliness of using overhyped culture war issues to distract from real issues, there are a couple of ironies in the right-wing obsession with “cancel culture.” First, as writer Charlotte Clymer pointed out on Twitter, schools are much more likely to ban books with LGBTQ themes than they are books containing racism or bigotry.

And second, despite the racial insensitivity of some of his books, other works by Dr. Seuss indicate he wouldn’t identify with the agendas of right-wing politicians who are now using him as a cudgel.

From Fiona Macdonald’s 2019 BBC piece “The surprisingly radical politics of Dr. Seuss”:

Describing Dr Seuss’s wartime output [during World War 2] as “very impressive evidence of cartooning as an art of persuasion”, [graphic novelist Art] Spiegelman explains how they “rail against isolationism, racism, and anti-semitism with a conviction and fervor lacking in most other American editorial pages of the period… virtually the only editorial cartoons outside the communist and black press that decried the military’s Jim Crow policies and Charles Lindbergh’s anti-semitism”. Dr Seuss, he argues, “made these drawings with the fire of honest indignation and anger that fuels all real political art”.

That Fox News is lying isn’t really news — after all, the network has spent weeks misleading people into believing that recent widespread power outages in Texas are somehow an indictment of the Green New Deal.

But that the network is making this big of a deal over Dr. Seuss on a day when so much else is happening illustrates how much the network is still struggling to establish an identity for itself in the post-Trump world. And it’s also a reminder of how far it’s willing to go to construct an alternative reality for its viewers, where the most important things are their grievances.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the authors of a 2019 study about Dr. Seuss.

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