Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As social mores and cultural preferences change, companies adjust. They change what they sell, adding or updating products and letting others go. This isn’t news – or at least it wasn’t, until American right-wing media outlets became obsessed with so-called “cancel culture.”
Their latest focus is Dr. Seuss. The company that controls the Seuss catalog has decided to pull six of his dozens of books, the earliest of which was written in 1937, because they contain racist images of Asians and Africans. This seems sensible: Seuss’ estate has an interest in protecting and promoting his legacy, and that’s not going to happen by selling racist books to kids. That is not an attack on a beloved children’s author. It is a recognition that a small portion of his older work is out of place today.
No one is canceling Dr. Seuss. On the contrary: he’s being well-served.
Still, this decision by the company, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, presumably made rationally and in response to the demands of the free market, has prompted a full-on right-wing freakout. The story got top billing on Fox News and has been burning up right-wing Twitter. It’s being jammed into the same lazy narrative that has overtaken the right, where any criticism or change, including from companies refreshing their brands or seeking a more diverse audience, is “cancellation.”
You’d think nothing else was going on – that half a million Americans weren’t dead from a virus that has ravaged the nation; that a vaccine rollout wasn’t in full force; that Democrats, in the face of rock-solid Republican opposition aren’t close to getting Americans a huge relief package after a year of fumbling inaction.
Conservative networks like Fox could do some good here: White Republicans, their core viewer base, are the most likely group in America to say that they don’t want or are hesitant to get the Covid-19 vaccine, with more than half of them saying they either won’t get it or are unsure. The networks, the former president and right-wing commentators could all team up to tell their followers: If we want life to return to normal, then we need to reach something close to herd immunity, and that means getting vaccinated.
Instead, they’re whining about Dr. Seuss. They’re ginning up cheap outrage rather than trying to improve their viewers’ lives. And they’re making a lot of money while they do it.
These are not real stories. Taking Aunt Jemima off of a syrup bottle, rebranding Mr. Potato Head or changing the name of the Washington football team, doesn’t tell us anything foreboding about our culture other than the fact that, like all cultures, it evolves. America is becoming more racially diverse, and as a result, many Americans have a lower tolerance for racism. Traditional gender roles, long shifting, continue to shift. Companies that are trying to sell their products into this changing market respond.
But the American right has become the all-out party of gender and racial grievance, and they are hyper focused on two things: maintaining power, and not actually being held accountable for governing.
That’s why they obsess over culture war stories like Dr. Seuss: There’s no legislative solution (unless they want to nationalize the children’s book industry), so there’s no way for the Republican Party to have failed to deliver on a promise; there’s only finger-pointing at perceived enemies (liberals, wokes, Democrats), which rallies the troops. What are they being rallied for? They’re not quite sure – but they know who they’re against.
In the meantime, the one thing Republicans do seem interested in legislating is voting rights, which they are on a national campaign to scale back – they’ve put forward a whopping 253 bills in 43 states that would make voting harder. And they’re fueled by the lies of former President Donald Trump, who has claimed, against all evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Those claims eventually resulted in an attack on the US Capitol that left several people dead and some 140 police officers injured, but Trump’s party has decided to embrace his message, not reject it.
It would be funny and sad, this sputtering anger at an ever-changing world, if so many people weren’t taking the rage-bait, and if it weren’t coming at the expense of actually improving peoples’ lives.
Americans are suffering: While the hyper-wealthy may be thriving, the pandemic has widened already extreme American inequality into a yawning chasm; while liberal Democrats want to tax ultra-millionaires and billionaires and more moderate ones want to increase corporate taxes to get some assistance to the many who are struggling, Republican lawmakers who spent their time in power supporting Trump’s tax cuts for the rich now say we can’t afford a relief package.
Families are worried about how they’re going to pay the electricity bill, whether their kids are falling forever behind, and whether this is the month an eviction notice will show up on their front door and they have to move their children into the family car. Republicans have attempted to block Democratic attempts to get them fast financial help.
An 11-year-old boy froze to death in Texas last month when the state’s power system failed; the Biden administration is currently worried that their infrastructure package will face vast right-wing opposition. Our health care system is so broken that a 7-year-old girl in Alabama has started a lemonade stand to pay for the brain surgery she needs; the GOP continues to attack the Affordable Care Act and undermine any effort to move toward a universal health care system.
And conservatives think the top story is Dr. Seuss? If that’s where we all turn our attention, how convenient for them.