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On Beyond Zebra
Making Sense of the "Attack" on Dr. Seuss
I was asked to comment on the “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss.
The term cancellation, of course, is exaggerated. This was an in-house corporate decision to simply not renew the publication of a few volumes in their massive collection. It is the kind of banal decision that corporations make every year for all kinds of ostensible reasons. They were not pressured by public mobs and it is also still pretty easy to get your hands on these “banned” books.
So let’s begin by approaching this matter in a sanguine and temperate manner. Be cool. There is something troubling here — something connected to the overall trends of society — but it is not yet a radical act.
We ought to be rightly (even angrily) suspicious about the suppressive agitation of moralistic mobs. Yet we should not casually mix this up with the fact that business-as-usual has always been a cancel culture — in which strategic attempts to manipulate the public through virtue-signaling, public relations, clean branding and “staying on message” have always been the excuse for self-serving corporate & governmental bureaucrats to fire, marginalize, demonize or suppress speech that might conflict with their agenda.
The tactic of removing “a few bad apples” is a perennial aspect of how modern institutions point the lens of corruption onto individuals (or onto a handful of books) in order to divert outrage away from the whole design of the barrel of apples.
A private corporation consults with consultants
Who suggest it’s “good optics” to cancel some culprits
Delete a few volumes, undo a few links
Update our PR to match what folks think!
Meanwhile, the price of these books will skyrocket
Putting ten millions more into Bezos’ pocket!
We should be judiciously cautious about analyzing this situation as though it were an event in which “radical left-leaning authoritarian progressive postmodernists” are taking aim against the sacred liberal values of free speech.
Those sacred liberal values, which are definitely worth fighting for, never really defined how modern liberal institutions operate. Such aspirational values somehow work hand in hand with modern politics and economics — “business as usual” — which is frequently expressed as a polarization-generating, virtue-signaling, top-down cancel culture toward anything that goes off message or represents an actual disruption to the dominant social operating system.
This operating system would love to offload actual public concerns into the murky, upsetting and ineffectual realm of culture wars. The “pro-abortion Wall Street party” and the “anti-aborition Wall Street party” are allies who are both highly incentivized to keep people plugged in, worked up & focused on and endlessly shifting set of symbolic-moral threats.
There once was a culture entirely flummoxed,
Vexated, inflamed, inflicted with dumb pox
Who tended, when tigers were creeping around,
to target their blame on the loud jungle sounds
of agitatedly helpful bird squawks.
You see what I mean? They mistook the alarm
for the actual thing that was causing the harm.
The words people use — that is the problem!
The statues, the flag, the unwanted depictions
All dread implications of outdated fictions!
These we must fix or remove or replace
These we must thwart or condemn to save face.
Forget about freedom and functioning systems!
This is the Age of Symbolic Resistance!
Did I really just rhyme “systems” with “resistance”? This is getting out of hand.
My point is that we should not let our legitimate fondness for Dr. Seuss, and our legitimate concerns about suppressive moral hysteria fads, dominate our interpretations of this event.
This is not primarily a struggle between our nostalgic appreciation of children’s fantasy books against a mob of illiberal leftists. This is a situation in which a very large, very profitable corporation (they made $33 million last year), targets children, parents & schools in order to profit from them, thanks to an intentionally-distorted and perverse copyright system, decided voluntarily to make a move in order to maximize shareholder value in a world in which polarizing the public is immensely profitable — and did it in a way that made the world’s richest man richer.
So that’s how I tend to view the situation.
I never cared much about Dr. Seuss. The cat with the hat & the green eggs never impressed me (although I did like the movie where the Lorax “pulls himself up by the seat of his pants through a hole in the sky”).
I also feel strongly that it is anti-cultural, unethical and weak to purge artistic materials that contain outdated cultural stereotypes. It is not the depictions, symbols and representations that are the problem. And, in fact, oppressive structures tend to be maintained not by exposure to material that reminds us of social problems but, instead, by confining cultural exposure to material that fits within a narrow, contemporary, anxious filter bubble. That the systemic and overt prejudices of the past were typically enforced by careful, virtue-promoting control over public access to forms of information. That’s what encourages racism, etc.
The tropes of an epoch are important to see!
Real progress demands a real history
Our kids’ minds & eyes must grow and evolve
In part by exploring what must still be resolved!
Despite all this, I reckoned that I should check out which books had been removed by the corporation and what’s actually inside them. I watched a video of children reading ON BEYOND ZEBRA and — it’s amazing!
Not only was there no distressing material, but it had an incredibly useful message. Far more significant than the widely endorse pablum of the Christmas Grinch and his reindeer dog. I loved this book.
On Beyond Zebra? Well, I never read it!
What do I care if it’s harder to get it?
But mine was an ignorant position to take
Please read this book for my sake
Transcending the alphabet, letter by letter!
What for a youngster’s mind could be better?
Passing beyond the linear range
Into subconscious realms of the strange!
It’s precisely the system of A down to Z
that is getting critiqued in this kid’s fantasy.
Think outside those boxes! Eat green eggs with foxes!
And if social progress is the salve for your itchin’
Then start fixing real systems & not our depictions!
This book describes a child learning the alphabet but then being confronted with the possibility of going beyond the set, linear structure of conventional, socialized conscious thought. It is a speculative and surrealistic journey into “letters” that do not participate in the normal alphabet and it sets these in a travelogue through the subconscious realms of the hidden mind exploring all kinds of non-existing worlds and species.
From my point of view, the ability of children to explore cognitive optations outside of the indoctrinated constraints of their cultural language is absolutely essential for developing imagination, authenticity and flexible thinking. In fact it a bit suspicious that the notion of the linear logic of print media, linked to the rise of modern civilization and the very forms of social organization which cancel, ban and exploit people by polarizing them, is the very thing being challenged. You could say that postformal (an analogy of postmodern) consciousness is the very thing that these books promote. They are structurally allied with pluralistic, ecological, transmodern psychology and social ideas.
The standard modernist political factions who control the DNC in the United States tried several times to brand Bernie Sanders as a sexist or racist. That is a standard move out of the modern operating system. Apparent virtue-based attacks using contemporary slogans do not necessarily come from progressive postmodernists but often from modernists trying to weaponize the new values against the very people who embody progressive movements. That’s what I see here.
The problematic material that is being suppressed in the removal of these books is precisely the progressive, postmodern pluralistic element itself.
“But the culture is madness!” the people all cry
Then half of them blame the other half — why?
Why does it seem that a bunch of our people
Just became crazy & uninformed sheeple??
Flocking insurgents merging in teams
Infected with virulent, illiberal memes???
Well, I don’t blame them. No, I do not.
They are the symptoms and not the real rot.
Dividing & conquering’s really not new.
The polarized populace… benefits Who?
It isn’t those Maga & Qanon folks
It isn’t those woke little ladies & blokes
It isn’t an old racist uncle or two
Or intersectional theory’s new hullabaloo
It’s today’s feudal lords with their boardrooms & crews
They bought up the media, the senators too!
These multi-ethnic oligarchical,
“zookeepers” in the modernist zoo...