Seuss Saga: Time to Stand Down the Culture Wars

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A couple weeks ago I noticed that a post I had written way back in April 2018, Yikes! Dr. Seuss Is a Racist, was getting an increasing number of readers. “That’s odd,” I thought. I was then unaware that the pot was being stirred on that particular issue. The final result, or the outcome so far, is that the publisher of the Dr. Seuss books has stricken six of them off the publication list. Hot news of late!

I was, in April 2018, a skeptic with regard to such efforts to cleanse the canon. Here’s part of what I wrote in 2018.

Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was born in 1904. He lived in a very different world and culture than our own. While educators do need to examine the implicit bias in books they use, to look back and declare someone like Geisel to be a “racist” without more substantial evidence seems a bit of a cheap thrill.

Another book that has fallen under cultural critique is “Little House on the Prairie,” the classic series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Yes, Wilder tells the story of the American frontier from the point of view of white settlers, of which she was one. Native Americans are seen through a particular and largely pejorative lens.

Can we not, however, read these books from other eras with an awareness of their limits, yet without our self-righteous retroactive condemnation?

And — here is my real plea — let us advance our critiques of those of earlier eras with some humility and an awareness that we too are as time- and place-bound as they. It’s just that we happen to be the ones presently alive. Each era and culture wears blinders. Ours included. We have fresh insights and we have our own blind spots.

Of the culture wars . . . maybe it’s time for a strategic withdrawal?

Donald Trump was cultural warrior #1. He never met an issue like this where he didn’t jump in — tweets firing — figuring out some way to make it a culture war thing, and raise the temperature. It’s a good part of the reason he was a one-term President. The culture wars are the agenda of a element on both the left and the right. The warriors turn their political office or media position into a performative platform from which to excite their bases. Note Ted Cruz trying to score points at the recent CPAC event by railing ad nauseum about masks, even as photos of him scurrying through the airport to Cancun showed him masked up!

Does any of this help us solve actual problems? Almost none. Case-in-point, the much publicized San Francisco School Board, busily changing names of schools to expunge names like “Abraham Lincoln” while ignoring the issue of school re-opening.

I’ve lived through a lot of linguistic revisionism in the church, and sometimes played a part in it. The operative assumption was that if you change the language you change the world. Maybe. As I look back a lot of it seemed to fall in the area I would call “work avoidance.” As the mainline and liberal churches were sinking like a shooting star (only with far less brilliance), we were zealously updating our language or engaging in protracted fights about doing so.

My point is this: a lot of the culture wars are a way of avoiding dealing with the real issues and solvable problems, while adding to polarization and general acrimony.

Right now, the Democrats have (more or less) called a retreat or moratorium on the culture wars and are actually facing into and solving the problems people care about — hence the overwhelming public support for the “American Rescue Plan” or COVID relief. I worry that if that legislation passes, COVID is tamed, and the economy comes back, the Democrats will return loud and proud to culture war issues with simplistic slogans like “Defund the Police,” and in doing so give a new lease on life for what should be a DOA Republican Party in the 2022 election.

In the immortal words of my friend, Rick Floyd, “the culture wars make us stupid.”

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

3 COMMENTS

  1. So true of this moment, especially to the Right – politics as a “performative platform from which to excite their bases.” Governance? No – performance of expected content. Leadership? No, followship.

    Thanks.

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