Situation Normal?

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      March 19, 2021

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Situation Normal?
Americans’ capacity for trivial distractions seems inexhaustible. How many readers had “Cancel the racist Dr. Seuss” on their 2021 current events bingo card?
Now that many of us “olds” have gotten our second dose of the coronavirus vaccine (Moderna in our case, my wife and I experiencing only minimal side effects), the alarming winter surge has dramatically retreated, and outdoor restaurant dining has reopened, it is becoming possible to envision a life approaching normality again. The news media, often a lagging indicator of cultural and political trends, are groping their way toward something like the pre-2015 norm: before Donald Trump’s five-year dumpster fire, before the COVID plague carried off 540,000 luckless souls, before a second presidential impeachment for inciting an insurrection to take over the federal government after two months of failed efforts, by fair means and foul, to steal an election clearly lost by more than seven million popular votes and 74 Electoral College votes. It feels like waking from a nightmare—or a coma. Normality, for the press, includes a welcome and overdue return to more substantive government policy coverage. President Biden has at this writing (probably more by the time you read this) successfully confirmed more than half his 23 cabinet appointees, with the single unfortunate exception of Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Her tongue proved sharper than her blue pencil, affording Senate Republicans an opportunity to do what they do best: fake umbrage at the kind of relatively minor rhetorical infractions routinely eclipsed by GOP partisans’ own major felonies. While Republicans were huffing and puffing over Tanden’s snarky tweets (the horror, the horror), House and Senate Democrats passed—over monolithic GOP opposition—a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus-relief package, which President Biden quickly signed. Promises made, promises kept! And I’m guessing that Republicans up for re-election next year who voted against the measure will shamelessly campaign on all the benefits it brought home, no thanks to them, to their districts. You know that things are truly getting back to normal when we find ourselves once again drawn into a fresh battle in the ongoing culture war. No matter how many times pundits proclaim “a new seriousness” after every national calamity, be it a major economic collapse, terrorist attack, or lethal global pandemic, our capacity for trivial distractions seems inexhaustible, and endlessly surprising. How many readers had “Cancel the racist Dr. Seuss” on their 2021 current events bingo card? Poor Theodor Geisel. From 1937 to his death in 1991, the writer and cartoonist better known under his middle name as “Dr. Seuss,” was our leading children’s author, entertaining generations of kids with his fanciful drawings of strange creatures and the wondrous places they inhabited, accompanied by his distinctive rhyming schemes that often carried positive life lessons. They might be about the hubris of power, the importance of self-esteem, or environmental stewardship; sometimes, maybe just entertaining silliness. I was raised on his stories. “Yertle the Turtle” was one of my very first books, and they were among my kids’ favorites, too. Geisel was also a man of his time, and it was a time when trafficking in racial stereotypes was generally acceptable. So common, in fact, that Geisel—even as a WWII left-wing editorial cartoonist criticizing racism in the armed forces, and American isolationist opposition to engaging imperial Japan and fascist Germany—employed familiar racist caricatures like buck-toothed and bespectacled Japanese, thick-lipped and grass-skirted Africans, pigtailed “Chinamen,” and so on. Maybe it was a slow news week, maybe it touched a nerve for nostalgic Boomers, or maybe it was just low-hanging fruit for self-righteous social justice warriors, but it quickly exploded into a major story when Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced on March 2, the annual “National Read Across America Day” long associated with Geisel and falling on his birthday, that six Seuss titles were being withdrawn from sale and future publication because they portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The press had a field day, the story had “sizzle.” Shocking and disappointing to me was the near-unanimity of the commentariat that banning such books was a good thing—not updating, not contextualizing, not using them for a teachable moment, but pulling them off the market. Not at all shocking to me was the market response: Dr. Seuss rocketed up in popularity on Amazon, and overnight his titles were nine of the site’s Top Ten best-selling books. Second-hand copies of the six banned titles now command prices ranging up to several thousand dollars. If past is prologue the next author to be cancelled may be another best-selling giant of 20th century literature, Ernest Hemingway. The first week of April, Papa gets the full Ken Burns treatment on PBS with a six-hour documentary airing across three nights that promises to “uncover the man behind the myth.” Spoiler alert: underneath his brawling, hyper-macho exterior was a man sexually ambivalent, insecure, and abusive, whose writing was streaked with racism and sexism. An unflattering reappraisal and calls to cancel him are sure to follow. Yes, it’s a real thing, not some imaginary “right-wing frame.” The notion of simply blocking or cancelling ideas and people we don’t like for some perceived infraction of political conduct is short-sighted, narrow-minded, and should be intellectually abhorrent. It’s not what liberal democracy should be about. We might expect it from Russia, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, but it has no place here, and needs to stop. I deplore the fact that denialism on the left has helped this become a rallying cry for the right, and I keep hoping that liberals and progressives will rediscover the principles of free speech and free inquiry they once embraced. There’s no sign of it yet, so the damage from this pernicious concept continues. I don’t know how much of this may be PTSD and overcompensation for the Trump era, how much is general intellectual laziness, or how much is a well-meaning but misguided response to the rise in racial hate crimes and white-supremacy activity. As the pandemic fades and American life resumes its familiar and natural rhythms, I sincerely hope our “new normal” will revive our tradition of robust debate and discussion—and reject the impulse to suppress and censor even that which we may find profoundly repugnant.
Joel Bellman

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March 19, 2021

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