Culture

Dr. Seuss: another imaginary culture war

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The past month has seen a flurry of successive outrage campaigns from political figures on the right over what has been described by sitting Senators and even a US President as ‘cancel culture’.

Prominent examples include Gina Carano’s firing from Disney in February for posting insensitive content, Hasbro’s unveiling of a gender-neutral ‘potato head’, and most recently, the ceasing publication of six Dr. Seuss books featuring racial stereotypes. The last two may seem trivial, but they’ve dominated right-wing talking points for the past two weeks, featuring in almost every news broadcast or political speech.

It can be easy to dismiss these rants as inconsequential occurrences in daily political conversation, but they are actually part of a far more sinister emerging narrative: the growing sense of victimhood and culture war espoused by the radical right of western, and particularly US politics. The result of this is that serious political conversations are side-lined in place of dramatized outrage theatre. This charade is used to distract from topics deemed politically difficult for right-wing politicians.

Following Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 and the Democratic control of both Congressional houses, conservatism in the US has been in a tailspin. The GOP is now stuck between choosing to follow in Trump’s footsteps and pursue the MAGA agenda, or to return to their ‘traditional’ political roots, focused on fiscal responsibility and individual liberty.

Whilst the latter may be stretching the truth, what has managed to unify Republicans is the creation of a culture war where right-wing speakers can fill the airwaves with fear-mongering about radical leftist politicians coming to take away everything you hold dear in a never-ending Marxist crusade.

The reality is rather different. Businesses can self-censor if they choose to do so and cancel culture poses no significant threat. The Dr. Seuss Foundation chose to cease the publication of six books that contained offensive material. This wasn’t some overarching leftist plot to eliminate all established traces of our culture.

Just because cultural outputs were deemed acceptable to previous generations doesn’t mean that they have a right to dominate contemporary cultural space, particularly when views on racism, sexism and homophobia have been rapidly evolving.

Rather than address these issues themselves, right-wing media instead plays the victim, claiming that they’re being silenced whilst broadcasting this message from their own massively popular networks.

However, this is rather inconsequential. What matters is that this state of perpetual victimhood is being fabricated, and has commanded the attention of most media recently, particularly Fox News.

The result is that, as well as being a rallying cry for right-wing voters, it also serves as a perfect distraction from serious political discourse. Debates over Potato Head and Dr. Seuss dominated the airwaves whilst crises like the Texas power crisis, votes on COVID-19 relief packages, and the $15 minimum wage were given much less exposure.

These two issues would create negative attention for the Republican Party, and so the threat of cancel culture was used to deflect from any criticism of their recent political activity. A perfect example is Ted Cruz, who used the two controversies to brush aside any questions about his recent Cancún holiday.

The result is that the public is denied the coverage it needs regarding actually important issues, as too much time is taken up by trivial quibbles over the perceived threat of progressivism. We cannot let right-wing talk of culture war dominate our political discourse, where cancel culture is used as a shield against any criticism or consequence of actions as a result of progressive politics, bludgeoning any opposition to radical right thought into silence.

Society is continuously evolving, generally along a more progressive line. What was seen as light-hearted jokes 30-40 years ago are unacceptable today, and we should encourage more businesses to evolve with these trends.

To erase the past is dangerous, but to not promote negative aspects of culture is a sign of a healthy shift towards a more egalitarian society. Debates around ‘cancel culture’ threaten to stifle this progress, providing a useful escape for right-wing rhetoric to deflect from a critical discussion about how to shape our societal framework moving forward, as we emerge from the year of the pandemic grappling with our cultural past.

Cover image: ayoub.reem via Flickr. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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