Friday, April 02, 2021

The forever culture wars

This week in The Nation Katha Pollitt suggests that snatching books out of the hands of children might not be the best way to address systemic racism.  Calling And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street 
"a work of considerable genius," she notes that children take from Dr. Seuss " let their imaginations run wild."  Who could be against that?  Well, the same people who see yoga as a threat to their "Christian values," I suppose, which is why this is so confusing.  

What happens when the author victimized by "political correctness" and "cancel culture" is a willing participant in his own cancellation?  Dav Pilkey writes the Captain Underpants series of graphic novels for kids.  Scholastic Press will no longer sell one of them, published ten years ago, about a couple of cave men who travel into the future and learn kung fu, because of "passive racism," whatever that is.  (The actual authors credited on the cover are George Beard and Harold Hutchins, and I have no idea what they think.)  The complaining witness is a father named Billy Kim who borrowed the book from a library for his two young children and found it to contain "racist imagery and stereotypical tropes."  Apparently it's also partly responsible for the surge in violence against Asian Americans.  Maybe Trump read it.  

Anyway, Mr. Pilkey hopes his readers will forgive him and learn from his mistakes.  (No, he doesn't sound at all like the defendant in a 1937 Moscow trial.  Why do you ask?)  As for Scholastic Press, they've been here before.  They've taken abuse from the satanic-panic lobby for two decades after publishing the Harry Potter books (currently under fire for their author's anti-transgender views, which is a whole other issue).  Obviously they know when to run away from a fight.

As Katha Pollitt observes, "Classic children's literature is full of racial, ethnic, gender and class stereotyping [as is adult literature, she could add]...some of that can't be fixed with a few cuts."  She concludes with L.P. Hartley's wise remark, "'The past is another country.  They do things differently there.'  Let's acknowledge that and keep reading."  Yes, even reading Huckleberry Finn to your kids can be an occasion to talk about that word and why it has become so incendiary, and why Mark Twain was the opposite of a racist in 1884 (when the word "racist" didn't even exist) and what the book is trying to say.  Mr. Kim might have talked to his kids about why so many people are more than passively racist and the fraught history of Asians in America, but he just yanked the book out of their hands.  I hope he at least took them for ice cream.  Children need to be protected from the people who would deny them healthcare, voting rights and a planet that isn't too hot to live on, not from well-meaning writers.



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