I’ve Seen Cancel Culture And This Isn’t It
When conservatives tried to silence Ice-T, they threatened the lives of record company employees and the police applied pressure to his fans.
- Dr. Seuss, If I Ran The Zoo
In a society that is evolving, looking back is sometimes going to be uncomfortable. Images and prose that were once considered acceptable or even commonplace in the times that they were created can be seen as hateful and propagating bigotry in a modern context now that the sins of the past are recognized.
While Theodor Geisel, better known to the world as Dr. Suess, tackles themes that are embraced by liberals in books like The Lorax, The Sneetches, and Green Eggs and Ham, he was not immune from the effects of the culture that existed around him. In several of his books, he included imagery and words that are clearly bigoted using today’s standards. This includes illustrations that overemphasize the racial features of characters and depicted stereotyped caricatures of foreign cultures.
If Geisel was still alive, he would have the ability to change his work and to erase the offending sections. With this option unavailable, the foundation that controls the rights to his catalog has decided to stop publishing six of his books because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Dr. Seuss Enterprises says that this decision is part of its commitment “to ensure [that the] catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”
Faced with a similar dilemma, the Walt Disney Company used a different strategy. Popular films like Peter Pan and Dumbo are masterpieces that contain imagery of native Americans and black people that are also not acceptable. Instead of pulling the movies from distribution or removing the scenes, the company added the following content warning to the beginning of the movies on Disney+:
A similar warning appears before certain episodes of the Muppet Show, including one where Johnny Cash sings in front of the Confederate Battle Flag.
Warner Brothers faced a similar problem with Pepe Le Pew, the cartoon skunk who relentlessly pursues the object of his affection even after she has made it clear that she is not interested. Having a character whose entire schtick is based on the fact he does not seem to understand that “no means no” is bad enough when dealing with material that was created before societal enlightenment. Continuing his legacy by including the skunk in a new movie was a bridge too far and Le Pew was removed from Space Jam 2.
Despite the fact that Dr. Seuss, the Muppets, and Pepe Le Pew will continue to exist after the actions of the corporations that own their copyrights, Fox “News” has used them as examples of “cancel culture.” Feeding off their viewers’ nostalgia for the Good Ol’ Days when racism and bigotry could be openly expressed without consequences, the network has used these stories to feed its outrage machine and promote the latest battle in the ongoing culture war that they rely on for ratings. One recent guest declared that “when we start down the road of policing speech that we don’t like, we’re going down a very dark road.” If we don’t stop these “millennial Maoists [that are] terrorizing the culture via social media” we may get to the point where “we may not recognize the country that we grew up in.” He then argued that Gen X should be “leading the charge” towards fighting back.
In addition to the fact that just two months ago Republicans attempted to cancel the results of an election that they did not like, the fact that the conservative propaganda channel would call on Gen X to fight this battle is extremely ironic. As a member of this generation, I have watched conservatives try to ban speech that they did not like long before “political correctness” became a rallying cry. When the Piss Christ photograph offended their religious sensibilities, they tried to defund the National Endowment of the Arts. Their misunderstanding of “The Last Temptation Of Christ” caused them to protest movie theaters that dared to show the movie. Ice-T and his heavy metal band, Body Count, attracted even stronger actions.
In 1992, Body Count released a song called “Cop Killer,” which was a protest against police brutality. To clarify the target of his message Ice-T even dedicates the song to “every cop that has ever taken advantage of somebody, beat ’em down or hurt ’em, because they have long hair, listen to the wrong kind of music, wrong color, whatever they thought was the reason to do it.”
Given the violent imagery of revenge contained in the song, it is not surprising that this song was not well received by mainstream America. The former President of the National Association of Chiefs of Police described the song as a “misuse of the First Amendment.” Both President Bush and Vice-President Quayle publicly denounced the record. In an effort to stop further distribution, Charleton Heston addressed the shareholders of Time-Warner, the parent company of Body Count’s record label.
Like the lyrics of the song itself, all of the above forms of speech are protected by the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the opponents of this record went further. Their actions included anonymous death threats. Police in Greensboro, North Carolina told the owner of a local record store that “they would no longer respond to any emergency calls at the store if they continued to sell the album.” Local municipalities also tried to put pressure on the band as they toured to support the album.
In Los Angeles, Body Count was unable to play the venues that metal bands would usually perform. The grapevine was filled with stories that these clubs were warned that future license renewals would be in jeopardy if they booked the band. Therefore, the show was held in an old theatre that would soon be closed. My pregnant ex-wife and I were in attendance making this my oldest daughter’s first concert.
On the night of the show, the harassment was transferred to the audience. Despite the fact that a good portion of those in attendance were yuppies who were there for the “event” aspect of the evening and did not even realize that Body Count differed from Ice-T’s rap act, the police presence was indicative of a Hell’s Angel’s convention. Fire marshalls actually lined the stage and after the second song, they forced the venue to keep the house lights on for the duration of the performance. Stage diving was banned not by the venue but by the fire marshall who promised to stop the show if it occurred even once.
To Ice-T’s credit, he seemed to tune out all of these potential distractions and gave a great performance. More importantly, before performing the final song of the night he warned the audience that a circus was brewing outside the theater and that they should not play into their hands. “Don’t even look at them, don’t give them an excuse.”
There was a huge show of force by the police outside the theater. They were even lined up on the rooftops across the street. However, they were not there to serve and protect or to ensure that people had the right to peaceably assemble. They were there to make a point.
Conservative protesters had also massed outside the venue. I have been to other protests and the police will always separate two sides of a conflict to prevent the situation from getting violent. The police did not do so in this case. The protesters had been allowed to gather at the exits of the theatre so that they could shove signs into the faces of the audience members as we left. In most protests, these would have been prohibited because they could be used as weapons. Those opposed to the song were also allowed to physically get into the faces of the exiting concert-goers to scream their protests at us. These conservatives disagreed with Ice-T’s speech and wished to “cancel” him.
Our society would have been better off if, instead of attacking Ice-T’s method of communication, the protestors had listened to what he had to say. The conditions that led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are not new and the unrest of last summer could have been avoided if the brutality that “Cop Killer’’ rallied against had been confronted 28 years ago. As Ice-T stated: the real issue was ”not a record but the cops that are out there killing people.”
The same can be said about the current ranting by Fox “News.” The sins contained within the works of Dr. Suess, Disney, and Warner Brothers cartoons should not receive a pass because they were accepted by the public at the time of their creation. Commitment to “the pursuit of racial equality” requires a recognition that these portrayals are not just unpopular, they are harmful. Understanding this brings us closer to achieving a more just society.
The First Amendment may give us the right to draw bigoted caricatures, reinforce racial stereotypes, include hateful symbols, and create a misogynist cartoon skunk, but it does not protect the owners of copyrights from the consequences in the marketplace. Dr. Suess, Peter Pan, the Muppets, and Pepe Le Pew have not been canceled, they still have every legal right to exist. Instead, their access to the public has been controlled by their owners. As long as the government played no part in this censorship, then our freedom of speech is alive and well. That is unless we want to condemn capitalism and the free market…
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.