The right-wing news, certain pundits and certain politicians decided to make Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head a battlefield in their manufactured culture war. The core claim is that Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head have been cancelled by the left. The narrative soon expanded to include President Biden, asserting that he is somehow involved in this matter. As of this writing, he is not. While Ben Shapiro’s famous catch phrase is “facts don’t care about your feelings”, it seems that some on the right do not care about facts.
The Dr. Seuss matter involves two sets of key facts that seem to have been intentionally misrepresented by some on the right. The first set involves the Read Across America Day context. It is true that Learning for Justice, which is a left-wing group, did call for schools to avoid “connecting Read Across America Day with Dr. Seuss.” Loudoun County Public Schools did decide to “to not connect Read Across America Day exclusively with Dr. Seuss’ birthday.” In the face of backlash, the district released a statement making it clear that they were not banning Dr. Seuss books. Dr. Seuss was simply not the emphasis of Read Across America day in the district. As such, Learning for Justice did not call for Dr. Seuss to be cancelled nor was Dr. Seuss cancelled by this school district.
The second set of facts involves the decision of Dr. Seuss’ estate to stop publishing six books because they contain illustrations that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” While the illustrations in question have long been criticized, there does not (as of this writing) seem to have been any focused effort to force the estate to stop publishing these works. On the face of it, this seems to be a business decision made either from a change in moral values on the part of the decision makers or a recognition that racist content can hurt their reputation and brand (and hence profits). Unless some evidence is forthcoming, this choice seems to be an uncoerced business decision of the sort that is routinely made by businesses when they assess their product lines. In a sense, this is analogous to the decision to no longer sell Tab: tastes change over time and old products get discontinued in response. It would, of course, be hilarious if this were a clever business ploy to get the right to buy up the existing supply of these six books (they are not top sellers). As such, the facts that do not care about feelings are that Dr. Seuss is not cancelled: a business simply decided to discontinue six titles that are not top sellers to improve their brand. The Potato Head matter also involves facts that run counter to the cancel narrative.
Hasbro decided to change the Mr. Potato Head brand to Potato Head. Mr. Potato Head and Mrs. Potato Head are still available and sold under those names. The company did make the statement that “Hasbro is making sure all feel welcome in the Potato Head world by officially dropping the Mr. from the Mr. Potato Head brand name and logo to promote gender equality and inclusion.” As of this writing, there is no evidence that Hasbro was subject to coercion or forced to make this decision. Once again, the explanation seems to be that either the decision makers have made a change to reflect their new moral values, or they are engaged in rebranding for their product to match the values they think will prove most profitable.
Changing branding to reflect changing values is how branding works. As an illustration, consider the explicitly racist advertising (and products) of the past. As American norms about explicit racism changed, advertising and branding changed along with them. This need not be for any moral reason; failure to keep up with norms and values is on par with failing to keep up with trends and tastes: failure to do so means a loss of business. The same is happening today and companies are simply rebranding by shifting with the changing norms of their consumers. It could be claimed that businesses are coerced into this by changing values, but they do have a choice: they could stick with past values and risk losing revenue or keep up with the times. As such, this rebranding is not cancellation—it is just business as usual.
If companies were being coerced by the power of the state to remove products or change their branding, then there could be real concerns about oppression and misuse of power. There can also be moral concerns when private citizens and organizations use their coercive power to wrongly infringe on the freedom of others (such as when employers coerce their employees), but this did not happen in these cases. As such, the efforts on the right to make these matters into proof of cancel culture must be at best straw man attacks and could be justly described as a campaign of lies. Those who fall for this deceit can, perhaps, be excused: the claims of the media are reinforced by the claims of the politicians and pundits and they have been trained to distrust credible sources of information.
As far as why the right is lying about this, the sensible answer seems to be that they do not have any real examples of oppression and injustice to use: they must manufacture examples with hyperbole, by constructing straw persons, and simply lying. This is analogous to the matter of widespread voter fraud: while there would be a problem if it were significant, they are at a loss to provide evidence for this and must resort to mere anecdotes, straw persons, hyperbole, and lies. If they had adequate evidence of real harms, they could simply present it rather than making things up. But it seems to be working for them. As I have discussed in other essays, I am not sure what percentage of their supporters are deceived and what percentage are in on the lies. In practical terms, the distinction often does not matter: the results are the same in terms of actions. But the distinction can matter: those who are deceived can, in theory, change their views in the face of truth.
The right, one suspects, is angry about changing values and especially upset when business recognize these changes and respond to them. This is not surprising: to be conservative is, one imagines, to want to conserve what (one thinks) was and to resist changes to this. But this defense of what was is being conducted in bad faith: rather than honestly admitting they want to keep the racist images in Dr. Seuss and honestly admitting they are angry that Hasbro has moved away from sexism, they create the fiction of cancel culture. This is a moral mask: they present themselves as defenders of free expression since openly advocating for racism and sexism would be bad for their public brand. That said, there are some on the right who are honest about this: they are openly racist and sexist, which makes them better than those who share their views but lack the courage to do so openly.