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No, Dr Seuss and Mr Potato Head haven't been 'cancelled'. Here's the difference

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Akin Olla
·6-min read
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<span>Photograph: Christopher Dolan/AP</span>
Photograph: Christopher Dolan/AP

On Tuesday, the estate of Dr Seuss decided that it will cease publishing six books by the beloved children’s author which contain offensive depictions of non-white characters. A week earlier, Hasbro, the manufacturer of Mr Potato Head, announced that the toy will henceforth be known by the non-gendered moniker Potato Head.

An army of defenders has now risen to protect the sanctity of Mr Potato Head and Dr Seuss. Social media and conservative news outlets have been consumed with memes and hot takes declaring the dangerous overreach of “cancel culture”, which they define as the process of punishing a person or product deemed offensive by some vague set of modern moral standards.

Related: ‘Cancel culture’ is not the preserve of the left. Just ask our historians | David Olusoga

Fox News dedicated much of Tuesday to proclaiming the end of Dr Seuss at the hands of liberals. One Fox News Host, Brian Kilmeade, exclaimed, “The cancel culture is canceling Dr Seuss … It’s out of control.” During a congressional debate, the Republican California congressman Kevin McCarthy somehow worked the Seuss controversy into an argument against a bill that would expand voting rights, saying, “First they outlaw Dr Seuss and then they want to tell us what to say.” Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, lambasted the rebranding of Mr Potato Head during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), blatting, “Look out, Mr Potato Head, you’re next … I’m sorry, I think now he’s going by Potato X. He can’t be Mr Potato.”

As is usual with outrage over cancel culture, the discussion is devoid of facts, and aimed at a phantom leftwing mob that mainly exists in conservatives’ minds. Dr Seuss and Mr Potato Head are not being cancelled, they were never going to be, and, if anything, the exact opposite is happening. Real cancel culture has existed throughout the history of the United States, and much of what we are witnessing today is meaningless and inconsequential by comparison.

First and foremost, neither Dr Seuss nor Mr Potato Head are being cancelled. Dr Seuss’s estate decided to voluntarily stop producing six of his books. These books contain racist imagery that Dr Seuss (real name Theodor Seuss Geisel) may too have been ashamed of. During the second world war, Seuss published anti-Japanese cartoons and vocally supported the establishment of concentration camps for Japanese-Americans. Years later he sought to apologize for his actions and wrote the book Horton Hears a Who! to reflect his changed views. The books that will cease publication are nowhere near his most popular works, and it is doubtful most Americans have even heard of them. Those books will not be burned; they were not forced to be removed by a horde of liberals; and the rest of his catalogue will remain untouched.

The tale of our favorite spud is much the same. Mr Potato Head is not ceasing to exist, nor is his wife and assumed lover Mrs Potato Head. Hasbro, the owners of the Potato Head family line of toys, is simply changing the brand’s name to Potato Head, which reflects the reality that it covers the Mr, the Mrs and a growing family of potatoes that they seek to sprout in the near future.

And quite the opposite of cancellation is on the horizon. Dr Seuss books are seeing a boost in overall sales, and the books pulled from the shelves are selling for up to $500 online. Hasbro is expecting a similar bump to sales. Its CEO has said he expects double-digit growth in the next year, and the rebranding and expansion of the Potato Head line may be a part of the equation. Whether or not these were calculated marketing strategies is unknowable, but they fall into a well-established pattern in which corporations try to clean up their pasts and appeal to the public in a way that won’t negatively affect their ability to reap profits.

Real cancel culture has existed in the United States and it is worth remembering what it means to be truly cancelled

What we perceive as “cancel culture” is just a fundamental function of capitalism playing itself out. Companies must adapt with the times to make money on a perpetual track of constant and infinite profit. This is why businesses engage in practices like greenwashing – packaging their goods and services in superficially environmentally friendly ways, while doing little to change their real environmental impact – and pinkwashing, the annual tradition of turning products pink for breast cancer awareness, even for products that may cause cancer themselves. These corporations don’t have morals, and don’t care about taking political or ethical stances; their bottom line is just that – their bottom line. This is how an oil company like Chevron can pat itself on the back for investing $100m in lowering emissions while simultaneously investing $20bn in oil and gas, or how Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest oilfield operators, can proudly distribute 1,000 pink drill bits across the planet, while using known and possible carcinogens at their hydraulic fracking facilities.

Real cancel culture has existed in the United States and it is worth remembering what it means to be truly cancelled. The multiple red scares in the United States involved socialist – and allegedly socialist – actors, directors and musicians being spied on and blacklisted by production companies and studios for their political views. People as famous as Charlie Chaplin were accused of subversion and banned from the US, while everyday Americans like the Massachusetts schoolteacher Anne Hale had their lives completely and utterly ruined. This wave of “cancellation” involved institutions like the NAACP and America’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, pushing out communist and socialist activists. And government programs like Cointelpro – arguably an extension of the red scare – involved the harassment and sabotage of socialists and other leftwing activists, including the notorious assassination of the 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Million-dollar corporations in the United States can hardly be cancelled; they can simply rebrand or wait until the storm is over. Real cancel culture has the power of institutions behind it.

In an era in which corporations like Amazon are on one hand launching smear campaigns against Black workers for labor organizing while celebrating Black History Month on the other, it is important for the public to understand the difference between cancel culture and corporate PR. We can cancel corporations only through actions like boycotts, strikes and seizures of their property for the sake of the public good. But no one is cancelling Dr Seuss and no one is cancelling Mr Potato Head, despite Hasbro’s history of allegedly profiting from child labor and other abuses. Instead of focusing on the outrage of the week, we need to focus on toxic employers who mistreat workers here and abroad, and consider using collective action to punish industries and corporations that have essentially cancelled the futures of entire generations.

  • Akin Olla is a Nigerian-American political strategist and organizer. He works as a trainer for Momentum Community and is the host of This is the Revolution podcast