Derek Pearsall, 1931-2021

Sad news:

Professor Derek Pearsall, co-founder with the late Professor Elizabeth Salter of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York, passed away on Thursday 14 October, aged 90. He was an enormous influence on many of us who flourished under his tutelage and his scholarly reputation helped to establish York’s CMS as an outstanding beacon of teaching and research. May he rest in peace.

According to Wikipedia, Pearsall received an MA from the University of Birmingham in 1952, was Gurney Professor of English Literature at Harvard, and delivered the British Academy’s Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture in 1998. I found his work very enlightening and enjoyed speaking with him at conferences. He will be missed. 

For Columbus Day

In The American Spectator, Armando Simón defends Christopher Columbus, claiming that he was not as bad as his current reputation holds. This does not excuse what Spanish colonialism became, of course, and the idea that “the founder was good, it’s just that the people who came after him messed things up” is a trope (i.e. the founder more than likely shares some of the blame). Still, Simón raises some good points:

There is not one single historical source in existence that substantiates any of the “crimes.” Not one. None!

Consult, not secondary sources written centuries later by individuals with a political agenda, but primary (i.e., contemporary) sources in the original Spanish: Los Cuatro Viajes del Almirante y su Testamento, and, Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias, both by Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas, as every schoolchild in the Caribbean and Spain knows, was The Apostle of the Indians, an indefatigable defender of the Indians who fulminated endlessly against the Spanish crimes on the indigenous people. More importantly, he chronicled the atrocities against the Indians, fearlessly naming the criminals. Not once does he mention Columbus as an evildoer. On the contrary, he documented the exact opposite, that Columbus repeatedly defended the Indians against Spanish depredations.

The third primary source is the biography of the explorer written by his son, Fernando. Should the reader cynically discount his son’s biography as whitewashed because his son somehow saw that 500 years later his father’s statues were going to be vandalized in a new country called the United States and he had to salvage his reputation, think instead that, considering the zeitgeist, Fernando could have easily portrayed his father as a great conqueror of satanic, evil savages who practiced cannibalism (after all, look at all the hagiographies written on Napoleon, who turned Europe into a charnel house). Significantly, Fernando also portrayed the natives in a benevolent light — and this was long before the syrupy “noble savage” mythos that we have been force-fed to this day. He was being faithful to facts.

Lastly, there is the Capitulations, the documents between the Spanish monarchy and the Admiral.

If Columbus had, indeed, committed the countless crimes that some people with their ignorance of history have attributed to him, if he was, indeed the monster that he has been portrayed, on a par with Attila the Hun, Josef Stalin, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, I for one would be among those condemning him. But the historical facts are clear: the atrocities that have been heaped on him are nowhere to be found, except in the minds of his detractors. They are just not there.

Much more at the link – read the whole thing

Food, Facial Structure, and “F”

From Science (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

When humans switched to processed foods after the spread of agriculture, they put less wear and tear on their teeth. That changed the growth of their jaws, giving adults the overbites normal in children. Within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like “f” and “v,” opening a world of new words.

The newly favored consonants, known as labiodentals, helped spur the diversification of languages in Europe and Asia at least 4000 years ago… according to linguist and senior author Balthasar Bickel at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The paper shows “that a cultural shift can change our biology in such a way that it affects our language,” says evolutionary morphologist Noreen Von Cramon-Taubadel of the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York system, who was not part of the study.

Postdocs Damián Blasi and Steven Moran in Bickel’s lab set out to test an idea proposed by the late American linguist Charles Hockett. He noted in 1985 that the languages of hunter-gatherers lacked labiodentals, and conjectured that their diet was partly responsible: Chewing gritty, fibrous foods puts force on the growing jaw bone and wears down molars. In response, the lower jaw grows larger, and the molars erupt farther and drift forward on the protruding lower jaw, so that the upper and lower teeth align. That edge-to-edge bite makes it harder to push the upper jaw forward to touch the lower lip, which is required to pronounce labiodentals. But other linguists rejected the idea, and Blasi says he, Moran, and their colleagues “expected to prove Hockett wrong.”

First, the six researchers used computer modeling to show that with an overbite, producing labiodentals takes 29% less effort than with an edge-to-edge bite. Then, they scrutinized the world’s languages and found that hunter-gatherer languages have only about one-fourth as many labiodentals as languages from farming societies. Finally, they looked at the relationships among languages, and found that labiodentals can spread quickly, so that the sounds could go from being rare to common in the 8000 years since the widespread adoption of agriculture and new food processing methods such as grinding grain into flour.

Bickel suggests that as more adults developed overbites, they accidentally began to use “f” and “v” more. In ancient India and Rome, labiodentals may have been a mark of status, signaling a softer diet and wealth, he says. Those consonants also spread through other language groups; today, they appear in 76% of Indo-European languages.

Linguist Nicholas Evans of Australian National University in Canberra finds the study’s “multimethod approach to the problem” convincing. Ian Maddieson, an emeritus linguist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, isn’t sure researchers tallied the labiodentals correctly but agrees that the study shows external factors like diet can alter the sounds of speech.

The findings also suggest our facility with f-words comes at a cost. As we lost our ancestral edge-to-edge bite, “we got new sounds but maybe it wasn’t so great for us,” Moran says. “Our lower jaws are shorter, we have impacted wisdom teeth, more crowding—and cavities.”

Some Links

• From Edward J. Watts on Yahoo News: “Rome Didn’t Fall When You Think it Did”:

In September of 476 AD, the barbarian commander Odoacer forced the teenaged Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to resign his office. The Constantinopolitan chronicler Marcellinus Comes would write in the 510s that when “Odoacer, king of the Goths, took control of Rome” the “Western Empire of the Roman people… perished.” But no one thought this at the time. The fall of Rome in 476 is a historical turning point that was invented nearly 50 years later as a pretext for a devastating war. The fact that it has since become recognized as the end of an epoch shows how history can be misused to justify otherwise unpalatable actions in the present—and how that misuse can also distort the lessons future generations take from the past.

More at the link

• From Jan Altaner on Goethe Institute: “On the Trail of Barbarossa”:

In April 1874, the Upper Bavarian church historian and politician Johann Nepomuk Sepp, along with a small group of German scholars and adventurers, embarked on an expedition to the Middle East. They were on a ‘mission for Germany’ to which the Imperial Chancellor Bismarck himself had given his blessing. Their destination was Tyre, which in those days was a sleepy town on the Levant coast. However, the expedition’s focus was not on researching the city’s rich Phoenician or Roman history, but on something much greater: the remains of Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa.

The still-young German Empire had only just put particularism behind it, and thus the plan was to strengthen German national consciousness through shared national myths. One of the most popular of these myths was the legend of Barbarossa, who was said to be sleeping beneath the Kyffhäuser hills, but would one day return and elevate Germany to its old glory. Emperor Wilhelm I regarded himself as standing in the tradition of the Emperor of the Staufer dynasty, styling himself as ‘Barbablanca’, or ‘Whitebeard’. Emperor Barbarossa also happened to be an especially suitable national figurehead because his gravesite was located outside the German Empire. In 1190, during the Third Crusade, he drowned while bathing in a river in Lesser Armenia. The heat made it impossible to transport his body over long distances, so he was boiled and buried in nearby Antioch. His bones, on the other hand, were sewn into a sack, to be buried in Jerusalem, the destination of the Third Crusade. However, the crusaders never made it that far. Historical record is unclear with regard to his final resting place, but later reports claimed that his remains had been buried in the Cathedral of Tyre. This story was the impetus for Johann Nepomuk Sepp’s expedition.

More at the link.

• From Susanne Spröer on Deutsche Welle: “Winnetou: Why so many Germans fell in love with the unrealistic ‘Indian'”

It was Christmas Eve, and I was eight or nine years old. I’d just opened the small gifts under the tree when my father said there was a surprise in the basement. Finally! It must be Winnetou’s Silver Gun, at the top of my wish list. But I didn’t understand why I had to go down to the basement to get the toy weapon.

I had been a Winnetou fan ever since I first heard the audio version of the Wild West stories by Karl May. I would sit at the record player and listen to how the character Karl May, aka Old Shatterhand, came to the Wild West. In the story, he’s a German engineer who wanted to build a train line through Apache country. But then he got to know the Apache tribe and became “blood brothers” with Winnetou, fighting at his side for the rights of Native Americans.

When we played cowboys and Indians as children, I always took the part of Winnetou, who preferred to knock his enemies down rather than kill them, in line with the blood brothers’ code of honor.

My best friend and I would cut our hands at the base of our thumbs to become blood brothers. We loved the Winnetou stories, just like the generations before us.

“Christmas 1962 saw the premiere of ‘Treasure of the Silver Lake,'” recalled Michael Petzel, author of the “Karl May Lexicon” and director of the Karl May archive in Göttingen. “That went over so well with young people in a way that’s hard to imagine today. For three years, before The Beatles and James Bond, the films defined the youth scene in Germany. They were very modern for the time. For us viewers, it was a departure into an unknown world.”

The world of Karl Friedrich May (1842-1912), who dreamed up Winnetou’s Wild West, had little to do with reality. The first Winnetou story was published in 1875, although he’d only read about the United States in books.

Partly autobiographical and told in the first person, May as Old Shatterhand (known as Kara Ben Nemsi in the books set in Asia) dreams up an escape from his own dreary life. Accused of fraud and theft, he’d been fired from his job as a teacher and sent to jail.

Thanks to Winnetou, May, the son of a poor weaver (10 of his 13 siblings died shortly after birth) became Germany’s most successful youth author.

More at the link. My undergraduate advisor Walter Simons also wrote a blog post about Karl May’s influence in Germany. 

The Battle of Lepanto

Adjunct instructor Tim Furnish remembers the Battle of Lepanto, fought 450 years ago:

On this date, 450 years ago, the combined naval forces of Europe’s Catholic states, the “Holy League,” saved Western civilization. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled not just the Middle East but large chunks of eastern Europe, wanted more territory and to extinguish the annoying Christian opposition from central and western Europe. To do so, Sultan Selim II sent a huge naval force to conquer Rome and capture or kill the Pope. Nearly 300 Ottoman warships headed west, from Turkish-ruled Greece.

The Ottomans had been on the offensive for two centuries. But it had mostly been by land. Since taking Constantinople, and finally wiping out the Byzantine Empire, in 1453. Serbia. Hungary. Crete. All fell before the Islamic Empire and its feared janissaries. Although the threat of Islam in the west had been quelled by the Reconquista, it seemed that Muhammad’s followers might well win coming from the opposite compass point.

The Ottomans were never quite the equal of the Europeans as mariners, but they had fashioned a formidable navy to go along with their powerful infantry and cavalry.

Europe was wracked at this time by the Reformation, which no doubt contributed to the Ottoman sense that they could win over a religiously-divided Europe.

Despite that handicap, the main Catholic powers — Spain and Venice, as well as the Papal states and others — negotiated a response to this latest Ottoman thrust. They parried with a huge naval force of their own, of 200 ships. Both sides used types of galleys. These were ships with both sails and oars — very much like those employed in Roman and Greek times. However, the Catholic and Muslim navies had two major differences. The latter used slaves as oarsmen, not free men. And the former had developed a larger type of galley, a galleass. While these comprised only a few of the Western naval force, they were instrumental in victory. As converted merchant ships, they carried 28 naval artillery guns each. This firepower would prove devastating to the Ottomans’ numerous, but smaller, ships.

Both sides also had infantry on their ships. But whereas the Turks were armed with bows, the Spanish soldiers in particular had arquebuses. These were slower to fire, as gunpowder weapons. But they had much greater penetrating power….

When the battle ended, the Ottomans had lost over 100 ships, and tens of thousands of men. The Holy League suffered only 17 ships sunk, and less than half the Turkish casualties. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to see an element of divine intervention in the Battle of Lepanto. Although prayer always seems to work better when coupled with superior weapons, tactics, and leadership. It’s a pity that this crucial battle is so little-taught today. The Ottomans were not done attacking Europe on land — they would besiege Vienna twice in the 17th century — but their myth of invulnerability was long gone after Lepanto.

More at the link

Pushin’ Back the Date

From NBC News (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

David Bustos heard about the “ghost tracks” when he first went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico to work as a wildlife scientist in 2005. When the ground was wet enough at certain times of the year, the ghostly footprints would appear on the otherwise blank earth, only to disappear again when it dried out.

It wasn’t until over 10 years later, in 2016, that scientists confirmed that the ghost tracks had been made by real people — and it’s only now that some of the ancient footprints at White Sands have been dated as the earliest in North America.

“We’d been suspicious of the age for a while, and so now we finally have that it’s really exciting,” Bustos said. “One of the neat things is that you can see mammoth prints in the layers a meter or so above the human footprints, so that just helps to confirm the whole story.”

The footprints at White Sands were dated by examining the seeds of an aquatic plant that once thrived along the shores of the dried-up lake, Ruppia cirrhosa, commonly known as ditchgrass. According to research published Thursday in the journal Science and co-authored by Bustos, the ancient ditchgrass seeds were found in layers of hard earth both above and below the many human footprints at the site, and they were radiocarbon-dated to determine their age.

The tracks at one location have been revealed as both the earliest known footprints and the oldest firm evidence of humans anywhere in the Americas, showing that people lived there 21,000 to 23,000 years ago — several thousand years earlier than scientists once believed.

More at the link

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet

Hobby Lobby is a chain of big-box craft stores in the United States, privately held by David Green. Green is a committed Christian: he is a major donor to evangelical causes and keeps Hobby Lobby closed on Sundays. This stance earned him a certain notoriety back in 2014, when he successfully sued the government to be exempt from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. He was not against contraception as such, just the obligation to fund “Plan B” drugs and IUDs, which prevent fertilized embryos from implanting themselves in the uterine wall, and thus constitute baby-killing, as far as he is concerned. A lot of people were upset about this – but not the sort of people who tend to shop at Hobby Lobby, so the chain abides.

Green’s major vanity project is the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. I certainly think that such an important book is worthy of a museum, although how it is presented will of course be controversial (“It’s not really a museum of the Bible, it’s a museum of American Protestantism” – Biblical scholar Candida Moss). An even bigger problem with the place has been how it acquires its material. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring in 2011, there has been a great deal of instability in the Middle East, and thus a thriving black market for antiquities, which the Museum of the Bible has participated in – even, perhaps, funding ISIS in doing so! In 2018, the Museum returned some 5500 artifacts to Iraq, and agreed to pay a $3 million fine as punishment for illegally importing them. The latest news that the Museum has been stripped of the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a clay tablet measuring five by six inches and inscribed in Sumerian cuneiform, which will also go back to its country of origin. This one actually disappeared in the wake of the first Iraq War in 1991, and was purchased at auction at Christie’s in London in 2014, so the Museum is not entirely at fault here. Nonetheless, it would be nice if they applied the same scrupulosity to their acquisitions that Mr. Green does towards contraception.

Banned Books, Again

My observation is that we’re all hypocrites about freedom of speech. When it comes to speech we agree with, of course we’re in favor of it. When it comes to speech we disagree with, we have all sorts of rationalizations at our disposal about why we shouldn’t have to listen; indeed, why that speech (now designated “misinformation”) should be “deplatformed” or censored, or its speakers punished. I assume that, given the opportunity, everyone would act on this principle, but of course I am most familiar with its operation in academia, where speech from the left is cherished, and speech from the right condemned. ‘Twas ever thus, and I think of it again during the fatuous Banned Books Week, which is upon us once again. Here is a Facebook graphic for this event:

From a Facebook friend: 

News you can use, from Snead Hearn. Guess what? Most threatened books these days are not about rebellious white men! With one exception they’re books by and about LGBTQ people that challenge gender and sexual (hetero) norms.  

From Snead Hearn: 

My genuine thanks to someone on my feed for giving me a reason to talk about something relevant and political that means a lot to me.

It IS Banned Books Week, that’s true. And that’s important! But if you see this graphic (the original, without the red cross-out and note I’ve added) being shared around… it’s wrong. And I think it’s wrong in a kind of deliberately gross way that we need to talk about.

This picture of stacked books didn’t actually come from Banned Books Week. I know that because these are not actually the top 10 most banned books anymore. THESE books haven’t been the most banned for many years. Many of you probably remember them fondly from your youth – I do too, but it was OUR youth when they were being routinely challenged. I suspect they’re being trotted out falsely as current because the current political climate makes it easy to pretend that “woke liberals” are trying to get old classics pulled off the shelves for not being with the times, buuuuuuuut (1) they aren’t, and (2) when these books WERE being banned, it wasn’t the left doing it, it was people upset by Huckleberry Finn discussing American racism, or who thought that 1984 was “pro communist”. In short: it’s never been “the libs” banning these books, y’all. (Psst: they’re usually the librarians fighting to keep the books on the shelves.)

“So which books are actually being banned *now*? Here’s the current top 10, and the reasons why, and you can read more about Banned Books Week at the link

– #1: George by Alex Gino

Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”

– #2: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased

– #3: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller

Reasons: Challenged and vandalized for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning

– #4: Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth

Reasons: Challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”

– #5: Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis

Reasons: Challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint

– #6: I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

Reasons: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged”

– #7: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”

– #8: Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier

Reasons: Challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”

– #9: Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Reasons: Banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals

– #10: And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole

Reason: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content

That’s the ACTUAL list. Maybe you’ll notice a theme.

There are exceptions, but speaking by the numbers (“most banned” is the name of the meme, after all) it isn’t folks on the left who ban books in America. It’s a GOOD thing to care about, but caring means actually knowing what you’re talking about.

And if you *agree* with *these* bans, the ones actually happening now… maybe think about that a minute.

For even more information, here’s the top 100 most banned books of the decade 2010-2019.

Most of the books pictured in the graphic aren’t even in the Top 100 anymore, and none of them is in the Top 10. Which is great! People aren’t banning these anymore. But we should be upset about what they *are* banning *now*. So feel free to use this post and these links to challenge misinformation and support some books that are actually, currently under threat.

I refer you to an earlier post of mine about Banned Books week, and my criticism still stands: what does it mean for a book to be “banned”? Forbidden by federal law like meth? Or just removed from the shelves of your local public library?* Oh dear – I guess we’ll have to order it from Amazon then! Thankfully, all of these books are available on Amazon (I checked), so even if the squares in your town have succeeded in getting My Princess Boy pulled from the shelves of the library, you can still buy it over the Internet for the price of two packs of smokes or five Monster energy drinks. 

But you know what you can’t buy on Amazon? F. Roger Devlin’s Sexual Utopia in Power, Roosh V’s Game, or Colin Flaherty’s Don’t Make the Black Kids Angry. All of these were available, and then all of a sudden they weren’t (and something tells me that you won’t be able to find them at the local library either). Now, you could say that they’ve been removed for a good reason – to which I reply, maybe so, but I don’t want to hear anything from you about “banned books.” Just come clean and say yeah, we’ve taken a side. A poignant coming-of-age YA novel about a transgendered teen is simply better than a “red-pill” book about the allegedly true nature of women, according to this standard. One deserves protection and promotion, the other condemnation and erasure.** That’s fine, but don’t complain about “the left” being unfairly tarnished as “book banners.” If anything, it’s the left that desires the removal of Huckleberry Finn on account of That Word, the left that does not like 1984 on account of its bleak portrayal of Communism, and the left that wants the removal of Harry Potter, not on account of witchcraft and spells, but because J.K. Rowling thinks that trans women aren’t really women.

* And what does it mean for a book to be “challenged”? A request that it be removed from the shelves for reasons of content? Whoa… that’s serious!

** I realize that my original argument now applies to me: these books have not been “banned,” and if you can’t buy them from Amazon, then buy them somewhere else. This is true, although I can’t help but notice places selling this sort of thing tend to get their ability to process credit card payments yanked, which is indeed getting pretty close to “banning.” 

Dr. Seuss

This post isn’t all that topical anymore, but a recent visit to the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Literature Research Collection has helped to answer a longstanding question that I had.

In March of this year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization that owns the rights to the works of Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), a.k.a. beloved children’s author “Dr. Seuss,” announced that they would cease publishing six of his books. After “working with a panel of experts, including educators,” DSE determined that these six books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong”: 

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937)
McElligot’s Pool (1947)
If I Ran the Zoo (1950)
Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953)
On Beyond Zebra! (1955)
The Cat’s Quizzer (1976)
 

At the time, DSE did not elucidate exactly how these books’ contents were “hurtful and wrong.” This is the usual quandary – you want people to know that that an offense has been committed, but you don’t want to draw attention to the details, lest you end up amplifying the offense. But I’ve always believed the Faber College motto that “Knowledge is Good,” and that ordinary people deserve to know what’s going on. So, courtesy the Children’s Literature Research Collection, in particular its Kerlan Collection, First Floor Tarpley presents the apparently problematic details of these works (two of the books weren’t available at UMN, but I found them online).

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Summary: Walking home from school, a boy named Marco sees a horse and wagon on Mulberry Street. Dissatisfied with such an ordinary sight, Marco keeps inventing and adding details to it, such that by the time he gets home he has “seen” a great parade of exotic people and creatures. 

Problems:

• The couplet “Say—anyone could think of that,/ Jack or Fred or Joe or Nat—/ Say, even Jane could think of that” can be read as sexist: four boys are alike in mediocrity, while the one girl is even worse.

• One of the things that Marco invents is an elephant bearing a “Rajah,” perhaps truckling in Orientalist stereotypes.

Kerlan Collection.

• Another thing that Marco invents is “a Chinaman who eats with sticks.” 

Kerlan Collection

“Chinaman,” as a term, is “often pejorative,” and his bright yellow skin tone, slanted eye, conical hat, and Qing-era queue are stereotypical as well. The geta shoes that he wears are actually Japanese. With the popularization of Chinese food in the United States, “eating with sticks” is no longer remarkable. 

McElligot’s Pool (1947). Summary: Marco reappears, this time fishing in McElligot’s Pool – a fool’s errand, according to a passerby, since the pool has no fish, but lots of junk that people have thrown into it. But Marco imagines that the pool might be connected to an underground river that eventually leads to the sea, which would allow him to catch all kinds of exotic fish from all over the world.

Problems:

• One species of exotic fish is the Eskimo Fish from beyond Hudson Bay.

BooksVooks.

“Eskimo” is now somewhat pejorative (“Inuit” has been prescribed as an alternative name for some time in Canada, and the Edmonton Eskimos CFL team recently became the Edmonton Elks). The fur parkas the fish wear might be seen as stereotypical. 

• Another fish, from “the world’s highest river in Tibet,” has an odd-looking Tibetan watching it.

BooksVooks.

If I Ran the Zoo (1950). Summary: A boy imagines running the zoo. If he did, he would release all the “ordinary” animals like lions, giraffes, and zebras, and find fantastic ones as substitutes, such as the It-Kutch, the Preep, and the the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill.

Problems:

• To capture a bird called a Bustard, and a beast called a Flustard, the narrator must travel to the desert of Zomba-ma-Tant, “with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant.”

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

These creatures may not be real, but real people do have “slanted” eyes (actually: upper eyelids with epicanthic folds) and one generally does not make a big deal about this fact. 

• The “scraggle foot Mulligatawny” may be found in the “Desert of Zind.” The “brave chieftain” who rides him may be parallel to the “Rajah” above.  

Kerlan Collection.

• The “tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka” from the “African Island of Yerka” is carried by two natives of rather stereotypical appearance. 

Kerlan Collection.

• Our narrator has designs on “A Gusset, a Gherkin, a Gasket, and also a Gootch from the wilds of Nantasket.” 

Kerlan Collection.

These creatures would be carried by “eight Persian princes,” characters not unlike the Rajah or the brave chieftain.

Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953). Summary: Peter T. Hooper, tired of the same old scrambled eggs from a hen, goes hunting rare and exotic eggs from various creatures, like the Rufflenecked Salamagoox or the Tizzle-topped Grouse.

Problems:

• Peter T. Hooper explains his project to his little sister, looking like a pickup artist in a bar.

Kerlan Collection.

• The book includes an exotic character named Ali, another Orientalist caricature.

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

• Other creatures in the book are “Wogs” (“the world’s sweetest frogs,” but also a pejorative name for an East Asian) and the “Kwigger” (a name uncomfortably close to a certain other word). 

On Beyond Zebra! (1955). Summary: A boy has mastered the alphabet, and invents further letters after Z, like Yuzz, Wum, or Snee. These letters are used to begin the names of various exotic creatures. If Z begins Zebra, then Yuzz can begin Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz (pictured).

Kerlan Collection.

Kerlan Collection.

Problems:

• Not only is a letter called “SPAZZ” (in my day, a diminutive of “spastic” and an insult), it is used to spell “Spazzim, a beast who belongs to the Nazzim of Bazzim.” These Nazzim of Bazzim are seemingly Orientalist caricatures.

Kerlan Collection.

• The player of a “kind of hunting horn called the o’Grunth” (to attract a Flunnel, a creature beginning with the letter FLUNN) also looks somewhat Orientalist.

Kerlan Collection.

The Cat’s Quizzer (1976). Summary: This book has no plot as such, but instead challenges the reader to answer a series of questions, some simple, some difficult, and some just absurd. 

Problems:

• On one spread, the reader is asked how old one has to be to be Japanese. The Japanese is shown wearing a stereotypically conical hat. 

Internet Archive.

Internet Archive.

• The caption got cut off with this one, but the original reads, “Which is Taller? A Tall Pigmy or a Short Giant?”

Internet Archive.

“Pigmy” (or more commonly “pygmy”) as a byword for a phenotypically short person is “sometimes considered pejorative.”

(The answers given at the back of the book: “All Japanese are Japanese the minute they are born” and “I know that a short pigmy is never taller than a tall giant. And a tall giant is never shorter than a short pigmy. But about the tall pigmy and the short giant – I give up on that one.”)

So it seems that a lot of Dr. Seuss books feature a plot in which the narrator turns away from the mundane to an imaginative world of the fantastic and bizarre. Unfortunately, one of the ways that Seuss marks for “fantastic” or “bizarre” are actual details from non-Western cultures, which by contrast casts white North Americans as “normal.” This is not how we try to think anymore. 

Once the DSE made the announcement in March prices of the discontinued books shot up on Ebay. Here is a screenshot I took at the time.

Ebay, March 2021.

But the e-commerce site quickly announced that it would not be party to such trade and banned it. One currently searches in vain there for any of the discontinued titles. I seem to remember Amazon making a similar announcement, although its banning was not as absolute as Ebay’s, as you can still find some used copies on Amazon at inflated prices.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

Amazon, September 2021.

The real question is: what was DSE thinking in making the announcement? Dr. Seuss really is beloved, and a lot of people were scandalized that the guardians of his legacy were apparently turning against him. Whether these books are really all that offensive (I make no comment on this, although I wonder if DSE actually consulted any Asians and Africans about them), why did DSE feel the need to tell everyone that it was withdrawing them from publication for political reasons? Books go out of print all the time, and when people enquire about them, the usual answer is that they weren’t making enough money. Against this there is no argument, so why not just do that?

Alternately, why not quietly bowdlerize the books, something else that happens all the time? Richard Scarry was a pioneer on this front. Dr. Seuss’s works themselves have occasionally undergone this treatment: witness a key difference between the original Cat in the Hat (1957), featuring an unnamed narrator and his sister Sally…

Andrew Kay and Associates, Pty Ltd.

…and the PBS cartoon show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (2010-18), in which the original narrator is replaced by Nick, Sally’s neighbor, for reasons of diversity.

kpbs.org.

In a similar way, the “Chinaman” on Mulberry Street at one point became a “Chinese man,” and had his skin lightened and his queue lopped off. 

Jake Beal’s Next Step.

One can think of any number of ways that these Seuss books could be modified to keep them in accord with the current mores, either by changing the text, changing the illustrations, or even just omitting a page or two. (No, I’m not going to draw a comparison to the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 – as long as editorial changes are acknowledged, and the originals available in places like the Kerlan Collection, I’m fine with children not getting the impression that Asians, Inuit, or Africans are somehow exotic or bizarre.)

So why did DSE do what it did? The simplest answer is that like most people right now in academia, publishing, government, the nonprofit sector, or even corporate America, they’re beholden to a certain ideology, and they get points in the eyes of their colleagues for acting in accord with it. They never think that they might be alienating everyone else, and potentially hurting their bottom line, but if they are, it’s a price they’re gladly willing to pay (viz. the recent behavior of the NFL, NASCAR, Dick’s Sporting Goods, etc.). As John McWhorter puts it in another context: this operation might “function as it were to make [DSE] feel noble, and look noble to one another. They were doing their duty as religious parishioners displaying their faith.”

A more complex answer is that the announced discontinuation might be a manufactured scandal. It is better to be talked about than not talked about, as Trump has repeatedly shown, and there is no such thing as negative publicity. DSE is making money on the books they’re still selling (perhaps because people are buying them out of fear that they too will soon be withdrawn?), and they might be making money on the books that they’ve stopped publishing, by selling them at inflated prices through third parties. If so, it’s a cynical and brilliant ploy. 

An answer between these two poles is that DSE is sacrificing some of the obscure titles to protect the popular ones, like Horton Hears a Who! (1954), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), The Lorax (1971), Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (1990), and the most famous of them all, The Cat in the Hat (which some people consider to be a racist portrayal of a blackface minstrel performer). The current mores dictate that one’s entire career can be ruined by a single slip-up, and Dr. Seuss is certainly in danger of this, on account of some of his early work on Madison Avenue and the anti-Japanese cartoons he did for PM magazine during World War II (plus, he’s just an old white guy anyway). So DSE decided to throw the “slip-ups” under the bus, while keeping the less objectionable (and more lucrative) stuff. But if this is true, DSE is playing a dangerous game! Any acknowledged association between “Dr. Seuss” and “racism” will come back to haunt them. 

Without knowing the people involved in making this decision I have no idea which one of these answers is true, although Occam’s Razor suggests the first.

September 11

I wrote the piece below on the second anniversary of the attacks in 2003, at which time my wife and I were graduate students at the University of Minnesota. The attacks were fresh enough in my mind that I think it can count as a primary source, and I repost it here for the twentieth anniversary for interest’s sake. If there is any modification to be made at this point, it sure looks like Iraq was a huge waste of lives and money and that not all people “yearn for freedom” the way we like to think they do. The recent debacle in Afghanistan has also revealed the limits of Wilsonian world-building. 

Note the changes in technology: dial-up Internet, television over the airwaves, photocopying documents to send them in the mail, etc.

****

I missed September 11. Anne awoke early to go into the university to teach, and I slept in until about 9:00 a.m. When I got up, instead of going onto the Internet as I often do, I finished off my lecture (I was teaching my own class on Tuesday evenings). I also wrote a letter to American Airlines: we had just returned from our honeymoon to South Africa and I was wondering if I could get the frequent flyer points for the entire trip and not just the officially American Airlines leg, i.e. Minneapolis to Chicago. I walked in to school around noon, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, either on the way in or when I got to the library to make photocopies of the boarding passes for the letter. I mailed it, and went up to the history department. As I got off the elevator I ran into the graduate secretary who told me that classes had just been cancelled for the rest of the day. I asked why. “Because of the World Trade Center coming down,” she replied. “What?” I said. “They blew up the World Trade Center.” “What are you talking about?!” “Oh, just go down to the lounge,” she said.

The lounge is a small room at the end of the hall with couches, a couple of bookcases full of books no one wants, a typewriter, and a small rabbit-eared television with a “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker on the top. I didn’t think that it actually worked, but apparently it did: a small crowd was gathered around, and it was showing again and again not just airplanes hitting the two towers of World Trade Center but the towers actually falling down. Falling down! Incredible! There’s no more World Trade Center! My friend Troy was there, and I asked him what the hell was happening. He filled me in: two planes were flown in to the World Trade Center, another plane had hit the Pentagon, and a fourth had gone down in Pennsylvania. Also, a car bomb had gone off in front of the State Department. He thought that it was probably the same type of people who had bombed the WTC in 1993. I was stunned. I watched the TV for a bit, and then went down to the computer lab to look on the Internet. Every single news site was full of information about the attacks. As many as 50,000 people could have been killed. The president was under heavy guard at an air force base somewhere. Fighter jets had been scrambled. All commercial flights had been grounded. Muslims were bracing for a backlash. Everyone was braced for further attacks. An email announced that an interfaith prayer rally in memory of the victims, and urging calm on survivors, was to take place on the Mall.

I went up a floor to see Anne. On the way I heard one professor saying that we shouldn’t cancel classes, but that we should use them to discuss the issue. I heard another saying, “This is big. This is Pearl Harbor.” I saw Anne, who was going to the prayer meeting with her advisor. I elected not to go: I had a suspicion that it would turn into an anti-backlash rally before any sort of backlash was apparent, which would have simply annoyed me. Instead, I just walked home. At this point I did notice the lack of airplanes in the sky, which is a novelty for Minneapolis since the airport is quite close to the downtown and planes are constantly flying overhead. Once home I turned on the television and sat hypnotized. I still wasn’t quite sure what exactly was going on, and that’s what I remember most about the day: the sheer novelty of it, how it didn’t seem to relate to anything that had ever happened before. Sure, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, but this seemed to be different in kind as well as degree. Such a reaction was shared by others: because no one knew quite what to think, an eerie calm seemed to pervade the reactions of people on the television. There was an interview with one guy who had been in the WTC and had gotten out, and who was matter-of-factly describing hearing the announcement, and simply walking down the stairs and out into the street. How much different from the Columbine massacre of two years previous: everyone knew then what a “school shooting” was, even if that was a particularly egregious one, so we had the usual images of teenagers hugging each other, soccer moms overjoyed to discover their offspring safe, grief counselors telling you that it’s OK to talk about your feelings, and almost instantaneous squabbling over whether it was caused by lack of gun control or whether it was caused by violent movies and video games. Mark Steyn wrote later that “it is very, very rare for the media to be caught so off-guard by an event that they lose control of their ability to determine its meaning,” and that was certainly true on the day.

Of course we all know now what “September eleventh” (complete with its assonance and amphibrachic rhythm) means. The attacks were the work of al-Qaeda, the same people who had bombed the USS Cole and the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Their operatives, armed with nothing more than boxcutters, hijacked four airplanes and used them as guided bombs against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and would have hit some fourth place had not the passengers of United Airlines flight 93 risen up against them and brought the plane down. Otherwise there was no bomb outside the State Department, only 3000 people were killed, and the anti-Muslim backlash was remarkably subdued. The only follow-up attacks consisted of anthrax in the mail to the likes of Senator Daschle and the National Enquirer, if these were connected to Sept. 11 at all.

And US foreign policy has revolved around it ever since. President Bush declared a “war on terror,” and since the Taliban regime of Afghanistan refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, he ordered it toppled, which the military did in fairly short order. After months of negotiations with the UN, it did the same to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, on the ostensible principle that Saddam had chemical weapons which he might share with terrorists, but also because he had never really fulfilled the cease-fire conditions of the first Gulf War, that Iraq could potentially serve as a model for a secular, liberal Arab state, thereby striking at one of the root causes of terrorism, and that he was a plain old fashioned tyrant whom the world is better off without. Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. I supported the war, and I still have confidence that what will come ahead will be better than what existed before, but I can’t help but feeling that time is not on our side.

Otherwise September 11 made me even more of a news junkie, and a conservative, than I already was. All attempts to portray the attack as blowback for the past misadventures of American foreign policy or the injustice of the world economic system struck me as hollow, something that would appear to be true if you were deeply invested in leftist ideology but which simply didn’t fit the facts. The airplanes were not piloted by the families of the Chilean disappeared or the survivors of a Contra massacre, nor by anyone who expressed solidarity even with the Palestinians. They weren’t poor, either: bin Laden is quite wealthy, and the hijackers were apparently well-off, with other life options available to them. No, to me the event blew the lid off the polite fiction, pervasive in academia, that all cultures are equal, and no one is ever really to blame, but if someone must be blamed, it should probably be the US. Robert Fulford wrote that the event

challenged the gentle and self-deluded way we have thought about human relations…. We try desperately to be agreeable and to deny that ugly differences among us exist. In this milieu, the atrocity of Sept. 11 was a foreign object, hard as anthracite. Perhaps we can identify it with an ancient word, evil. That term frightens us: liberalism decided long ago that “evil” should not, if one follows liberal thinking, exist.

And Christopher Hitchens, no conservative, famously wrote that

What the terrorists abominate about “the West” is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific enquiry, its separation of religion from the state.

To express solidarity with or even to make excuses for al-Qaeda seemed to me to be a great moral and strategic blunder. The US, even when headed by George Bush, is not always wrong.

All quotes above, by the way, have been culled from my file of Sept. 11 material that I started to keep and which I have open before me. Some of the commentary was first-rate, and some of it was fatuous drivel, because the pain-feelers and concern-sharers eventually did arrive. There was a “message of support and recommendation from the International Students’ Office,” including:

Some of you may feel that you have not really faced harassment, but that you have experienced a change in attitudes or an unfriendly climate in your department or work place. Even though you may feel that there are no concrete incidents that you consider harassment, we are interested in hearing about your experience and want to discuss strategies you or we can take feel safe and comfortable during your studies here.

And there was this message from the MacArthur fellows:

On Friday, Sept. 28, a group of MacArthur students and faculty met to discuss how our community could respond to the events of Sept. 11. The clear consensus was that we have a responsibility to draw from the MacArthur program’s intellectual skills and resources to stimulate critical reflection on several issues — in particular, the ongoing anti-Arab and anti-Moslem violence and racial profiling; new challenges to our political and civil liberties; the militarization of the US state; and more.

Note the smug elision between “we’re smart” and “we hold the correct opinions.” How about using your superior brainpower to come up with ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening again? As for the International Students Office, the theme of that message was clearly: “Please make us feel important! Please justify our jobs!” I wanted to tell them that although I was shocked by the attacks, I was very pleased that something good had come out of them, namely that the “climate” in America had changed vastly for the better: the country was united as I had never seen it before, and all the petty crap that normally fills its consciousness (that summer: Gary Condit, Chandra Levy, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Survivor) was placed firmly in perspective if not entirely forgotten, and finally that their patronizing and intrusive concern about the state of our emotions was not helping. Fuck off, you wankers!*

But I dare say Sept. 11 has been forgotten, in its way. Mark Steyn is fond of designating obsolete or trivial things as “so Sept. 10,” but in its way Sept. 11 has become Sept. 10. Time marches on, of course, and the first anniversary placed a natural moratorium on expressions of grief. But it seems to me that the Iraq war was more important in this respect. A few people protested the Afghan war, but many, many more people protested the war on Iraq, on the principle that it wasn’t retaliatory but “preemptive,” therefore ushering in a dangerous new era in American foreign policy. That the administration decided to seek UN approval for this adventure gave plenty of time for the anti-war movement to organize itself, and its failure to get that approval looked particularly bad. Furthermore, the controversy over the war shattered the unity that we had in the fall of 2001, and completely overshadowed any sympathy the US may have won abroad. If for a brief while it was cool to be American that moment has long passed, because the US has reverted to type: no longer the victim, it is once again the bully. Thus it has traded good will for “results,” in much the same way that the Jews, in founding the state of Israel, decided that they weren’t going to be nice anymore, and are quite unapologetic about killing their enemies.

Was it a good trade? I admit that it’s nice to be liked. Do you remember U2’s performance in memory of 9/11 at the Superbowl in 2002? Last summer my wife and I were visiting my parents in Canada, and we had a rental car with Minnesota plates. We had gone downtown to do some shopping and parked on the street; when we returned to the car we discovered that we had a ticket, only it wasn’t a ticket at all but a free parking pass issued by the Chamber of Commerce, on which the meter maid had written, “God bless America!” I’m not even American and I got choked up at this, but I wonder if anyone gets this treatment anymore. I personally don’t ever want to see another attack on the order of Sept. 11, and I am gladly willing to forego the good will of others to do so. The question, of course, is whether the war on Iraq and the other facets of the “War on Terror” have made another attack not less, but more, likely. Frankly I think there’s a lot to be said for the notion that we have crippled al-Qaeda and that they have been reduced to fighting in the Middle East only — we’ve taken the fight to them. But can we afford to stay there? Who knows? Americans are a can-do people and this project may just work… or it may not.

Meanwhile, on cue, Americans are back to their usual self-absorption. With the victory in Iraq things are back to “normal,” and so they have retreated to Plato’s cave and the comfort of stories about Laci Peterson, Kobe Bryant, and Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore. Sigh.

Allow me to say, in closing, that I’m quite embarrassed actually to have sent a letter to American Airlines asking for frequent flyer points, dated on a day that they had far, far more important things to worry about. (The reply, I’m relieved to say, came about two weeks later and was polite: they could give me points for the transatlantic flight, but not the London-Cape Town flight.)

* Of course I think that anti-Muslim prejudice is stupid and ugly, and if expressed physically met with the sternest possible punishment. It’s just that the assumption that most ordinary white Americans are latent racists, just waiting for an excuse to act on their hatred, is a gross libel. And longtime readers will know that I don’t care much for aggressive victimhood, either. Dirty looks and name-calling may be hurtful to schoolchildren, but adults should know how to ignore them.

Addendum

Recently spotted in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota: a memorial to 9/11, in particular to Tom Burnett, a native of Bloomington and leader of the Flight 93 revolt.