Dr. Seuss: Political Cartoonist, Racist?

| | Comments (8)

It's pretty funny seeing Dr. Seuss artwork in political cartoons. Explore the links to the cartoons. There's some interesting stuff there. Some of the issues he's dealing with are old enough that I have no clue what he's getting at, and some were probably really controversial for their time but now seem amazing that they were an issue to begin with. But what struck me as especially strange was the comment thread.

The very first comment links to a cartoon related to Japanese internment. I find it absolutely astounding that everyone in the discussion would just assume that what Geisel is portraying in that cartoon is an endorsement of internment rather than a portrayal of how strange the policy was, showing the paranoia in thinking every single Japanese American is all lined up ready to betray this country. Given his thoroughly liberal (for the time) views on racially-related policies, why would people simply assume that the cartoon endorses internment? Even leaving aside what we know about Ted Geisel, I look at the cartoon and can see how someone with either view might have created such a portrayal. This is a political cartoon. People do things like that all the time. I seem to remember a Eugene Volokh at the very same blog about someone who produced three political cartoons intended to portray three very different and in fact contradictory views of the same incident (but unfortunately I couldn't find it when I just looked). Yet on the same blog, people completely ignore that and assume that a cartoon portrays the literal views of the person doing it. Has the possibility of satire completely left our political consciousness?

That was just something I found strange about this conversation. What I found truly offensive was the assumption throughout the conversation that support for internment could come only from a racist, which is just crazy. Aside from the issues of whether there were internment policies for other groups (e.g. German Americans) and whether being Japanese counts as a race (rather than the more accurate category of ethnicity), someone could advocate a policy that involves heavy racial or ethnic profiling against a group that one believes (wrongly or rightly) to have a high percentage of people who are a threat, all without harboring any negative attitude toward anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity

One need not be a racist to practice racial profiling in high crime areas where 98% of the crimes are committed by young black males dressed in a certain way. It's easily motivated by a deep concern for a high crime rate in a neighborhood largely populated by black people, wanting that neighborhood to be safer for its residents. One need not be a racist to practice racial profiling of Arabs with a certain look who are more likely to be terrorists. It can just as easily be motivated by a desire to protect Arabs and to distinguish between the real criminals and the law-abiding Arabs. One similarly need not be a racist to practice racial profiling of Japanese who might be more likely to be spies in a WWII setting. Even if internment is the wrong way to go about it, that would be an intellectual mistake and not racism.

Someone should be able to admit this no matter their views on whether internment was the right policy. What I'm saying has nothing to do with whether it's wrong to profile in such a way. That's not the issue. The point is that it's not necessarily racist. Racism requires a negative attitude toward the group in question. One may not have that but still think it's the most effective law enforcement strategy given the statistical facts. I think it's incredibly unfortunate that people jump from Malkin's view to the charge of racism when that's just a complete non sequitur.

The best that can be done to motivate the racism charge is to call it a kind of institutional racism, i.e. a set of policies or structures in society that harm along racial lines. But that doesn't seem to me to be the claim here. These people are calling Michelle Malkin a racist. You don't call someone a racist for being part of an involuntary and entrenched social structure that has an unintended racial harm. Calling someone a racist amounts to accusing them of racial ill will, and there's no evidence whatsoever that Malkin or Geisel can be accused of that. That's why I found most of the discussion in the comments on that post to be deeply offensive. When you're dealing with charges of racism, you must, must, must keep in mind these incredibly important distinctions. Otherwise you're minimizing the evil of true racism by treating much lesser offenses (and even things that are relatively unproblematic) as being on the same level as one of the deepest evils of human history.


I have to say that I found the comments perplexing too. If one simply looks at the body of his work on that site reading him as being a racist, or in favor of interment, is simply a gross misinterpretation. He's clearly anti-isolationist, anti-racist, anti-corruption, anti-appeasment, pro-democracy, pro-war, pro-engagment, pro-national unity, etc. He's about as progressive as you could want a person to be.

"interNment" -- Don't forget the "n." Japanese were interned into camps, not buried.

You know, I thought something sounded funny about that, but I wasn't thinking of burial. I was thinking internment couldn't be right because it sounded too much like an internship. I guess I better fix that.

Matthew, the whole "Internment" camp thing is just like "Concentration" camp. The word doesn't mean anything - if anything it's facist to suggest that ours wasn't as bad because of our word for the camps. You know the Jews didn't go to the camps to study, so let's not reference the names of these camps ever, k?

Peter, it may be that calling it an internment camp or calling it a concentration camp does not tell us one thing or another about what went on there, but your comment suggests that they are equivalent. What makes them not equivalent is not the names but the fact that very different sorts of things went on in the two. To my knowledge, American soldiers did not line up Japanese Americans to send them into gas chambers. They did not perform mass experimentation on Japanese Americans by infecting them with awful diseases testing human tolerance for pain and such things. They did not prevent them from gathering for prayer, worship, or study of religious scriptures. They did not execute Japanese Americans merely because of some sense of racial purity. The targeting of Japanese Americans had nothing to do with who merited or did not merit living in any intrinsic way but had to do with social factors such as the suspicion that people of Japanese descent might be more loyal to Japan than to their own country (the U.S.). The internment camps did limit Japanese Americans to a significant degree, but it was nothing like German concentration camps, and the mere suggestion that they were similar is a huge insult to the victims of the Holocaust.

Even aside from that issue, it is a mistake to think things are different because they are assigned different names, but there is nothing fascist about that mistake (or facist, for that matter, whatever that means). Argument forms can be fallacious without there being any motivation of autocratic or totalitarian control. People can simply make intellectual mistakes, particularly when giving bad arguments for true conclusions (as is very much the case here).

It's a stretch to interpret the cartoon as 'illustrating paranoia.' Political cartoonists are rarely so subtle: they want people to get the intended meaning. A political cartoonist who wanted to criticize paranoia would not draw something that could only incite it. (We also know that Mr. Geisel was a staunch supporter of the war against both the Nazis and Japanese). However, there is no proof that the cartoon specifically endorsed internment.

I agree you can racially profile without being racist, but clearly that was not the case here. Geisel was a German-American! Likewise, in WWI, Ukranian-North Americans were interned but nor German- Austrian- or Hungarian- N. Americans. Obviously the issue is race (not ethnicity - they weren't fighting the Chinese, otherwise it would have applied to them too).

Peter, I don't think Matthew meant that internment camps were any better or worse than concentration camps, I think he was pointing out a spelling error.

Also, there is a distinct difference-- we Japanese were not killed, although many people wanted that at the time. It may have not been the best or most reasonable idea, but it still was not as bad as a concentration camp.

Also, Roger, you seem to have "race" and "ethnicity" confused. Race is a made-up concept. There can be billions of races or just 4 races, depending on who's telling. Race could be "white." But who is white, and who is not white? Depends on who you ask. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a group of people who identify with each other and have cultural things in common. Like the Japanese. Or Asian-American (since the pan-Asian movement in the 60s, anyway, it could be counted as an ethnicity). Just wanted to clarify that.

Actually, it was Ed who pointed out the spelling error.

Race isn't a made up in the sense of people sitting around and deciding on something. It's socially constructed, meaning that social practices and historical relations determine the existence of races, the meaning of racial terms, and the facts about which people are in which groups. It isn't as if people just decide, with any old way of determining group boundaries being equally good. It doesn't depend on who you ask. It depends on the context of discussion. The facts that settle such questions are not facts about individuals and what they believe, as if it's true just because someone believes it.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04