Ethics Quote Of The Month: New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat


“It was mildly creepy to hear that the custodians of Theodor Geisel’s estate, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, consulted with a ‘panel of experts’ and decided to cease publishing six Seuss titles because they ‘portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.’ But it was much creepier that so few people notionally in the free-expression business, so few liberal journalists and critics, seemed troubled by the move.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, one of the paper’s three token conservatives (or perhaps “non-knee-jerk Democrats” is more accurate), in his column, “Do Liberals Care if Books Disappear?”

The question is a rhetorical one. Douthat knows the answer, and so do regular Ethics Alarms readers: “Only if the books that disappear are those they agree with.” Though the column focuses on the Dr. Seuss metaphorical book-burning, Douthat properly interprets what it signifies. Of course, he is appropriately late to the party, for it was obvious well before “If I Ran the Zoo” was under attack that the totalitarian-tending Democrats and their progressive supporters and allies were in favor of “good” censorship. Never mind—Americans rushed to their mailboxes to vote an anti-free speech regime into power anyway.

Better late than never for Ross, I guess. Here are some highlights (but read his whole piece):

—“Plus, we were told, it’s only six books. And is Seuss so great anyway? “The vast, vast majority of his books, the ones without racist images or references,” wrote Philip Bump of the Washington Post, “will still be sold.” And if “Dr. Seuss’s profile wanes a bit … to whom is harm being done?” In The Guardian, Lili Wilkinson noted dismissively that “the six books in question were far from being bestsellers,” while Bump’s colleague, the usually perspicacious critic Alyssa Rosenberg, took the cancellation as an occasion to complain about “the tiresome lack of imagination” of people who obsess over Seuss but not, say, Peter Spier. Now I love Peter Spier, but this is still a censor’s argument. Upset that you can’t get a copy of Ulysses? You can still read Dubliners, which is better anyway. Also, plenty of other Irish authors out there.

Rationalizations #8, 22, and 33!

—“In fact the Seuss cancellations illustrate exactly the problems with censoriousness that liberals normally invoke. First, you have a nonspecific justification attributed to unnamed “experts” and “educators” that sweeps up a range of books and illustrations…Second, the vagueness of the new standard offers openings for further disappearances. The anti-racist left is already ready with a critique of Seuss’s larger oeuvre, taking on everything from the alleged minstrel-show element in “The Cat in the Hat” to the complacent colorblindness of “The Sneetches.”

This really is a slippery slope, and the Left likes it slippery.

–“The Seuss cancellations also illustrate how a disappearance can happen without a legal “ban” being literally imposed. One day, the Seuss estate decides to self-censor; the next, that decision becomes the justification for eBay to delist used copies of the books. In a cultural landscape dominated by a few big companies with politically uniform management, you don’t need state censorship for books to swiftly vanish.”

—“What does this say about the condition of liberalism? Something not so great, I think. I don’t expect “The Cat in the Hat” to be unpublished or my own tracts to swiftly vanish. But it was a good thing when liberalism, as a dominant cultural force in a diverse society, included a strong tendency to police even itself for censoriousness — the ACLU tendency, the don’t-ban-Twain tendency, the free-speech piety of the high school English teacher.”

Sadly, Douthat here sinks to the predictable level of equivocation required of the conservative Patty Hearsts under New York Times control. “Not so great?” You’re talking about the erosion of freedom of speech and expression in the United States of America, and your verdict is “Not so great”?

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat

  1. I have a hard time reading anything a NYT “conservative” columnist has to say. Do you suppose Pravda had in house reactionaries to provide balance? How can any of David Brooks and their ilk think straight?

  2. “Upset that you can’t get a copy of Ulysses? You can still read Dubliners, which is better anyway. Also, plenty of other Irish authors out there.“

    Sounds like the anti-Columbus Day argument. You Italian-Americans upset we’re pushing your guy off the calendar? You can still invoke Mother Cabrini, who wasn’t so violent. Also, there are plenty of other ways to celebrate your heritage. We’re just saying you can’t celebrate it THIS way. OK, yes, we DID pick a winner and a loser here, and this time you lost. That’s the price of social progress and justice.

    Also sounds like the anti-cross monument argument. You upset that we’re insisting that cross monument come down? Maybe you can put up a new one in a different shape. Also, there are plenty of other ways to honor the memory of the veterans. We’re just saying you can’t honor them THIS way. OK, yes, we ARE singling one particular way of doing it out for disfavor. That’s the price of social justice.

    I’d like to come up with a clever name for this line of reasoning, that justifies taking away ONE item by saying there are others that you should be ok with or puts the burden on you to find alternatives. However, I can’t think of one that everyone would recognize instantly.

    The fact of the matter is the attitude behind this line of reasoning is insufferable and disrespectful of autonomy. If you went into a restaurant and ordered roast beef, but the waiter said “why don’t you have the chicken pot-pie instead?” you’d be like “huh?” If you went into a ice cream parlor and asked for a chocolate cone, but the person behind the counter said “have vanilla instead,” (assuming they aren’t out) you’d say “I don’t want vanilla, I want chocolate.” If I told you henceforth you were forbidden to eat cake, but that’s ok, you can still have pie or cookies or other things, you’d be like “wtf?”

  3. “…the ACLU tendency, the don’t-ban-Twain tendency, the free-speech piety of the high school English teacher”

    Sorry, when did these exist? I guess I am not old enough to remember that. This is a typical liberal hearkening back to a mythological time when the left was for free speech. The liberals were the pro-ban-Twain people. I saw high school English teachers who said they were free speech, but would censor students with ‘incorrect’ opinions. I never saw and English teacher who thought it was OK to express opinions that they disagreed with. And bringing the Anti-Civil Liberties Union in on this only defeats his point.

      • Agreed. But, the issue in Skokie was the proverbial slippery slope: “If the government can prevent Nazis from marching in Skokie, then the government can prevent communists from marching in D.C.” Since that time, the ACLU has abandoned its mission and would not take on the Nazis’ First Amendment claims. They have become a leftist advocacy group, no longer a vehement protector of liberties protected by the Constitution.


          • True. The ACLU used to be a valuable organization with an absolutest First Amendment position. Now, the only organizations remaining are the NRA (which is taking a beating in federal court and the press because of alleged mismanagement) and Planned Parenthood (at whose name being mentioned all must genuflect).


          • Just for the record, the Skokie case was in 1977, and the Scopes trial was in 1925. As JVB points out, a LOT has changed since then. A lot more may be about to change, as Joe Manchin has signaled he might be open to doing away with the legislative filibuster. Maybe he got one of those phone calls with anti-voice recognition software warning him he better start looking over his shoulder, or an anonymous package with photos showing his grandchildren (he has at least 4) going to work or school and a typed note, all handled only with surgical gloves, saying “Get out of the president’s way or one of these kids’ next address is the cemetery. Go to the FBI with this and more than one of them die.”


    “The Guardian, Lili Wilkinson noted dismissively that ‘the six books in question were far from being bestsellers,'”

    Ah, yes, it is great to have principles when it does not cost you anything.

    And, if they were not great sellers, that argues in favor of not banning them. Banning them is unnecessary if they are rarely sold anyway (unless your goal is really just to appear virtuous).


    • 1. I could, or he could come up with a spelling that I can pronounce. His name is even wrong in the tags. is it DOO-THAT, or DOWt-Hat? I don’t know. Anyway, thanks for the snotty correction. I’ve fixed it.

      Is that it? That’s your best shot? A typo?

  5. What damages would a copyright holder claim if they had prominently made it known that they would no longer publish certain works, and a “pirate” press took to distributing them? Maybe it’s time for the resistance to try this out.

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