By JAY STOOKSBERRY
Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor who personally witnessed the rise of the Third Reich, wrote a guilt-ridden poem titled “First they came...” in which he described his inaction when the Nazis singled out and purged various groups. In the end, when they came to do the same to Niemöller, he poetically repented: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
In the U.S., we are reenacting Niemöller’s poem — all thanks to this thing called “cancel culture.”
If you’re like me — an easily spooked white dude who probably spends too much time on the internet — you know that cancel culture targeted a number of institutions that are near and dear to the American way of life. And I’m not talking about rinky-dink institutions like freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and other constitutional rights. No, cancel culture is targeting far more sacrosanct institutions.
First, they came for Mr. Potato Head.
Hasbro, the company that produces every child’s favorite root vegetable, made my spud boil. In this age of increasing awareness about gender and other uncomfortable conversation topics that I am actively avoiding discussing with my children, Hasbro pulled a Kim Kardashian and dropped the mister: Mr. Potato Head was now just Potato Head!
I was, of course, starch-raving mad when I heard the news. It is a certifiable scientific fact that that potato is a man. Never mind the anatomical anomaly that enables him to hide his extremities in his nether regions; he has a mustache for crying out loud!
Apparently, I might have overreacted. It turns out Hasbro only rebranded their toyline because they also produce Mr. Potato Head’s soulmate, Mrs. Potato Head. I guess this rebrand makes sense. This gender thing is befuddling enough that we don’t need further confusion with the word “Mr.” a toy that is clearly a woman — what with all the red lipstick and detachable arms.
But before I had time to cool my tots, the next controversy occurred.
Then, they came for Dr. Seuss.
Social justice warriors targeted the famous children’s book author, who we all love while at the same time loath because reading “Fox in Socks” is a painfully tongue-twisting literary experience.
And who were these social justice warriors, you ask? Dr. Seuss was canceled by — let me check my notes — Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss Enterprises — the proprietor of the author’s colorful estate (which sounds like a weird progressive hellhole filled with property-damaging felines and mustachioed tree huggers) — is the real-life embodiment of the Grinch in this tale.
Apparently, six of Dr. Seuss’s books depicted “problematic” racial caricatures — yet again, another uncomfortable conversation with my children. As a result, Dr. Seuss Enterprises made the decision to stop producing these texts — none of which I read before but still somehow managed to purchase all of them on eBay in bulk. Don’t tread on my green eggs and ham, cancel culture!
Then, they came for me… right?
Well, I guess that depends on who “they” are. I found a clearer definition of “they” in “Horton Hears a Who.” Throughout this whole debate, there is always this omnipresent “they” lurking in the shadows, preparing to take away everything near and dear to me if I say or do the wrong thing, which should be any minute because I often am wrong.
Are “they” the government? Well, no. That would be an open-and-shut case. The First Amendment is my get-out-of-jail-free card (well, free before legal fees, of course). And there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut policy solution to it, either. If I was a more cynical person, I would almost suspect that politicians who rattle their sabers about this issue only do so to rile us up and to donate to their campaigns. Good thing that I’m such a glass-is-half-full kind of guy.
Are “they” Hasbro or Dr. Seuss Enterprises? Again, no. Both are private entities acting in accordance with the private property to which they own exclusive rights. Plus, I am free to do whatever I please with all of their products that I am hoarding in my bunker at the moment. It’s almost like this is a free market or some reasonable, gender-neutral facsimile of it.
The “they” in the cancel culture equation seems to be vague enough to be whatever malevolent force we can conjure up in our minds — like the boogeyman, Freddy Krueger, or Antifa — but specific enough that it somehow occupies my mind. Maybe this is why my therapist keeps asking me, “Is cancel culture in the room right now?”
Perhaps all of this hoopla over cancel culture is a little bit like the items at the center of this whole “nontroversy.” It’s all a tad bit childish.
Jay Stooksberry is a writer and editor based in Delta, Colorado. His writing is available at jaystooksberry.com.