Being a Product of our Time…

A moment of disclosure, I wasn’t really a Dr. Seuss fan even as a child. While my peers were reading Horton Hears a Who, I was reading Where the Sidewalk Ends. While my friends were flipping through pages of The Cat in the Hat, I was lost in the pages of Where the Wild Things Are.

Point is, this current scuffle over the legacy of one Theodor Geisel doesn’t hit me as deeply or strikes the core of my childhood like it does a good many people. So, if I seem particularly dismissive of the impact he has had on so many developing minds, I apologize. Nonetheless, as he has become the latest front in the United States of America’s ever expanding culture war, I am compelled to speak on it, as it ties to something else I have noticed repeatedly as modern society tries to reconcile with its past.

The facts aren’t really in dispute. During Geisel’s rise as a cartoonist, he did a lot of work that contained exceedingly blatant racism. As in nakedly obvious, even for the early 20th century. It was a trait that informed even his later work where he tried to be more inclusionary. And he did try, even if the work was more allegorical rather than direct… and even though it still fell short in many instances.

This reality and problematic history has been met quite frequently with the same refrain that a considerable number of historical creators and figures when their own backgrounds are brought to the forefront of the discussion.

“They were a product of their times!”

On its surface, this is a true statement. As bad as we can be culturally in terms of inclusion and tolerance in the current day, past eras were far worse in nigh every aspect, and it is easily seen by what was considered acceptable discourse in those times by those who influenced those cultural periods, and that culture would inform and influence every single person who grew up and contributed to it.

So, I do not object to the statement. I object to its usage.

Because when this line has been invoked, it is used as a deflection. It’s used in hopes of burying the troublesome so that it doesn’t have to be reckoned with, and those who enjoy it can continue to enjoy it with a clean conscience. They want a clean break that doesn’t require retrospection… because that would invariably lead to introspection, and there’s nothing your average American hates more than having to look in the spiritual mirror and take stock of the warts on their soul.

We want to be free of the troublesome aspects of our icons, without even knowing why its troublesome to begin with. Even if it was good faith attempt (and in most cases, it isn’t), it is akin to sweeping all the dirt under the rug. It doesn’t actually solve the problem.

I’d contend it’s of utmost importance to remember that everyone is a product of their time, especially as we consume their work. I dare say that is vital. Because it’s with that knowledge that we can learn and build upon the past to be better in our time.

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