Opinion

The Republican grievance perpetual motion machine

The outrage must flow

The last few months have been hard sledding for the right-wing misinformation machine. Former President Donald Trump is off Twitter and barely on TV anymore, while Democrats are not providing all that much grist for the culture war mill. Meanwhile, Republicans really, really don't want to talk about what Democrats are actually doing — namely, working up a gigantic coronavirus relief package that is overwhelmingly popular and investigating the Jan. 6 putsch.

But nothing will stop hard-working right-wing media personalities from cooking up some new culture war slop to shovel into the eager mouths of the conservative base. There must always be a new cultural grievance to generate the requisite fits of purple-faced apoplexy, and by God it will proceed based on complete falsehoods if necessary.

The biggest story on the right this week has been about children's book author Dr. Seuss. Some of his books have obvious racist stereotypes, and there has long been discussion in some corners of academia about addressing this in some way. One school district in Virginia elected to deprioritize Seuss during the annual Read Across America day (meant to encourage child literacy), and the Seuss estate announced it would no longer publish six fairly obscure Dr. Seuss titles, because: "These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong."

In response, the conservative victimhood machine went into warp drive. Fox News and Newsmax ran dozens of segments melting down about Dr. Seuss being CANCELED, with many suggesting that all his books were being banned altogether. "This is fascism!" yelled Glenn Beck on his show. "Everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves," wrote Dan McLaughlin at National Review. Ben Shapiro promised he would buy "all the Dr Seuss volumes for the kids before the woke book-burners can get to them all."

The whole tantrum was completely deranged. I grew up reading Dr. Seuss, and the only one of the six discontinued books I had even heard of was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (which sure enough has a pretty blatant Asian stereotype in it). None of the true classics — Oh, the Places You'll Go, The Cat in the Hat, The Grinch who Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who, The Lorax, Green Eggs and Ham, and so on — were "canceled." On the contrary, the conservative media frenzy drove a surge of virtue-signal buying, which landed many of those titles atop the Amazon best-seller list. Ted Cruz nonsensically boasted about this fact.

As an aside, it is not hard to imagine conservatives demanding Dr. Seuss be taken out of schools (as they have previously CANCELED Rudolfo Anaya, Kurt Vonnegut, and Charles Darwin in years past) if the cultural context were slightly different. As Constance Grady writes at Vox, Seuss's political legacy was complicated, but in most questions of his day he ended up on the left. Though he did draw many racist cartoons, he was firmly anti-Jim Crow, anti-Nazi, anti-"America First," pro-environment, anti-consumerist, and anti-militarist. One book published during Reagan's presidency is a scathing critique of the Cold War. (Hey Ted — you're pushing left-wing propaganda on American children!)

This brings me to the other most important topic in this great nation of 330 million people: the Mr. Potato Head toy. Over the last few days, various right-wing figures have been stoking hysterical panic over the apparent news that Hasbro somehow got rid of Mr. Potato Head's gender, rendering him into some kind of sexless Tumblr alien. "They tried to cancel … Mr. Potato Head," said House Minority Whip Jim Jordan at CPAC. "Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head because it's the end of an era. It is the end of freedom in America!" said Glenn Beck (in the same segment mentioned above). "I would strongly encourage you to go out and get a Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head," said Mark Levin on his podcast.

The only problem was that none of this ever happened. Hasbro just made a slight branding adjustment, putting "Potato Head" as the overall brand atop its whole line of various potato toys, which are still gendered as before.

To be fair, several journalists are also responsible for screwing up the original story. It seems The Associated Press was the first to misread the press release in a piece that claimed Mr. Potato Head was going "gender-neutral," which seeded a great deal more wrong coverage. It's also possible that Hasbro intentionally worded its statement vaguely to drum up some free media attention.

And once again, Mr. Potato Head is an extremely odd basis for a screaming tantrum over traditional gender norms. It isn't exactly G.I. Joe — on the contrary, its detachable parts give it an inherently gender-weirding or even body horror aspect. Part of the fun of the toy is the way kids can rearrange its clothing or body parts to create something that might have crawled out of a radioactive waste spill:

Anyway, it feels profoundly stupid to even be writing about this. But all this idiocy was a likely preview of the way conservative politics are going to proceed into the medium term. So long as Biden is president the Republican Party is going to be categorically opposed to everything he does. They will need a steady diet of left-wing outrages to keep the conservative grievance industrial complex operating at full steam. So if there aren't enough real stories to work themselves into a froth over, they will make some up.

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