Home > Uncategorized > Censoring Maus is part of the mass forgetting of history – posted 2/6/2022

Censoring Maus is part of the mass forgetting of history – posted 2/6/2022

In January, the McMinn County School Board located in east Tennessee removed Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus from the school curriculum. Maus was an anchor text for an eighth grade module on the Holocaust.

The book is a graphic memoir about Speigelman’s parent’s experience during the Holocaust, including their imprisonment at Auschwitz. Spiegelman also tells the story of his very difficult relationship with his father, Vladeck. Although Spiegelman’s father survived the war, he was not an easy man.

In the book, the Jews are depicted as mice and the Germans are drawn as cats. The visual aspect of the book is unique and highly original. The book has proven to be a powerful learning tool for young people.

The school board said they did not object to teaching about genocide but they objected to the book’s profanity, nudity, violence and the depiction of suicide. The book contains a visual of Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide. The school board voted unanimously 10-0 to remove Maus. One school board member explained his reasoning:

“It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff.”

As Spiegelman told the New York Times, it seemed that these school board members were asking “why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”

The removal of Maus is part of a wave of book challenges at schools around the country. The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom says there have never been so many people challenging books. According to the Association, just in the period between September 1, 2021-December 1, 2021 there were as many requests to remove books as in all of 2020.

The majority of targeted books focus on race, sexuality and gender. Interestingly, Spiegelman inscribed Maus with a quote from Adolf Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race but they are not human”.

I do think the book bannings, including the removal of Maus, need to be placed inside the context of the increasing authoritarianism and incipient fascism reflected in the Republican Party. Republican-controlled state legislatures are passing laws to make it easier to remove books deemed “divisive”. Forgetting the Holocaust figures into this project.

In getting rid of Maus, whatever the school board members say, the objective is removing a book that highlights bigotry and the danger of fascism. Anyone who censors Maus is actively opposing Holocaust education and denying Jewish history.

A 2020 survey by the Commission on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that almost two-thirds of young American adults did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. 23% of young American adults believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated. As we get farther away from the time and there are fewer Holocaust survivors, mass forgetting becomes a bigger problem. Today’s fascists do not want young people to know this history.

About Maus’s removal, Spiegelman also said, “It’s part of a continuum and just a harbinger of things to come”. Book banning has a long record as a fascist tradition. Bannings were a prelude to book burnings. I know there are those who will says I am overreacting but denial of the fascist trend is dangerous. There is a desire to normalize events and pretend there is no fascist threat.

Last November, Texas officials, including Republican Governor Greg Abbott and State Rep. Matt Krause issued directives against “obscene” books in local schools regarding books about gender, sexual orientation, sex education and race. Rep. Krause put 850 books on a watch list, most dealing with human rights, sex education and mention of LBGTQ people.

The San Antonio School District pulled 414 books from its libraries in response to pressure from Texas lawmakers and angry parents. Rep. Krause said he was opposed to books that might generate ‘discomfort, guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress because of a student’s race or sex’. This is language from Texas House bill 3979 which is an anti-Critical Race Theory bill.

I am reminded of a famous quote from Franz Kafka:

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen within us.”

If like Rep. Krause, you are opposed to books that generate “discomfort”, it is fair to say you are opposed to education. Reading is supposed to be challenging. Literature, like Maus, is about exploring the unfamiliar and life experience outside our own.

Maybe parents or educators who censor books like Maus are afraid of the effect the reading experience will have on their children. Would reading Maus teach empathy? Or opposition to racism and anti-semitism? Would it make young people more-open-minded and less bigoted? In the guise of protecting children, the school board makes them ignorant.

The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole writes:

“As a society the American people are being habituated into accepting cruelty on a wide scale. Americans are being taught not to see other people as human beings whose lives are as important as their own. Once that line has been crossed…then we know where that all leads, what the ultimate destination is. There is no mystery about it. We know what happens when a government and its leaders dehumanize large numbers of people.”

The definition of what is “inappropriate”, “obscene” or “distressing” is political and depends on point of view.

Americans need to refuse to live in a fascist world. The book banning like with Maus, is not normal. Historical memory matters and we must do much better in remembering oppression. Otherwise, we are more likely to repeat what has been forgotten.

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