Book bans a troubling sign of bent towards antidemocracy

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Banning books is a proud fascist tradition Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Maus an “unflinchingly” Jewish book

In early January, a school board in Tennessee consisting of ten people voted unanimously to remove the graphic novel Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. The decision was made after a debate about the age-appropriateness of the book due to its graphic content. The choice has received a large amount of criticism and, in turn, has driven the demand for the book up and increased its sales as people advocate for its importance. The board released a statement defending their decision, stating that they banned it due to “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”

Maus is a graphic novel that depicts Art Spiegelman’s parents’ experience during and after the Holocaust. Jewish people are depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats. The first part was published in 1986 and the second part in 1991. It has been an influential piece of literature about the Holocaust and was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Maus starts with the story of Spiegelman’s parents’ experience in Auschwitz, an account that his father, Vladek, relayed to him prior to Vladek’s death. The second part talks about Spiegelman’s relationship with his parents, how it was affected by the Holocaust, and how he coped with his mother’s suicide.

“This claim that the school makes that Maus can be replaced with something just a bit less, less violent, less graphic, and still fill the same role? I seriously questioned that because Maus is really unlike most other things that exist,” said Marie Rowe-McCulloch, a History professor at the University of Regina who specializes in Holocaust studies.  “In part, that’s because it is this unflinchingly Jewish perspective that really refuses to care whether this is the way the audience, an audience who might not be Jewish themselves, wants to hear the story. It is telling the story of the Jewish experience, the way the Jewish people involved want to tell it, and it doesn’t always paint a nice picture. There’s a lot of complicated stuff throughout the book, and I’m really hard-pressed to think of other accounts that do that so well.”

“The other thing that’s special about Maus is it talks about the Holocaust as it happens, but it also continues the story and talks about the experience of the main character,” Rowe-McCulloch continued. “It talks about the decades after the Holocaust and some of the long-term effects on survivors and how hard it could be to carry with you the knowledge and the weight of what happened in the Holocaust, even if you didn’t live through it. Plus, it’s a graphic novel, and that’s very appealing I think for honestly everyone at every level, but it also means that it communicates information both visually and in text. It can really pack a lot of information into not a huge amount of space by doing that.”

Book bans in history have been used as a way to control information. The banning of Maus is part of a crusade against books on sexuality, gender, and race in the United States that has been occurring over the last few years. Banning books is not a new phenomenon, but the practice is highly politicized, with groups forcing the issue into courts and politicians using it in their campaigns. Social media has also added to the problem because people can spread information and gather support for banning the book faster than they used to.  The American Library Association reported 330 attempts at banning certain books in their preliminary report and has said that the challenges are coming in record numbers.

When asked on the intent behind banning Maus and the implications it could have going forward, Rowe-McCulloch said “I think it’s a mistake to take at face value the reasons that are being given for why this book is being banned and assume that that is the whole story, and by that, I don’t even necessarily mean that the school board is like misrepresenting what they’re doing in a devious way, but I think there’s a lot going on and I don’t necessarily find it convincing that the reasons they gave are the whole story. So as I understand it, they released a statement talking about why they were banning Maus. They say in their statement […] that they want to ban it from the curriculum because of its unnecessary use of profanity, nudity, and its depiction of violence and suicide. And the word in that sentence that jumped out to me was “unnecessary,” and I just thought, ‘who is anyone to tell a Holocaust survivor and the second-generation survivor, the child of survivors, what is unnecessary in order to tell a person’s story of the Holocaust?’ That seemed incredibly presumptuous to me. Also, they’re saying its depiction of violence and suicide is unnecessary, and my take is that they want to tell the story of the Holocaust, but only a fantasy version that exists in the minds of these school board members because the Holocaust involves profanity and nudity and suicide and unquestionably it is a story about violence. So to try and tell the story of the Holocaust without the violence, you simply can’t.”

Rowe-McCulloch added “That’s part of the reality. And then they say the atrocities of the Holocaust were shameful beyond description, and I think the fact that they use the word shameful is super telling there because to describe the atrocities of the Holocaust as shameful is not language that victims of the Holocaust use to talk about the Holocaust. For whom is the Holocaust a great shame? For whom are the atrocities of the Holocaust a shame? That’s the perpetrators. It’s like a great shame that’s visited on the people who carried out the Holocaust. But to talk about the Holocaust as a shameful event, I think, really makes clear that the perspective, whether they realize it or not, that these school board members have on the Holocaust focuses on the people carrying it out, and they think about it as something the perpetrators did. They think that the lessons that can be learned are how to not fall into the trap of doing that. I think all this, whether they realize it or not, it is informing their perspective, and that’s just a version of the Holocaust that leaves the victims out entirely and doesn’t show any interest in what it was like to experience the Holocaust. And I would argue that’s exactly what Maus is all about. Maus is a very Jewish book. It is about what it’s like to be Jewish before, during, and after the Holocaust. And it’s entirely focused on the perspective of victims and survivors. And so it doesn’t surprise me that [Maus] seems inconvenient to the school board because it’s incompatible with their view of the Holocaust.”

The banning of Maus is a step backwards for Holocaust education. When misinformation is prominent and distrust of experts is spreading, it is more important than ever that youth are given the information they need to be educated consumers of information, and that starts at school.

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