A Tennessee school board’s controversial decision to ban a beloved Holocaust novel has many – including the author – fuming.
On January 10th, The McGinn County School Board voted unanimously to ban ‘Maus’ from its eighth grade Holocaust curriculum, arguing that the Pulitzer winner’s frank depictions of the horrors of the Holocaust (in cartoon mouse form) is ‘unnecessary’ to teach history.
The graphic novel, written by Art Spiegelman, tells the true story of Spiegelman’s parents’ experiences as Polish Jews during the Holocaust, including their internment in Auschwitz. It depicts Nazis as cats and Jews as mice.
The ban spurned nationwide outrage and vaulted the 40-year-old graphic novel to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, with many hoping to check out the novel for themselves - or donate a copy to students in McGinn County.
When it comes to teaching the horrors of war, ethnic cleansing, and religious persecution, is it necessary to show the full breadth of what happened?
Or can we sanitize history and come away with the same message?
Is This Protecting the Children?
“The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole, the Board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools,” read a public statement from the school board.
The meeting minutes from January 10th show a lively debate amongst school board members, who heard from the very language arts teachers who were using the book to educate students about the holocaust. Before agreeing to ban the text completely, board members discussed possibly censoring the book by blotting out the objectionable words and the cartoon mouse nudity.
Eventually, they landed on a full-blown ban.
“It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy,” said board member Tony Allman. Board member Mike Cochran concurred.
Pointing to the nudity, swear words, and depiction of suicide, he stated that “we don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”
He specifically objected to the use of the word ‘damn’, as well as a depiction of the author’s mother’s suicide. “It starts out with the dad and the son talking about when the dad lost his virginity. It wasn’t explicit but it was in there. You see the naked pictures, you see the razor, the blade where the mom is cutting herself. You see her laying in a pool of her own blood,” he stated.
“It looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language. If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it.”
Or Is This "Autocracy and Fascism" at Work?
“A harbinger of things to come,” was the reaction of Maus author Art Spiegelman. “This is a red alert. It’s not just: ‘How dare they deny the Holocaust?’ They’ll deny anything.”
In an interview with CNN, Spiegelman expressed his initial confusion over the ban and the school board’s “myopic” focus on brief language and nudity, believing that they’re missing the forest for the trees.
Addressing one of the board’s major complaints – an overhead panel of Spiegelman’s nude mother in a bathtub after having cut her wrists – he stated that “you have to really, like, want to get your sexual kicks by projecting on it.”
But, he believes, this may go beyond simple objections to language and nudity. He believes “it has the breath of autocracy and fascism,” and, noting other recent book bans at schools and libraries across the country, he says this may be part of an attempt to control “what people can learn, what they can understand and think about.”
The ban launched the decades-old book to the top of the bestseller list – “The Complete Maus” in hardcover, as well as the paperback editions of “Maus I” and “Maus II” all hit the Amazon top 10 bestsellers in January.
What do you think? Was the school board right to ban a book that has nudity, suicide, and bad language in it, regardless of context? Can we still get the same message when all the 'naughty' bits are purged?
Or is sanitizing history – particularly the Holocaust – a dangerous road to go down?