Politics

What the Outrage Over a Local Decision to Stop Teaching Maus Gets Wrong

A person's hands holding up the book, Maus, with the front cover featuring a pair of mice and a swastika
This illustration photo taken in Los Angeles on Jan. 27 shows a person holding the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Maro Siranosian/AFP via Getty Images

This past week, the graphic novel Maus has catapulted up Amazon’s bestseller list. It’s the No. 3 top seller in nonfiction after a Tennessee county school board voted 10–0 to eliminate it from an eighth grade school curriculum over concerns that it contained bad words and nudity. The magnitude of the reaction is perhaps more notable than the inciting incident, which has been widely characterized as a “ban” despite being no such thing. Not requiring that eighth graders read a book at school is importantly different from banning it.

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But the agita is in some ways instructive: This episode has been understandably lumped in with conservative efforts all over the country to pull certain titles from library bookshelves in ways that do come quite a bit closer to bans. Indeed, the Maus decision is legible as part of a national trend that includes proposals like Oklahoma’s Students’ Religious Belief Protection Act, which would offer individuals the option to sue teachers for $10,000 in damages for contradicting the religious beliefs of students; Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would ban teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics deemed not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students”; Florida’s “Individual Freedom” bill, which would forbid schools or private businesses from causing anyone to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin”; and a series of measures across the country designed to ban the teaching of critical race theory, whatever that is interpreted to mean in each individual state and school district. This is a trend that, under the aegis of “parental rights” and “protecting” children from so-called distress, is hellbent on making the ugly and true parts of history—that is to say, the bulk of it—unsayable and unteachable.

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Put simply, part of the panic over pulling Maus from the curriculum is concern that the effort might represent a larger and more horrifying project that would include papering over the horrors of the Holocaust and/or mainstreaming antisemitism, among other elements of white nationalism. For those observing the aforementioned trends, it’s all too easy to read the McMinn County school board’s decision as a necessary next step in an emerging program of right-wing indoctrination that would have, as its endpoint, annihilating even these few remaining shreds of a bipartisan, nationwide understanding of history. The Holocaust has long been accepted by both the left and the mainstream right as an unthinkably ugly event that cannot be repeated. But the ideological flux of this moment is real and there is no guarantee, given current trends, that this consensus will hold. As John Ganz put it, “one part of the present age is the fracturing and fading of a shared sense of the meaning of the Holocaust and the Nazi era.”

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This is undeniably true. It is also true that just at present, the consensus is holding: That anti-vaxxers, most of them conservative, have taken to protesting by wearing yellow stars so as to draw bizarre and unjustified parallels between themselves and the Jewish people who died in the Holocaust is tasteless and trivializing and beyond offensive. It makes a mockery of what real people actually suffered. But it does at least have this going for it: The consensus that the parallel depends on is that the Holocaust was terrible—a thing not to be repeated.

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Still, concerns that this may not hold long-term are understandable. Trump has, with approval from his supporters, retweeted white supremacists who have called for a “final solution” for Muslims. A 2019 reelection video of his used virtually the same lion logo as VDare, a website dedicated to white supremacy. Trump’s adviser and immigration czar Stephen Miller cited VDare and American Renaissance—both white supremacist publications—in emails before he joined the administration. He also wrote approvingly about The Camp of the Saints. That conservatives approved of and applauded family separations, a policy brought into being by Miller, was chilling. (That Miller’s family background is Jewish is beside the point; the purpose of Holocaust education and the premise of “never again” is that the atrocities of the Holocaust should never be allowed to happen again to any group, even if the world has at times fallen short of that very simple principle in the years since.) The rioters marching while chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, aren’t exactly comforting to those concerned that the right might be becoming increasingly sympathetic to the very perspectives that produced the Holocaust.

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The McMinn County school board decision, however, does not seem to be part of this trend. As Corey Robin and even the author of Maus, Art Spiegelman, have pointed out, the minutes of the meeting where the vote took place appear to reflect sincerely prudish (and, yes, censorious) concerns about what level of foul language and nudity eighth graders should be exposed to. One board member objected to the lyrics of the song “I’m just wild about Henry” because it used the word “ecstasy.” If there is any antisemitism at work here, it is well hidden. (That doesn’t mean it’s not there—bigotry excels at summoning convenient pretexts, but as Spiegelman said on CNN, “having read the transcript … the problem is sort of bigger and stupider than that. They really genuinely focus on … some bad words in the book.”) Nor does it mean that the trend of protecting children from the realities of history is not concerning. It is. People advocating for eliminating Beloved from the curriculum because of its adult content are not doing less damage to the students whose educations they are affecting just because their reasons aren’t openly racist. And it is hard to presume good faith in these discussions because the criteria for what constitutes “obscenity” or “pornography” is always unevenly applied (the Bible and Shakespeare contain both!).

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Still, the elimination of Maus from a Tennessee county language arts curriculum does not live up to its more hysterical billing. It is not a ban, and it does not seem to be motivated by outright bigotry. It’s not bad that more people are reading Maus, but the reaction to the incident was not entirely proportional. Neither was the reaction to Whoopi Goldberg’s announcement that the Holocaust was not about race, which was ignorant and for which Goldberg apologized prior to being suspended from The View. Both episodes have, however, activated a fear that is, in a longer-term sense, well founded—a sense that the episode we were told never to forget has been, or is in the process of, being forgotten.

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To be blunt about it, there are reasons to suspect that the extreme right wing will turn its Holocaust denialism into something even worse, something I think of as “Holocaust pragmatism,” by which I mean the slow embrace of the perspectives that led to it as unfortunate but practical and necessary. We have seen this kind of reasoning in how the right talks about the genocide of Native Americans in the past, and we have also seen it in the way many conservative Americans cheered for the brutal treatment of migrant families in the present. Slowly softening on Hitler’s policies (if not the man himself) isn’t considered altogether beyond the pale in conservative circles right now. An Indiana state senator, Scott Baldwin, made headlines for saying teachers must be impartial when discussing ideologies, including Nazism. When a teacher said, “But we’re not neutral on Nazism. We take a stand in the classroom against it, and it matters that we do,” Baldwin’s response was surprising. “I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those isms,” he said. “I believe that we’ve gone too far when we take a position on those isms. …  We need to be impartial.” Ultimately, though, Baldwin walked that statement back after he received pushback. He has said he intended only to legislate educational impartiality on “legitimate political groups.”

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It’s not that surprising, though, that this position landed Baldwin where it did; the direction of the right-wing movement as presently constituted is not especially difficult to predict. The discourse of dehumanization around the border has only intensified in recent years, with an emphasis on resource scarcity. As climate change progresses—and this is happening faster, not slower, than scientists predict—resource scarcity will increase. We already know what the conservative response to that is: fascism. (See, for instance, the Capitol riot to overturn the 2020 election that included members who openly declared their endorsement of the Holocaust.) That climate change turned out to be real will not chasten those who denied it would happen; they will pivot seamlessly to eco-fascism, as Naomi Klein has articulated.

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This simply is the ideological future of the right; it’s fairly simple to extrapolate. So while the overreaction to Maus as an instance of fascist creep may not be correct, the long-term concern is extremely well-founded.

It takes time to get a population to a place where they are willing to dehumanize and exterminate others for their own benefit. The right-wing educational initiatives currently under way—sanitizing history to produce simple patriotism without complicating factors that might produce reflection or guilt, “protecting” children from darker historical realities and the existence of LGBTQ people, and working to remove any moral judgment from ideologies that both sides once agreed were noxious—are probably a logical evolution of a worldview that will eventually require genocide or its equivalent to keep climate refugees at bay. That reality is what should frighten all of us, not what McMinn County’s prudish local leaders are up to.

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