By Yonoson Rosenblum | FEBRUARY 22, 2022
The more degraded the general culture becomes, the more vigilant we must be
The decision of the McMinn County school board in rural Tennessee to remove Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Maus from its Holocaust curriculum for middle school students has provided their cultural "betters" with an opportunity too good to pass up to express their contempt for the hicks.
Of particular merriment was the school board's citation of "cuss words" — or more particularly, the "cuss words" directed by the young Spiegelman at his Holocaust survivor father; and "mouse nudity" — actually nudity of human figures with mouse heads, representing Jews.
In assessing the school board's action, it is first important to understand what they did and didn't do. They did not stop teaching about the Holocaust. Nor did they seek to ban Maus — something that would have been impossible in any event, given its easy accessibility.
The term "ban," however, was inevitably used by critics of the board's decision. Kyle Smith points out in the New York Post that news stories about school boards' curricular changes for good, progressive reasons inevitably refer to a book's "removal." Stories about curricular changes made for non-progressive reasons, however, always refer to the books being "banned," or to "censorship," conjuring up Nazi book-burning.
Parenthetically, if one were to compare a Washington state school board's removal of To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum, for approved "woke" reasons, to that of the McMinn County school board, the former is by far the more ridiculous. To Kill a Mockingbird was removed from the curriculum because some of the characters use racially pejorative language. Further, the book's author, Harper Lee, is accused of "cultural appropriation" for writing about racism while white.
That is beyond silly. The book is about a black man falsely accused and convicted of violating a white woman, and then shot when he tries to escape a lynch mob. Does a book about racism have to clean up the language of racists to prettify them? It is also a coming-of-age story. Presumably, Lee was entitled to write about her relationship with her father, the fictional Atticus Finch, who defended the accused black man. Yet the Washington school board decision garnered almost no media coverage, in stark contrast to the Tennessee school board.
MAUS IS AND WAS MEANT TO BE an adult novel. Spiegelman himself once expressed with exasperation, "[Maus is not] Auschwitz for beginners," and felt aggrieved that because of its comic book format, it is assumed to be for young people. In fact, in one of the book's most powerful scenes is a warning against inflicting the young too soon with the full horror of the Holocaust. (Maus is also about the trauma suffered by children of survivors.)
In that scene, a young Art rushes home in tears from the playground because his friends have abandoned him. His father responds, "Friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week... then you would see what friends is!"
Thomas Balasz, a university English professor who teaches comic books, and is, like his wife, the child of survivors, ponders in Quillette whether he would want Maus on his son's middle school curriculum. He concludes he would not. Kids, he writes, do not have to encounter history's worst horrors before they are old enough to understand them.
JTA EDITOR Andrew Silow-Carroll, who acknowledges that Maus is definitely adult fare, nevertheless finds it "quaint" that there are still parents bent on shielding their children from violent imagery, or profanity, or the "facts of life."
Well, there are. And the more degraded the general culture becomes, the more vigilant we must be. The featured entertainer at this year's Super Bowl was a black rapper whose words celebrate "n----s" killing cops. Though shielding our children becomes ever more difficult, even the effort to do so in our own homes and schools has an educational value: It is a clear statement that these things are not alright, and our standards are not those of the culture around.
But it should also be noted that the Left is every bit as sensitive, if not more so, about words. George Will recently told the repulsive story of Jason Kilborn, a tenured law professor at the University of Illinois–Chicago law school, who was forced by the school administration to undergo the modern equivalent of the pillory. He was found guilty by the Office for Access and Equity of "harassing conduct," and ordered by the dean to undergo "sensitivity training," including 20 hours of course work, five "self-reflection papers," and eight weekly 90-minute sessions with a diversity trainer.
His crime: A hypothetical question on the final exam in which a boss allegedly directed derogatory terms for both women and blacks at a black female employee. Here the issue was not the sensitivity of kids but of (allegedly) grown law students. If they are traumatized by a racial epithet (not spelled out) used on hypothetical to clarify the claim, how will they ever practice law, where the gravamen of an employment discrimination claim may be based on the use of such epithets?
OF ALL THE ACCUSATIONS directed at the McMinn County school board, the most evil was "anti-Semitic." "There's only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus," tweeted Neil Gaiman. Jonathan Rosenblatt, head of the once legitimate Anti-Defamation League and a former Obama staffer, has long since pioneered the use of the charge of "anti-Semitism" to delegitimize conservatives. He labels as anti-Semitic, for instance, legitimate criticism of George Soros for his many evil deeds. But he has never had a word to say about Thomas Friedman's columns accusing the late Sheldon Adelson of using his vast wealth to support Israel.
My guess is that almost no Mishpacha readers will be purchasing Maus for their kids or for themselves. Scenes like Spiegelman's mother's suicide in the bathtub ensure that. Yet each of us could construct a list of powerful Holocaust readings without it. Are we too anti-Semites?
Anyone harboring prejudices about rural white folks should learn about the now world-famous Paper Clips Project. This project began as a 1998 eighth-grade unit in tolerance in the middle school of Whitlock, Tennessee (pop. 1,600). Whitlock is almost entirely white — only five out of 425 students in the school system were black and none were Jewish.
When one student expressed his inability to comprehend the magnitude of six million lives snuffed out — "I've never seen six million" — the teacher suggested collecting six million of something. Online research by the students uncovered the fact that Norwegians wore paper clips during World War II, as a sign of opposition to Nazi occupation. And thus began a campaign to collect six million paper clips by writing to people around the world.
The first 100,000 came from a Los Angeles jewelry designer. But the pace soon slowed down, until a German couple, Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, who worked as White House reporters for German media outlets, visited Whitlock. They interested a Washington Post reporter, Dita Smith, who published a long article about the project on Pesach. She admitted her own prejudiced expectation of finding the people of Whitlock, only 100 miles from the place where the Ku Klux Klan was founded, to be extremely close-minded, religious fundamentalists.
Her article, however, triggered an outpouring of responses. In time, more than 30 million paper clips poured in, many accompanied by Holocaust memorabilia and personal stories. Eventually a group of survivors came to Whitlock, where they were embraced and kissed by the townspeople. The whole town turned out to hear them tell their stories.
The Schroeders arranged for one of the cattle cars that transported Jews to the gas chambers to be brought to Whitlock, where it became the centerpiece of a Holocaust memorial, and serves to teach students from the entire area about the Holocaust.
I cried freely watching clips in which the students and their teachers, speaking in the thickest possible Appalachian accents, describe the impact of the project, now almost a quarter-century old. One boy reveals his fantasy of going to college and being asked, "Did you ever experience a life-changing moment?" and being able to describe the project.
A young girl vows, "I'm going to pass this down to my children, and they to their children so that, hopefully, we can prevent something like the Holocaust from ever happening again."
If one wanted proof of Anne Frank's words, "In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart," and of the capacity of human beings to grow and change for the better, it lies in rural Tennessee, in the people of Whitlock.