“It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” ~ Judy Blume
I just recently finished reading Art Spiegelman’s, Maus, a graphic novel that, in January, made national news – for the worst of reasons.
Maus is Spiegelman’s memoir that recalls interviewing his father Vladek about his experience as a holocaust survivor. Maus is two troubled stories; one is the uneasy relationship between a modern day son and his grouchy, set in his ways, father and the other, Vladek’s holocaust story, presented in the book as flashbacks.
It was all hands on deck last January when the board of trustees of McMinn County Schools in Tennessee, convened a meeting to express its righteous indignation over eighth graders being exposed to Maus.
What exactly sparked all of this hoo-hah? Most of the board’s ire was over eight words and “nudity”. In eight instances (Apparently. I didn’t count) the words “damn” and “shit,” appear in the book (Oh the horror!).
What board members term nudity, as if it were a Playboy centerfold, is a single frame showing Vladek discovering his wife in a bathtub after having committed suicide.
Did I mention that Spiegelman uses anthropomorphism in Maus?
Nazis are depicted as cats and Jews as mice.
This is not a naked Kim Kardashian posing lasciviously in a tub. It’s a mouse, in an image that’s not intended to titillate but to describe a tragic ending of a life. That the nitwits of McMinn wanted to read something salacious into that frame is a vulgarity in itself.
No angst over the issue of suicide, but the end of civilization is nigh in a cartoon depiction of a boob.
Well of course. This is Tennessee, the state that hired religious right winger Marsha Blackburn to be a senator, and, in 1925 garnered fame and shame over another censorship issue.
McMinn County is just shy of thirty miles from Dayton, Tennessee, where, nearly a century ago, John Scopes was prosecuted for the heinous and unholy crime of teaching the theory of evolution. There has apparently been little to no evolution in Tennessee.
Back to McMinn.
Board member Tony Allman took his umbrage a step beyond bad words and boobs, “…we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. 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.” (To view the complete meeting minutes click the link)
Educating eighth graders about the holocaust is hardly promotion.
Looking for a sanitized version of the torture and killing of six million people, Tony?
I was born in 1953, a single generation removed from the holocaust. We didn’t have to look hard to find actual photos and film footage of the emaciated, the tortured, the naked and the dead. We didn’t need a history class to learn about the holocaust. That event was still on people’s lips. The outrage then, was about the event, not in its telling. Now a bunch of boobs in Tennessee are indignant over eight words and a boob.
Forget about the genocide itself, lets just make sure that when we teach eighth graders about the holocaust we keep it free of anything that might shock the senses. How can the foulness of the holocaust be taught by keeping it antiseptic?
What better way to dim the words “never again,” than by dumbing down the holocaust. Muffle it enough and you set the stage for future holocausts.
One night the brouhaha landed in our house and became the subject of a dinner table discussion.
My grandson, Jackson, a sixth grader, had already heard of Maus and said he wanted to read it.
“If it’s okay with your mom I’ll get it for you, ” I offered.
My daughter, who I raised to be a thinking person, gave the green light.
“I’ll probably get extra points for this. My teacher might even give me some candy.”
I applaud Jackson, his mom and his teacher.
The one positive about the Maus melee is that it has provoked a general discussion about censorship, and highlighted a growing list of odious actions by the busy bodies of the conservative thought police.
Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, gender identity, race relations, The 1619 Project, and any approach to history that is controversial or strays outside of the boundaries of popular crap are kindling for the fires.
In Texas, State Representative Matt Krause put together a list of 850 books that he found objectionable. Included are, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, a rebuttal of mythological American history; And Still I Rise: Black America Since MLK: An Illustrated Chronology, a work that tells the story of both recent racial injustice and the accomplishments of Black Americans; and, Quinceañera, which “examines the importance of ritual and celebration and the quinceañera celebration’s growing social importance to in the Latino community, particularly in the United States.”
Also included are V for Vendetta and a graphic version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Both stories deal with the subject of totalitarian societies. I suppose these books struck a nerve with Mr. Krause, who seems to possess something of a totalitarian bent himself.
In Florida’s Duval County, the play Angels in America, which deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s has been banned.
In Spotsylvania, Virginia two school board members, Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg, expressed the desire to not only remove books from school libraries but to have a good old fashioned book bonfire. Apparently feeling a bit nostalgic for the bad old days of Nazi Germany Abuismail said, “I think we should throw those books in a fire.”
These laws and proposed laws, also known as educational gag orders are spreading like the plague that they are.
As of the beginning of 2022, a number of states have educational gag orders in their pipelines.
Alabama has three bills ready for legislative action in 2022, including one that bans the use of any curriculum “directing or otherwise compelling any student to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere” to the supposed tenets of critical race theory. Teachers in public school or in colleges and universities who violate the ban could be fired.
Kentucky has two bills pending, including one that forbids any kind of mandatory training related to gender or sexual diversity.
Michigan’s pending bill bans schools from using “The 1619 Project” as classroom curriculum. Schools that defy the ban would lose 5% of their state funding.
Ohio legislators will consider a bill that would ban all private funding for curriculum and professional development related to social studies courses. Also in the sinister works is a bill co-authored by Republican lawmaker Jean Schmidt that declares war on so-called “divisive or inherently racist concepts” including, “critical race theory, intersectional theory, the 1619 project, diversity, equity, and inclusion learning outcomes” and “inherited racial guilt.”
Oklahoma already banned mandatory training on “gender diversity” in 2021. This year, lawmakers will debate banning schools’ use of “The 1619 Project.”
Tennessee will consider a ban on all textbooks and instructional materials that “promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) lifestyles.”
West Virginia has two bills pending; one of which would allow schools to fire teachers for teaching, instructing or training students to believe in “divisive concepts.”
Wisconsin has three bills pending, which together would prohibit teaching or training all state employees, including K-12 teachers and college professors, in ways determined to promote “race or sex stereotyping.” Schools violating these orders would have funding withheld and be open to lawsuits.
Some of the laws, both proposed or already on the books, are vaguely worded, using terms like “age appropriate.” By not defining what constitutes appropriate the laws set up minefields for teachers and entrapment of any instructor who would have temerity to actually educate and promote critical thought.
Want something more chilling? Some of these gag orders don’t stop at targeting K-12 schools, they take aim at colleges and universities, where the stock in trade is to challenge, to promote thought, consideration, deduction and reasoning.
And once we allow college professors to be muzzled, what comes next? Are the future targets going to be public libraries, book sellers, authors, musicians, artists and others who wish to convey a message?
How did we get to a place where college professors have to be fearful of encouraging debate over controversial subjects?
How? Look to the religious right, look to self-styled patriots and look to the influence of the 45th president, a philistine who expressed his desire to see “patriotic history” taught in schools.
Patriotic history is, you know, the John Wayne version, the history that allows the ignorant to wallow fat and happy in their comfort zones.
Hey, I’m all for comfort zones. They’re like that special blanket or plush stuffed animal that we had as kids and helped us to sleep at night. They’re cuddly and comfy and shelter us from icky feelings. But every now and then you’ve got to put on the educated big person pants and open yourself to ideas that challenge what you once thought was gospel – religious or secular.
I’m reminded of Pocahontas of all people. A short while ago I was looking for some reference material, a true story about her. I found books that told a different story than the one cooked up by John Smith, a fable handed down through centuries and turned into mainstream pop bullshit by Disney. These books include inconveniences such as rape, kidnapping and murder.
An Amazon reviewer was apoplectic over one of these books. She wrote, “For your own sanity, don’t buy this book. If you really love the story of Pocahontas as portrayed by Disney, then stay FAR away from this book! [The author] destroys that image of Pocahontas and creates a new, more flimsy image that is created by a ton of speculation. I had to read this book for my Honors History course in college and I disliked it so much.” (Yes, the irony of this person being in an Honors History course is not lost on me).
Don’t tell her that Columbus didn’t discover America, or that the Civil War was not an argument about states rights or that Washington didn’t chop down his old man’s cherry tree. She might get a case of the vapors.
I’m grateful to my dad for many things. He taught me how to bait a fish hook, fry an egg and change a tire. He also told me the value of books and of thought and reasoning. When I was a boy he didn’t read me fairy tales at bedtime. He read me the works of Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe.
He directed me to books like All Quiet on the Western Front, and Dalton Trumbo’s, Johnny Got His Gun.
When we got to Mark Twain, he stopped and explained the context of the “N” word in Twain’s works.
That’s what we do. If the Tories at McMinn were really interested in educating they might have suggested using the swear words and the breast in Maus, as discussion points and teaching opportunities.
Instead they chose the easier and more comfortable path of least resistance.
Our current national temperance movement is criminal. The people who would erect an educational iron curtain represent the worst of America. They’re murderers and thieves; killers of thought; assailants of reason; thieves who seek to rob the curious of knowledge.
The bigoted and the sanctimonious, with the religious right walking point, are trying to lead America down a dangerous, dogmatic path to a dark place, a barren place where fertile ground is salted with nescience and the flower of knowledge is choked by the thorny weeds of historical mythology, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance.
If they succeed in taking us to that place, then woe to those who seek truth, reason, tolerance and justice.
“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.” ~ [I saw hate in a graveyard ~ Stephen Fry, The Guardian, 5 June 2005]
Sources used are linked and include:
Vox: Why book banning is back,
Smithsonian: Banned by Tennessee School Board, ‘Maus’ Soars to the Top of Bestseller Charts
Before We Go Blog: 4 Books The Texas House Committee Doesn’t Want You To Read.
ed post: 10 States to Watch for Educational Gag Orders in 2022
PEN America: Steep Rise In Gag Orders, Many Sloppily Drafted