The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

young woman with sticker showing cross on mouth

“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!).

The nudity?

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

15 thoughts on “A Maus in the House and rats in our midst

  1. I’m shocked reading this, Paul. The US, the land of free speach and thoughts, heading back to medieval times? Burning books? Truly? I dearly wish you are exaggerating. But I’m afraid you aren’t.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Peter, The incident that referred to in my post was merely an unfulfilled wish by two people. That said, yes, there was a recent book burning. A pastor in Tennessee (because Tennessee is indeed medieval) held a live streamed book burning of Harry Potter books for promoting witchcraft. Doesn’t get much more medieval than that.
      https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/04/book-burning-harry-potter-twilight-us-pastor-tennessee
      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      Paul

  2. Fabulous fucking post, Paul. So we’ll done. And so important to say. What most Americans, in their stupor, are allowing these fascists to get by with shouldn’t just frighten us, but spur us all to action.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Martin,
      I’ve deemed your comment inappropriate for people who live south of the Mason Dixon line. Ha! I realize that this stuff has always been going on (just look at Scopes) but since TFG it’s become something of a fad.
      You’re right, we do need to be spurred to action. From where I sit in the Bay Area it’s easy to be complacent. A school board in Tenn. bans Maus for 8th graders and my grandson’s 6th grade teacher rewards him for bringing Maus to class. It’s like a different world. Out here we have MAGAts but they’re in the minority. That said, maybe Maus should be the cautionary tale for me.
      P.

  3. Jane Fritz says:

    😥😥😥 Keep letting the world know, Paul.

    1. Paul says:

      Thanks Jane, I wish the world, the MAGAt world at least, would listen.
      P

  4. Florida is right in there too, bill proposed to ban books and give parents more transparency. Oh and kids won’t be allowed to know what Gay is. Crazy times. But parents are probably still letting there kids play horrible video games that kill people right and left. There is no hope for this upcoming generation.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Carolyn, Yes we’ve heard about the “Don’t say gay,” bill. Apparently that’s become all the rage (in both senses of the word) in a number of other states. I know that this intolerance and ignorance has always simmered (see Scopes), but since 2015 it’s become “okay”. It’s a scary thing.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Paul

  5. annecreates says:

    I, too, am shocked by the rise in calls to ban books in our country. This is beginning to matriculate in my county as well. I’m currently collecting frequently banned titles to add to a little library that the area Democrats are organizing. I have a few copies of the Handmaid’s Tale, Night, and The Hate U Give so far.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Anne, Agreed. Book banning has long been a thing but that movement is gaining too much impetus. It’s sadly ironic that this ignorance has been given momentum by an philistine who likely never picks up a book.
      I like the idea of putting together the library of banned books. Keep up the fight.
      Paul

  6. Toonsarah says:

    I deplore censorship of all kinds but especially of books and even more of books for young people. If they never read anything that challenges their way of thinking and the probably quite narrow world they inhabit, they will grow up to be as narrow-minded and bigoted as those who prevented their access to that reading material, And so it goes on …

    In a former life I was a children’s and young people’s librarian in the UK. As a profession we were aware back then of higher levels of censorship in US schools and of our colleagues there fighting against book bans. I think it was around that time that Judy Blume was first quoted on the subject – several of her excellent books were on the banned lists in some schools. It’s rarely been an issue over here, thankfully, except in the 1980s when Thatcher pushed through a bill banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and we had debates about whether books featuring a gay relationship would be counted as promoting it. Where I worked as a team we decided that even if that were the case, we were buying them anyway, and we were never challenged except by the odd irate parent. On those occasions our response was always that if they felt it was appropriate to limit what their child read it was their decision, but we weren’t going to allow them to limit access for all the other children. I wish someone could say that to those board members you cite but of course if that is the prevailing way of thinking it’s hard to stand against it.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah,
      As you’ve probably noticed, the censorship and book banning here in the U.S. is reaching record (a shameful record) proportions. The “religious” right is on a temperance crusade that is gaining momentum. It is indeed frightening when legislators call not only for books to be banned, but burned.

      Ah yes, we’re making some great strides here in America – backwards. I’ve no doubt that in the next few years hoop skirts will be all the rage. I wonder how I’ll look in a waistcoat and a top hat.

      Thank you again for reading and commenting
      Paul

  7. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,

    I read this in its entirety, possibly for the 5th time, albeit uninterrupted this time. It’s a terrific piece, but so demoralizing. Historical truth is not only unwelcome, it’s become a threat to a way of life, hasn’t it?

    But what is that life?

    If those in power think censorship and sanitation of the truth will preserve their narrow-minded beliefs, then you’re no longer living in a democratic state.

    A year ago, a European think tank added the USA to an annual list of “backsliding” democracies for the first time. If you continue sliding backwards, you’re headed toward a kind of hybrid or authoritarian regime.

    I hate the thought of it.

    eden

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Eden,
      ” Historical truth is not only unwelcome, it’s become a threat to a way of life, hasn’t it? But what is that life?”
      It isn’t life, Eden. It’s fiction, comforting fiction.

      It’s ironic that the American right has fallen right in line with Marx, “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes”, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” The American right has developed it’s own twisted religion, its own opiate, and the right is, to use an old term, “stoned.” The right is high on the drug of lore. It exists in a hallucination that sees the foggy vision of a country that never committed genocide, never grabbed land, never broke treaties, never backed despots, and while it may have tolerated slavery, it treated the enslaved with the kindness and tolerance as seen in Gone With the Wind.

      America a backsliding democracy? Hell, we’re in free fall.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Paul

      1. eden baylee says:

        Brilliant analysis, Paul.
        Fiction is right – a horror story.

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