McMinn County’s Maus Problem

The decision was made January 10, but it didn’t go viral until Thursday, which also happened to be Holocaust Remembrance Day: The Board of Education of McMinn County, Tennessee had voted 10-0 to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus, which tells the story of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust.

If you clicked the links and read the longer versions of the story, though, “banned” wasn’t exactly the right word. The county’s 8th-grade reading program for the year had been split into four modules, each with a theme and an “anchor text”. The theme of the third module was the Holocaust, and the anchor text was supposed to be Maus. The kids would spend a quarter of the year discussing Maus while they also read supporting texts that gave them the context to understand what was going on in Maus.

The motion that passed 10-0 was to “remove this book from the reading series and challenge our instructional staff to come with an alternative method of teaching The Holocaust.” The motion doesn’t, say, take Maus out of the school libraries or do anything to stop kids who want to read the book on their own. But it won’t be assigned to 8th-graders.

Why not? The module was ready to go. The teachers were ready to teach it. Why did the school board feel that it needed to step in?

What they said. We don’t need to speculate about this as much as you might think, because the minutes of the meeting are publicly available. This was not some decision made thoughtlessly at the end of a long evening spent hashing out other issues. The meeting appears to have been called for this single purpose, and the discussion goes on for 20 pages.

County Director of Schools Lee Parkinson begins by saying that “two or three” school board members had come to his office to discuss “rough, objectionable language” in the book. He recommends redacting it “to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to”.

But the Board immediately turns the conversation in a different direction: “Is there a substitute for this book?” One of the teachers the director had invited to the meeting says no and offers to explain why:

If you would like, I have some stuff I can run through with you that explains what our curriculum is and how it works and walk you through how this book fits into the bigger picture of what our kids are studying.

It quickly becomes clear, though, that the eight words and the picture are not really what the Board members are worried about:

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.

Another teacher explains why a text about the Holocaust might get ugly:

I can talk of the history, I was a history teacher and there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history.

The Board goes on to table the discussion for a later date, then reverses itself, considers the motion to remove Maus from the curriculum, and unanimously approves it.

But why?

What is McMinn County’s Maus problem? The official explanation of an action isn’t always true, but it’s usually a good place to start. The Board of Education says on the county schools web site:

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.

If you’ve never read Maus — and I hadn’t until this weekend [1] — that explanation sounds sensible. I mean: nudity — some parents have a real problem with that. One of the Board members mentioned in the meeting that Spiegelman “used to do the graphics for Playboy” while another says:

My problem is, all the way through this literature we expose these kids to nakedness, we expose them to vulgarity. You go all the way back to first grade, second grade and they are reading books that have a picture of a naked man riding a bull. It’s not vulgar, it’s something you would see in an art gallery, but it’s unnecessary. So, teachers have gone back and put tape over the guys butts so the kids aren’t exposed to it. So, my problem is, 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. You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it but the kids, they soak it in. I think we need to relook at the entire curriculum.

If you’ve never paged through Maus, you might imagine at this point that it’s downright pornographic, with the kind of drawings you might look for in Playboy. But if you have, this whole discussion seems ridiculous. The “nude” scene is a corner of one panel on page 100 of the first volume. The author’s mother has committed suicide and her body is in the bathtub. You see the back of her head, a single curved line representing not-particularly-large breasts, and a dot indicating a nipple.

So the “Playboy” artist has given us a single nude image in a setting that is not at all sexual. The drawing lacks detail and is not the least bit arousing. Any 8th-grader looking for a sexy picture could probably draw a better one for himself. [2] The “profanity” is similarly unimpressive. Remember: Director Parkinson wanted to white out eight words in a book of 295 pages. And that solution was not deemed acceptable.

The idea that Maus is not appropriate for 8th-graders might be believable if people making that claim had gone on to suggest moving the Holocaust module to the 9th or 10th grade curriculum. But no one did. The people who wanted to take Maus out of the 8th-grade curriculum didn’t suggest any age group that should read it.

So the Board’s official explanation doesn’t pass the laugh test. Clearly, they decided they didn’t like the book, and then went looking for explanations they could defend, at least to people who haven’t seen the book.

So what’s the real reason? During the Obama years, a lot of people didn’t like the president. If they had reality-based reasons for not liking him — they were conservative and he was liberal; he moved too fast or slow to end the wars or the economic disaster he inherited; Obamacare led to too much or too little government involvement in healthcare — I usually took those reasons seriously. No president gets 100% approval; there are always reasons.

But when people explained their dislike of Obama by spouting nonsense — he wasn’t born in America; he was secretly Muslim or Communist; he did objectionable things (that previous presidents had done without controversy) like putting his feet up on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office — then I had to wonder if the real reason was something they didn’t want to admit, like racism. Often, I think, anti-Obama racism was unconscious. People didn’t like him because they genuinely believed wild things him on flimsy evidence. But they wouldn’t have believed those things about a White president.

Something similar could be happening here. Because the Board’s explanation doesn’t make sense, we have to consider motives they’d be ashamed to admit, like Holocaust denial or antisemitism. Lots of people went there. Author Neil Gaiman, for example, tweeted:

There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days.

The following cartoon makes the same point by casting Board members as cats (which is how Nazis are portrayed in Maus).

It’s possible that McMinn County has a Nazi problem, but I don’t think we need to go that far. I’m speculating here (which is all you can do once you reject people’s stated motives), but I lean towards less conscious explanations: Something about Maus bothered the Board members (or the constituents who complained to them), and they went casting about for some way to justify their visceral reaction. They bought the absurd “vulgarity and profanity” explanation the way so many Obama-haters latched on to doubts about his birth certificate: Finding the real reason required too much uncomfortable introspection, so they grabbed the first justification they could find.

So what might the real cause of their discomfort be?

Matthew Parker (crediting the insights of the @JustSayXtian) approaches the question by listing the less “adult oriented” Holocaust books that Board members might have had in mind when they suggested replacing Maus: The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, The Book Thief, or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. There’s nothing actually wrong with any of those books, Parker says, but they do something different.

Maus is a story centered on Jews, told in a Jewish way, in which there is horrible violence and no [Good Gentiles Doing Good Things] to save the day. There is no redemption, there is no salvation, there is only a story so terrible it has to be told and a need to remember.

People like this school board are perfectly comfortable teaching the Holocaust as long as it isn’t too violent, too sad, or too Jew-y. Because to them it isn’t a lesson about (largely if by no means exclusively) Jewish trauma, it’s a lesson about Good Gentiles Doing Good Things. The rest–our story, our tragedy, our people and families–are just set dressings for the moral and often explicitly religious lessons they want to take from the Shoah. [3]

Is it really about the children? Children, particularly in their aspect as “innocent” or “naive” children, are often used as screens for adult projection. If someone tells you a book is too disturbing for 8th-graders, they might well be saying that it is too disturbing for them.

The Holocaust, after all, is one of the most disturbing episodes in human history. If you can think about the Holocaust and not be disturbed, you probably don’t get it.

Maus captures that. Horrible things happen to Spiegelman’s father, and even more horrible things to people he knows and cares about. A few people help him, up to a point, but most don’t, and the few who do are mostly looking for payment or some other kind of advantage. Fellow Jews sometimes collaborate with the Nazis, and even family members can’t always be trusted. Vladek Spiegelman himself is a survivor, not a hero, and the scenes in the present illustrate the ways he was scarred by his experiences. Art Spiegelman can try to understand why his father is the way he is, but that doesn’t make him any easier to deal with.

So: People did and suffered horrible things; God didn’t rescue the victims; and if any good at all came out of all that suffering and death, it wasn’t worth it.

That irredeemable truth, in my opinion, is what the Board of Education doesn’t want to face. They’re not trying to protect teens from those ideas. They’re trying to protect themselves.

The Holocaust module. A part of my background that rarely comes up in this blog is all the education theory I read years ago. I went to an experimental public high school. We hosted an education conference every year, and I used to cover it for the student newspaper I edited. I did my homework before listening to the speakers.

One of the stories I remember reading (God knows where, after all these years) was about parents being told by their son’s grade-school teachers that his poor performance in reading was due to a learning disability; he belonged in a special class. What the parents knew that the teachers didn’t was that the boy was doing quite well in the Hebrew-reading class at their synagogue.

The difference, the author claimed, was that the Hebrew class was learning to read the Torah, which the teachers themselves thought was important. But the boy’s grade school was teaching him to read trivial stories that adults would never waste their time on. Reading Hebrew was worth his effort; reading English seemed not to be.

There is a widespread belief among children that school consists of meaningless hoops that adults expect them to jump through for reasons of their own. Even a lot of kids who do well in school believe this: If they’re forced to play this game, they might as well win. But that doesn’t mean they think education matters in any real sense.

The thing every true educator hopes for is to see the lights go on inside a student’s mind. There are magic moments in education, when a kid realizes that school isn’t just a waste of time, or even a way to compete with other kids for adult approval or success in some distant future. Instead, they surprise even themselves by thinking “I want to know this stuff.” Knowledge, they suddenly realize, is power. And all along, their good teachers have been hoping to empower them.

Often it’s one single book that sparks the change. “To Kill a Mockingbird made me a lawyer,” wrote Shami Chakrabarti. I remember reading Plato’s “Apology” as a 9th-grader (not in school; I found it randomly on a shelf), and realizing that a deeper kind of thought was possible. In a later generation, lots of kids didn’t see the point of reading until Harry Potter came out.

When the educators tell the McMinn Board what the English Language Arts curriculum is trying to do, it’s obvious those lights-on moments are what they’re shooting for.

When we were in school, we would hop from one book to the next. We would study one book a few days, do a test then move on to the next book. I want to tell you why curriculum is important and how the pieces of it are designed and how we have an opportunity to teach more than standards.

… The curriculum that we use is called EL, what does that stand for? I see some teachers here, what does that stand for? Expeditionary Learning. So, the whole idea is that students go on these expeditions, and they will spend two months or so on these different expeditions, and that’s their modules. In eighth grade that is four things. We do Latin America, we learn about food, The Holocaust and Japanese Internment.

… There are many lessons that can be learned through this book about how we treat others, how we speak, things that we say, how we act and how to persevere. I just wanted you to get an idea of why these lessons are structured like they are and how this text is just surrounded by excerpts and articles and the things we do to build that background knowledge and the opportunity we have to make a difference in our students lives.

This is the module that a Board member suspects was “developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language.”

I listen to the descriptions of what the teachers are trying to accomplish and think, “Wow. I wish I’d had the opportunity to take a class like that.” This is the point that I think is getting lost in the news coverage: Simply defending Maus against charges of vulgarity and profanity makes it sound like the book clears a low bar. In fact, studying Maus, particularly in the in-depth way the module plans, could have been an amazing educational experience.

In the end, though, I’ve got no reason to be jealous of McMinn County 8th-graders, because they won’t get to take such a class either. The Board of Education has made sure of that. Maybe the students will get to study the Holocaust, sort of. But not in a way that might disturb them, or disturb their parents or their classmates’ parents. And not in a way that is too violent, too sad, or too Jew-y.

The Board wants another appropriate hoop for their kids to jump through. Study the Holocaust? Yeah, we checked that box.

Who is the victim here? Most of the coverage I’ve seen has made Art Spiegelman the victim, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Spiegelman’s name is in the headlines, his book is back on the best-seller lists, and Amazon seems to be sold out. People are reading Maus who would never had heard of it otherwise.

Another way of telling the story makes Jews-in-general the victims, and I can kind of see that. Especially in the current climate, when actual fascism is raising its head in America, and Nazi propaganda tropes about manipulative Jewish moneymen are showing up again in mainstream media, this incident is one more reminder that the lessons of the Holocaust have not really been learned. If I were Jewish, I think my anxiety level would have gone up a little this week.

The people I have the most sympathy for, though, are the 8th-graders of McMinn County. They had a chance to do something really amazing in school. Maybe that module, that chance to study something that really matters in some degree of depth, would have lit a fire under a few of them. Maybe they would have realized that school can be more than just busywork.

But that won’t happen, because powerful grown-ups (who have no idea what education is) have screwed that chance up for them. As grown-ups so often do.

[1] PDFs of both volume 1 and volume 2 are available online. I’m not sure how legal these reproductions are, so I intend to buy a copy when local bookstores have it in stock again.

[2] I truly feel sorry for kids who are picking up Maus now because they’ve heard it has nudity.

[3] Saturday’s NYT had an article about Poland’s attempt to shift the emphasis in Holocaust memorials to heroic Poles who attempted to help the Jews. The article does not mention Maus, but corroborates Spiegelman’s account of Poles profiteering off Jews rather than helping out of sympathy or kindness.

It’s also worth mentioning that slavery and the Civil Rights movement are often similarly reduced to stories of Good Whites Doing Good Things. We have a hard time facing up to the unrelenting grimness of American racism, so we tell these uplifting stories as if they were typical.

Is there any town in America that doesn’t have some connection to the Underground Railroad? With all those good folks working on the problem, it seems like the slaves should have been drained out of the South long before the Civil War.

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  • Nancy Minter  On January 31, 2022 at 10:19 am

    So: People did and suffered horrible things; God didn’t rescue the victims; and if any good at all came out of all that suffering and death, it wasn’t worth it.

    That irredeemable truth, in my opinion, is what the Board of Education doesn’t want to face. They’re not trying to protect teens from those ideas. They’re trying to protect themselves.

  • Mike Flanagan  On January 31, 2022 at 10:40 am

    When discussing the Holocaust, remember that most of the guards and administrators who kept the camps running, kept them functioning, made them into what they became; they were good Lutherans and good Catholics, good Christians, on Sundays.

  • Dan- Goldner  On January 31, 2022 at 10:47 am

    I really like the nuance you strive for in all your writing, but I think you err too much in giving them the benefit of the doubt: “It’s possible that McMinn County has a Nazi problem, but I don’t think we need to go that far.” If this were the only case in recent memory of a book banning/removing from curriculum, your comment might make sense. But I think it fits the larger pattern of book banning/removal from libraries across the country: the country has a fascism problem.

  • William Waterstradt  On January 31, 2022 at 10:52 am

    I can’t find the “nude” image. It’s not on page 100. I remember seeing it when I read it (Thank you, McMinn County, I would have never heard of this book without your help) but I want to show it to my wife- maybe it will warm up our sex life?

    • weeklysift  On January 31, 2022 at 12:14 pm

      I’m using the internal numbering, not the pdf numbering (93 in the pdf). The page isn’t numbered 100, but it immediately follows page 99.

  • James C  On January 31, 2022 at 11:02 am

    The book is available through my local library in electronic format.

  • susanmbrewer  On January 31, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Beau of the Fifth Column had a You Tube video on this same topic and I think he made a couple of excellent points. First is that he believes the School Board saw too many uncomfortable parallels between the depiction of the Nazis in Maus and our country’s current authoritarian impulses. Second is gratitude that so many, many more young folks will be reading Maus now that it’s been banned.

  • William Waterstradt  On January 31, 2022 at 12:12 pm

    Nevermind, I found it.

  • Larry Benjamin  On January 31, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    One criticism of Maus is the artist’s depiction of Poles as pigs, and for the most part, portraying them as willing collaborators with the Nazis (which, of course, many of them were). However, the “Righteous Among the Nations” memorial at Yad Vashem in Israel, which honors gentiles who made exceptional efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust, has more Polish honorees (over 7000) than any other country.

    • Marianne  On January 31, 2022 at 4:02 pm

      As someone of Polish descent, I’ve thought about this, because a lot of Poles like to point this out. I read an article that ran the numbers and that number (7000) is in some ways deceptive because of both the size of Poland and the fact that so much of the horror took place there. In other words, there are more Poles represented because Poland had a disproportionately larger prevalence the of Nazi death machine there. I will try to find that and post it.

    • reverendsax  On January 31, 2022 at 6:24 pm

      An article yesterday (I think it was in the NYTimes) told of how the Poles are making a great effort to praise individual Polish Christians for helping those at Auschwitz as a distraction from the horrors of the holocaust. This was demonstrably not quite true, when it was also reported that Poles SOLD water and food to arriving prisoners.

      • weeklysift  On February 1, 2022 at 4:00 pm

        Reverendsax: I believe that article is the link in endnote [3].

  • Anonymous  On January 31, 2022 at 2:47 pm

    To your point about sparking thought, a paraphrase of Plutarch “Education is not filling a pail, but sparking a fire!” Often misquoted to Yeats. A missed opportunity in McMinn County.

  • E Keese  On January 31, 2022 at 4:00 pm

    Antisemitism pure and simple.

  • nedhamson  On January 31, 2022 at 5:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News.

  • thebhgg  On February 1, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    You said “The people I have the most sympathy for, though, are the 8th-graders of McMinn County.”

    They lost an education experience, but something else happened too. These kids have been set up to be blind sided by their ignorance. They may leave the module with the impression that it was “a bad time” but…

    Whatever they will say after the “but” may get an angry, visceral response in the future. To those future white adults, it may feel disproportionate. They might even be called racist. It could be humiliating.

    I personally experienced three results from my own experience of this kind of humiliation.

    Eventually, I become radicalized. I came to realize that my society, family, and schools colluded to LIE TO ME (through omission) and I am still angry about it.

    Or they could get stuck like some of my relatives, who simply get irritated by how sensitive people are these days. I got tired of being called racist, for quite some time. Think of the white guy who only knows that one MLK quote, as a kind of mascot for this category.

    Worst of all was the time I spent radicalized to think there really is widespread anti-white sentiment. I didn’t go down this path very long, but can attest that this path can go to some pretty dark places. I think creating a pool of this kind of young white person is fertile recruiting grounds for white supremacy groups.

    I am not an expert, and am only speaking from my own experiences. It’s shameful that I personally fell into all three camps at one time or another in my life. This is a real effect, though I have no idea if this is a common effect.

    • weeklysift  On February 5, 2022 at 7:50 am

      I can relate to some of what you’re saying. I knew about the Holocaust in general, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I began to realize it wasn’t “just history”. People my age are too young to have been survivors themselves, but the Holocaust is why they have no extended family. I couldn’t grasp how personal it felt to them, and so I was insensitive in all kinds of ways.


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