“Orwellian” was one of the choice words Art Spiegelman had to describe a Tennessee school board’s unanimous decision to ban his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus. “I’m kind of baffled by this,” Spiegelman told CNBC, and “It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’”
He’s not the only one. The banning went viral on Wednesday for damn good reason. McMinn County school board members repeatedly cited specific “vulgar and inappropriate” words—like “bitch,” which I’m so sure no Tennessee eighth grader ever heard—in the book, which is used as the centerpiece of a Holocaust module for eighth graders in their district. But their own words made clear that their discomfort sprang in significant part from the teaching of difficult subject matter.
“I’ve met so many young people who ... have learned things from my book,” Spiegelman said, but objections of McMinn County school board members included that, “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.” In other words, it shows the history. It shows what happened.
Instructional supervisors from the district made a valiant effort to explain that failing to teach what happens when hate and bigotry take over national policy is not wise or healthy, as Walter Einenkel has detailed, but their efforts were in vain. Some of Spiegelman’s past interviews on Maus also make the stakes clear, albeit in a way that local politicians in deep red McMinn County might find really uncomfortable.
In 2021, Spiegelman told CBC Radio that after years of refusing to give interviews on Maus, he had started talking about it more directly for one reason: “Trump.”
“I think we've come closer to revealing the ugly beast beneath the American masks than we ever have before—the fact that we have a country built on genocide and racism and severe class differences,” he said at the time.
“It would be worth calling attention to the situations that could bring us to the brink of something as horrific as what my parents lived through.”
Like, say, banning a book about the Holocaust supposedly because it says “bitch,” and the schools whiting out all but the first letter of that word just isn’t enough censorship. It’s almost not clear which would be a more disturbing set of reasons for banning a book: discomfort with teaching about the brutality of the Holocaust, or really being so upset by a censored version of a word that is allowed on network television. At least some of the board members—though clearly not all—may be just that narrow and rigid.
One board member cited what he described—apparently incorrectly—as a poem being taught in seventh and eighth grade as another piece of objectionable content. “My problem is,” he said, “it looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language.”
The “poem” in question was “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” written for the 1921 Broadway musical Shuffle Along and since recorded by Judy Garland and Peggy Lee, and used by Harry Truman in his 1948 presidential campaign. Wild, vulgar stuff indeed. But the board did not follow up on whether to ban a song used in a 1948 presidential campaign, because the subject of the meeting was whether to ban a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Holocaust. Which they did.
“I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented,” Spiegelman told CNBC. “There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”