An open letter to the McMinn County Board of Education regarding MAUS

Gregory Paul Silber addresses a Tennessee school district that banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning MAUS.
Earlier this week, it was reported that the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee voted unanimously to remove Art Spiegelman‘s seminal Holocaust graphic novel, Maus, from school libraries over apparent concerns about the book’s minimal use of profanity and one image of nudity.
Dear McMinn County Board of Education,
My name is Gregory Paul Silber. I’m a Jewish-American writer, editor, and critic specializing in comics and pop culture. Like many people who I am sure have contacted you over the past few days, I am saddened, furious, and insulted to learn of your decision to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic memoir Maus from your schools.

I was just 13 when I read Maus for the first time. I didn’t find it in school nor was it assigned reading; I simply discovered it. Regardless, I am now a 30-year-old man and can confidently tell you Maus changed my life for the better. It saddens me to think that your students will be deprived of that experience. Maus not only taught me about The Holocaust in ways that I hadn’t yet absorbed from conventional education, but about life after trauma, about the pain children inherit from their parents, and about hope.
I don’t know how much, if anything, your students have learned about the Holocaust. By the time I was their age, I had known about Hitler, the death camps, and related monstrosities for many years. I knew antisemitism has existed throughout the long history of the Jewish people, and I knew it was still out there. I’m not just talking about Neo-Nazis and other hate groups that are easy for some to brush off as irrelevant fringe groups. I had experienced antisemitism first-hand from my own peers, like the first grade classmate who told me I was going to Hell for not believing in Jesus.
For Jews like myself, the Holocaust is not some distant historical event. I heard about it from my family and religious school teachers. I met Holocaust survivors. It’s existentially difficult to come to grips with the fact that some of the same people who were starved, tortured, and forced to watch their friends and family die in ways that most of us can hardly imagine are still alive to tell their stories, but it’s not ancient history. Today, most living Holocaust survivors would have been the same age when they experienced such unimaginable horror as your students are now.
One of the many things that made Maus such an impactful work when I discovered it at 13 was its aching humanity. Vladek Spiegelman, the author’s father and the focal point of Maus, is not presented as a hero, and the other victims of Nazi atrocity whom we meet throughout the book presented as martyrs. They are simply human, with a bevy of vices and virtues like anyone else, forced to contend with a political force that sought to strip them of their humanity. We remember Vladek’s story because his son chose to present him as the man he knew, neither praising nor condemning. Vladek could have been a member of any of our families.
In contrast with the anthropomorphic mice, cats, and other personified ethnic groups that give Maus its distinct visual identity, I was stunned by its unflinching realism. I’m not talking about violence or profanity or anything of that nature. I mean that Vladek’s story isn’t embellished or romanticized. The fact that almost half of Maus takes place in what was present day when Spiegelman was writing and drawing it, the 1980s, went a long way towards helping me come to grips with the fact that the aftermath of the Holocaust is far from over. The trauma led Art’s mother to commit suicide, and his father, for all the resilience he was forced to develop, to become bitter and hot-tempered. Seeing it through the eyes of the son is just another way to build empathy.
I needed that. I needed Maus because I needed to see those who went through the concentration camps not as victims or statistics, but as people. Your students need that, too. And they’re not going to get it if you continue to place trivial notions of civility and comfort over actual education.

I would assume that most of your students are not Jewish; a 2010 survey showed none of the county’s residents claimed Judaism as their religion. But learning about histories that are not your own is key to a well-rounded education, in childhood and beyond. To do otherwise breeds ignorance and bigotry. 
I also understand that you do not have a vested interest in making your students fall in love with comics as much as I did. But research shows that there are several educational and developmental benefits to reading comics, and they can be a powerful tool for learning about material that can otherwise intimidate people of all ages. As much as Holocaust education needs to be uncomfortable, it also needs to be accessible. Eli Wiesel’s Night is wonderful, but it does not have the immediate, universal appeal for young people as a comic like Maus.
Those who support the 10-0 vote to ban Maus claim it’s because of ostensibly risquè content like “naked pictures” and profanity. There’s a lot to unpack from that aspect of the ban alone, so let’s start with the obvious: I can virtually guarantee that the vast majority of your 8th grade students have already heard worse than “goddamn” and seen worse than nude cartoon mice. That’s not because you’ve failed as guardians or educators, or because your students are disobedient. Nor is it because they’ve been exposed to R-rated movies or violent video games or internet pornography.
It’s because the world is messy, and often mean. No amount of perhaps-well-intentioned sheltering is going to prevent children from learning that for long, especially by the time they’ve reached their teens. How long do you plan on continuing this charade of pretending you can shield your students from anything remotely unsavory?
Which brings me to my next point: you claim the ban isn’t because Maus is about the Holocaust (although it’s just as much about Spiegelman’s relationship with his survivor parents), but because you find the aforementioned profanity and nudity age-inappropriate. But the wholesome, nudity and violence and profanity-free book about the Holocaust you may think your students should read instead does not exist. You may think it does, but you cannot adequately teach the horrors of the Holocaust, or the importance of “never again,” without emphasizing the inherent perversity of The Holocaust. I’ve read sanitized stories of the Holocaust, and they’re more obscene than anything Spiegelman ever wrote or drew. As he once said when a German reporter asked if he thought a comic about the Holocaust was in bad taste: “no, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.”
At one point during the meeting in which the vote was held, one of your members, Tony Allman, claims Maus is like “when you’re watching tv and a cuss word or nude scene comes on it would be the same movie without it.” No, Maus would not be the same without language and imagery some may consider shocking. If a work of art about the Holocaust isn’t provocative, it isn’t doing its job in illustrating the depravity of that series of historical events. If you aren’t shocked, horrified, and heartbroken learning about the Holocaust, something is seriously wrong.
He goes on to note that Spiegelman “did graphics for Playboy.” This too, is absurd. Spiegelman made a few contributions to a racy magazine at one point in his career, so that disqualifies everything he’s ever written and drawn as obscene? At some point you’re going to have to accept that if you’re in the business of giving students a good, honest education, you’re going to have to do away with some notions of purity politics.
I wonder if you care about any of this, though. After everything I’ve just written, I can’t help but feel this may be an exercise in futility. I’m writing to you on January 27th, Holocaust Remembrance Day. And the more I think about your ignorant decision to ban Maus from your schools, the more I’m forced to reach the conclusion that from an objective standpoint, your actions are antisemitic and fascist. That’s the conclusion I must reach when you appear to be more offended by mild profanity than genocide.

I don’t know any of you well enough to know whether you are antisemites or fascists, even if banning Maus is an antisemitic, fascist act. I’d like to believe that your intentions are good, and you simply don’t realize how ignorant and harmful your actions are. But there is still time to change course. You can still educate yourselves, so that you may better educate the students in your district.
Perhaps I’d feel less harshly if Spiegelman’s book was taken off of the official curriculum, but remained in the school for students who choose to read it. But no, it’s been banned outright. How are you going to explain that to your students when you teach them about the first amendment? Does book banning sound like something a free society would engage in? You have no business teaching children about American civics if you’re so cavalier about suppressing free expression. It’s unpatriotic.
I hope that you reverse this decision and prove me wrong. But the sad, infuriating truth is that what you’re doing isn’t unique. Censorship is spreading across the United States. Many of the same self-styled free speech warriors railing against a perceived “cancel culture” have no problem banning books simply for suggesting that history is peppered with violence and bigotry that we’re still grappling with today. They pretend it’s because they’re protecting children from “objectionable” material, but we know what they find objectionable is the existence of queer people, America’s history of oppression towards non-white people, and in this case, the reality of antisemitic violence. 

Please prove me wrong. Please prove to me that you’re nothing like the Nazis who murdered millions of people, including 6 million Jews, with members of Spiegelman’s family and mine among them. Nazism didn’t start with murder, though. It started with bigotry, and scapegoating, and suppression of free speech. You’d know that if you read more books about the subject.
Maus would be a great place to start.
Gregory Paul Silber
Brilliant letter! Would that the Tennessee School Board listen and learn from it.
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