Monday, January 31, 2022

The Eye of the Beholder

Remove Art Spiegelman's MAUS from a middle school curriculum? Inconceivable! 

Or maybe not.

There are swaths of this country where the object of public school education is no longer to educate children in public schools. Instead, they are devoted to the idea that any idea not aligned with their personal agenda is a danger to children. Obviously, the plan really is to turn kids into mindless replicants incapable of expressing critical or independent thought. They are whitewashing their brains. 

See, whitewashing isn't just for walls in Tom Sawyer; whitewashing is how history is spun so kids see nothing wrong with the evils We, the People, have committed and supported. It prevents the exposure of heinous acts to young minds. (Which probably have already watched hours of DC and Marvel action movies and viewed more heinous acts than most of us growed-ups.)

Humor me for a moment. Let's talk about whitewashing. Once  upon a time, it was, indeed, the stuff you slapped on a wall. Merriam-Webster's Words-At Play 2019, however, points out modern usage has taken on a life of its own, attributing that shift to Wiley Hall:

Finally, the movie makers must not be afraid to lie - especially if it makes us look good. Hollywood has been whitewashing (pun intended) history since movies were invented. (Wiley A. Hall, Afro-American Red Star, 6 Dec. 1997)

It is, as Hall notes, a sly pun on the earlier use of the verb whitewash which can refer to making something whiter, usually by applying a whitener of some sort to it (as in, “We have to whitewash the fence annually”). Whitewash can also refer to glossing over or covering up something that is immoral, illegal, or otherwise bad (as in “a book which whitewashes the country’s troubled past”), and the connotations of this particular whitewash have certainly bled over into the Hollywood whitewash.
If you're  surprised by any of this, you've not been paying much attention. You need to read or listen to more reliable news sources...like PBS Newshour. 

Anyway, what is particularly compelling is the hypocrisy. Our GOP brethren scream about the Democrats attempts to cancel culture  when, in fact, they are doing just that and so much more damage to children in their attempt to prevent them from seeing anything that might promote thought in their little, developing minds. On this list of 850 books Matt Krause wants to see banned in Texas, you will find damn near any book that has to do with gender identity, sexual identity, LGBTQ issues, abortion in the courts, civil rights for Native Americans, the list is heartbreakingly astounding. This list, and others like it, intentionally prohibit the nation's children from learning about anything other than white-bread pure, historically incorrect bull-oney. According to the Dallas Morning News, of the first 100 books on the list, 97 of them are written by women, people of color, or LGBTQ writers. Within those first 100 books you will find Avoiding bullies?: skills to outsmart and stop them by Louise Spilsbury, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Since the bills passed, parents across Texas have challenged books that explore issues of race, gender and sexuality. Some have read short passages about sexual assault and sexual experiences during school board meetings, saying the material is inappropriate for children. A mother in Richardson went somewhat viral after her testimony against books that included descriptions of assault and vulgar language. She later said she took issue with the titles’ information about suicide and “left wing ideology.”
(Just in case you didn't think this was political.) The book bans deny kids a chance to learn without embarrassment or pressure. The bans do not protect children; it puts them at greater risk for emotional and psychological distress, and even physical danger for being different. Books are safe introductions to the very personal questions kids have and ultimately need to ask. Loss of access to material that will illuminate the world is a disservice with far-reaching implications. 

Maus is not on the Krause list from Texas, but in Tennessee, it was unanimously banned from the 8th grade curriculum for nudity and questionable language. Nudity? Not guns in mice mouths? Really? 

A guy I know to be philosophical and thoughtful on this very topic once upon a time had the screen name MnMaus when AOL first started. While there is some disagreement about how that name came to be, the reality is that the owner of said AOL screen name was profoundly impacted by Art Spiegelman's Maus. He wrote:
I was 11 or 12 when I first came across Maus. I already loved comics quite a bit, but Maus struck me in a deeply personal way. This was one of the first serious comics I had read and it dealt with being Jewish in a profound and meaningful way. Vladek Spiegelman became a hero to me in a way because of his ingenuity and his determination to survive. I also loved the artwork. Fun fact: it was drawn using a fountain pen on standard typewriter paper. The simplicity of black and white ink has a starkness to it that seems perfectly fitting with the subject matter.

The Holocaust seemed very monolithic to an 11 year old. Something that is so large and heavy that it's almost impenetrable. Maus took those events and scaled them down to the story of one man's survival in a way that became very accessible to a kid. In a way, Vladek always reminded me of Zaydie in the way he tells his story. It made everything that happened seem more personal, more "real".                      Misha Siegfried

Keep in mind, he's recalling from the point of view of an 11-year old boy in 1990s America. He knew Holocaust survivors; they were all around him. He saw the numbers, he heard the stories, these were part of his every-day existence. Still, the books sparked discussion; the statements above are proof there was a profound impact. 

So if MAUS made the Holocaust more "real" for a kid who saw the aftermath all around him, why wouldn't anyone want a kid to encounter that reality in a pen-and-ink illustrated book? Would photographs have been better? More shocking? Yes. Scarier? Yes. Desirable for young readers? Maybe not so much. 

Spiegelman's drawings are scary. This is not Feivel the Mouse in An American Tail. This is dirty, gritty, and scary. But if our kids do not, from an early age, learn that this stuff happened in real life, we are doomed to repeat it. 

Banning books that deal with difficult subjects does not make them go away; it buries the hard stuff and lets it fester.  Listen to Art Spiegelman talk about the banning; he's spot on.


Drawings are just that, drawings and even if these are gritty, hard to digest images, they are not photographs of bodies in a ditch or even mounds of shoes. I could understand why some parents would find the fear of night-terrors for kids who have never been exposed to the depth of human cruelty to not want photographs. 

You still have to wonder if these parents are also banning Batman, Spiderman, or Superman comics? I'm equally certain that this folks don't know/understand that Superman was born in the bedrooms of a couple of Jewish kids in 1930s Cleveland. 

Winner of the Completely Inconceivable Stupidity Prize goes to Tennessee's Williamson County, for banning Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea by Chris Butterworth. The so-called reason for disallowing elementary kids the chance to read this adorable book? It describes seahorse reproduction. This is subversive dangerous material? Really? 



The Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
If you don't own a copy of MAUS, 
go get on a waiting list. 
It's the #1 best seller on Amazon at the moment. 

Bonus Tip o' the Week
Treat yourself to a moment of Art Spiegelman talking about his art

Extra bonus Tip o'the Week from MnMaus himself!



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