I don’t censor myself much around my kids. I mean, sure, I don’t talk about hardcore porn or tell the really, really awful jokes I know, but I say “fuck” a fair amount. Ryder is eleven, and he knows that swear words have a time, a place, and a use, and he’s already well-versed in what each of those means. And he’s fairly adept at using them correctly. I don’t believe there are bad words, there’s just bad intention and use of words. “Fuck” shows up in Duncan’s current favorite song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day, and he sings it in the song and races on to the next line. We were considering having him audition for the school talent show and sing that song, but of course we were gonna leave out the second verse, because of course. But we discussed changing the word when singing the full song, and when we told him why, he simply said, “Okay”, and that was that. But the word has no real meaning to him yet at six – it’s just something in his favorite song. Kids really don’t worry too much about the four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, not nearly as much as their parents do. And, lemme tell you, the best way to get a kid to use those words is to tell them not to do it. Forbidden fruit is the best. As Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman say in Good Omens, there never was an apple that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.
And then I saw this morning that a school district in Tennessee is banning Art Spiegelman’s brilliant graphic novel Maus for its use of “objectionable language” and an instance of female nudity. As usual, my home state is leading the way in ignorance, doing everything it can to slow the inevitable passage of time and evolution away from the institutionalized racism of this country. I’m posting a link to a CNBC article about this event here:
For those of you who haven’t had the chance to read it, Maus is an autobiographical graphic novel written by cartoonist Art Spiegelman. It’s the story of young Art’s father, really, as the senior Spiegelman tells his young son about his escape from Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. It’s about the sytematic persecution, torture, and attempted extinction of European Jews by the Nazis. And yes, it’s a comic book. While the names of every character in the book are those of real-life people who were a part of Spiegelman’s story, the characters themselves are drawn as anthorpomorphic animals. The Jews in the book are mice, and the Nazis are cats. The metaphor is apt, blunt, and powerful. You get exactly what Spiegelman is going for, and it rings true, especially if you know anything at all about what happened in the German concentration camps. Cats terrorize and play with mice before they kill them, indifferent to their suffering because they don’t see them as anything other than prey, beneath them. It could very well be one of the reasons I’ve never been much of a cat lover; they simply display little to no empathy, and that bothers me.
But it’s exactly how the Nazis treated their prisoners. Like animals, like toys, like prey. And Maus rams this point home with alarming clarity and, surprisingly, not as much violence as you would think. I haven’t read the books in a very long time, so I won’t try to summarize, but the impression it left on me is still there. And, as a student of the German language and a fair amount of German history, especially about World War II, I’m very familiar with the context. I’ve been to Dachau. I’ve felt the eerie stillness of that place. I’ve felt the stain that all that blood has left on the ground, visible or not. And it’s not a good feeling at all.
So why is a school district in Tennessee banning this book? The presented reasons ring false. Let’s talk about the nudity objection first: it’s a comic book. This literally means that a naked mouse was drawn on the page, and somehow teens are expected to be sexually aroused by this. I will say that I remember my teens pretty well, and to be fair, everything turned me on. It didn’t take much for me to get worked up, because the hormones flooding my body kept me ten seconds away from a boner at any given moment. The phone book could give a kid a hard-on. But context is important here. Think about the context: a cartoon mouse is going into the gas chamber in a concentration camp. While the hormones are strong indeed, there is no sexual context in that situation at all. Unless you’re into to something that you’re not willing to talk about with your therapist, that is, and maybe that’s a part of it: the people who want to ban it are turned on by it because it’s something they want to see happen. So put a pin in this and come back to it.
Second, the language. The school board says (and I’m paraphrasing, but it’s in the article), in effect, that while kids undoubtedly hear worse at home on TV all the time, this language has no place in the classroom. That, somehow, hearing these words in an educational institution, a place of learning, where history is supposed to be examined and understood, reading a handful of “dirty” words will somehow damage them. The same logic has been used in the past to remove dozens of books from school libraries all across America, the most famous example of which is arguably Mark Twain’s seminal Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, removed for its repeated use of the word “nigger” in reference to the runaway slave Jim who becomes Huck’s best friend and who unequivocally humanizes Huck. (Side note: I wonder if this post will get flagged for using that word.) Here again, the context is what gives any word its power, not simply its definition. The N-Word is used upwards of a hundred times or more in the book, and this offends people, but the word is used daily with a bile on the tongue by white people all over this country to debase and dehumanize black Americans of African descent. And you can say, “Well, black people call each other that all the time!” You’re right. And do you know why? Again, context. Think about who is saying it, and to whom, and why.
But whether the book is removed from libraries all over the country, the word remains, and at some point, a child will hear it, and they will ask what it means. It’s up to their parents to give them an honest, responsible answer, and teach them why it shouldn’t be said. Because think about whom it will hurt. (I feel like this topic deserves its own post, to really lay out what this all means, so maybe I’ll do that someday.)
So back to Maus, and its objectionable language. The article never states explicitly which words are objectionable, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that they don’t mean the word “Jew”. They probably mean one or more of the good ol’ four-letter variety, probably our fond old friend “fuck”, and it’s the presence of such unwholesome words in a school setting that’s causing all this kerfuffle.
Or is it, really? Let’s talk once more about context. It seems to me, given the recent attempts in schools across the nation to ban the nebulous but somehow oh-so-dangerous-to-society-as-we-know-it Critical Race Theory, what’s really happening is that White America is suddenly being forced to confront its virulently racist past, and it’s very butthurt about it. So, with its last dregs of power and its dying breath, it will try to do what it has always done and bury any material that illuminates just how shitty white people have acted for centuries, especially beneath the noble measure of “Protecting the Children”. Meanwhile, lunatics with guns, primarily white and male, are free to walk into schools anywhere with machine guns and open fire on the children we’re trying so hard to protect. Obviously. I can go on and on with examples of just how little children actually mean to the powers that be in this country, but I’m sure you see what I mean.
Maus is an historical document, and it openly, honestly discusses ugly facts about humanity, and the reason it bothers some people is that they recognize themselves in its pages. The dark side of them that wants “Those People” to know their place, the greedy side that wants to keep all of its power, refusing to relinquish it even in the face of death, the blind side that refuses to admit that we may have done some horrible things in the past, and the selfish side that wants to continue doing all of these things just because we like it that way.
But the Nazis lost. Thankfully, they got smacked down, hard. Not without cost: six million Jews died in the labor camps, and another five million Europeans designated “undesirable” – gypsies, homosexuals, dissidents, whomever they disagreed with or whomever disagreed with them – all rounded up and destroyed. But the scars remain. And scars are excellent reminders. Germany has never forgotten the lessons of World War II because they put their history right out in the open where everyone can see it, feel it. Many of the camps are historical sites. You can tour them, feel the psychic scars of all that pain and suffering for yourself, so that it is never forgotten.
Remember the Americans who fought in World War II? The Greatest Generation? They were appalled at what they found in the camps. But, years before, boatloads of Jewish refugees were turned away from American shores because that same generation didn’t want to deal with the rising horror in Europe, and most of them didn’t like Jews much either. Plus, their ancestors has owned black slaves and treated them just as evilly as the Nazis were treating Jews in Europe, and maybe we just didn’t want to be reminded of that at the time. And there were plenty of Nazi sympathizers in America. Rallies were held all over the country. Japanese internment camps spread across the country like a rash. Both of these events happened in the area of Los Angeles where I used to live. America has yet to reckon with its past, but that day is coming. And there are still Nazis in America, make no mistake about it. The last administration normalized hating out loud, but it had been happening in living rooms for decades. I saw it with my own eyes so many times growing up in the South, and it appalls me to this day. I still see it, even out here on the Left Coast, every single day.
Maus is a testament to the courage, perseverance, and sacrifice of the Jews in Europe during World War II as well as those who risked everything to help them. And there were many. I cannot recommend it enough, and I’m finally going to buy a copy as soon as I get the chance. Because it’s a story that needs to be told, that should never be forgotten. And schools can ban it, but it’s readily available on bookshelves all over this country, and putting it on the list of banned books just makes it all the more interesting to children who are hungry to have their questions answered.
Nazis banned books. It didn’t work. They continue to try, even now, even here, in this country. It won’t work.
And remember this: “Nazi” is a four-letter word. A dirty one, too. And there are plenty of people who don’t want you to say it. But like any dirty word, it has a time, a place, and a purpose. Use it wisely, when it is accurate and correct. And always punch Nazis. Because fuck them.