Caught in the Maus Trap
No book should be banned. But it is important to point out that a predominant reason classic books are now banned in U.S. schools is progressive angst over racism, and especially use of the n-word. All those in heat over Maus should check themselves and their hypocrisy.
By now the world has heard the McMinn County, Tennessee, school board voted to remove Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. The Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats in recounting the author’s parents’ experience during the Holocaust. It is a magnificent telling of a nightmare and should be read by everyone.
Progressives are in full rabid mode over Maus and Tennessee in general, cranking up their Nazi-meme generators and claiming the ban on Maus is another step towards the end of democracy, already scheduled for November 2024. They ignore how their own underlying hypocrisy of “our banning stuff is good, yours is fascism” is not at all new, and I am typing quickly for fear the Maus meme will fade before I’m finished (this space was last week occupied by Neil Young’s attempt to delete Joe Rogan from Spotify, Dan Bongino and YouTube before that, and so on…).
Progressive tempers aside, of course like most “banned” books in American schools, Maus is not really banned. Banning a book means making it illegal to own, or impossible to obtain. Instead, Maus was removed from McMinn’s eighth-grade curriculum. From the near infinity of books that exist, only a handful can be taught in a school year. They might call that curating, or just making a syllabus. But banning sounds more evil because it instantly summons up the Hitler comparisons progressives so dearly love. Expect someone on Twitter to call McMinn’s city hall the Reichstag before the week is over. In progressive poker, nothing beats Nazi.
The real issue is always why a specific book is left out of a curriculum, because that reveals the true agenda. Of the top 10 “banned” books, progressive definitions of racism and the use of the n-word are the reasons for half of them, which include Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Lord of the Flies.
Most of the other common bans deal with old-timey norms about sexuality and profanity, such as in The Color Purple, and those books usually just migrate up a few grade levels to take care of that. Some on the McMinn school board even suggested Maus might work in an upper grade (no one in McMinn is denying the Holocaust or demanding the subject itself not be taught). Such thinking seems a tad more thoughtful than progressives throwing away a classic tale with a lot to say just because of the antiquated way Huck refers to his black friend.
So what is the problem with Maus in Tennessee? According to the school board, the book contained curse words and a depiction of a naked character. It does seem that strikes pretty close to the same reasons progressive schools ban Huck Finn, only the words and images are, you know, different. Of course progressives don’t believe the good people of Tennessee when they say they object to words, knowing for sure those red necked inbred country cousins are, at their empty hearts, anti-Semites.
Nobody with an Oberlin degree wants to say a Nazi using the word kike to show Aryan superiority is anywhere close to Piggy in Lord of the Flies, representing British imperialism, using the n-word to refer to savages as a show of white superiority. They also don’t want to talk about why we can write kike instead of “the k-word.” It’s a safe bet schools banning Lord of the Flies are even now adding Maus to their curricula. They have the intellectual depth of a touring company of CATS.
People in McMinn County seem to take their education seriously. Their list of approved textbooks is posted online, though not the novels read in lit classes. American history is taught around standard history omnibus editions from controversy-avoidance educational publishers McGraw and Pearson. The county is predominantly white and Baptist, something of a sin itself these days, and has exactly zero known Jews.
McMinn’s E.G. Fisher Public Library has multiple copies of Maus available. So for all the knuckleheads on social media setting up GoFundMe’s to flood copies of Maus into McMinn, relax, it’s already there (imagine some conservative group papering Loudon County with Huck Finn). In fact, the McMinn library has multiple copies of all of the books most banned in American schools. They do not have a copy of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, however.
The progressive lust for banning books they dislike is not confined to fiction. Progressives have been running a campaign against Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters. “Stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100 percent a hill I will die on,” tweeted ACLU’s Chase Strangio. And when Joe Rogan hosted Shrier to discuss the book, employees at Spotify demanded it take the interview off its platform.
When the classic To Kill a Mockingbird and other books about racial issues were banned from the curriculum in the Burbank Unified School District, the L.A. Times characterized it not as the work of a Nazi Sondereinsatzkommando but merely as a “debate” over how to teach anti-racism. The same school also banned Huck Finn and Of Mice and Men for their racist content and use of the n-word. The banned book action was draped around spurious claims a teenager learned the n-word from one of the now off-limits books before using it against another student. They were also concerned that reading aloud a text written decades ago, a white teacher might utter in full what we are now required to call the n-word.
As if rising to a hold my beer challenge, the New York Times allowed not a single comment in its online reporting about the Maus crisis supporting the school board’s decision. They did allow comments such as “It’s Tennessee. You have to let them go. I know it’s hard, but red states are another country in most ways,” “Tennessee! Well what do you expect, they are lost somewhere in the 15th century,” and remarks about how kids in Tennessee don’t read no good anyways. The NYT also reminded readers McMinn County is just a short drive from Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the famous Scopes monkey trial, as if the two were somehow related in the greater hillbilly oeuvre.
So, the conclusion is both sides ban books, right? In progressive America if that results in Huck not being taught, earnest people embrace it as progress. Take the same blunt tool and point it at Maus and it is a sign of fascism, because those NPR supporters who want tolerance and anti-racism taught hate the fact that a white Baptist community even exists, and cannot see past their own hypocrisy.
Their hate spirals from McMinn County bans a book to McMinn County are anti-Semites to McMinn County votes Republican to McMinn County will help re-elect Trump to McMinn County is modern day fascism and must be stopped by any means necessary. It reeks of theocracy even though it sounds nice enough when phrased as “choices that reflect our values.” It’s just that simple. Hatred of others always is. Not a lot of self-reflection in Mein Kampf; the Nazis were certain in their righteousness, too.
As with any challenge to free speech, the correct answer is always more free speech, not less. Do not ban words. Do not ban books. Teach people to understand context and to learn to recognize bad things not by hiding them but by exposing them. Let schoolchildren learn about hate, whether from Lord of the Flies or Maus. If you are frightened by words, they are not the threat. You are.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.