Lions and tigers, and Maus, oh my!

It was February 7, 1497, Shrove Tuesday — the day before Ash Wednesday, a Christian holy day of prayer and fasting that marks the first day of six weeks of penitence before Easter known as Lent.  Whipped up into a puritanical frenzy by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, his followers, known as the Piagnoni, collected objects that, in their minds, might tempt one to sin, and this included “vanity” items such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments, as well as books which Friar Savonarola deemed immoral, the manuscripts of secular songs, and paintings and sculptures.

And then they burned them in the public square of Florence, Italy.  The result was a massive fire which came to be known as the "bonfire of the vanities," an event recorded in The History of Florence by Francesco Guicciardini, an Italian Renaissance historian who was there and gave a firsthand account.  Tom Wolfe would appropriate the name, and theme, of the Florentine event as the title of his 1987 satirical novel about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in the New York City of the 1980s that was also turned into a film in 1990 starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Kim Cattrall, and Morgan Freeman; the novel is seen by many as the quintessential novel of the 1980s while the film was a critical and box office flop.  Be that as it may, the banning, and burning, of things thought to be “naughty” has a long history and there are probably examples which predate Friar Savonarola's public spectacle in Florence I could tell you about, thoughtful reader, if I could be bothered to look for them.

In my own lifetime, one of my favorite novels of all time, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, has sold over 5 million copies despite being ranked in the top 100 books banned by the American Library Association from 1990 thru 1999.  Realistic but sexually explicit passages and language as Charlie comes to grips with sexuality (heterosexuality no less!) are cited as reasons by small minds in places like Emporium, Pennsylvania and Glen Rose, Arkansas for banning young people from reading the book and have been used to challenge its inclusion in school curricula in cities in Wyoming, Ohio, and Florida.  Interestingly, there were no complaints (and no pearl clutching) about the way in which adults with mental disabilities are disrespected and discriminated against which is the theme of the novel.  But oh my god… the sex!

Which brings me to the latest skirmish in the culture wars:  the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that tells the story of author Art Spiegelman's relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, through the medium of a graphic novel (i.e., like a comic book) that depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats called Maus.  The McMinn County School Board in Tennessee unanimously voted to remove Maus from its curriculum because of eight curse words (yes thoughtful reader, 8!) and nude imagery (remember, we’re talking about illustrated animal nudity) of a woman, used in the depiction of the author's mother's suicide.  Two of the offensive words were “bitch” and “goddamn,” and it is worth noting the previous President of the United States, Donald Trump, said far worse standing behind the seal of his office at the presidential lectern.  Of course, it’s ridiculous to object to an account of the mass murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others because of some salty language and nudity (again, animal nudity!).  But that’s what happened.  Spiegelman told the New York Times it seemed to him the board members were asking, “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”

A 2020 poll found that 63% of adults under the age of 40 did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.  So it’s no surprise that McMinn County School Board member Tony Allman remarked, “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. 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.”  Following the surreal sight of seeing neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites march through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 throwing Nazi salutes, waving swastika flags, shouting “Seig Heil” and “Jews will not replace us,” and carrying tiki torches, and then having Donald Trump, as president, defend them as “very fine people,” the United States has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic violence that is higher than it has been in 42 years.  According to the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish non-governmental organization based in the United States founded in 1913 to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all:

ADL’s most recent Audit of Antisemitic Incidents in the United States recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. This is the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. The year included five fatalities directly linked to antisemitic violence and another 91 individuals targeted in physical assaults.

Hatred grows from fear, and fear is fed by ignorance.  We will not advance as a civilization, as a society, as a country by avoiding topics that make us uncomfortable, and that includes a realistic appreciation of how white, “Christian" America has treated native Americans and African Americans throughout our history as a nation.  Fueled by the Mussolini of Mar-a-Lago and the Führer of Fox News, hate is poised to overtake baseball as our national pastime.  We need children to be taught with books like Maus if we’re going to have any hope of stemming the rising tide of division that pits “us” against “them.”  If you have seen photographs of the Allies liberating the concentration camps then you know the nudity is far more shocking than a drawing of a naked mouse!

And while we’re on the subject, why aren't Mr. Allman and his fellow board members up in arms denouncing Disney and banning their cartoons for subjecting children to smut in the guise of Donald Duck, who since the 1930s has appeared without pants?

Friar Savonarola did little to stop what he saw as immoral and a gateway to sin by destroying access to it.  Today we cannot imagine a world without mirrors, or musical instruments, or, gasp!, playing cards.  It should be obvious that bans, book burnings, and the like actually increase desire and demand for the so-called “offensive” item(s).

As Maus' author Spiegelman told CNBC in an e-mail:

The schoolboard could’ve checked with their book-banning predecessor, [Russia President] Vladimir Putin: he made the Russian edition of Maus illegal in 2015 (also with good intentions — banning swastikas) and the small publisher sold out immediately and has had to reprint repeatedly.

And here in the United States, The Complete Maus had been the #7 bestseller on Amazon's online bookstore a little over a week ago; as of last Monday it is #1.  The top three bestsellers in Amazon's "Literary Graphic Novels" section are The Complete Maus, Maus I, and Maus II.

Nirvana Comics in Knoxville, Tennessee announced that it had started a program to loan or donate a copy of the book to any student who requests it and, within a day, had received donations from all over the world.  They later started "Nirvana Comics Knoxville Project:  Maus” at GoFundMe online to support the purchase of copies for students locally and nationwide, raising tens of thousands of dollars.  Nirvana Comics said, "We thought this would be a local support to help a magnificent piece of literature stay in the hands of students in the McMinn county.  But ... this has become a global priority!”


A priority to ensure that we do not allow hatred to overcome us once again.  As George Santayana said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And if we avoid the past because it makes us squeamish to look at it or hear about the inhumanity of humanity, we are well on our way to a sequel.

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