You can’t really ‘cancel’ anything

31 January 2022

7:30 PM

31 January 2022

7:30 PM

‘When parents give Maus…to their little kids, I think it’s child abuse. I wanna protect my kids!’ Who do you imagine this quote is from? Some plaid-clad member of the moral majority at a town hall meeting in Tennessee – where the local board of education in McMinn County recently caused an outcry by removing Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust from the eighth-grade curriculum? Nope. It’s a quote from, well, Art Spiegelman – in a 1997 comic he drew depicting a conversation he had with Maurice Sendak.

This week he took a rather different view. Interviewed by CNN, he said that in contemplating the school board ruling he had ‘moved past total bafflement to trying to be tolerant of people who may possibly not be Nazis… maybe?’

I quote that line from his earlier comic not as a gotcha, or to try to paint Spiegelman as a hypocrite. I think he’s a stone-cold genius and interviewing him has been one of the privileges of my career.

The context of the line I quoted in my first paragraph is a conversation in which, essentially, Sendak gets the better of Spiegelman on the subject of childhood innocence. ‘Art, you can’t protect your kids,’ says Sendak. ‘They know everything.’

Spiegelman is an artist not a propagandist; he’s seldom interested in showing himself, where he appears as a character, as an oracle of unquestionable truth.

My point is, if Spiegelman himself can show ambivalence, the issue isn’t as simple as its culture-war treatment would have it. In the first place, to remove a book from a curriculum isn’t quite the same as ‘banning’ or ‘censoring’ it. And the reasons why you might remove it matter, too. What vexes Spiegelman in this case, and I don’t blame him, is that what the school board thought ‘inappropriate’ wasn’t the industrial mass-murder of Jews but the occasional instance of bad language and a fleeting image of a female nude.

Had the school board said (though they had no obligation to approach him): Art, my dude, your unrelenting documentary treatment of one of the darkest parts of human history, its very adult understanding of intergenerational trauma and its candid account of your mother’s suicide, not to mention, at a formal level, its narratological sophistication… just isn’t something we think eighth-graders are ready for, perhaps he might have been a more sympathetic. Who knows?

But, like I say, they weren’t obliged to consult him. It doesn’t follow that just because something is a great work of art, or its subject matter is morally important, educators lose the right to decide it’s not the best thing to teach children of a given age. Decisions about age-appropriateness and curricula are made all the time and for all sorts of reasons – some of them stupid and some of them less so.

It seems to me a baby/bathwater situation to exclude Maus on the grounds of ‘curse-words’; and I think most 14-year-olds ought to be able to handle the text. But I’m not on the McMinn County school board, and I don’t think they’re fascists for taking a different view. Their concern about finding a replacement text for the course, as evidenced by the minutes of their meeting, indicates they weren’t trying to cancel the Holocaust as a subject.

The point that bears making, most of all, is a practical one. The so-called Streisand Effect – whereby the moment you try to suppress something you promote it more effectively than any ad campaign ever could – has done its thing most wondrously. The decision of a school board in McMinn County (pop 53,794) has been heard around the world; and the type of person who reflexively abhors what they see as ignorant hicks trying to censor Great Art has reacted exactly as you would expect. Maus, which last year celebrated its 40th birthday, is now in the top ten of the New York Times hardback bestseller list.

That’s a good thing. Removing it from the shelves in one or two classrooms in Tennessee has put this important book on more shelves everywhere else. It has, wince though it makes me to type it, raised awareness and provoked a debate. Plus, it has shown once again that you can’t really ‘cancel’ anything. That was true long before the digital age. The scholar Sarah Churchwell, in this context, quoted the marvellous letter Mark Twain wrote in 1902 to the Omaha World-Herald when Huckleberry Finn was banned from that state’s public libraries:

‘I am fearfully afraid this noise is doing much harm. It has started a number of hitherto spotless people to reading ‘Huck Finn’, out of natural human curiosity to learn what this is all about – people who had not heard of him before; people whose morals will go to wreck and ruin now. The publishers are glad, but it makes me want to borrow a handkerchief and cry. I should be sorry to think it was the publishers themselves that got up this entire little flutter to enable them to unload a book that was taking too much room in their cellars, but you never can tell what a publisher will do. I have been one myself.’

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