The public missteps concerning the Holocaust this week are seemingly unconnected but linked nonetheless. The first, the decision by a Tennessee school board to drop Art Spiegelman’s Maus from its Holocaust curriculum represents how, in one school district, conservative leaders view the Holocaust as a general universal lesson whose Jewish aspects are at best inconvenient and at worst can lead to cultural breakdown. The second misstep, involving comments by comedian-cum-social critic Whoopi Goldberg, also involves the Holocaust as a universal lesson denuded of any particular Jewish specificity, and yet which, as a Jewish — that is a white — catastrophe, cannot be allowed to impinge on the sensitized racial discourse of the day. In each instance, the Holocaust is swept up into the American culture wars to the detriment of Holocaust memory itself.
Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, the first part of which appeared more than three decades ago, has been recognized as a classic of the genre and one of the Holocaust’s great artistic representations. Depicting Jewish life and destruction in Poland through the eyes of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, the graphic novel also probes how events destroyed Vladek, a survivor whose first child was killed, whose wife committed suicide after the war, and whose adult son, Artie, writes the graphic novel itself in order, partly, to understand his fraught relationship with his father. Using pigs for Poles, cats for Germans, and mice for Jews, the novel borrows allegorical models from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which allows the attraction of an unusually broad audience, from young to older adults, to a complicated topic. As Artie’s step-mother Mala notes to Artie in one of Maus’s own panels, “It’s an important book. People who don’t usually read such stories will be interested.”
Ostensibly, the McMinn County Tennessee School Board’s decision to drop Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum did not concern the principle of whether the Holocaust should be taught. An entire module there is devoted to the Holocaust. Yet the school board neither called for the module nor showed great enthusiasm for it. In the minutes of the January 10 meeting that discussed Maus, one board member states that “Our children need to know about the Holocaust,” because it “shows … suppression of certain ethnicities….” But other board members did not bother to make similar declarations for the record, even at this ambiguous level.
The immediate question for the board lay in Maus’s artistic representation, which contains instances of strong language (the board pointed to eight words, G-rated according to Spiegelman), disturbing images (the board pointed to one small panel of Artie’s mother’s suicide in which she is, if one squints, semi-nude), and Artie’s fury at Vladek, at the end of the novel, on learning of Vladek’s destruction of his mother’s handwritten memoirs, the last trace of her, which Artie has repeatedly asked to see (“God damn you!” Artie says to his father at the end of the novel “How the Hell could you DO such a thing?”) The dynamic of this climactic scene is very Jewish, hearkening to the fraught father-son relationships between Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and Jacob, and widespread tortured family dynamics in postwar Jewish families.
But it was too much for the McMinn school board members, who profess their own Biblical devotion. The meeting’s minutes reveal that the group has little sense of the Holocaust and an even weaker understanding of its Jewish nature; no board member uttered the words “Jew”, “Jews”, or “Jewish” at any point in the entire 20-page record. The minutes reveal and even poorer comprehension that the aesthetic imperative in representing the Holocaust lies in the balance between the unspeakable horror that repels us and the terrible beauty that unsettles us as it pulls us in.
Curriculum developer Melasawn Knight tried to explain. Spiegelman, she said, is “trying to portray as best he can with the language he chooses [so that we] can relate to the horror…. Is the language objectionable? Sure. I think that is how he uses that language.” But she cut no ice with the board. For several, including vice-chair Quinten Howard, “Using the Lord’s name in vain is what did it.” Board member Mike Cochran looked whimsically to his own school days in which “I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language.” Cochran added that Artie’s more anger at his father was a harmful model. “I don’t know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff.”
More alarming was the board’s discussion concerned Spiegelman himself and those who put Maus into the curriculum. The dialogue veers everywhere, from a McCarthyist peep at Spiegelman’s other work to the antisemitic trope, thinly veiled, that the Jews are the force behind pornography and cultural decline. “This guy [Spiegelman],” complained board member Tony Allman, “did the graphics for Playboy. You can look at his history.” Cochran saw a more sinister agenda at work. Maus, he suggested, was part of curriculum “developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity, and normalize vulgar language. If I was [sic] trying to indoctrinate someone’s kids, this is how I would do it. You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it….” Cochran let slip his broader concern later: “My problem is with the curriculum,” and the political persuasion of those who he thinks designed it.
The board discussed redaction of the troublesome eight words and the one panel, but it is doubtful they considered it seriously. As Cochran put it, “I thought the end [of the novel] was stupid….” The vote was 10-0 to drop Maus. Knight warned that Maus is “anchor book” around which the rest of the Holocaust module revolved and said that, “the whole module would have to be rewritten.” Instructional supervisor Steven Brady pointed out that Maus is “the only Pulitzer Prize willing graphic novel out there. It’s very highly acclaimed.” Sharon Brown suggested that the schools could perhaps skip the module entirely, as it was so “controversial.”
The Maus argument triggered Holocaust distortion from another political direction, this from Whoopi Goldberg on the television program The View on January 31. We can debate the efficacy of giving celebrities a platform on which to spout off on topics about which they know little, but that ship unfortunately sailed long ago. Goldberg held forth, chiding the McMinn County School Board for its conservative sensibilities, but then engaged in her own distortion. The Holocaust, Goldberg, proclaimed, “isn’t about race…. No, it’s not about race…. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man… these are two white groups of people….” Later, on comedian Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, Goldberg repeated that the Holocaust was “about white on white.”
Many have already pointed to Goldberg’s error in sidestepping Nazism’s obsession with race and its insistence that the Jews had to be destroyed for racial reasons. And we can leave the debate on Jews and “Whiteness” to the postmodernists, who delight in intellectual cul-de-sacs. No one, meanwhile, would dare step on the other landmines strewn by Goldberg’s comments. Were the southern states’ Jim Crow policies and the lynchings that they produced simply an example of “man’s inhumanity to man?” Was the Rwandan Genocide not about race because it was a black-on-black crime? One would never think of universalizing these crimes in such a way as to extract the specific content by which they become meaningful. Yet the Holocaust has long undergone such distortion, with Goldberg simply becoming the latest practitioner.
Partly, Goldberg relies on a strain of well-meaning American Holocaust discourse from the 1990s, which aimed to frame the Holocaust within the gauzier narrative of American pluralism and tolerance. But as novelist Dara Horn has acerbically written, “Dead Jews are only worth discussing if they are part of something bigger, something more.” The “something more” would of course be “man’s inhumanity to man.” Given the Nazi project, not to make Jews feel badly about themselves or even to enslave them, but to annihilate world Jewry down to the last infant and cause Jewry’s irrevocable extinction, a more meaningless platitude than “man’s inhumanity to man” is difficult to imagine. Maybe we should stop using it altogether.
But Goldberg’s comments also draw on a more pernicious strain of left-wing thought which has held, for decades, that whatever status comes with unfathomable victimization is far too valuable a commodity to be wasted on the Jews. In postwar communist Poland, for example, historian Witold Kula lamented that, “the Jews were [once] envied for their money…. today they are envied for the very crematoria in which they were incinerated.” It is a telling comment even today, though few would publicly embrace the latter, and very weird, form of envy. West European leftists in the 1960s, meanwhile, downplayed or even denied the Holocaust in order to emphasize injustices to Palestinian Arabs while delegitimizing Israel. “Today,” French Jewish philosopher and former resistor Vladimir Jankélévich said with complete exasperation in 1969, “everyone pretends to be persecuted…. But there will never be but one Auschwitz.”
Such thinking also emerged in the Third World, where it became entwined with the racial aspects of the fight against European colonialism. Antillean poet Aimé Césaire famously noted in 1950 that Hitler came from the European tradition of colonial exploitation. He was nothing particularly special. What Europe could not forgive in Hitler, Césaire said, was “the crimes against the white man … the fact that he applied to Europe colonial procedures which until then had been reserved for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.” The persecution and murder of Jews, wrote Césaire’s disciple Frantz Fanon, were “just minor episodes in the family [i.e., European] history.”
Césaire and Fanon were great intellectuals. But colonialism was what they knew; they understood Nazism, therefore, as another facet of colonialism. Neither understood the centrality of antisemitism to Nazi thinking or that the Nazis aimed to annihilate the Jews entirely. But their heirs today, knowing better, lock onto these one-liners, determined to overlook the distinctive aspects of the Holocaust. Perhaps they see Jews as unworthy white victims. Perhaps they view racial justice as a more urgent contemporary problem from which recognition of contemporary antisemitism can only detract. Perhaps they simply hate Israel. It varies.
Which brings me back to Whoopi Goldberg and the McMinn School Board in Tennessee. I do not think that either is fully conscious of the deep, swirling, brackish wells from which they drink. Regardless, and though they occupy different ends of the political spectrum, both agree that the sheer horror of the Holocaust and its Jewish character are inconvenient. For the McMinn school board, the Holocaust shows, in the words of one member, that “We’ve got to accept people for who and what they are,” but little more beyond that platitude, all while the board unanimously links a classic piece of Jewish Holocaust art to the imagined cultural subversion that got Jews killed in the first place. Goldberg too believes that the Holocaust provides a valuable lesson, about something anyway, but that it needs to politely step aside when it comes to the imperatives of the racial discourse that she finds more urgent. I worry, though, about Goldberg’s disciplinary two-week suspension from The View by the television network ABC.
Many will think the Jews are behind it.