Here’s what it means when a book is banned.
Even before James Joyce finished writing Ulysses, the United States Post Office (that what it was known as back then when it was a Cabinet-level department of the federal government) confiscated issues of the Little Review, which was publishing Ulysses in installments as it was still being written. The publishers were put under criminal indictment for obscenity.
As a result, no American publisher was willing to accept the book for publication. Copies had to be smuggled into the country and then sold underground at prices reaching $50 a copy (the price in 1922; today that would be about $800). U.S. Customs took aim at this smuggling, seized copies coming in from Paris, and had their actions upheld in court in the case of A. Heymoolen v. United States.
In Germany, banned books were burned publicly in the early days of Nazism. Later on, mere possession of proscribed books could result in being sent to a concentration or death camp. Soviet Russia and other communist regimes took complete control over printing and imports. Their ideas were to be uncontested. Books could not be found for sale or in libraries. Those who wanted freedom brought forth the samizdat, an underground system for publishing books without official permission. All involved put themselves at risk of severe punishment.
Clerics have sometimes banned books from their flocks. In a world with religious freedom, you can switch your religion and pick up the book. But if you combine religion and the state, banning can have teeth. Take the case of Salman Rushdie, whose book upset Iranian clerics with the power of the state behind them. Not only is the book not to be found (officially) in Iran, but the court issued a religious decree requiring Rushdie’s death. The author has managed to evade that so far, at the cost of exile and a disrupted life.
That’s banning. That’s fascism.
When a county school board in Tennessee chooses to not use a certain book in an eighth-grade curriculum, that is not a ban. (They didn’t choose thousands of books on the topic. Were they banned?) With a limited amount of time to teach, many worthy books are not chosen. (Would only we have more time!) Sometimes the choice is wise, sometimes it is not. But even an unwise choice is not the same thing as forbidding a book to be read. It is not banning — even if the choice was made late, which is what attracted all the attention.
Students’ lockers are not being checked for the “banned” book. It is sold in stores and delivered to doors. There is no attempt by authorities to stop it from being read. And no doubt, due to the controversy, some of the more independent-minded eighth-graders are going to find a way to read it even if their parents don’t want them to. Just a fact. And, dollars to donuts, everybody in that county knows this.
So why do all these news outlets, talking heads, and tweeters insist on calling this a banning?
This misuse of the word serves a rhetorical purpose. It is meant to eliminate a meaningful consideration of the pros and cons of this specific choice. It instantly labels the deed and those who did it as enemies of all that is good and right, fascists, as they were called again and again in the Star Chamber world of the woke and the would-be woke.
Here is a community in Tennessee that not one percent of the people claiming the book was banned have heard of before. These are people whom they have never met, let alone talked with, let alone explored their views. Yet there seems to be no hesitation to leap instantly to the conclusion that a decision they make through their elected officials in a public forum for their eighth-grade children is fascism. Their ideology is so all-encompassing and so infallible that they need not hesitate to indict and then convict, with no trial necessary. (‘How could the truth possibly different from my pre-conceived idea? What could those people possibly say that I don’t know better?’)
Those Tennesseans, they tell us, are that kind of people. There could be no other motivation for not assigning Maus to eighth-graders than fascism. The familiar contempt, so self-sealed from any truth that might force reevaluation, is the distilled Obama-ism (those people with their guns and their Bible) and Hillary-ism (a basket of deplorables) that has so infected and violently corrupted our common national discourse.
Maus, the book in question, is a highly original and deeply moving book. What it tells through its graphic-novel style is a tale of the psychological scarring that resulted and even filled the lives of survivors’ children, as well as the more familiar tale of the horrors of the Holocaust itself. Maus deals with dark places in the human psyche, and it does so honestly and powerfully. The book grows in stature as the years go on.
Yet that does not mean that it is necessarily an appropriate book for every eighth-grade classroom. Those who have become so aware of how we erred in forcing a uniform education on indigenous or minority groups here and around the world somehow think they are not bound by the principle involved when it comes to less fashionable groups than the ones whose mistreatment they have acknowledged. That is unprincipled. Such an imposition is the sign of indoctrination, not education.
I am not going to say the school board made the best decision. I don’t know the students, their families, or their community in any way that allows the unique contours of their humanity to take shape. But to treat this community and its people as mere tokens in one’s ideology is to deliberately ignore their humanity. There is a very necessary discussion that should be going on about the trade-offs involved in teaching about deeply disturbing things and finding out how to do it right. Friedrich Nietzsche spoke profoundly about what can happen when we stare too long into the abyss. We must find some ever-changing balance between exposure to overwhelming horror and hermetic isolation from the reality of a world in which evil has run rampant and desperately needs sober and dedicated moral commitment to overcome that evil.
I have taught Holocaust courses to middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and adults. Meaningful teaching requires touching the specific humanity of each student as best you can. This is the key to teaching in general, and it is the key idea in Holocaust studies. When we treat other human beings as mere tokens, we make them into dehumanized caricatures, fit to be either unthinking servants of the regnant power or the subhumans that that power wants to annihilate, the mere vermin whose extinction became the aim of a mighty effort of lasting infamy.
I showed students Nazi propaganda films and demonstrated how they use imagery to skip rational analysis and go right to powerful emotions. I brought in survivors’ testimony, staying away from fiction, to feel the enormity of the impact of persecution on one’s humanity. And I exposed my students through documentary film and in-person experiences with heroes, people who had risked everything to save Jews during those days.
My goal was to have the students see that their humanity is in the balance in life. The more they are aware of each other’s humanity, the more they help to defeat tyranny of every sort. The more they allow themselves to think of others only as figures in an ideology or as caricatures whose humanness is non-existent or irrelevant, the more they destroy their own humanity and that of the world in which they live.
I am certainly glad that so many people claim they wish that the Holocaust should be taught and taught well. I make common cause with that idea.
But this twisting of language, this dismissal of a community without any attempt to understand a humanity common through all the differences — this undermines the core upon which all depends in Holocaust education.
Thousands of Americans from the heartland, many never having met a Jew in their life, sacrificed their lives to end Hitler’s rule of terror. Their children and grandchildren deserve better than this. This rush to condemnation is precisely the wrong way to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
To teach, we must model the lesson in our own lives. When we ourselves take care not to slip into the dehumanizing ways of despotism, we are teaching the lesson in a way even the best book cannot.