Adventures in Censorship

By | Thursday, June 08, 2023 Leave a Comment
Several weeks ago, a public library reached out to me and noted that they had recently received a complaint about one of their books with the demand that it be entirely removed from their shelves. Per their policy, any written complaint required the library to re-evaluate the book in question with special consideration of the issue(s) brought up in the complaint. The library, per the same policy, brings in experts about the book -- often a combination about the topic the book discusses and the focus of the complaint itself and librarians from other systems familiar with the material -- to discuss the merits of the complaint and offer up a formal recommendation to the library's board on whether the book should remain in place, be re-shelved in another section, or removed entirely. The person who contacted me couldn't tell me too many specifics in advance of the entire group getting formalized, but she did note that I was being asked to weigh in as an expert on comic books.

Most of the cases of attempted comic book bans I've heard recently centered on the so-called "Moms for Liberty" trying to get rid of Gender Queer, Flamer, and other semi-recent graphic novels that even remotely touch on LGBTQIA+ issues. As often as not, they would try banning books just for having a non-binary character, even if the book's actual subject isn't related at all to their sexuality or gender expression. So my initial assumption was that it was something related to one of those books. As it turns out, though, the complaint was against Art Spiegelman's decades-old, Pulitzer Prize winning Maus.

I basically shook my head when I first heard that. Why are people still complaining about this? Every argument against the book has been shot down repeatedly over the past thirty years. In all that time, there has not been a single, reasonable complaint against Maus that warrants removing it from a library or school. So I thought to myself, "Fine. Whatever the actual complaint says, I can easily find loads of approaches to shoot this down." The actual complaint -- a scan of the submitted document was emailed to me -- was a hand-written note that said, using a grand total of eighteen words, Poles are depicted as pigs who turned Jews over to Nazis, and this was offensive because many Poles did in fact help Jews. (I kid you not; my 'summary' is literally longer than the actual complaint!)

This complaint is almost as old as the book itself, and it's frequently used by antisemitic groups who try to downplay or outright deny the terrors of the Holocaust. In fact, it's used so often by antisemitic groups that when that Tennessee school board banned Maus last year and people protested that it was an antisemitic attack, Spiegelman himself basically said, "No, they're banning it because of language and violence; antisemitic attacks always include the Poles-as-pigs thing." Everything about this complaint struck me as someone deliberately trying to waste the library's time and resources.

In any event, the others in this re-evaluation group and I all re-read the book to guarantee we're not mis-remembering anything and we all weighed in with our various reasons why this complaint was a load of shit. No one felt there was any merit to the complaint from any angle. No one was less than unequivocal; there was no "well, if he'd phrased his complaint this way..." or anything. This complaint had zero validity. It was not representative of the actual contents of the book and, even if it were, it would still easily fall within the bounds of the types of books the library keeps.

I'm at a bit of loss concerning the intention of the complaintant honestly. The basic complaint, as I said, is often used by antisemitic groups but this particular complaint was so badly worded and written that I can't believe it was the work of any more than a lone individual. It was a patently false accusation (literally disproven on three separate occasions within the first 35 pages); he must have known that ANY review would immediately show that and that his demand for removing the book from circulation would be rejected. If the intent was to actually have the book removed; even the most cursory Google search would turn up the aforementioned Tennessee case with the arguments they used, which were at least initially successful. The only purpose of this complaint that I can think of is to waste the library's time and resources. But to what end? Just for a laugh? Just to "own the libs"? I honestly have no idea.

But in any event, that was my adventure for the week. And on the plus side, it gave me an excuse to re-read Maus.
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