Of Naked Mice and Nazis
The Republican War On Words Heats Up
The Republican war on words—written and spoken—is really heating up. The news is rife with stories about banning books, policing teachers, and shutting down classroom discussions. This week alone we had plenty of manufactured controversies:
Of Naked Mice and Nazis. The one that got the most attention is the unanimous decision by the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee to remove Maus, Art Speigleman’s award-winning graphic novel about his parents’ experience during the Holocaust, from the eighth-grade curriculum. Specifically, the district objected to the use of curse words as well as nude pictures of the main characters. To be clear, the characters in Maus are animals—Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, and German Nazis are cats—meaning the picture they claim to be objecting to is a black and white hand-drawing of a naked mouse. The book is an unflinching look at the conditions Jews endured in concentration camps. People are shot, gassed, bayonetted, starved, and shoved into cattle cars. Other pictures show mountains of emaciated dead bodies. But, sure, in McMinn County Tennessee, that’s all cool as long as the children aren’t subjected to a line drawing of a penis.
Clothed or Unclothed Genitals. Lawmakers in Arizona and Virginia focused their outrage on books that they deemed “sexually explicit.” While the VA law failed to get out of committee, AZ lawmakers steamed ahead with their law that explicitly spells out what it means to be explicit: “…masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse or physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or if such person is female, breast.” When confronted with the fact that this broad definition would take literary greats like The Great Gatsby off of shelves, the bill’s sponsor agreed to an amendment that made it clear that the classics, early American literature, and anything needed for college credit would still be accessible with parental consent. And, he tried to assure his colleagues that the goal wasn’t limiting all discussions of LGBTQ issues: “This is about acts of homosexuality, not being a homosexual.” (Phew.)
No Homo Promo. Republicans in Florida, who recently proposed a classic “no homo promo” law are not splitting those same hairs. They admit they want to ban all things gay. Such laws restrict conversations in classrooms by saying that schools “can’t promote homosexuality” or some such ambiguous phrase designed to confuse and scare teachers into saying nothing. This is exactly what the new Florida law is designed to do. It outright forbids all discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary school and then says the topics can’t be discussed in other grades “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” It goes on to give parents the right to sue the school for damages if a procedure or policy—or presumably a classroom discussion of the trip to Disney World 2nd grader Madison just took with her two moms—violates this rule.
Tattle on Teacher. And, speaking of classroom discussions, Virginia’s new governor—who was inaugurated earlier this month in a proper morning suit and gloves—proved himself to be the cartoon villain he portrayed by implementing a tip line encouraging parents to rat on teachers who discuss “divisive” topics in the classroom. It’s meant for teachers who dare to discuss critical race theory because that’s the particular beast that got Youngkin elected, but I’m sure it will be used against sex education teachers as well. We are divisive. (And nothing could possibly go wrong when the email address gets into the hands of students.)
These debates often use sex as a way in but they’re not really about sex. At least not for lawmakers involved. These people don’t really care whether your kids read Maus or got offended by the rape scene in Beloved. They don’t care if your kids learn how to use a condom or stay abstinent until marriage. They care about finding an issue that will scare those parents who are already worried that the world is marching on without them and they’ve lost all control over what their kids might know/think.
Andrew Shepard, my second-favorite Aaron Sorkin-penned President, put it this way in his impassioned speech slamming his presumptive opponent:
"And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, [my opponent] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character…and you scream about patriotism. You tell them [the boogeyman] is to blame for their lot in life."
The soliloquy rings remarkably true almost 30 years after the American President came out. The boogeyman could be a children’s book about gay penguins, transkids who want to play on “the wrong” team, a condom availability program in a local high school, or a concept like critical race theory that’s not actually being taught anywhere. The specific issue itself is almost irrelevant as long as it taps into some aspect of racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and fear of change.
Make parents afraid of it, tell them who’s to blame for it, and then win election with no plan for actually governing. It’s a playbook that the far right has been successfully using for decades and they are hitting it particularly hard right now.
I wish I had the formula for fighting back but I have to admit that sex education—which has been cast in the role of the boogeyman in this playbook for over a century—has not always been successful in combatting these attacks. In fact, the far right used sex education as the wedge issue to take over school boards and state houses in 1980s and managed to get the federal government to spend over a billion dollars telling kids not to have sex until after the wedding. The best advice I have for now is to show up: keep up with local and state politics, don’t let those who are afraid of change dominate the debate, hell, run for school board if you can.