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Teachable Moment Wrap
Tennessee school board votes and other vital news of the week
Last week, as everyone who spends too much time on line knows by now, a Tennessee school board decided to remove Art Spiegelman’s incredible graphic novel, Maus, from the curriculum, pending finding a more congenial alternative to serve in its place. This decision was equated in multiple quarters to “banning” the book, which was simply inaccurate.
When this position became obviously indefensible, the claim shifted. Now, it was argued, the grounds for removing the book—that it contained cursing; that it depicted nudity; that the relationship between father and son was disrespectful; most important, that the horrors of the mass-murder of Jews, including children, were too terrible for children to handle—were deemed akin to antisemitism or Holocaust denial. Since it’s impossible to tell the story of the Holocaust honestly without telling and showing terrible things, to refuse to tell or show them is implicitly to reject the importance of teaching about the Holocaust.
I happen to agree with that last point to a considerable degree. As I’ve written before I am far more irritated by mawkish, sentimental Holocaust kitsch than I am by other purported offenses against good taste in Holocaust-related art, including even empathy for the perpetrators. But Maus is such a masterpiece precisely because it reckons with the many sides and complexities of this very question. Spiegelman, a character in his book as well as the author, was traumatized both by the inescapable presence of the Holocaust in his childhood, and by the fact that it was never properly talked about. He knew both too little and too much. Spiegelman turns to metafiction, to reflecting self-consciously on the story he himself is telling and the artistic choices he is making, precisely because there are no easy and satisfying answers to the question of how to talk to children—even adult children—about the unfaceable horror.
That’s one of the many things that makes Maus such a great text for older kids. I wish the Tennessee school board understood that. I wish the critics of that school board who have spent the week piling on understood it as well.
The overwhelming tone of the criticism I read of that school board’s decision was outraged. The critics presented themselves as people who understood completely how best to teach about the Holocaust, and were appalled that there were some so ignorant or so prejudiced that they didn’t “get it” yet. But the very fact that they could talk in such a manner was, to me, the best proof that those critics themselves didn’t “get it” at all, since the thing to “get” is that the Holocaust, squarely faced, is a horrible challenge to just about whatever political or moral orientation you might bring into it. If you think that’s a straightforward thing to teach, well, I admire your confidence, but I’d prefer if you’d apply it solely to your own endeavors and not presume to run mine.
But it’s worse than that. This was, as they say, a “teachable moment,” and what was it that the critics taught? I have a very hard time imagining that the lesson learned in that school board was “we should educate ourselves better about the Holocaust before making curricular changes.” Rather, I suspect the lesson was something like “those big city people sure know how to mind other people’s business” or “social media really is ruining everything.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the lesson was “boy, those Jews don’t let up for a second.”
It’s tempting, of course, so say in response to the last possibility: well, good. Better the mask should come off. To which I say: look, I don’t live my life trying to placate critics, antisemitic or otherwise, and I don’t think you should either. But if that’s your attitude, then seriously: what was the point of the performance of outrage? Who was it for, and what was it intended to achieve?
Here’s an anecdote that, to me, gives an indication of the answer to that question. One of the individuals randomly dragged into Twitter’s open sewer for not being adequately outraged was Corey Robin, a left-wing Jewish academic with Holocaust survivors in his family. He didn’t defend the school board’s decision; he merely said it wasn’t prima facie evidence of antisemitism or Holocaust denial, and really wasn’t worth all this attention. For this crime, he got piles of stuff like the following:
That’s what the performance was for. Its purpose was to appropriate the Holocaust for the culture war, to establish yet another shibboleth to determine who is a member of the right-thinking group and who is a member of the wrong-thinking group. That’s it.
And that’s normal; this is just the way we live now, where random strangers pile on the latest heretic for no reason other than it’s fun to do so. But in this case, for me, the subject matter is too personal for me to just leave it at that. A lot of attention has been paid to the way in which professional right-wing trolls have appropriated the Holocaust for their cause of the day (lately, comparing vaccine mandates to Nazi laws mandating Jews wear a yellow star and the like). It’s an absolutely disgusting habit with no justification whatsoever. How different, though, is the behavior of the folks attacking Robin? They are taking the murder of six million Jews and using that monstrous historical crime as a stick with which to bully someone they don’t know and could care less about to make themselves seem more important. If Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s antics are a desecration of the memory of the six million—and they most certainly are—then their behavior is too.
Yair Rosenberg, who understands antisemitism better than just about anyone I know, used the hook of the Tennessee school board fracas to argue that, in fact, Holocaust education is doing quite well in America—at least compared to other kinds of civic education. A great many people can’t identify what Auschwitz is, but more of them can do so than can name the branches of the federal government or know that the 13th Amendment ended slavery. If nothing else, the mere fact that we bandy Holocaust analogies around so frequently is proof of the degree to which the Holocaust has penetrated our consciousness.
I hope Rosenberg will forgive me, but since what he’s talking about is precisely our predilection for appropriating the Holocaust without genuine understanding, I don’t find that fact particularly comforting.
As for that poor benighted school board, if they had just replaced Maus with The Diary of Anne Frank, I wonder whether there would have been any fuss in the first place. It’s a swap that would make a lot of sense for them to make. After all, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, edited her diary with a view to making it more palatable along precisely the lines that concerned the school board: suppressing sexual material, removing lines that were disrespectful toward her parents, and generally smoothing out his daughter’s rough edges.
I’m glad in recent years a fuller, truer portrait of Anne Frank has come to light. But Otto Frank, survivor of Auschwitz, was not a Holocaust denier. Neither is Corey Robin. And neither, on the basis of wanting to spare their students the pain of exposure to what the Holocaust really was, are the members of that Tennessee school board. They’re just flawed human beings. It would be nice if, as a small gesture of Holocaust remembrance, we tried a little harder to treat them as such.
I had two columns in The Week this week. The first was about Ukraine again:
What are Putin's aims in threatening, and potentially launching, war with Ukraine? If his goal was to shatter the NATO alliance, the effort has already proved counterproductive. Ukraine is not a NATO ally, is unlikely to ever become one, and has no claim on NATO for its defense. But currently neutral nations like Finland and Sweden, which have a profound interest in the independence of the Baltic states, are now seriously contemplating joining the alliance in response to Russian moves.
If Putin aims to seize and annex the eastern, more pro-Russian portion of the country, the result would be a rump Ukraine with an overwhelmingly pro-Western orientation, eager to cooperate with NATO and press irredentist claims against Russia for its lost territory. Russia would be slightly larger, but ringed by even more uniformly hostile neighbors, and the newly acquired territory would be an expensive dependency rather than an asset.
Because of the obvious downsides of these objectives, Putin's most likely goal is to reduce Ukraine to the status of a vassal state, a Moscow-allied buffer between Russia and the West, comparable to its neighbor, Belarus. This would be ideologically satisfying to many Russians, who have never really accepted Ukrainian independence, and a clear enhancement to Moscow's power and prestige. On that assumption, the purpose of war would be to compel the government in Kyiv (or a successor government installed by Moscow) to agree to constitutional changes that would tie Ukraine permanently to Russia.
There's only one plausible way to stymie this objective, and that is for the people of Ukraine to refuse to accept it, much as they have refused every attempt since 1991 to pull their nation back into Russia's embrace.
Read the whole thing if you want to get the whole argument, which is of a piece with what I’ve been saying for some time in multiple contexts about the necessity of self-defense, and how the United States can be most effective in providing support rather than serving as a front-line defense.
I do want to clarify one thing, though. I agree that it would be significantly contrary to American interests to bring Ukraine into NATO. Europeans don’t want it either, and aren’t enthusiastic about bringing it into the EU to boot. Whatever we’re doing now, the objective should be to get a negotiated solution that ends the cycle we’ve been on of complacency, provocation and crisis. I remain skeptical that Putin’s regime is capable of making a sensible deal, but a sensible deal is what we should be aiming for, and a sensible deal would not bring Ukraine into NATO or increase our risk of war with Russia.
My other column at The Week was about Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement. I think his replacement should be a man of his temperament and judicial orientation:
Regardless of who President Biden chooses to replace Breyer, the reality is the Supreme Court will have a conservative majority for a long time to come. In that context, the most important job of a Biden appointee will not be to join the court's other two liberals in blistering dissents but to influence the persuadable justices on the right to chart a middle course that could preserve the court's legitimacy by reducing its political profile.
In other words, Biden should be looking for a justice like Stephen Breyer.
Of all the liberals on the court, Breyer is by far the most sensitive to what legal scholar Alexander Bickel called the counter-majoritarian difficulty. Why should an unelected court, representing the political preferences of earlier majorities, be allowed to overrule the majority that currently exists? Granting that there is inevitably a role for the court in clarifying ambiguous language and adjudicating between the branches of the government, why shouldn't the people themselves — acting through their elected representatives — be the best and final interpreters of the deliberately open and equivocal phrases of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the key post-Civil War amendments?
Breyer had some sympathy with this perspective and for that reason was distinctly more reluctant than his colleagues to overturn acts of Congress or impose new limits on the executive branch. His principled objections to originalism and textualism — the two predominant philosophies advanced by judicial conservatives — were that they were insufficiently attentive to the purpose of legislation or to making democracy work in practice.
From Breyer's perspective, the court's job is not merely to say "what the law is," as Chief Justice John Marshall put it, but to help the law make sense, and to do so in a manner that makes government both more accountable and more functional. The court, in other words, should properly be the handmaiden of the political branches rather than their overseer.
For liberals raised on memories of the heroically liberal Warren Court, or who cherish their "notorious RBG" merchandise, such a vision may seem like a come-down. But it is precisely the humility of Breyer's vision that gives it lasting power — and a chance of wooing support from the court's center-right.
Again, read the whole thing if you want to hear the whole argument.
I will admit, I found the tone of much of what I read about his retirement fairly dispiriting. The notion that there’s something new about considering constituency membership (which is all an identity politics test is) in selecting Supreme Court Justices is laughably unserious, as is the notion that the choice should be the “most qualified” as if there were some single axis of qualification on which to measure potential candidates. These appointments are political, and are made for the same complex array of reasons as other political appointments. I’ll be upset if President Biden picks someone manifestly unqualified, but he won’t do that.
Even more irritating is the suggestion that the appointment is pointless because conservatives now have a majority on the Court. Because, of course, no one on the Court has ever evolved to become more liberal over time, nor has anyone ever died or retired at a younger age than expected, suddenly opening up the prospect of a new majority, so of course a liberal appointee would just be twiddling their thumbs for the rest of their career. The real reason such a line is dispiriting, though, is that it suggests that conservatives on the Court cannot reason or be reasoned with as such. This isn’t legal realism; it’s legal nihilism, and it’s mind-boggling to me to hear it coming from people who profess admiration for any liberal jurists at all.
As for the politics, though, I suspect those anticipating a boring confirmation fight are likely correct. It behooves the Republicans to be magnanimous and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a handful of them (at least those who aren’t planning on running for president) wind up voting for whoever Biden nominates. That outcome certainly strikes me as much more likely that any Democratic defections.
One Cheer for Calhoun’s Concurrent Majority?
As if defending famous Holocaust gaslighter Corey Robin weren’t bad enough, my only post On Here this week was a semi-defense of notorious slavery apologist John C. Calhoun’s signature contribution to political theory.
John C. Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majority was designed to protect the distinct interest of slaveholders, but that interest “needed” protection because its interests really were at variance with the interests of the free states (not to speak of the interests of the slaves themselves). Today we see that application as obviously repugnant, but as a theory it has broader applicability. When Canada gave special powers to Quebec, for example, on the grounds that it is a “distinct society,” it was following the logic of concurrent majority. A Canadian majority cannot simply override a Quebecois majority on certain issues that are of particular importance to Quebec. Federal systems generally justify themselves by stressing the need to protect local majorities from being overridden by national ones, but sometimes federalism is inadequate to assure that national decisions are broadly acceptable. The Lebanese constitution, for example, allocates different offices of the central government to the different religious communities—Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim—that divide the country. The purpose is to assure that all these communities are always represented in national decisionmaking—that no majority can completely overrule majorities within any sectarian grouping.
The reason I’m nattering on about this is that if we are back in a situation of profound distrust across what are the equivalents of sectional or sectarian divides, then the theory of concurrent majority starts to have real force again in terms of providing for political legitimacy. It’s not that, as such, bipartisan policy is superior or that there’s something illegitimate about one party ruling until it loses an election. Quite the contrary: requiring any kind of consensus makes government more sclerotic and corrupt. It’s that if the two parties represent consistently different groups of people who profoundly distrust each other and think that what each is trying to do is beggar the other, then a policy really does have to cross that partisan chasm to seem legitimate to both sides.
Once again, read the whole thing if you want to get the whole argument.