Monday, September 6, 2010
Every now and then, just to drive myself crazy, I dip into internet discussions of Polish-Jewish relations. These can be found on discussion boards, but also on Amazon customer reviews of books about Polish and Jewish matters.
To really push myself over the edge, I read reviews of "Maus." Today I succumbed to temptation and posted a rant about this book. Rant:
It's mind boggling to read the reviews here by obviously politically correct reviewers bending over backwards to justify, even to sanctify, Spiegelman's hateful and racist depiction of Poles as pigs. Nothing could be more obvious, and yet they insist that he's really being very sensitive and tolerant and multicultural and subtle and deep. Paging George Orwell; you need his doublespeak dictionary to get through these reviews, and his weirdly apt quote, "Some animals are more equal than others."
When asked about Poles' protests against his depiction of Poles as pigs, Spiegelman said, "…there's been mostly a very understanding and supportive response, certainly within the community of the directly affected and afflicted. And a cry - a squeal, let's say - of outrage from the Polish community." According to Spiegelman, Poles were not "affected or afflicted" by the Holocaust. And Spiegelman dismissed Poles' concern as "a squeal," the sound pigs make. Spiegelman has suffered, so he can say naughty things. Poles have not suffered, so they have to shut up and take it. Spiegelman made clear, in such quotes, that he's not doing anything subtle. He's expressing contempt for Poles, and minimizing their own victimization under the Nazis, and he's identifying suffering as granting license to hate.
Yes, Spiegelman has suffered greatly. Yes, he deserves our sympathy and support – but not license to perpetuate hate. Millions of others suffered, as well. I recommend the poetry books of John Guzlowski, whose father was in Buchenwald and whose mother was a slave laborer for the Nazis. John does not use his history as license to hate.
We use the word "pig" for men who sexually harass women, for rich people who hoard their wealth while the poor starve, for people who behave in disgusting ways in public. "You pig" means you are dirty, it means you are disgusting, it means you are unkind, it means you are stupid, it means you are vile, it means you are more animal than human, it means you are inferior, it means you have failed, it means you are ugly, it means you wallow in excrement, and eat it, too, and it means that the person speaking to you doesn't care how much that person insults you. "Pig" has this association, all but universally, because pigs eat excrement and pigs wallow in mud.
It's a ritualistic exercise in PC absurdist theater to insist that "pig" has some hidden, special meaning that a well-meaning Art Spiegelman was shooting for – and that you, the ultra sophisticated reader, understood and can explain to those less subtle than you.
"Maus" is not alone. Poles as pigs, Poles as scum, Poles as brutal, dirty, low, vile creatures is a widespread image in the West today. Poles are not randomly bad – Poles are bad in a specific way. Poles are bad exactly because they are low, they are closer to the animal state than the human. They "squeal" as Spiegelman has it.
"Maus" is part of a trend in Holocaust discourse that, cumulatively and ultimately, replaces German Nazis as perpetrators of the Holocaust and places the blame on Poles. The West has had a hard time identifying Germans as the perpetrators of the Holocaust because Germans are like us – they are modern, sophisticated, intelligent, scientific, clean. Poles are poorer, less modern, in Western eyes, more "primitive," more "backward" – and intensely Catholic. It makes the Holocaust go down easier to place blame for the Holocaust on Poles because Poles are less like us than Germans. We don't want to believe that highly modern, educated, sophisticated people could have mastered the world's most notorious genocide. In fact, this difficulty in seeing villainy in people so civilized as the Germans interfered with the West's ability to respond to the Nazi threat in time to save millions of innocent lives.
What is the real world impact of Spiegelman's depiction of Poles as pigs? Page through Amazon reviews. Readers use this Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, often assigned in schools, to learn that Poles are, well … pigs. A high school student reports that he learned from this book that Poles turned Jews into the Nazis as a matter of course. Another reviewer cannot differentiate between Poland and Germany.
The point here is not the Poles did not do bad things during the Holocaust. Poles did; please see my positive reviews of responsible books like Jan Tomasz Gross' "Fear" and Michael C. Steinlauf's "Bondage to the Dead." Those books, both written by children of Holocaust survivors, don't play games with hate.