Of Mice and Men: Ben Labe explains what lessons we can learn from graphic novel ‘Maus.’
The graphic novel Maus is a Holocaust story; in particular, the story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Vladek Spiegelman relating his biography to his son. Spiegelman was a successful member of the Jewish bourgeoisie in Poland until the Nazi invasion of 1939. During the occupation, the German’s Army confiscated all of his family’s wealth and property and moved them into a ghetto. When Jews started being transferred to prison camps, the Spiegelman’s entered into hiding, and eventually made plans to sneak into Hungary. Despite the Spiegelman’s caution, however, their Polish conspirators betrayed them. Instead of reaching Hungary, Vladek and his wife were caught and sent to Auschwitz.
I will not make a list of the atrocities and degradations to which the Spiegelman’s were subject during the five year Nazi occupation of their country and their eventual ten month stay in the most notorious of all Nazi prison camps. Instead, I must only note the way in which Mr. Spiegelman reveals his story during his interviews with his son. The humbleness and frankness with which Vladek Spiegelman recalls his own shameful persecution I think has had a greater effect upon me than a polemical account ever could. It made me realize with ever-growing clarity that the greatest irony of the Nazi era–and really of all episodes in which persecutions occur–is that the ones doing the most moralizing and dehumanizing in such situations are always the least moral and human of all. That Vladek Spiegelman was never bitter or vindictive while recalling his tribulations only adds to my astonishment.
Yet as remarkable as Vladek’s experience was, the most memorable part of the book was during a discussion between the author (his son) and another prison camp survivor. The author starts in by commenting on his father’s resourcefulness and clarity of mind as factors contributing to his survival when the older man cuts him off:
“Then you think it’s admirable to survive? Does that mean it’s not admirable to not survive?…Yes, life always takes the side of life, and somehow the victims are blamed. But it wasn’t the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM.”
He then says:
“…but look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed…”
This was the pivotal point of the book for me. By forcing us to abandon our pretense of disinterestedness, the conversation manages to turn its moral lessons back onto us. We then start to wonder: How much am I to blame for widespread social injustice? Am I also capable of treating others so cruelly? If I were a witness to such acts, would I put myself at risk to stop them, or would I cower in fear as have so many other enablers of worldly injustice?”
Sadly, research on the topic unanimously suggests that a horrifying proportion of people are perfectly capable of moral iniquity even under the mild presence of duress. I do not find this overwhelmingly surprising. The readiness with which people demean each other every day, and the ease with which others ignore or even excuse them, are on constant pathological display. Such behaviors are not often different in kind from the what the Nazis did, but only different in degree. Most people, it turns out, are just frogs in a boiler.
Maus is one of those rare books that everyone should read, not necessarily for its historical or psychological intrigue, but for the way that it provokes a certain degree of moral self-consciousness. The tragedies that beset Mr. Spiegelman remind us of how truly fickle our social institutions can be. When what were once security and prosperity quickly dissolve into strife and despair, how are we possibly supposed to be prepared? Since acute social upheaval is beyond the realm of relatable experience, how can we avoid descending into similar moral turpitude when the time strikes? No one ever assumes that they will, yet still, many do.
Aristotle’s conception of ethics as providing “practical wisdom” is profound because it illuminates how firmly ethics lifts the philosopher up out of his armchair. It is a regrettable regression of conventional morality that people have forgotten the essential way in which our beliefs inform our actions. By beliefs, I mean not just basic apprehensions of facts, which can be equally influential (and to me are hardly even separate), but convictions that convey normative import. To possess practical wisdom, it is not enough to simply do good deeds; you must also have a proper understanding of why those deeds ought to be done. Without that understanding, good deeds are accidental, provisional at best.
I am convinced that the only way to guard oneself against moral descent is to make serious intellectual preparations. While I can only provide personal anecdotal evidence on the matter at this point, I would wager that people are far less likely to compromise morally in stressful situations when they have considered them beforehand than when they are suddenly made to face them. Opportunities for forethought make people less likely to commit basic fallacies and to kowtow to sinister sophistic devices. Ultimately, if stressful situations do arise, then people will know that under more objective circumstances, they had already decided upon the moral thing to do. They will have committed themselves.
This naturally leads to a rather more controversial point. One now realizes that one of the inherently vicious aspects of religion, and of a moral ideology of any kind (properly distinguished from a moral philosophy by its unabashedly systematic bias toward particular conclusions), is in their arbitrary modes of appropriating righteousness. When goodness derives from vague celestial authorities and cherry-picked textual excerpts, the leaders who interpret and represent them can gain tremendous domination over their followers. It is no surprise that the most heirarchical and authoritarian religions are almost always on the back end of disputes over social injustice, because normally they are perpetrators of it. Religion is an institution built for power grabs. When goodness is defined by appeals to authority, molding that sacred authority to one’s will is fairly easy, especially if people are convinced that their beliefs and their actions are thoroughly unwed. The religious leader can convince them of the cruelest beliefs, and they can feel none the worse.
Originally appeared at The Unwelcome Pundit.