It’s Sunday. I am reading Art Spiegelman’s autobiographical comic, Maus. Maus is a story about Jewish mice in the Nazi holocaust.
Later that day I am talking about Maus to a friend who, as it turns out, read it years back and now calls it a classic. I am keen to read on, but at this point I’m not far into the story and I think all the characters in it are mice. Because Maus.
My friend tells me that in the comic Polish people are pigs. Both he and I are Polish, as it happens, and I take what he says as an insult. An insult to the pigs. Why?
Usually people call other people pigs if they want to insult them for doing or being something they think is nasty or disgusting or stupid. But in doing so they actually offend the pigs, who almost never have anything to do with the actions of those people called pigs.
Like when people call cops pigs for police brutality. No pig has ever been a cop.
This pig slur is not only factually wrong. It also justifies the holocaust of actual pigs, of whom millions are raised in unspeakable conditions and slaughtered every year all over the world even though no human has to consume them to survive. Simple fact: If you’re going to sent sentient creatures to hell en masse, better have a story of how worth it they are to back it up.
So when my friend says the Polish are pigs, I object.
He says, sorry, right, right. I knew you would say that, he says.
Imagine my surprise when I find out that in Maus all the Polish characters are literally pigs like the Jews are mice. I think to myself that this is weird. It is an odd feeling. For once I am wrong to say all this stuff. Polish people are pigs means that Polish people are actual pigs. I feel oddly relieved in all this.
No, no, I’m sorry, I say to my friend.
But relief does not last long after I go back to the story. In Maus Jews are mice for a reason. And Nazis are cats for a reason. Cats and mice, get it? And Polish people are pigs for a reason as well.
The Polish are depicted as pigs in Maus precisely because the author, Spiegelman, wants to suggest through this depiction that they acted in dishonorable ways towards Jews. By making them pigs, he intends to call them pigs and means that as an insult. Thus once again the slur falls back on real pigs. Because pigs did absolutely nothing to Jews, you see.
The world has not turned. Reality has not shifted. Pig insults are still where I last saw them. Everywhere.