Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why Aren’t They Burning Kindles?

Now that so many of us are self-quarantined, this is a great time to read a book.  Evidently, I’ve been in quarantine for about six decades. 

Still, I’m looking forward to reading a few new books in the next few weeks.  John Scalzi has a new book coming out, as does John Sandford.  And I just picked up Erik Larson’s new book on Churchill.  Larson is about as reliable an author as you can find.  In my long quest to buy and read all of Rex Stout’s books in order, I’m up to the fifties.  As always, I have a nice pile of new books waiting their turn to be read, alongside of another pile off favorites that I read over and over and over.  (Huck Finn, Three Men in a Boat, and Cyrano de Bergerac absolutely have to be read at least once a year.)

I own one book that I am unlikely to reread again any time soon.  (That might prove to be in error, as I just spent half an hour rereading certain passages.)  I don’t like this book, and I doubt if you do (or would), either, but I strongly believe you should have the right to read it if you want.

I’m referring to Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. 

The book is horrid:  it’s a nonstop hate-filled screed.  Reading this monster’s book is like playing with a typewriter ribbon (somebody explain what that is to millennials):  the longer you play with it, the more black you get on your fingers.  I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone.

But everyone should have the right to read it if they wish.

I bring this up because Amazon stopped listing the book for sale this week, and then a few days later reversed itself.  Amazon says this move was part of its program for removing pro-Nazi material from its ‘shelves’ and that the sale of Mein Kampf is “under review”.

As a Libertarian, I believe that any bookstore has the inherent right to choose what to sell, to set the sale price, and to set the sales conditions.  But, because Amazon is the 500-pound gorilla that has beaten to death all of its competition, I’m not happy with the country’s single book monopoly deciding what is suitable for me to read.

I buy a lot of used books and, at one time, I was happy that (the world’s largest supplier of used books) was a suitable alternative to Amazon.  Unfortunately, Amazon’s response to the competition was to simply buy Abebooks.  And  And Goodreads.  My six-year-old granddaughter just sent me her first letter; she already has an exclusive contract from Amazon.

Amazon has a de facto monopoly on the publishing world and I’m not real comfortable with anyone having that much power over what I can read...even when it comes to Hitler’s crappy book.

If you have never read the book, Hitler wrote the first half in 1923, while serving nine months in jail for his failed Munich Putsch.  He wrote the second half after being released.  At first, the book didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, but after Hitler became more politically active, the brisk sales would have made him a multi-millionaire today.  (And when he was sworn in as chancellor, he owed a small fortune in taxes on the sales—a tax that was quickly waived by the government.) 

By the time the war started, Hitler had deliberately distanced himself from the book, stating that if he had known he would one day become chancellor, he would never have written it.  Still, after the war started, every soldier was given a copy, just as were all newlyweds.  During the war, at least another 10 million copies were printed.

After the war, the German copyright, along with the rest of Hitler’s property, transferred to the German state of Bavaria, which refused to allow the book to be printed in Germany.  In 2016, seventy years after Hitler was declared legally dead, the book passed into public domain and has since been republished—with heavy and appropriate annotations.  The book is available in most of Europe—except in the Netherlands—and in the rest of the world.  In the United States, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who printed my copy—has long published it, though they have lately had a problem finding a charity willing to accept the proceeds, as the publisher has refused to keep any profits from the sale of the book.

If you read the book, you’re probably not going to learn much that you didn’t already know.  His views of the German postwar years are both heavily biased and factually incorrect.  Yes, Hitler was obviously anti-Semitic as early as 1923.  No, he probably had not yet decided to use mass murder as public policy (though he does write a few times about extermination of the “inferior”).  And yes, he was the hate-filled monster you already know him to have been.

There are several arguments for not selling this book.  It dredges up horrible memories that are beyond painful for many people.  It has also been argued that the book has no value and has no merits for today’s world.  Both arguments are flawed.  If we ban books that bring up painful memories, almost any book can be banned.  And contrary to public opinion, no one has the right to be free from insult or having their feelings hurt.

Though I hate the book, it does have merits.  The book does explain why Hitler felt justified in invading Germany’s neighboring countries and why he believed the destruction of other cultures was necessary.  The book also sheds light on why many German people felt betrayed by Germany’s surrender in the first world war.  He is incredibly wrong about most things, but his arguments are laid out so that the reader can see how his later policies were developed.

Enough about Hitler’s lousy book.  The problem today, is not that book, but that Amazon and a few libraries that are making decisions about what people are allowed to read.  Amazon is engaging in censorship, which even with works by an author as despicable as Hitler is still wrong.  If we can ban “meritless books”, who gets to say if a book has merit?

Our freedoms are heavy burdens.  If you want free speech, you have to bear the burden of hate speech from groups that make your skin crawl.  If you want freedom of religion, you have to allow the church or mosque whose dogma is the antithesis to yours.  A free press requires that even Hitler’s evil book be available to those who want to read it.  And the first freedom you must allow anyone is the freedom to make bad choices.

Perhaps most important, we need to trust that the vast majority of the people who read this sort of book will ultimately realize that the book is just wrong.  If we are really worried about people taking the book seriously, we should work harder to make sure that in the marketplace of ideas, the rants of a madman come off second best.

1 comment:

  1. I read some of Mein Kampf a few years ago. I didn't get very far. It's like sniffing burning sulfur. Only so much you can stand.