Censorship is on the upswing in the U.S., with Amazon limiting sales of "Mein Kampf," and Hachette Books cancelling Woody Allen's memoir, "Apropos of Nothing."
Woody Allen and Adolf Hitler would seem to have very little in common, though the Brooklyn-born komiker did share a scene or two with the rug-munching anti-Semite in Allen’s brilliant, black-and-white 1983 comedy, Zelig.
More recently, both have earned the dubious distinction of having their memoirs censored: Hitler’s by Amazon.com, which has limited all sales of Hitler’s infamous autobiographical tome, Mein Kampf ; and Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, the release of which Hachette Books canceled in the wake of criticism by Allen’s powerful son, journalist Ronan Farrow.
(Note: As this piece is being published, Arcade Publishing announced that it had acquired the distribution rights to Apropos of Nothing and that it is releasing the book for sale today, Monday, March 23. Read more below.)
After decades of requests, Amazon has finally banned the sale of most editions of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and other Nazi propaganda books. https://t.co/sCWAapHhF1
— StandWithUs (@StandWithUs) March 20, 2020
They are part of a string of victories for various advocates of censorship, who hold that some publications are too offensive or dangerous to be sold. Add to these incidents, the recent cancellation of a book tour by the publisher of the novel American Dirt, and you have a trend of booksellers and publishers bowing to public pressure and circumscribing access to historical documents, celebrity memoirs and literature alike.
First published in 1925, Mein Kampf laid out Hitler’s blueprint for world domination, which the future dictator wrote while imprisoned as a result of an unsuccessful attempt to seize power in Munich, known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Long, tedious and filled with Hitler’s self-serving ramblings, it remains a popular read for neo-Nazis. Historians say its pages contain the seeds of the Holocaust.
“Fighting bigotry, hate and discrimination is not aided by forcing it into hiding.” –Nora Pelizzari, communications director, National Coalition Against Censorship
Mein Kampf‘s availability online has always been controversial. On March 16, The Guardian first reported that Amazon had relented to years-long pressure from various Holocaust-related charities and Jewish groups and removed almost all editions of Hitler’s Mein Kampf from the world’s largest bookstore, telling second-hand marketers that they “can no longer offer” Hitler’s noxious, door-stop-sized, anti-Semitic screed for sale.
Left standing was a heavily-annotated German edition and a 1999 edition of a well-known translation by acclaimed German and French translator Ralph Manheim, with a foreword by Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director from 1987 to 2015.
Interestingly, in that preface, Foxman notes that the book had been banned in many countries, which he understood in the European context, though not in the U.S., where Americans “find censorship anathema.” He offers a persuasive case for why Mein Kampf should remain in print, so the world never repeats Hitler’s madness.
“Commit the evil to memory in order to reject it; reject the evil, but do not let yourself forget it,” Foxman writes.
Amazon Lowers the Boom
Contacted by Front Page Confidential, an Amazon spokesperson, who asked not to be named, would not explain the company’s decision or what prompted it, but instead offered a canned comment on how the internet titan provides customers with access to “a variety of viewpoints, including titles that serve an important educational role in understanding and preventing anti-Semitism.”
Which begs the question of why Amazon would end sales of other editions.
“All retailers make decisions about what selection they choose to offer and we do not take selection decisions lightly,” the statement concludes.
Woody Allen's 400-page memoir, 'Apropos of Nothing,' was released Monday by Arcade Publishing https://t.co/bl3Lz5FaoR
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) March 23, 2020
Certainly, anyone who wants their own copy of Hitler’s 700-page jeremiad can purchase one from another seller such as Barnes and Noble, download a digital versions online or order the Manheim translation. But Amazon has the largest bookselling footprint, so its policies affect the largest number of persons.
Reportedly, Amazon’s decision is part of a larger policy of removing books and other material related to the Nazis or white supremacy, usually in response to public criticism. (Other recently-nixed publications include anti-Semitic tracts like, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and the toxic children’s book, The Poisonous Mushroom.)
NCAC Claps Back at Censorship
Nora Pelizzari, communications director for the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), told Front Page Confidential that the 46-year-old anti-censorship organization disagrees with Amazon’s decision regarding Mein Kampf.
“As well-intentioned as the choice may have felt, limiting the public’s access to an important primary source from a vital time in history seems incredibly short-sighted,” she writes via email, adding, “Fighting bigotry, hate and discrimination is not aided by forcing it into hiding.”
— Jeanine Cummins (@jeaninecummins) November 11, 2019
Because Amazon is a private company, the First Amendment, which prevents government suppression of speech, does not apply. But “censorship is not only a legal concept,” observes Pelizzari.
“When an entity with the power to allow or silence a speaker chooses to silence that speaker, that is censorship,” she writes. “It may not be subject to the First Amendment, but it’s still censorship.”
White Woman Sings the Blues
The NCAC takes a similar position involving Allen’s memoir and the novel American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. The latter drew fire for cultural appropriation, particularly after Oprah Winfrey picked the novel about Latino migrants for her influential book club. Critics claimed that Cummins — who according to Vox has previously identified as white — relied on clichéd ethnic stereotypes to tell her tale.
Cummins didn’t make matters any easier on herself when she Tweeted a photo of her fingernails, manicured to look like her book’s jacket, which features the kind of barbed wire one might have to traverse if crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
American Dirt‘s publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled Cummins’ scheduled book tour, citing the “vitriolic rancor” that had ensued and “specific threats to booksellers and the author,” though the book remains in print. Winfrey resisted pressure to remove the book from her reading list and ultimately hosted a two-part segment on the controversy for her Apple TV+ show, “Oprah’s Book Club,” featuring Cummins and critics of the book.
Hey, just wanted to share my thoughts on some recent news: pic.twitter.com/ovPczgx8pB
— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) March 4, 2020
Allen’s Apropos of Nothing was axed by Hachette Books, largely because his estranged son with actress Mia Farrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow, denounced Hachette Books on Twitter for readying Allen’s book for print. Hachette published Farrow’s 2019 New York Times bestseller, Catch and Kill, which recounts his high-stakes investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior.
Farrow is a white knight of the #MeToo movement, whose reporting on Weinstein was suppressed by NBC while he worked there.
Allen’s book was to be for a different imprint of Hachette than Farrow’s, but in an angry March 3 Tweet, Farrow seemed genuinely pissed that Hachette had not informed him about Allen’s memoir, as Farrow’s sister, Dylan has long accused Allen of sexually abusing her when she was seven years old. An allegation Allen denies.
— Dominic Patten (@DeadlineDominic) March 5, 2020
Farrow complained that Hachette had not fact-checked Allen’s memoir, which reportedly includes passages about Allen’s contentious relationship with Mia Farrow, Allen’s affair with Farrow’s adult daughter Soon Yi Previn (whom Allen wed in 1997), and Dylan’s allegations of sexual abuse.
Condemning Hachette for “a lack of ethics and compassion for victims of sexual abuse,” Farrow announced that he was cutting ties with the publisher. His Tweet set off a tsunami of opprobrium for Hachette and Allen, including a walkout by scores of Hachette employees from their Manhattan offices.
On March 6, just days after it had announced its intent to publish the Allen memoir, Hachette pulled out of its deal with Allen, refusing to publish his book in the U.S.
Stephen King weighed in on the controversy, tweeting that he was worried about “who gets muzzled next.” The NCAC issued a statement on its blog, saying that the move raised “serious concerns,” and observing that historically publishers have been on the forefront of the fight against censorship.
“[Y]ielding to demands for censorship is likely to discourage the publication of controversial works and, ultimately, impoverish our public sphere,” it states.
— Jean-Pierre Leduc (@jeanpierreleduc) March 23, 2020
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens came to Allen’s defense, scoring a copy of the memoir, which he says recounts Allen’s creative life and his troubles with Mia. Stephens noted that Allen had been investigated twice and exonerated each time. The columnist lamented that the book had been “pulped” before people got a chance to read it and make up their own minds.
“‘Sentence first, verdict afterwards’ is supposed to be the stuff of Alice in Wonderland, not what passes for literary judgment in America,” he writes.
But the impish Allen has since found another outlet, Arcade Publishing, which announced it was publishing Apropos of Nothing on March 23, the same day it released the book for sale.
According to the New York Times, Allen addresses his fall-out with Hachette in a postscript to the book, writing:
“Hachette read the book and loved it and despite me being a toxic pariah and menace to society, they vowed to stand firm should things hit the fan. When actual flak did arrive they thoughtfully reassessed their position, concluding that perhaps courage was not the virtue it was cracked up to be and there was a lot to be said for cowering.”
For more on the rising tide of censorship, please read:
Senate Judiciary Hearing on Pro-Censorship EARN IT Act Ignores Free Speech, First Amendment Concerns
Sen. Richard Blumenthal Receives ‘First Amendment Defender Award’ on Same Day He Introduces Pro-Censorship Bill
- Coronavirus Pandemic Curbs Civil Liberties, for Now - March 27, 2020
- Woody Allen Gets Publisher’s Boot (Then Another Publisher), Amazon Removes Most Copies of Mein Kampf - March 23, 2020
- Senate Judiciary Hearing on Pro-Censorship EARN IT Act Ignores Free Speech, First Amendment Concerns - March 18, 2020