What happens when a nation bans a work, a piece of writing, however loathsome? Those forms of expression become mythical. They are endowed with a power and a mystery that might otherwise have been denied them. The very act of banning a phrase, a gesture, a television program—or refusing to allow the appearance of a certain work in print—implies strongly that the government issuing these decrees is a weakling, raging, foaming, threatening, but essentially impotent against a force of arguments found so compelling they are made to disappear.
Or are they?
In France last month, Nicolas Sarkozy—in a last-ditch and ultimately futile effort to get reelected by playing the strongman—decreed it illegal for citizens to access terrorist websites. However, no one appears to know exactly how such a law will be implemented. How, in other words, will France define “terrorist website”? How will it manage to track down every last person online? And would François Hollande, the new socialist president, ever implement such a decree? (Probably not…)
In Italy, where the fascist salute is illegal and, to quote the Italian Constitution, “it is a public offense to exalt leaders, symbols … of fascism,” a photo of a bus in Rome displaying the digital message “Onore al Duce” (“Honor to Il Duce”) found universal fame on the Internet last week.
In other words, the more you ban, the more mystique acquired by the subject of that ban.
Last week, right around the time one of the few buses actually running in Rome expressed fondness for Benito Mussolini, officials in the German state of Bavaria did something that was once unthinkable. Germany is still a country where you cannot (a) say “Heil Hitler,” or (b) wear a swastika. But within three years, thanks to Bavaria, you can read Hitler’s onetime bestseller, Mein Kampf. (Part of the reason it became a bestseller: Back in the 1930s, every newly married couple in Deutschland received a free copy as a wedding present.)
Now, there’s been a lot of fuss about Bavaria’s decision to allow German students to read Hitler’s book—something that, say, Russian and Austrian students cannot do in their own countries to this day. Almost 70 years ago, the Bavarian government acquired the rights to the book, and the idea was then that if Mein Kampf stayed banned, never, ever would anyone be so influenced by Hitler’s words that the atrocities of World War II would repeat themselves.
But I’m not so sure things work quite this way. For one thing, why stop with Mein Kampf? Russia, for example, despite the pleas of certain academics, has been loath to ban the totally fraudulent and anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is as invidious a work as anything Hitler wrote, but, as the prosecutor of Moscow’s northern district staunchly declared last year, the book was “of a political and educational character.”
For another: what purpose does banning actually serve in this particular era? A Russian racist who feels The Protocols of the Elders of Zion doesn’t provide quite enough ammunition for his racism, can always use the Internet to access, read, and share Mein Kampf. A French terrorist, we may safely assume, has already accessed all the websites desired—and he would never have accessed those particular sites had he not been a terrorist to begin with. The genocidal need no inspiration to murder masses of people.
After all, very few people in Rwanda read Mein Kampf.
Photo Credit: zensursula