Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Little Fly in the Ointment

Much as I wish I hadn't remember- ed this, I feel it necessary to remind everyone that Heather Reisman-- the, ahem, Chief Booklover of Indigo Books, who will be discussing America Alone with its author, Mark Steyn, this Wednesday in Toronto--has herself been the purveyor of a bit of controversy over the banning of speech.

That being so, I should point out that 1) Heather Reisman is entitled to do whatever she wants with her own private business, and 2) that she did not involve Human Rights Commissions in this matter, nor indeed did she try to compel anyone outside of the jurisdiction of her business to follow suit. (Hers may be folly, but it is, at the very least, a responsible folly as compared with more recent events.)

'Thing is, a lot of the language being used here is just too eerily familiar. Voltaire's maxim carries a very heavy burden, and it shouldn't escape our notice that it is one that Ms. Reisman has refused to accept.

(And, yes, I am aware that I risk perpetuating a tacit comparison of America Alone to such nonsense as Mein Kampf. Not the intention, obviously, but it simply can't be helped. All banned speech becomes of a piece where the spirit of the law has been excised from (and, indeed, by) the letter.)

Reisman bans Mein Kampf from Chapters and Indigo

Globe and Mail

Heather Reisman has ordered all copies of Mein Kampf pulled from the shelves of Chapters and Indigo bookstores and deleted from the company's on-line ordering service.

In an action praised in some quarters and criticized in others, Ms. Reisman, the Toronto-based chairwoman and CEO of Indigo Books and Music Inc., confirmed Wednesday that she banned the controversial title from all 200-plus Indigo and Chapters outlets after she spotted a display of the 694-page book earlier in the week while touring a Chapters outlet.

Ms. Reisman said Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is inappropriate for sale in her stores.

"We consider it hate literature," she said. "With freedom of expression, the line is drawn on hate literature. It's a corporate decision. It's what we stand for. It's our point of view.

"It isn't written down, but I would have no difficulty writing it down."

She said that even before Indigo assumed control of the Chapters chain earlier this year, Mein Kampf was a banned title in her view.

It "got ordered accidentally, I don't know how," she said. "It might have been part of Chapters's database.

"All of them have been returned and are en route back to the publisher," she said, adding that she did not know how many copies were involved. (As of Wednesday evening, however, Chapters' flagship store in downtown Toronto still had three copies in its European history section for sale.)

Tracy Nesdoly, media-relations spokeswoman for Indigo, acknowledged Wednesday that Mein Kampf, which retails as a trade paperback for $31.95, is "not technically and legally hate literature.

"It is, in fact, dissemination of hatred and as such does not belong in our mix."

Reaction to Ms. Reisman's action was predictably mixed. Louis Gentile, executive director of PEN Canada, agreed that while Mein Kampf -- published in 1925, eight years before Hitler's Nazi Party began its 12-year dictatorship of Germany -- "is an ugly document by an ugly person," it is nevertheless "a very useful learning tool about how hatred is begun and promoted. A lot of people have learned about the evils of nazism from it."

Calling Ms. Reisman's stand "disturbing," Franz Donker, owner of Book City, a four-store chain in Toronto, suggested Ms. Reisman is seeing shadows. "She might as well not carry the Koran now, if you believe we're in a holy war, if you want to carry that kind of logic on."

Mr. Donker's stores carry Mein Kampf as "a historic item" in their history/politics section "where it belongs." So far this year he's sold a total of nine copies -- "that's next to nothing" -- of the title, distributed in Canada by Thomas Allen and Sons for New York's Houghton Mifflin, which has published the North American edition for 68 years.

Michael Marrus, a University of Toronto history professor and author, said he couldn't comment on Ms. Reisman's motives, but suggested the book had its place.

"It's an important thing to have access to this book. For instance, I would expect students who are knowledgable about nazism to have read Mein Kampf.

"Let us suppose Osama bin Laden has written his memoirs," he added. "Wouldn't we want to read these?"

The Canadian Jewish Congress by contrast, applauded Ms. Reisman's stand. "This is an act of a responsible bookseller who's exercising her right and freedom to sell any book that she desires," said Keith Landry, national president of the congress.

It is not an issue of free speech, or of censorship, he said. Mein Kampf is readily available in many libraries and other bookstores for those who wish to read or buy it. Mr. Landry said he can't remember the Jewish Congress ever launching a campaign to have Mein Kampf banned. "This decision was clearly of Ms. Reisman's own volition."

Mein Kampf has had a controversial publishing history in the 56 years since Hitler's death in Berlin near the end of the Second World War.

It remains banned in Germany where it cannot be legally obtained even via the Internet or at auction.

More recently, the state of Bavaria, which claims it owns world copyright to the title except for North America, the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth countries, has quashed efforts to have it published, in translation, in Turkey, Croatia and Sweden.

From the mid-1940s through 1979 royalties from sales of the North American edition -- totalling about $140,000 (U.S.) -- were confiscated from Houghton Mifflin by the U.S. government's War Claims Fund. Houghton Mifflin regained full rights for the title in 1979 for about $35,000. A media-relations representative of Houghton Mifflin said yesterday her firm sells a total of about 15,000 copies of Mein Kampf in the United States and Canada each year.

Last year Mifflin agreed to start donating its Mein Kampf royalties to three unidentified charities after reports that Mein Kampf's publisher in Great Britain, Random House, had, for almost 25 years, quietly donated an estimated $500,000 in royalties to a little-known London-based charity called the German Welfare Council.

Last June the Welfare Council board voted not to have anything more to do with the royalties and is still attempting to determine how it should dispose of the $250,000 from Mein Kampf that it has in its possession.


ADDENDUM: I should point out that Mr. Steyn dealt with this issue in some depth (if indirectly) here.