Friday, November 03, 2006

The Relevancy of Evil

My subway car this morning was packed. I'd grabbed a copy of AM New York to check out the review of "Borat," and see what new political machinations would make me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately the subway was too full for me to open up the newspaper, so I stood with it tucked under my arm.

Standing next to me was a young Indian woman. She was reading a well-worn paperback. Curious to see what kind of book was so engrossing that its owner would brave reading it on a crowded subway, I peeked at the running heads. My jaw nearly dropped when I saw the author and title.

The book was Adolf Hitler's MEIN KAMPF.

I spent the spent few minutes fully enraged. How could someone not only read MEIN KAMPF, but so without any sense of shame? I debated asking the woman why she was reading the book--actually, demanding an explanation would have been more like it.

She was holding the book in such a way that allowed me to see the book's back cover, so I decided to read that. (I thought to myself, "How does someone write jacket copy for MEIN KAMPF?")

The first paragraph went like this:

Mein Kampf is a book never to be neglected by our Indian heritage, always to be studied, so that we don't let another Adolf Hitler rise to power in our blessed country.

I took a breath. Ok, so the book's publisher clearly means for it to be a vessel to understand evil, not to promote it in any way. But still, something about it didn't feel right. I remebered the scene in the movie "Seven" where Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt discuss monitoring people's reading habits, looking for those twisted enough to check books like MEIN KAMPF out of the library. Pitt's character says something along the lines of, "You might find a killer, or you might just find some college student writing a term paper on 20th century violence."

In a strange way, I can almost equate the benefit of reading MEIN KAMPF to the brilliance of "Borat." (stay with me)

By reading MEIN KAMPF, you might better understand racism, ignorance and intolerance, and everyone knows that in order to combat the enemy you must first understand it. "Borat" works because the Borat character himself is essentially a placebo, an assumedly harmless sounding board from which people expose their own ignorance, racism or intolerance (which is why Borat works as much as a sociological experiment as a comedic one). Borat is from a foreign country most Americans can neither spell nor locate on a map, speaks pidgen English, and is unabashadly anti-semitic and misogynistic. This allows his targets to expose their own traits without fearing a reprisal. I can understand the need to understand ignorance and intolerance before ever hoping to be able to cure it.

This is why I find it so funny that the actual nation of Kazakhstan takes such umbrage with Borat. They fail to realize that the target of Borat's material is not Kazakhstan, but "The U.S. and A." If anything "President George Walter Bush" should be the one taking out defensive ads in national newspapers, since all of the racist, bigoted, and idiotic people ridiculed by Borat live within his borders, not Kazakhstan's.

I've read many true crime books, and many books that upon their publication were either banned or condemned. Yet MEIN KAMPF is possibly the only book I would simply refuse to read. Perhaps one could claim a small bit of ignorance on my part for not being able to fully distance myself and read the book in order to understand it, but I'm happy to consider it a blessed ignorance, especially considering my Jewish heritage.

As I got off the subway, I felt no more ill will toward this woman. To some extent I envied her ability to read a book in public that, if noticed, would make her the target of such ire. So to that extent I can understand the reading of MEIN KAMPF. It's not so much to simply understand evil, but to learn from the lessons of the past to make sure it never happens again. Still, I don't see myself ever picking up a copy. This is one evil I don't want to ever understand.

UPDATE: According to bookscan, MEIN KAMPF regularly sells between 500-750 copies a week, and 30,000-50,000 copies per year. That makes me a bit nauseous.


Blogger HighVoltage said...

the dichotomy of having an open mind and yet being self censoring is one many creative people have struggled with. Your ethnic and religous background makes you sensitive to the disgust you would feel seeing someone reading Mein Kampf in public, as would it myself.

Yet I would also support the ACLU to protect our civil rights which unfortunately also has to protect the rights of the Nazis who had the right to march in Skokie, Ill. as their right to assemblage.

To live in a free society we cannot pick and choose which liberties can be enjoyed by whom, or else we will live in a Bush/Cheney society and see the abuses of the Patriot Act continue.

I agree I would never read Mein Kampf and would be equally upset and would have wished you asked the person why they were reading it. It would have made for a good post in your blog.

In my family my dad lost a half brother and my grandmother a twin in the holocaust, yet my father always understood why we all had to be protected under the same liberties and trust the public isn't as dumb as some elected officials think.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Sara Hope said...

Was she student age?

I myself had an uncomfortable experience as a History major -- my Southern History professor assigned us a book on the second rise of the KKK in the 1920s, which I ended up reading on an airplane sitting next to an African American lady. Though I didn't voluntarily explain the book and she didn't ask, I know several other students in my class who also read the book in public (we were assigned to read it over Spring Break I think) did explain to anybody around them that they were reading it for a history course. Apparently, my professor actually used to assign Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (basis for DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation), which would have been even worse to read in public.

I suppose my very long point is that she might not have even been reading it voluntarily if she is a student.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Eliza Osborn said...

In my Western Civ course in college, we had a list of important books from history to write our final paper on. Mein Kampf was the one I chose, because I wanted to have a better understanding of the Holocaust.

I'm going to make sure my kids read it when they're old enough to understand it. It's almost entirely fiction -- Hitler couldn't even tell his own life story correctly -- he was that screwed up. It shows his egotism, his self-hatred, his hatred for everything around him, and it was one of the best books I've ever read...because I know how the story really ends. I took a lot away from that book. I don't feel any sympathy for him at all, even though I still think that was his subconscious point. I mean, come on, the title is "My Struggle". Whine!

Of course, I read a translation of it, but the writing was not that good, either. Just because a person knows some big words, it doesn't mean he should use them. Just showcased his psuedo-intellect. I'll give him this: he did know how to utilize theories from people like Le Bon.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Graham Powell said...

Back in the 1930s an American publishing house published a pirate edition of MEIN KAMPF and was promptly sued by Hitler.

The reason? All licensed American editions were heavily edited. The publishers were outraged by the book in its original German and published a direct translation.

4:04 PM  
Blogger wannabe said...


You can read something for information - particularly something like this when it is clearly a primary source.

Otherwise, your opinions are entirely dependent on someone else's interpretation.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That movie looks so different from anything else that's out. I think I'd check it out for that alone. I understand your reasoning being reading MK and Borat.

Being that the book is about the early rise of the Nazi movement, I can understand reading it because the attitudes and ideologies are things we always want to watch out for. At the same time, I think there are Hitlers alive and kicking in the world today and the human race is just doomed to repeat these horrible things. It is our nature to fall to the lowest depths over and over again.

The Bookscan stat is disturbing because we know that all of those copies are not being purchased for scholarly purposes.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

If one invests too much power in a book and too little in the intelligence of a reader, one is very close to deciding that book banning is permissible and desirable.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Thraesja said...

I have also read Mein Kampf. I believe I also read it on the bus, although mine was a library copy which had thankfully been rebound with a protective cover so that only the spine mentioned the title. I read it to better understand how hatred that spawned the Holocaust could come about.
Hitler clearly was looking to strike a sympathetic tone, and to try to use "logic" to convince others of his "truth". It is a remarkable testament to what charisma he must have had in person to get a nation to follow him, as any sane person should be able to recognize the ramblings of a hateful, bitter, and spiteful loon.
I certainly understand not wanting to contaminate yourself with reading Hitler's work, but I am also of the opinion that evil must be understood to be avoided. Hopefully the majority of the book sales are by those with similar intentions.
I wonder who gets the author's portion of the proceeds? A memorial foundation, or charities dedicated to the groups and peoples he tried to destroy, I hope.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mein Kampf is required reading for many college courses. Political studies, democracy, Holocaust studies etc. It comes down to "Know thine enemy" more than anything else.

3:47 PM  

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