Osama Bin Laden Unplugged

If Osama Bin Laden really is transmitting secret messages to terrorists in the United States, then of course the five major TV networks should limit the amount of Bin Laden footage that they’ll air. But according to Bill Carter and Felicity Barringer in today’s New York Times, the news executives who promise to edit out Bin Laden’s more inflammatory public statements deem national security “only a secondary consideration.” What they’re mainly worried about is airing too much propaganda. “We are all giving the government the benefit of the doubt,” CBS News president Andrew Heyward explained to Mike Allen and Lisa DeMoraes of the Washington Post. “The propaganda issue is a legitimate issue.”

No it isn’t. Bin Laden’s message is, of course, hateful trash, but since when do Americans consider suppression a legitimate, or even effective, method to counter hateful trash? Chatterbox supposes it’s an outgrowth of all the ridiculous campus bans on “hate speech” that surfaced in the 1980s. It certainly wasn’t how the U.S. government dealt with German propaganda during World War II, a period that was considerably less sensitive about civil liberties than today. “During World War II there was no effort to censor German propaganda,” Columbia historian Alan Brinkley informs Chatterbox. Leaders of American pro-Nazi groups were jailed, of course, and their public utterances thereby suppressed, but Americans could hear Hitler on the radio and see him in newsreels ad nauseam. The general assumption was that the longer Hitler ranted on, the more obvious it would be that he was a dangerous fanatic, and that spreading this knowledge would help the war effort. Isn’t this also true of Osama Bin Laden?

Mein Kampf was a best seller in the United States when it was published in 1939, but that was a heavily edited translation. Alan Cranston, the future California senator (then a passionate antifascist correspondent for the International News Service) came across a copy in Macy’s and was so riled by the omissions that he translated and published on newsprint his own version. Cranston sold half a million copies at 10 cents apiece. He later had to withdraw it, but only because Hitler sued him for copyright infringement and won. In 1943, an unabridged edition, translated by Ralph Mannheim, was published in Boston by Houghton Mifflin. Mannheim’s remains the standard English translation to this day.

“There was a feeling that you should read and know your enemy,” explains Richard Lingeman, author of Don’t You Know There’s a War On, a history of the home front during World War II. Ron Rosenbaum says that when he was researching his book Explaining Hitler, H.R. Trevor-Roper told him he wished desperately that a complete English translation of Mein Kampf  had been available much earlier than the late 1930s. In addition to exposing the threat Hitler posed, it would have been useful to show how Hitler’s propaganda might appeal to the masses. George Orwell took up the latter subject when he reviewed Mein Kampf in 1940, a time when England was at war with Germany:

Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

If Orwell tried saying that about Bin Laden today, Ari Fleischer would surely question his commitment to the anti-terrorist cause. The irony is that Orwell was a fervent patriot who was anything but soft on Hitler. Indeed, Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly have lately been quoting with approval Orwell’s famous wartime denunciation of pacifists, whom he called “objectively pro-fascist.” But Orwell was also a fervent believer in the power of free speech to spread truth and conquer evil. We should be, too.

[Addendum, Oct. 12: It has been brought to Chatterbox’s attention that Orwell came to regret the “objectively pro-X” formulation and publicly recanted it in 1944 as a “propaganda trick”:

We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are “objectively” aiding the Nazis: and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. … This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions. … The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult.

“Objectively pro-Soviet” was a favorite put-down deployed by neoconservatives during the 1980s. There’s no evidence that they later came to regret it.]

Photograph of Osama Bin Laden on Slate’s Table of Contents by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.