Publishers: Between A Rock And Another Rock

There has been controversy at Simon & Schuster about publishing books by former Vice President Mike Pence and former Trump administration official Kellyanne Conway:

Lots of people outside the company don’t like it either. They believe the company should not publish tracts by Trump-apologist former officials. They are especially scathing about any who are thought to have supported, or even just seem to have been willing to explain away, the January 6, 2021 Trump-instigated mob-invasion of the US Capitol.

It is easy to understand why they (unsurprisingly, mostly not Republican supporters of the ex-president) feel that way: Trump’s four years in office damaged (in my opinion) US democracy.

That said, as much as I did not support him and consider his views illiberal, the fact is Pence is the former Vice President of the United States. True, he was also an official of limited capacities and narrow outlook whose 4 years in office ended in chaos and ignominy. Still, his former role as vice president itself makes him publishable.

All of this talk about those who should not be published, got me thinking about the most controversial of all political autobiographical works. As far as modern day Germany is concerned, Wikipedia tells us of Nazi German dictator (1933-1945) Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle):

After Hitler’s death, copyright of Mein Kampf passed to the state government of Bavaria, which refused to allow any copying or printing of the book in Germany. In 2016, following the expiration of the copyright held by the Bavarian state government, Mein Kampf was republished in Germany for the first time since 1945, which prompted public debate and divided reactions from Jewish groups.

As far as its US publication rights are concerned:

In the United States, Mein Kampf can be found at many community libraries and can be bought, sold and traded in bookshops. The U.S. government seized the copyright in September 1942 during the Second World War under the Trading with the Enemy Act and in 1979, Houghton Mifflin, the U.S. publisher of the book, bought the rights from the government pursuant to 28 CFR0.47. More than 15,000 copies are sold a year. In 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reported that it was having difficulty finding a charity that would accept profits from the sales of its version of Mein Kampf, which it had promised to donate.

Thus under the complexity of US copyright law, Hitler’s vulgar rant is still in copyright in English and that copyright is evidently held by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers – a large and famous company, much like Simon & Schuster.

I am as an author decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of silencing authors – wherever those authors may fall on the political spectrum, left or right. A different view (even a bigoted one) of the world is not, by definition, a crime – and let us hope that is never to be considered the case. (A major caveat is as long as convicted criminals are not permitted to use book sales to profit from their crimes. And as we see, when it comes to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hitler is so beyond the moral pale that the company cannot even find a charity that wants to accept the profits of Mein Kampf sales.)

My (now late) uncle wrote “gritty” police/crime fiction some did not like. He was published by several companies over his thirty year writing career. One was HarperCollins:

[HarperCollins copyright page of my uncle’s last book. Photo by me, 2019.]

Should he have not been allowed to write because some did not like what he wrote?

Simon & Schuster also publishes LOTS of authors, including also, for example, her:

Should Hillary Clinton be boycotted because she is published by that same company?

We need to bear in mind that even lying ugly treatises teach us something. If we are to try to understand those who think such ways, we need to read what they write. However, that does not mean every nut with an internet connection is entitled to a major publishing contract. Rather what matters is the author’s importance: a vomiting, half-literate rant by Adolf Hitler is publishable BECAUSE it helped him gain power and bring on World War II and the Holocaust – and we would not know nearly as much about his mindset had he not written that book.

[A view of a row of graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Normandy, France. A Star of David is on the grave the second back from the front, in the middle row. Photo by me, 1995.]

Thus we must read Hitler so we can identify similar views among perhaps some of the public and officials today.

[Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s seized – in 1861 – Arlington Heights, Virginia mansion. During the Civil War, the US government turned its grounds into a cemetery, with Union dead even buried in Lee’s wife’s rose garden. Today it is part of Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by me, 2017.]

Closer to our American experience, after the Civil War, in 1881 former Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. You can get it free from various places, including on the Kindle. From the rebel leader himself, whose “government’s” actions led to the deaths of at least 600,000 (to according to new estimates possibly 750,000) people between 1861-65, we do get insights about what he claimed he thought he was doing in leading the rebellion, what he asserts it was about, and so on, and all told – whatever we think of it – it is a necessary piece of the historical record.

[A view of the United States Capitol. Photo by me, September 2018.]

Similarly, we need to know what on earth former President Trump’s officials were thinking and why. Trump’s defeat in the November 2020 presidential election by nearly 8 million votes was a major and necessary repudiation of him and his often disturbingly neo-fascist views. Still, the assault two months later on the Capitol by Trump-flag-waving “bitter ender” supporters (who even evidently targeted Vice President Pence) must be examined and learned about from every intellectual direction in order for it to be addressed in terms of new public policy – especially that such must NEVER be allowed to besmirch American politics again.

Thus books by former public officials (who have, to repeat, not been convicted – yet – of a crime) should be publishable by major publishers – regardless of how much we may loathe them, for we cannot simply wish the history slate clean just because it is often dirty.