Censorship, if left unchecked, can lead to brutality. This is the lesson I learned from those who endured the worst of us.
When I was a young journalist in Holland, most of the survivors of the Second World War were still very much alive. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, I interviewed hundreds of them. Jews and ex-resistance people who had lived to tell the tale of the concentration camps. Men and women who knew firsthand what it had been like to be forced to work in the German weapons industry. People who had tried to keep the home fires burning, their children fed, their consciences as clean as possible.
A recurring point of discussion during these interviews was always the same: “How could you,” I asked, “not have known what was going on before the shit really hit the fan? Why didn’t you do something to prevent this misery, stop the politicians from driving the train into the abyss?” Of course, I realized that I was asking these questions with the benefit of hindsight, but really, surely, there must have been enough information available at the time to recognize that this would not end well. As in: not at all end well.
Every time, the answers were basically the same: “We had no idea.” Or, at least, not really. Censorship was rife in the 1930s, everywhere in the world, and most statesmen believed, as Australian PM Robert Menzies said in his 1942 speech, “The Forgotten People,” that “the world’s progress depends not on the average man, but on what Confucius described as the ‘superior’ man.” In short: get out of the kitchen, you people are too dumb to understand, leave it to the experts. Or, as Menzies’ other adage went: “The essence of democracy is that obedience should be rendered to government.”
For most politicians, this was the reason for censorship. If normal people know things, they might get ideas. And if they get ideas, they might take over. What they don’t know, won’t hurt us. This situation, of government restriction and control of what we read and saw and knew, lasted until well into the 1970s. Not that it disappeared afterwards. It just got a different name: classification, and a different focus. Now the authorities were not so much concerned with politics, but with violence, sex, and voluntary euthanasia.
Sunshine is the best detergent. Get it out there, give it air, and see what will be left. Knowledge is power. If you know things, even terrible things, you can do something about it. If you don’t, it can fester underground. And as we know, whatever is forbidden becomes more interesting because it is not allowed.
Lately, I hear more and more people say that so-and-so (usually somebody they don’t like or somebody they disagree with) “should not be given a platform to speak.” That is not, they say, limiting the principle of free speech, but “refusing to allow horrific views into the mainstream.” When I hear that, I think of 1930s government censorship. And of my WWII interviewees. And their regret that they didn’t know what was going on, didn’t see it coming, were too late to do something about it.
To a man (and woman) they repeated the same mantra when we spoke about this: sunshine is the best detergent. Get it out there, give it air, and see what will be left. Knowledge is power. If you know things, even terrible things, you can do something about it. If you don’t, it can fester underground. And as we know, whatever is forbidden becomes more interesting because it is not allowed. In Australia, where smoking dope is illegal, everybody does it. In a lot of European countries, where you can buy good cannabis in mainstream shops, hardly anybody does.
Besides, I think we should trust our fellow citizens a little more to separate the wheat from the chaff, to use a nice, old-fashioned expression.
In the 1930s, Australia had its own fascist movement, the New Guard. You know it from the story of the dude who tried to open the Sydney Harbour Bridge instead of the socialist Premier. Francis de Groot, captain of the hussars, galloping towards the ribbon, ceremonial sword in hand? For a while there, the New Guard had 50,000 members in the country. Until some papers, despite the official restrictions, started to write about them in-depth, and people realized they were crackpots and dangerous idiots.
A few years later, only Mussolini still believed Australia would be capable of turning into a fascist state. The rest of us had already moved on. We’d seen and rejected. Imagine what could have happened if we hadn’t known, if we hadn’t been able to make up our own minds. Imagine what could happen if we don’t now. I shudder to think.