Rod Serling and Free Speech: Why “Defeating by Ignoring” Doesn’t Work
One day in 1966, Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” entered the offices of the American Nazi Party and spoke at length with the man in charge, George Lincoln Rockwell.
No, really. That may sound like fiction, but it actually happened. Haley was there to interview Rockwell for Playboy magazine, which subsequently published the entire discussion.
You might think that Serling, a man so vehemently outspoken in his opposition to Nazism that he heaped scorn on “Hogan’s Heroes,” would be outraged that Haley and Playboy would give someone like Rockwell a public platform. If so, you’d be wrong.
Indeed, he wrote a remarkable letter of support to the magazine — a letter that I believe deserves a careful reading in this hyper-political, ultra-sensitive age of ours:
April 15, 1966
232 East Ohio
Chicago, Illinois 60611
I anticipate that you people shall probably be roundly roasted for the recent Rockwell interview. There is a breed of layman social scientist who will forever cling to a concept of “defeating by ignoring”. Hence, when out of the muck of their own neurosis rises these self-proclaimed fuehrers, there is this well-meaning body who tell us that if we turn both eyes and cheeks, the nutsies will disappear simply by lack of exposure.
My guess is that in this case exposure is tantamount to education, and education, here, is a most salutary instruction into the mentalities, the motives and the modus operandi of an animal pack who are discounted by the one aged maxim that “it can’t happen here.” So might have said the Goethes and the Einsteins of a pre-war Germany who thought then, as we do now, that civilization by itself protects against a public acceptance of the uncivilized. Eleven years of national genocide and ten million lives later, we have learned to realize that even the most sophisticated society can still fall prey to an invasion of monsters. It is not public exposure that helps these perverters of human dignity. Rather, it is apathy. Laughter and derision might momentarily embarrass them but in the long run prove no deterrents whatsoever. What is desperately needed to combat any “ism” is precisely what PLAYBOY has done — an interview in depth that shows us the facets of the enemy. Yes, gentlemen, you may be knocked for supposedly lending some kind of credence to a brand of lunacy. But my guess is you should be given a commendation for a public service of infinite value.
Pacific Palisades, California
I couldn’t agree more. We either have free speech in this country, warts and all, or we don’t. Serling knew what today’s censors apparently don’t: we must expose odious philosophies and creeds, not silence them. Silence leads to ignorance and apathy, and that is what helps the “perverters of human dignity.”
Do we not have faith in our own positions? If so, we shouldn’t fear a discussion. We need light, not darkness, if we’re to learn the “facets of the enemy.” Serling knows we can’t combat the “lunacy” if we turn a deaf ear to it. We must speak and listen, not shout down and ignore.
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