Monday, February 20, 2006

I May Detest What You Say...-- rejoinder

I can't seem to get away from having to defend free speech, even when the speech itself is appalling.

Two weeks ago, because I support free speech, I posted the infamous 'Mohammed cartoons' despite the fact that, as I made it clear in the post, I disagreed strongly with their message; I did it to protest the fatwa levied against the cartoonists by some fundamentalist clerics. The pictures themselves were obviously being searched for on a lot of search engines, I got about 160 comments on it by the time the thread wrapped down, a record for Deep Thought.

So in today's news,

British Historian David Irving has been sentenced to three years in an Austrian prison for denying that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz.

In fact, Irving was wrong. The gas chambers still stand, and are testimony to the murder of millions-- including members of my own extended family. And, Irving was a liar. He admitted as much during his sentencing hearing;

Irving, handcuffed and wearing a navy blue suit, arrived in court carrying a copy of one of his most controversial books -- "Hitler's War," which challenges the extent of the Holocaust.

"I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz," Irving told the court before his sentencing.

He had faced up to 10 years in prison.

Before the trial began, Irving, 67, told reporters he now acknowledges the Nazis systematically slaughtered Jews during World War II.

"History is like a constantly changing tree," he said.

However, as much as I may detest what David Irving has said in the past, that is not a reason to put him in prison for it. Ridicule him, certainly. Call him a liar and prove it, absolutely. Put his kind of historical revisionism on a shelf along with UFOlogists, flat earthers, people who still deny that smoking causes cancer, unrepentant segregationists, the people who insisted that Galileo was wrong when he said that the earth was the center of the universe, etc. Right now we see people who deny global warming being headed towards that shelf as the climate is already changing just as predicted. But don't put him in prison, because if we put him in prison, then who is safe when the views of their society change, to where perhaps their doctrine (whether it be true or false) is now 'out of line' with society? Far better to have the occasional Holocaust denier out there preaching their particular brand of venom, and dispute it with facts, than to lock them up.

And, free speech aside, an even better argument against imprisonment can be summarized in this line:

Irving's lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, said last month the controversial Third Reich historian was getting up to 300 pieces of fan mail a week from supporters around the world

The letters may taper off now that Irving has 'fessed up' (or more likely, he will now get letters full of hate for being a 'sellout,') but the fact is, that the state putting him in jail for something he wrote will in and of itself help prove that he was right to some of the extreme fringe. You could throw everyone who denied the Holocaust in prison tomorrow, and it would not end Holocaust denial. It would instead only be a victory, not for the old Nazis, but for the new ones who would love to be able to limit what we can read, write and speak about.

Instead, we must make it clear what a poisonous doctine it is. But do it in a free society where we can make it clear that even a poisonous doctrine can be expounded in public, so that we can together publically criticize the ignorance that goes with it.


Indy Voter said...

The question I've had is what exactly was he charged with. Here's the text from your link relating to that:

Irving was arrested November 11 in the southern Austrian province of Styria on a warrant issued in 1989. He was charged under a federal law that makes it a crime to publicly diminish, deny or justify the Holocaust.

I can see where Germany or Austria would want to have laws against denying the Holocaust - out of fear that a new generation of Nazis would use Holocaust denial as a means of gaining power - but to make it a *crime*, rather than a civil offense (something along the lines of slander or libel) is something I can't defend.

Eli Blake said...

Indy Voter:

Even making it a misdemeanor is a mistake (as well as wrong.) Nazism has not been stomped out in either place, as shown by the election of Jurg Haider a few years ago. Instead, it has gone underground. And underground, it has a much better chance to grow into the monster that it was once upon a time, instead of withering in the full glare of the truth, which free speech subjects it to.

Indy Voter said...

Eli, I didn't suggest that these lies should be treated as misdemeanors. Libel and slander aren't criminal offenses normally, rather they are civil offenses which can be resolved in civil courts, i.e. through lawsuits assessing damage for the harm done by the slander or libel. If Holocaust denial is treated that way then these people would be free to say what they want without fear of imprisonment, but their lies would have a monetary cost. The government could undertake this effort on behalf of those killed during the Holocaust since those victims, obviously, cannot bring suit on their own behalf.

Personally, I'd prefer as you do that no automatic penalties for this type of speech either, as foul as it is. But I don't live in a nation that's only two generations removed from the shame of having elevated Hitler and the Nazis to power and committed their subsequent atrocities. The skinheads who go around beating up "Turks" aren't all that different from their grandparents and great-grandparents who terrorized Jews on Kristallnacht.

I wonder what the reaction would have been in the post Civil War USA had white southerners called for the reinstitution of slavery and/or another secession, and tried to use some of their pre Civil War arguments in favor of slavery to justify it. My guess is that, 1st Amendment or no 1st Amendment, such speech would have been criminalized, probably because such speech is inherently seditious in nature.

We're fortunate as a nation that no "neo-slaver" movement arose in the south which would have required us to contemplate such stringent actions. Even with the 1st Amendment, the results were far from optimal in the south, as the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and other aspects of organized racism kept blacks in fear and penury for nearlyt a century after the war.

Eli Blake said...


I have no problem with using civil courts ro enforce a judgement.

Eli Blake said...

Or perhaps I should say, that I have no problems with using civil courts to deal with the offensive nature of these sorts of comments. In fact, that is what they are for-- a redress of grievances. If I say something sufficiently insulting to you and it causes you distress, then you have the right to sue me if it rises to the level of slander (and Holocaust denial does cause this type of distress and does constitute slander against those who survived the camps). But you shouldn't have the right to prosecute me and put me in prison.

Indy Voter said...