March 18, 2005

In denial

Since I know a lot of my readers are good liberals who are capable of getting so muddle-headed about free speech that they are capable of persuading themselves that David Irving's right to hold insane racist opinion and attempt to pass them off as history means that C-Span somehow has the responsibility to let him do so on its dime, Charles Taylor's crisp demolishing of Irving and his mainstream defenders from Salon last month should help dispell that notion.

Let's imagine that there was a writer who took as his subject World War II. And let's suppose that because of his ability to amass and cite journals, transcripts, paperwork and all manner of documents, he gained a reputation as a meticulous researcher. Now let's say that the conclusion the writer drew from all of his research was an unshakable conviction that World War II never happened. It was, he insists, a massive fraud, and he declares under oath, "No documents whatever show that World War II had ever happened."

Now let's allow things to get curiouser and curiouser.

Despite this writer's farcical conclusion, historians of World War II, men who have spent their professional lives studying and documenting the war, still insist on the soundness of his research. It is possible, they say, to draw faulty conclusions from solid fact-finding. They do not bother themselves with the obvious question of how good the quality of any research can be if it can be used to support what is patently false. One historian says he and his colleagues should be able to admit the view of those with whom they may not be "intellectually akin."

When journalists began writing about the work of this WWII debunker, they refer to it as an alternate interpretation or a controversial point of view. One suggests that the writer has opened a useful dialogue around the question "Who decides what 'happened' in the first place?"

Eventually, a historian, aware of the esteem in which some of his colleagues hold this writer, agrees to put the writer's famed research to an intensive examination. What he finds is a consistent pattern of deliberate misquotation, misinterpretation and outright lies designed to support the writer's conclusions. Anything that hasn't supported those conclusions has been either discarded or altered. This historian concludes that "deceptions ... had remained an integral part of his working methods across the decades." Even this does not deter other historians from continuing to profess admiration for the WWII debunker. One even writes that the debunker possesses "an all consuming knowledge of a vast body of material." And another, apparently unaware of how he is defaming his profession, announces that no one "could have withstood [the] kind of scrutiny" that the historian had subjected the debunker to....

Irving's supporters -- and I include in that group not just the pathetic fools who greet with laughter his comments about "Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars," or "ASSHOLS," at the white-supremacy rallies and conferences he often addresses, but the more upscale fools who are not Holocaust deniers but who continue to believe in his efficacy as a historian -- have long tried to cast those who oppose Irving as enemies of free speech.

This is the tack Christopher Hitchens has long taken when writing about David Irving, and it is worth dwelling on him, as his writing provides a useful compendium of Irving apologias. In a June 1996 Vanity Fair column after St. Martin's Press canceled its contract with Irving to publish his biography of Joseph Goebbels, Hitchens, styling himself the macho defender of the First Amendment, called the anti-Irving articles that led to St. Martin's actions "hysterical and old-maidish." Of the historians condemning Irving he wrote, "These are supposedly experienced historians who claim to have looked mass death in the face, without flinching. And they can't take the idea of a debate with David Irving?"

The sly implication of those lines is that Irving's opponents are afraid to confront him. What Hitchens ignores is the position that Deborah Lipstadt has taken for years: that to debate Holocaust deniers implies they are expressing a fact-based vision of history. Shilling for Hitler, Irving is expressing no such thing....

Any honest person who talks about David Irving and the censoring of history has to acknowledge that the censoring has been attempted by David Irving himself. This is what the libel trial was about -- Irving's attempts to censor Lipstadt's "Denying the Holocaust" -- though, as the trial showed, the claims Lipstadt made against Irving are demonstrably true. This is not the only piece of litigation Irving has attempted or threatened. His lawsuit threats delayed for years the British publication of historian John Lukacs' "The Hitler of History." When it did appear in Britain, it was published in an edition that bowdlerized Lukacs' case against Irving. These very real attempts to quash the work of historians are never mentioned by Irving's defenders. But somehow, the work of historians who set out to prove the deceptions in Irving's work is depicted as an attempt at censorship, or a way of inhibiting historical examination.

It might be worth pointing out here that Lipstadt, who is Jewish, makes a point in "History on Trial" of speaking against censoring Holocaust deniers, not just from a freedom-of-speech standpoint but from the standpoint that censorship gives work the allure of the forbidden. And she is harsh and direct on the use of the Holocaust to strengthen Jewish identity. "Jews," she writes, "have survived despite antisemitism not because of it."

Posted by Daniel Radosh


This all sounds so familiar. About ten years ago the editors at a number of student newspapers (including, I'm sad to say, at my own school, and probably at yours, too), managed to convince themselves that the principles of free speech -- or maybe even the text of the First Amendment -- required them to accept advertisements claiming the Holocaust never happened.

It's disturbing to think that some of these people are still working in news, but haven't acquired any more sense as they got older.

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