Monday, February 20, 2006

Holocaust denial

I don't know about you, but I could not repress a smile when I read that Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was to be charged with "the public denigration of Turkishness". "The public denigration of Turkishness" - doesn't it sound ridiculous? How could you proclaim, and then quote such a law without everyone laughing? Well, obviously, it doesn't get much of a laugh in Turkey. But it is such laws as this that tell you that there is something nasty in the dark corners of a country's past or present, and the merest whiff of them constitutes 'denigration', another way to say 'betrayal'.

Once upon a time, a law seeking to 'protect the purity of the race' would have sounded equally ridiculous. Now, it doesn't. So it is perfectly understandable why in many European countries the crime of Holocaust Denial was created and put on the statute books. It arose from a perfectly legitimate fear: take away the Holocaust, and Hitler could, for enough people to matter, be painted as a German nationalist merely reacting to the humiliation of his great country by jealous colonial powers. A new Herman, fighting off, not the Romans this time, but the slathering plutocrats of the Anglo-Saxon world, and the lowering menace of the Russian communists.

To the objection that the evidence for the Holocaust is so overwhelming as to be irrefutable, the counter-objection is, well, people can be incredibly stupid, especially when there are a lot of other needs involved. I would have thought Creationism, or Intelligent Design, the exclusive province of a few nutters, given the power of the theory of evolution to explain the world. More fool me. For many people do feel a very strong need for the certainty of absolute rulers, for a sense of unalienable superiority, for someone to be permanently lower on the pecking order than they are. So the law is understandable.

However, it makes me feel very uncomfortable, especially in these weeks of the Attack on the Khartoons. A law against Holocaust denial is censorship. However much it can be justified, it is censorship. And censorship is always an admission of weakness. Now the weakness here may be that of human nature and European history, but it is also cultural weakness. It is like an admission that the alternative point of view (that the Holocaust did happen) cannot be defended adequately. Deborah Lipstadt, the woman who destroyed David Irving in court, said as much. "I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship... The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth."

David Irving is a deeply unpleasant individual, but his proposition that the Holocaust did not occur is just that - a proposition, and therefore refutable. Let it be scornfully dismissed with facts, documents and (dear god) human remains, and then it is a false proposition on the same level as 'the Earth is flat'. The question of free speech is so important at the moment, its defence as the foundation of our form of government, or any reasonable form of government, is so urgent that laws against opinion do nothing so much as undermine the very system they seek to defend. I believe the crime of Holocaust Denial should be expunged and the opinion left to be dealt with as other opinions are.

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