David Irving: “Free speech” and Holocaust denial

If you’ve been a regular reader here, one thing you know about me is just how much I detest Holocaust denial. What I detest even more, however, is when a Holocaust denier wraps his Nazi apologia and anti-Semitism in the cloak of free speech, particularly when he tries to claim martyr status while doing it. The ever-odious David Irving is particularly good at this, particularly when he flaunts the law of another country and enters it, knowing that there is a warrant for his arrest for denying the Holocaust, and then is shocked–shocked, I say!–that the police actually arrested him and that the prosecutor actually put him on trial. Regardless of what you think of laws criminalizing Holocaust denial (and I’ve been consistently and utterly clear about my complete and utter disdain for such laws as a crime against free speech), it’s really dumb to think that you can enter a country with impunity when it has a warrant out for your arrest, whining when you don’t get away with it. Such was David Irving’s behavior, along with his disingenuous claims that he’s not a Holocaust denier because, according to him, Hitler knew nothing about the genocide, and, besides, “only” 2.4 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis.

Still, despicable cranks like David Irving are one price that we pay for living in a free society, with guarantees of free speech. Our Founding Fathers showed amazing wisdom when they crafted the First Amendment, meaning that laws against Holocaust denial are not Constitutional, a good thing. After all, the answer to hateful speech is refutation, not censorship, and laws censoring hate speech almost always backfire in that they allow the most despicable characters to seem almost plausible in taking on the mantle of a free speech martyr.

All of this is why, when I found out via Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s blog that the Oxford Union had offered a forum for both David Irving and the leader of the white nationalist British National Party Nick Griffin to speak on free speech issues, I just couldn’t believe it. Apparently, a lot of other people couldn’t, either, leading to protests at the speeches. Moreover, the excuses offered by the organizers for the event were just pathetic:

The president of the Oxford Union Debating Society, Luke Tryl, told the BBC he was disappointed by the actions of those who tried to stop the event going ahead.

“The way to take fascism on is through debate and that’s how we’re going to defeat them,” he said.

“David Irving came across looking pathetic. He looked weak. The flaws in his arguments about free speech were exposed and I’m pleased that that happened.”

And:

But participant Ms Atkins said controversial views should not be silenced but exposed.

“When you say that the majority view is always right I think that is a deeply dangerous and disturbing thing to say.

“I am not for a moment saying that I agree with David Irving or Nick Griffin but I am saying that once you start having truth by democracy you risk silencing some of the most important prophets we have ever had.”

I swear, some people are so “open-minded” that their brains are in danger of falling out. Yes, free speech is good. Yes, Irving and Griffin should have every right in the world to spew their lies. That does not mean that a prestigious venue such as the Oxford Union is therefore obligated to give them a forum from which to do so. People, like Irving, who consistently lie about history and distort the evidence to suit their ideological agenda should be exposed. That’s a good thing. However, they should be exposed in such a way that does not give their arguments a patina of respectability, as speaking at the Oxford Union does. The right to and belief in free speech does not obligate us to permit a liar like Irving the microphone in respected venues.

I also must point out that I was disappointed at the tactics of the antifascist demonstrators, who were hypocritical, to say the least, when they blocked the gate in order try to bar anyone from entering the Union to hear Irving speak. While I think it was a huge mistake on the part of the Oxford Union to invite Irving, it had every right to do so, and attendees had every right to hear what he had to say if they so desired. Of course, Irving is certainly no saint on this score, either. His commitment to “free speech” is so great that he went to great lengths to take advantage of Britain’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws to try to silence Deborah Lipstadt’s free speech when she correctly labeled him a Holocaust denier. The protesters’ techniques uncomfortably mirrored those of David Irving himself on that score. In any case, Professor Lipstadt gets it right when she says:

Why should the Oxford Union give one of its coveted places to a man such as this or a man such as Nick Griffin, who spews hatred and racial prejudice? I am firm believer in free speech. In my country the much maligned First Amendment gives everyone a chance to make a complete “arse” of themselves. However, the right to free speech does not mean that everyone is deserving of a platform at the Oxford Union.

Exactly.