Elie Wiesel: Carve out an exception to free speech for Holocaust denial

It occurs to me that I haven’t written about this topic in quite a while, but a recent event makes me think that maybe now’s the time to revisit this topic. I’m referring to Holocaust denial. Newer readers may not know that part of what got me involved in online discussions back in the late 1990s was Holocaust denial. Indeed, a lengthy post about how I discovered Holocaust denial was one of the earliest substantive posts on this blog, popping up a mere month after I started blogging, which just so happened to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. That post described how, back in 1998, while wandering around Usenet, I first stumbled into a Usenet forum known as alt.revisionism. The “revisionism” there, of course, was the false revisionism of the Holocaust denier. After all revisionism is a legitimate scholarly activity among historians. Holocaust deniers, however, corrupt the term to use it as a cloak under which to hide their anti-Semitism and Hitler apologia.

Over the years, I’ve periodically returned to the topic of Holocaust denial. Strip Holocaust denial of the racism, anti-Semitism, and Nazi sympathies inherent in it, and the methods of abusing historical evidence, scientific evidence, and documentary evidence to downplay or deny that the Nazi regime had a systematic plan to exterminate European Jewry used by Holocaust deniers are, at their heart, very similar to the methods of abusing and denying scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of vaccines used by anti-vaccinationists, for example. There is a great deal of similarity between the methods of Holocaust denial and the methods of denying science embodied in the anti-vaccine movement or by alt-med believers. Although I’ve written less and less about it over the last two or three years (or at least so it seems to me), I haven’t lost interest in the topic. It’s just that, as science-based medicine and discussions of quackery and anti-vaccine lunacy took over this blog, Holocaust denial seemed not to fit in as well. Still, whenever something interesting came up with respect to Holocaust denial, I, such as when Bishop Richard Williamson was busted in some extreme Holocaust denial after his order’s having apparently managed to get Pope Benedict XVI to reconcile and rescind the excommunication of some of its bishops.

One issue comes up time and time again in these discussions, and that’s the limits of free speech. For example, when David Irving was arrested in Austria for Holocaust denial, I referred to the campaign to jail Irving for his Holocaust denial as “stomping free speech flat.” My reaction was the same when Germany decided to prosecute Bishop Williamson for Holocaust denial as well. The bottom line is that I value free speech to the point where I consider even Holocaust denial to be protected speech, and I thank the wisdom of hte Founding Fathers for having had the wisdom to have written and ratified the First Amendment to the Constitution. To my mind, the answer to Nazi apologetics like Holocaust denial is not its suppression as “hate speech,” but rather to shine the light of day on the lies and distortions of Holocaust deniers and refute them.

These issues came to the fore a couple of days ago in Canada at an event in Toronto hosted by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies and moderated by former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Highlighting the the Spirit of Hope Benefit event was a panel discussion for event was a debate between author Salman Rushdie, who has been under the shadow of a fatwa for what was perceived as a criticism of Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses, and Holocaust survivor and peace activist Elie Wiesel. Both had a lot to say about free speech, religion, and Holocaust denial:

Worse. It would be much worse,” said Salman Rushdie on Monday, in a quick private speculation about what publishing The Satanic Verses would be like today.

“The argument has gotten more heated since then,” he said, and left it at that, seeming to say more with one arched eyebrow than some people say in their whole lives.

To say it would be worse is saying a lot. People died back then, such as translator Hitoshi Igarashi, after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put a divine bounty on Mr. Rushdie’s head, a fatwa, for blaspheming against Islam in his 1988 novel.

I have little doubt that Rushdie is probably correct. Radical Muslims have become, if anything, even more sensitive to anything they perceive as criticism of their religion, even committing murder. Rushdie also gets it right when he waid:

As ever, it is largely an argument about blasphemy.

“We are in danger of losing the battle for freedom of speech,” Mr. Rushdie said. It is being recast as a Western imposition, not a universal human right. Respect is being redefined as agreement, and censorship disguised as a virtuous defence of diversity. His own fatwa, he said, was “a rejection of the idea of fiction as a form” and “the beginning of something that was going to spread around the world.”

Freedom of expression and imagination “is now very much back in question, and is strongly under attack by religious authorities and religious armies of different sorts, and not only Islam,” Mr. Rushdie said.

Sadly, this does appear to be true. Rather than being viewed as a universal right necessary for freedom and the basis of a civil society, free speech is all too often characterized as a “Western” construct. The key to a civil society is that people can disagree without becoming violent. The reason is that, in a free society, there are societal and governmental structures and beliefs in place that are virtually universally accepted as the means by which disputes will be resolved. It’s messy, and it’s loud. Sometimes it looks horribly chaotic, but it works.

Particularly problematic is how religion reacts to criticism. Because religion is viewed by its believers as received truth, key elements of which cannot be questioned, sometimes even under pain of separation or death, religious people and leaders often react very negatively to criticism of their religious beliefs. Actually, “very negatively” is all too often a massive understatment. Fortunately, here in the U.S., we are fortunate enough to have the First Amendment, which, although it doesn’t stop attempts to outlaw offensive speech or criticism of religion, it does make it a lot harder. It also certainly doesn’t stop certain Christians seem to share the Muslim dislike of criticism of their religion. Elsewhere, or so it sometimes seems, pressure to suppress speech that causes “offense” appears to be on the rise, with proposed or existing blasphemy laws in Ireland, Spain, and Poland, among others. It’s so bad that certain nations have made efforts to push the U.N. to pass a binding anti-blasphemy resolution.

As has been said here and elsewhere time and time again, everyone has a right to free speech, but that right does not come with a right not to be offended. Free speech is worthless if it doesn’t offend someone from time to time. It doesn’t matter if it’s political speech, criticism of religion, or even Holocust denial. Unfortunately, Elie Wiesel, although agreeing that religion is “like money or love, saying “It all depends on what you do with it,” agrees that there should be freedom of speech, even freedom to criticize religion–but (and it’s a really big but):

He said the sole exception should be Holocaust denial, which must be banned. And the sole exception to that exception, he said, is America, where he lives, and where free speech is regarded as such a fundamental part of life.

“I don’t want to touch the First Amendment,” he said.

And:

His argument about free speech is compassionate, focused on the “pain, humiliation and agonies” of the children of Holocaust survivors. “When I think of them, I accept that freedom of speech in this case should be against the law,” he said.

That position, reflected in the laws of Germany among other countries, is vulnerable to one of the most common criticisms of restrictions on free speech — that hurt feelings are not reason enough.

I never thought I’d say this, but here Elie Wiesel is dead wrong. I really hate to say it about who’s done things as great as what Elie Wiesel has done with his life, but he is human, after all, and therefore has his blind spots. Quite frankly, Wiesel’s advocacy of a ban on Holocaust denial while championing free speech to criticize Islam doesn’t just look hypocritical. From my perspective, it is hypocritical. Why this one exception to free speech for Holocaust denial bans? Why not other exceptions to free speech–such as for criticizing religion or racist hate speech against others besides Jews? And if Wiesel really thinks Holocaust denial should be banned because it leads to such evil, then why is he against taking on the First Amendment in order to make such a ban reality? Why should America be the sole exception where spouting Holocaust denial is Constitutionally protected speech? Just because it has the First Amendment?

Finally, if, as Wiesel claims, the pain that Holocaust denial causes Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors is “enough” to justify banning that particular form of speech, then why isn’t other pain caused by other forms of offensive speech “enough” to justify banning that speech? Consider the case of the “Reverend” Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church and infamous “God Hates Fags” website. Phelps and his groupies have taken to picketing and protesting at the funerals of American servicemen killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, taunting them that these soldiers are burning in hell for having served a country that, as Phelps’ odious group says, “tolerates fags.” If Holocaust denial should be outlawed because it causes pain and offense to the children of Holocaust survivors, then why shouldn’t Fred Phelps and his despicable band of cultists be muzzled as well for the pain and offense they cause to the children of brave soldiers killed in battle?

Sadly, even if I agreed with Wiesel about the desirability of bans on Holocaust denial, which (as everybody here knows) I do not, I have to conclude that his arguments in this article are inconsistent to the point of incoherence. Maybe they were better in person, presented in whole, but I doubt it.

Not surprisingly, I find myself far more in agreement with Salman Rushdie than with Elie Wiesel. Rushdie points out that laws against Holocaust denial turn evil little racist twits into free speech martyrs and allows the most vile and despicable of morons to wrap themselves in the mantle of free speech.

Personally, I say: Let them have their free speech. Then bury them with refutations and ridicule.