Holocaust denial versus free speech

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgIt’s grant crunch time, as the submission deadline for revised R01s is July 5. However, in a classic example of how electronic filing has actually made things more difficult, the grant has to be done and at the university grant office a week before the deadline if it is to be uploaded in time. So, my beloved Orac-philes, I’m afraid it’s reruns one last time today, but, benevolent blogger that I am, I’ll again post two on the same topic. As regular readers know, I’ve had a long history of combatting Holocaust denial online, but I also have a real problem when the price of combatting Holocaust denial is suppressing free speech. For those of you who recall Bishop Richard Williamson, who was recently busted for Holocaust denial in an interview, I just realized that his trial in Germany is due to start on July 4. So I thought I’d repost a couple of posts I wrote around the time it all happened, back in 2009. Remember, if you haven’t been reading at least two years, it’s new to you! And, who knows? Maybe I’ll blog about the trial next week, too, which would make this a nice way to bring everyone back up to speed.

I detest Holocaust denial.

Relative newbies who haven’t been reading this blog that long may be wondering why I, a physician, booster of science-based medicine, and scourge of the anti-vaccine movement (well, at least in my mind, anyway) would blog about Holocaust denial, but in actuality my interest in combatting Holocaust denial predates my interest in combatting quackery by at least two years. Indeed, one of my earliest long-form posts for this blog, written more than a year before I joined ScienceBlogs and reposted after I joined relates how I discovered Holocaust denial, my confusion and revulsion upon that discovery, and how I became involved in refuting it. Although these days I don’t write about it as often as I used to, I’ve never lost my interest in it and have still on occasion done rather lengthy posts on it. And it can’t be said often enough: Holocaust denial derives from either anti-Semitism, Hitler admiration or apologia, or both. Always. After all, as I’ve echoed a Usenet regular named Allan Matthews, whoonce asked so brilliantly:

See, you’d think that after many months of posting this at least one revisionist who isn’t a neo-Nazi or anti-Semite would have come forward and said “Here I am!”
But, no. It appears that there just aren’t any such revisionists around.

Based on their past posting history, the few bozos who have bothered to claim that they aren’t neo-Nazis or anti-Semites were, upon examination of their claims, found to be clearly lying. Of course, given the general behavior of revisionists, this lack of honesty isn’t surprising in the least.

However, just in case some revisionist ‘scholars’ have missed my question to date, here it is again:

Where are the revisionists who aren’t neo-Nazis or anti-Semites?

It’s a fair question. After all, how can revisionists hope to be taken seriously if they all have such apparent biases, agendas and axes to grind?

So, then, if Holocaust revisionism is an intellectually honest endeavor, where are the revisionists who aren’t neo-Nazis or anti-Semites?

I have never found such a Holocaust “revisionist.”

So, make no mistake, I get it. I get that Holocaust denial is a vile, racist, and bigoted conspiracy theory that denigrates the murder of approximately six million people. I agree that it should be opposed wherever possible. Why else would I have spent so much effort combatting Holocaust denial online over the last decade? It also fits right into my skeptical activism as an example of pseudohistory, paranoid conspiracy theories, and outright abuses of science and methods of historical investigation, making it a classic example to use to teach critical thinking skills. However, as much as I despise Holocaust denial, I value free speech, because it is the wellspring from which all of our other political freedoms flow. Democracy is meaningless without a high degree of freedom of speech, and enshrining freedom of speech in the Bill or Rights, where transient legislators can’t easily mess with it and it requires a Constitutional Amendment to change, was arguably one of the most brilliant strokes of genius by our Founding Fathers. Yes, no freedom is absolute, but the ideal is to place as few limits on freedom of speech as possible.

Even vile speech like that of Holocaust deniers.

That’s why I really, really hate to read about stories like this:

British Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson faces trial in Germany for an outspoken TV interview in which he denied that the wartime extermination of the Jews took place.

The ultra-conservative Catholic cleric was hit with a fine of nearly £12,000 today by a court for his comments made to a Swedish television interviewer – but he refused to pay it.

Because Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany – and because he gave the interview while on German soil – he was prosecuted in Regensburg, near to the birthplace of Pope Benedict XVI, where he gave the interview.

Under the German legal system, he was served with an ‘order of punishment’ informing him of the penalty.

Such orders are intended to cut down on bureaucracy and costs if both sides agree with the fine, which also would mean a criminal conviction.

But Williamson did not agree. He is to appeal, paving the way for a full hearing which could prove highly embarrassing for the church once more – even though Williamson can absent himself from proceedings to be represented just by his lawyer.

We’ve met Bishop Williamson before. Early this year, he gave an interview with Swiss television filled with the most blatant Holocaust denial I’ve heard in a long time, spewing a number of denier canards so mind-bogglingly easy to refute that I wondered if Williamson had even learned Holocaust denial 101. The reason Williamson came into such prominence because of his interview was that, in an EPIC FAIL of unbelievably bad timing, Pope Benedict XVI had opened the way to the reinstatement of Williamson and other bishops who had been excommunicated by Pope John Paul II for rejecting Vatican II, among other things. Shortly after the announcement, Williamson’s Holocaust-denying interview aired. Ultimately, in an equally EPIC FAIL of closing the barn door after the horses have left, the Vatican demanded that Williamson recant his Holocaust denial. Ultimately, Williamson gave a classic “non-apology” apology, which was rejected by the Vatican. Meanwhile, Argentina, embarrassed by the whole affair, kicked Williamson out the country, and he was forced to return to England. There, he was met by met by Michele Renouf, a former model known for her Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, with whom he had been put in touch by fellow holocaust denier David Irving. Worse, Williamson had apparently been in contact with David Irving for advice on how to “present” his views, which is akin to asking the an anti-vaccinationist to how to “present” vaccine science. As an excuse, Bishop Williamson’s was one of the weakest I’ve heard:

Williamson said through his lawyer that he was assured his offending remarks would not be broadcast in Germany but only in Sweden, where there is no law against Holocaust denial.

Prosecutors had received a letter from the Swedish television producers in which they denied offering any assurance to Williamson that the interview, conducted in English, would be broadcast in Sweden only.

Even I know that you have to get promises like that in writing. I mean, come on!

My reaction to the prosecution of Bishop Williamson is pretty much the same as my reaction was when David Irving was put on trial for Holocaust denial nearly four years ago, when I described Austria’s prosecution as “stomping free speech flat.” From my perspective, it looks as as though Germany wants to stomp it even flatter still, perhaps seeing if it can reduce its thinness to subatomic dimensions.

What prosecutors in Germany appear not to realize is that not only are laws against Holocaust denial an offense against free speech, but they just don’t work. They suppress nothing. As I pointed out nearly four years ago, David Irving got far more publicity in Austria over the few months after his arrest and during his trial than he had gotten in the prior six years. Before, having been utterly discredited as a “historian” after having lost his libel action against Holocaust scholar Professor Deobrah Lipstadt, Irving had been fading into well-deserved obscurity–exactly where he belonged. During the trial he became a martyr for the far right, all wrapped in the mantle of “free speech.”

The argument of apologists for such laws notwithstanding, criminalizing Holocaust denial serves no purpose other than to “stomp free speech flat” and to confirm the claims of the Holocaust deniers that the government is “afraid” of their message. It is true that Germany’s and Austria’s shared histories of the last 76 years lead them to understand far more than we in the United States do just what can happen when fascist ideology takes hold of the reins of power. I’ll even concede that laws banning Nazi-ism, the symbols of Nazi-ism, and Holocaust denial were not at all unreasonable in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War II. West Germany and Austria were fledgling democracies, and there were a lot of former Nazi Party members left living there. There was also a real fear that fascism might rise again, given that the nation was still shattered. Unfortunately, what should have been a temporary measure to help stabilize a defeated nation with most of its major cities reduced to rubble and twelve million homeless and hunger running rampant has become permanent. More than 64 years after Germany’s defeat, these laws still stand, and hapless and vile idiots are still prosecuted under them. Why do these nations still need these laws, which have produced on occasion produced miscarriages of justice that would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragic? After nearly three generations, isn’t it time for these affronts to free speech to be eliminated?

After all, free speech does not mean freedom of speech just for people whose views are within the “mainstream,” whatever that is. That is not freedom of speech. Rather, freedom of speech means protection for those who espouse views that are very unpopular. That includes even disgusting views that are quite rightly unpopular because they are so vile.

Views like those of Holocaust deniers. The way to fight Holocaust denial is not to criminalize Holocaust denial but to fight it with facts and to marginalize Holocaust deniers in society by not giving them any respect.

Bishop Williamson was treated appropriately when the Church demanded his recantation, and Argentina forced him to retreat back to England and, even more importantly, into well-deserved obscurity. He has been paid little mind by the world over the last nine months, and that is entirely appropriate. Even the Catholic Church appears to have more or less ignored him since last February or March. By prosecuting Williamson for Holocaust denial, Germany will not deter Holocaust deniers or limit Holocaust denial. In fact, if I were a Holocaust denier, I wouldn’t be able to envision a more effective way of promoting it than by outlawing it. Not only does it bestow on an odious belief set the appeal of being “so dangerous the government is afraid of it,” but it allows the even more odious little men and women who hold such views to don the mantle of free speech martyr.