Saturday, January 21, 2006

The irony about David Irving's imprisonment

Ben Macintyre wrote an excellent opinion piece for the Times that says more or less exactly what I've been saying all along about Austria's imprisonment of David Irving for Holocaust denial:
Irving’s opinions are indefensible; his right to hold them, however, must be defended. For reasons of both principle and expediency, he should go free. Freedom of speech includes the right to be hopelessly, demonstrably and repeatedly wrong. It is not to be applied selectively, depending on the nature of the speech in question, but universally and consistently. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is unequivocal: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

To defend free speech when we happen to share the speaker’s opinion is an easy task. Take Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who is facing trial for saying, in defiance of the official Turkish view of history, that his compatriots carried out the genocide of Armenians during the First World War. Many writers (including this one) have defended his right to do so. Far harder, but just as essential, is the defence of speech that we find morally disgusting and intellectually bankrupt. When a conference in Turkey on the Armenian question was cancelled under state pressure, the liberal West was outraged; when Iran recently announced a conference to question the authenticity of the Holocaust, the West was, once again, outraged. But in the case of both Irving and Pamuk, the issue should be settled in the court of public discussion, not the law courts; so long as speech does not directly incite racial hatred, it must remain free.
In doing so, however, he brings up an irony that I hadn't considered:
For Austria, beset by the rise of the far Right in the unpleasant shape of Jörg Haider, Irving has appeared at a politically opportune moment. Sticking the “revisionist” in prison for something that he said 16 years ago, based on a law nearly 60 years old, is a neat way for Austria to demonstrate its liberal bona fides. Of the nine countries with laws banning Holocaust denial, Austria is the strictest. Yet the country has too often shied away from admitting its Nazi past.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre estimates that some 40 Nazi suspects are still living in Austria, and accuses Austria of a lamentable record in apprehending war criminals.

Irving is in prison for writing about the Holocaust, in a country where people who took part in the Holocaust are still at liberty. Irving would be able to argue that the people who operated the gas chambers should be prosecuted before people who make speeches about them, except that he is on record as saying that the gas chambers never existed. Ironies don’t come much more savoury than that.
Indeed, they don't.

ADDENDUM: I've been remiss in not posting a link to Andrew Mathis' essay The Semantics of Holocaust Denial. I may have to put my two cents in about some of what he wrote sometime next week, mainly because what he says about how semantics are used in Holocaust denial also has relevance to pseudoscience and quackery, as well as the pseudohistory of Holocaust denial.

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