Sunday afternoon history lesson

Regular readers of this weblog know that I have an interest in history, particularly World War II and Holocaust history. I've posted about the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and how I discovered Holocaust denial. I've blogged about the bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, as well as the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. However, although this blog is now over three months old, I haven't talked much about Holocaust denial today and how Holocaust deniers seek to silence those who would refute their lies.

The most famous case of this is the David Irving trial. This trial took place in 2000 in response to David Irving's lawsuit against historian Deborah Lipstadt for her characterization of him as a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Lipstadt's characterization was based on copious evidence, including statements by Irving such as "more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz," among others. In response, David Irving sued Dr. Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in a trial that made headlines around the world. The reason Irving chose to sue Professor Lipstadt in Britain is because British libel laws are among the most lenient in the world for plaintiffs, forcing the defendant accused of libel to prove that what he or she wrote is true, rather than, as is the case in the U.S. (for example), putting the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove that what was written was false or written with a "reckless disregard for what is true."

Fortunately, Professor Lipstadt prevailed, dealing a crushing legal and moral blow to the Holocaust denier David Irving. (Unfortunately, however, despite the judgment against him for court costs, somehow David Irving manages to travel around the world giving talks and avoid paying the judgment.) At least, however, forever after now, the label of "Holocaust denier" will follow Irving, based on a verdict by a British court.

The reason this whole issue has come up again is twofold. First, Professor Lipstadt is finally getting to tell her side of the story. She has written a book entitled History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. I haven't yet had the opportunity to read it, but I'm definitely going to order it from The excerpts I've read from it, plus having read Professor Lipstadt's previous work, lead me to predict that it will be a detailed account of how Holocaust deniers will try to use to silence their critics, all the while claiming the mantle of free speech martyrs for themselves. Second, recently C-Span's Book TV made a very bad mistake, the same sort of mistake news organizations make when covering evolution. Book TV wanted to do a segment on Lipstadt's book. However, in order to provide "balance," they wanted to invite David Irving to speak as well. (Does this sound familiar to those of you who are involved in debunking creationism?) Professor Lipstadt's pleas that including a blatant Holocaust denier like David Irving would hurt C-Span's credibility fell on deaf ears, leading her to withdraw from the show.

Lipstadt had a ready response and Amy Roach, the C-Span producer handling the show: “Would you put on someone who says slavery did not happen?” “No,” Roach assured Lipstadt. Then why a Holocaust denier, Lipstadt asked. “Oh,” she said quite breezily, “He’s not going to talk about Holocaust denial. He’s going to talk about the trial.” Given that the trial was entirely about Holocaust denial and whether Lipstadt was correct in characterizing Irving as a Holocaust denier in her book, this quite understandably struck Professor Lipstadt as "wacko."

It's depressingly the same, whether the issue is pseudoscience (creationism being the prime example), pseudohistory (Holocaust denial being the prime example), paranormal phenomenon, or quack medicine. The media consistently confuse "balance" with letting the unsupported crank appear on the air or in print as an equal to the true expert. This puts the true expert in a bind. If, she doesn't go on the air with the crank, then the crank will get time to spout his crankery without rebuttal or debunking. On the other hand, if she does go on the air with the crank, she risks giving him credibility as an "alternative opinion." I don't know what I would have decided if I were Lipstadt, but the very fact that she had to make the choice shows how "balance" isn't really balance at all.


  1. Maybe the only way it would be acceptable for Lipstadt and Irving to appear on the same show would be for them to be identified this way:
    Deborah Lipstadt, historian
    David Irving, ignorant public liar
    That seems balanced to me.

  2. And eminently fair as well...

    I like it.

  3. On the brighter side, Ernst Zundel, another Holocaust denier, got himself deported out of Canada to Germany where he's facing conviction under Germany's anti Holocaust denial laws. Maybe the US should just figure out how to send Irving to Germany.

    -Socialist Swine

  4. Apparently, he's already been convicted in Germany, at least once, in 1992.

    dharma bums, you have it. Perfect.

  5. Actually Irving should probably be refered to as legally proven public liar.

  6. I agree that one *effect* of putting Irving on the show could have been to give him an appearance of credibility - not least because although I've avoided him like the plague and thus never seen him speak I'm pretty sure he's a glib talker and would probably come across as quite plausaible to the ignorant.

    I rather suspect, though, that the real reason the producers of the show wanted him on was not to provide 'balance' but because they wanted a good old ratings-boosting showdown. And actually I'd've liked to have seen that myself...

  7. Socialist Swine: Although I am very happy that Ernst Zundel is out of the U.S. and no longer able to sully Tennessee with his racism, I have a big problem with a lot of European hate speech laws, and it gives me no pleasure to see even Zundel locked up because of them. (Hey, that's a good topic for a future post....)

    OutEast: You may have a point. Certainly, the talking pundit shows like The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity and Colmes, etc., thrive on such confrontation (although I'm not sure if Book TV thrives on such confrontation). Maybe that's what the producers had in mind, to juice things up with a little confrontation. However, more "respectable" news organs like the New York Times fall prey to the trap of false "balance," too. A good example is when the NYT allowed Michael Behe to publish a defense of intelligent design on its op-ed pages in early February.

  8. The BBC recently (umm, sometime since 2001 when I arrived here) did a Tv version of the trial, using nothing but the trial transcripts, and managed to show Irving as essentially a raving lunatic incapable of noticing the truth if it bit him.

    As someone who'd been in complete ignorance of the trial til then, I found it most illuminating.

  9. Some good news - yesterday I heard a very senior BBC TV person saying that s/he wanted to commission more programming on climate change, this time not giving equal time to the 'sceptics', on the basis that this adherence to balance was giving the public a false impression that the jury was still out on the issue.

    By the way, I'm not sure how many European countries other than Germany have a 'no Holocaust denial' law. There's certainly not one in the UK.

  10. Germany's law isn't even that regularly enforced. You have to be pretty egregious over a long period of time to get the police's attention.

    That being said, I think that hate speech laws in general, and laws against Holocaust denial in particular, are very bad ideas. One of these days, I'll explain why in a blog entry. (It's on the list of topics that I've wanted to blog about but haven't gotten around to yet...)

  11. Belated commment, but I've only just discovered your blog.

    Given your observations about when media balance is not balance at all (with which I agree) you might reconsider which bookshop to order Professor Lipstadt's book from. The world's major online bookshop operates the same sort of balance for reviews as you decry - always invite a crank to balance a genuine expert.

    You might want to look at the balanced reviews of that well- known historiographical masterpiece, "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion". All manner of anti-semitic kooks are given room to air their beliefs about the various ways in which the book might be in some sense "true" despite being a proven fabrication.


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