H. L. Mencken liked to say that he supported free speech "up to and including the utmost limits of the endurable." That seems like as good a place as any to draw the line. But, as Mencken knew, a line must be drawn somewhere.
That is unless you happen to be one of the increasing number of leftist intellectuals opposed to the prosecution of British war "historian" David Irving, now on trial in Austria for Holocaust denial. These philosophers not only refuse to recognize such a line, but their reckless objectivity doubtless gives aid and comfort to anti-Semites. One example: French socialist Serge Thion made use of a Noam Chomsky "free speech" piece as the foreword to a collection of Holocaust denial essays.
This development doesn't seem to have disturbed the Left at all. "I am uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech," Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who is Jewish, tells the BBC. "Let [David Irving] go and let him fade from everyone's radar screens." Yes, but isn't that what many people said of a certain Austrian 70 years ago?
The issue here isn't whether Germany in the 1940s used gas chambers to kill Jews and Poles and gypsies, as Mr. Irving has denied. Based on overwhelming forensic evidence, military and court documents, and eyewitness testimony we know this to be fact. The issue is how far does one allow treacherous ideas -- ideas proven to have deadly consequences -- to spread and corrupt.
Holocaust deniers like Mr. Irving often hide behind Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression. But that's turned out to be about as effective a defense as the 49ers' secondary. European courts have consistently held that nothing in the Convention may be construed to justify acts "aimed at destroying any of the very rights and freedoms contained therein. [Therefore] invoking free speech to propagate denial of crimes against humanity is...contrary to the spirit of the Convention."
European governments seem even less tolerant. Holocaust denial remains a crime in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland. Significantly most of these are countries that were historically (and to a large extent continue to be) anti-Semitic. Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, allows that such laws are necessary in the lands of the former Third Reich, even while calling for Irving's release. Austrians, however, do not appear nearly as conflicted. The head of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust insists that denial is not a matter of opinion. "Austrian law demands incisive action to protect its citizens from a repeat of the past," he told the BBC.
LEAVE IT TO LEFTIST INTELLECTUALS to try to equate a Holocaust denier like Irving with Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, now on trial for suggesting his country own up to its atrocious past.
Pamuk, 53, is charged with the Kafkaesque crime of "insulting Turkishness." A year ago he told a Swiss newspaper that "30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares talk about it." To this day the Turkish government denies that the 1915 Armenian Genocide took place, calling the dead (the number of which it says was overstated) war casualties. And yet it is not the Turkish government that is on trial, but, in the ultimate of ironies, Orhan Pamuk. If convicted he faces three years imprisonment.
Turkey's greatest living writer has long been on the outs with his government. Pamuk has spent much of his career criticizing the state for its treatment of its Kurdish population, for its militaristic nationalism, and, particularly, for its intense pleasure in heaving writers in the clink. Currently more than 60 writers languish in Turkish bastilles for violating a Turkish law that makes it illegal to insult the republic, the parliament or the state government. Oddly, in 1998, the government tried to present Pamuk with its highest cultural accolade.
David Irving, on the other hand, once said that more women died in Ted Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in Auschwitz's gas chambers. That Irving is a fraud, a liar, and about as funny as a dead puppy was settled in a 2000 libel case (Irving unsuccessfully sued Lipstadt for libel). British High Court Justice Charles Gray ruled that Irving was "a Hitler partisan," and "an anti-Semitic, racist and Holocaust denier who associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism," and who "deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence." That didn't deter Irving. He continued to make speeches in Austria long after a warrant was issued for his arrest. He awaits trial in Vienna for two speeches delivered 15 years ago in which he stated that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. If convicted he could get ten years.
In a recent Christian Science Monitor opinion piece -- as well as a BBC report -- British pundit Brendan O'Neill grumbled that European intellectuals were coming to Pamuk's defense, but not to Irving's. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that Pamuk is an intellectual, a prize-winning novelist and a gentleman, while Irving is a fraud, a fascist and a pinhead. "If we truly believe in freedom of speech," writes O'Neill, "then we must defend Irving as vigorously as we defend Pamuk."
Alas, another fine example of Leftist logic. Any way you look at it, the attempt to link Holocaust denial and an honorable man's call to acknowledge his country's reprehensible past is morally repugnant. But then that's the problem, isn't it? The Left genuinely cannot see the difference. And these are the people running European governments.
Evidently a great many European governments believe their citizens continue to embrace fascist sentiments. Okay, I'll buy that. Maybe Europeans are a bunch of Jew-hating fascists and therefore deserve fewer freedoms than Brits and Americans, who have more tolerance for diverse religions and ethnic groups. That makes such laws all the more necessary, at least for now.
But what is Turkey's excuse? Turkey wants to join the EU; however, its persecution of Orhan Pamuk demonstrates that the "sick man of Europe" is far from ready to join the civilized world. Indeed, Turkey ought to be booted out of the EU talks until it releases and apologizes to Mr. Pamuk and the other 60 writers jailed for offending the regime's delicate sensibilities. Likely? Not bloody likely.
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