Special Report

Voltaire’s Missing Brain

Once again, the French miss the point.

By 1.17.05

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The French seem to take intermittent pride in being the homeland of the satirist Voltaire. Although he spent much of his life exiled from Paris for criticizing the government, he died a hero in the city, celebrated by tens of thousands in the streets on the eve of his return, which was also, coincidentally, the day before he died.

After his death, the nation went so far as to remove the philosopher's heart and brain as symbolic keepsakes. Before eventually being moved to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, his heart was kept in a room he once occupied with the words "His spirit is everywhere, his heart is here" etched over its holding place. Voltaire's brain was likewise highly regarded until a falling out between his heirs and the French government led to the organ's being included in an auction of furniture. What happened to it after that has never been determined.

But Voltaire's brain isn't the only thing that's been misplaced in today's France. Some of the most celebrated sentiments to come from it have been lost as well. French Justice Minister Dominique Perben's moves to prosecute National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen for describing the German occupation during World War II as "not especially inhumane" in particular brings to mind one oft-quoted line attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

It seems more than a little ironic that while it has become chic throughout Europe to refer to the United States as a neo-fascist state the French government is considering criminal charges against a man for making unpopular statements.

LEST ANYONE BELIEVE this is a defense of Mr. Le Pen, let it be known that he has said very many things abhorrent to good taste and reasonable discourse. He has repeatedly said he believes in the "inequality of races," going so far as to compare the performances of different races in the Olympics as proof that "egalitarianism is simply absurd." Likewise, he has not only called the Holocaust gas chambers a "detail" of history, as has been widely reported, but he did so during a public 1997 meeting with ex-Waffen SS member Franz Schonhuber in Munich. His answer to the AIDS crisis has been to suggest forced quarantines for those who test positive -- an idea which sounds suspiciously like a plan to build concentration camps.

Frankly, the idea bandied about that the distaste for Le Pen is wholly based on his anti-immigration stand is silly. In fact, it is more likely that his 17 percent of the vote in the last French presidential election would have been much higher on a pure platform of immigration reform had there not been discomfort with his broad slate of questionable statements.

Nevertheless, when Le Pen says it is "scandalous that 60 years after the war we can't talk freely about it," he's absolutely wrong and he's absolutely right: Absolutely wrong, historically, about the nature of the German occupation -- one only need look at the long at the numbers of French civilians killed and deported to understand that. But, he's absolutely right that people should have freedom of thought and dissent about any subject -- even if that doesn't translate to freedom of action.

In a free society, there should be social sanctions for unpopular views not legal sanctions.

"You need an organization like our organization so that Mr. Le Pen's attitude doesn't prevail," Philippe Schmidt, vice-president of the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, a group that is also suing Le Pen, told the Guardian.

Schmidt couldn't be further off base. There is no evidence whatsoever that his group's taking legal action against Le Pen offsets "Mr. Le Pen's attitude." Le Pen has been convicted of "racism" and "anti-Semitism" six times previously. Yet he is still here. Public shunning is the more powerful tool. When Le Pen forced a run-off between himself and Jacques Chirac three years ago, the people took to the streets to protest and debate, and Chirac won in a landslide.

The problem with using the government to enforce such societal mores is that it places freedom of speech -- and by extension, freedom of thought -- at the whim and pleasure of the state. Such patrolling of people's words and ideas has more in common with fascism than many of Le Pen's statements.

IF DENYING THE HOLOCAUST is a crime in France, what does that mean for stories like the one that broke this weekend about Hitler's orders to SS General Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff to kidnap Pope Pius because of suspicions the Catholic Church was helping Jews escape the Nazis? The official story over the last several years, after all, has been that the Catholic Church somehow conspired with Hitler, not opposed him. Will it be a crime to debate these new revelations in France today? Presumably not, but it doesn't take a giant leap of imagination to picture how it could become one.

The Holocaust is no "detail" of history. Those who dismiss it are universally known as cranks. But silencing any point of view necessarily is a danger to all points of view. Official histories are dangerous and discourage legitimate debate and education about our histories. Certainly, the French have no interest in the U.S. version of several events in World War II. Further, there were no calls to ban the bestselling French book laying out how American military planners faked the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, although I would hope that we did not is as obvious as the fact that the Holocaust occurred.

With regard to the Holocaust, the facts are very basic. So, first and foremost, there is no reason to believe any true deniers could gain traction. The world, as a whole, has elevated the massacre to a place in human consciousness few other events hold. Ironically, the most powerful tool deniers have is this idea that they have been silenced and must have been silenced for a reason. If they are kooks (and I must reiterate, for sensitivities sake, I believe they are), why not let them be unmasked as such publicly, with all the ridicule that entails?

As for those of you wondering what happened to the rest of Voltaire's body, he was laid to rest at the Pantheon in Paris in 1791. But in 1814 his remains were stolen and dumped by French nationalists onto a garbage heap, where I believe one can also currently find France's protections for freedom of speech.

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