Monday, February 27, 2006

Is Irving any different from a racist skinhead?

In the Feb. 26 edition of The Scotsman, Brian Wilson asks:
Is David Irving any different from a racist skinhead?

LIBERAL angst alights on some very odd causes. Acres of newsprint and innumerable hours of broadcasting time have been devoted to tortured discussion of David Irving's temporary fate - three years in an Austrian slammer after being convicted of Holocaust denial.

It is doubtful whether many of those who regard Irving's incarceration as an attack on freedom of speech and a counter-productive act of martyr-creation would give a moment's thought to the fate of a gormless skinhead, convicted of shouting anti-Semitic or other racial poison at someone in a city street.

Yet what is the qualitative difference? If freedom of speech is an absolute, then surely the overt racial abuser is entitled to benefit? Why should Irving, by awarding himself the spurious titles of 'historian' and 'academic', be treated with any higher regard, particularly when his influence has been far greater than that of any mere camp-follower? Unlike most Britons who espouse similar views, Irving does not have the excuse of under-education. He knew the laws of Austria and believed he could flout them, boasting that he had already bought the first-class air ticket that would return him to Britain. His sentence has proved that supposition wrong. Good. Austria has its own perspective on these matters and has every right to make and enforce laws that reflect it.

There can be no such thing as absolute freedom of speech, for very good reasons. Competing freedoms have to be balanced, and the freedom of vulnerable minorities to be protected from abuse and harassment is just as precious as the right of individuals to hold and express their views. The aim of a liberal democratic society must be to achieve a balance of freedoms, rather than to assert the primacy of one over the other.


However, the sensible recognition of such constraints sits uneasily with grander claims to a generalised belief in freedom of expression. "You can say anything about anyone who can be relied upon not to strike back" may be uncomfortably close to the reality - but it is not a particularly elevated sentiment. Yet I wonder how much of that double-standard underlies criticisms of the Austrian court? Maybe the ultra-right ravings of people like Irving have become so familiar, or separated in time from the events that they seek to deny, that their full capacity for evil is no longer recognised.

That would be dangerous indeed. Political advocates of extreme anti-Israeli positions are usually careful to deny the charge of anti-Semitism. In reality, the two are closely interlinked. Holocaust denial forms an integral part of the propaganda tide against Israel among its would-be destroyers. Anyone who, like Irving, contributes to the bogus intellectualisation of that affront has a great deal more to answer for than the skinhead in the street.

Since Irving was convicted, his nemesis - the American academic Deborah Lipstadt, whom he sued unsuccessfully after she described him as a Holocaust denier - has written: "During my trial, Irving kept trying to introduce evidence of a world Jewish cabal or global conspiracy against him. He described me as 'the gold-tipped spearhead of the enemies of truth', his euphemism for the Jews. He laughed at survivors, declaring them liars or psychopaths."

Lipstadt wrote that she took no satisfaction from Irving's imprisonment, believing that "the best way to counter Holocaust denial is to teach [its] history". The two approaches are not, however, incompatible. Each generation needs to know about the Holocaust, not only as the ultimate parable of man's inhumanity to man, but also as a deterrent to superficial assumptions about the rights and wrongs of contemporary events.

It is impossible to understand the case for the state of Israel without an awareness of the persecution that the Jewish people have suffered. As James Cameron wrote: "The introduction of the Jewish state into the Arab heartland exalted many hearts and broke many more... it produced the most intractable conflict of our times." For any balanced view, it is necessary to be aware of both sides of the history.

The images that we see so regularly of prosperous Israel and impoverished Palestine conceal as much as they reveal. There is enough in the histories of each to make the stones weep. Any humane rational assessment must surely recognise the right of both to exist, because the expulsion of one by the other is unthinkable. And while we cannot legislate for that outcome, we can at least stand firm against purveyors of hatred and ignorance within our own society, whose aim is not only to deny history but to finish the job.

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