By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What free speech?

The irony of European editors’ publishing the Muhammad cartoons in the name of free speech is that, in much of Europe, there is no free speech. Today we learn that British historian David Irving has been sentenced by an Austrian court to 10 years in prison for his blatherings denying that the Holocaust ever took place. Irving is, of course, demented, evil or both. But in the United States, at least, he would have a right to speak his mind. And we would have a right to ignore him.

Perhaps we can now look forward to serialized versions of Irving’s magnum opus, “Hitler’s War,” being run in the same French and German newspapers whose editors eagerly trumpeted their solidarity with the Danes by running offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Or perhaps not. It’s one thing to demonstrate your courage by insulting your Muslim readers. It’s quite another to risk imprisonment. I mean, you could end up with David Irving as your cellmate. That wouldn’t do at all.

As it turns out, you can download a free copy of “Hitler’s War” from this British Web site. Then again, the Brits’ attitude toward freedom of expression has always been closer to that of the United States than to their continental cousins’. Putting it best is Deborah Lipstadt, a U.S. historian whom Irving unsuccessfully sued for libel in Britain several years ago after she called him a Holocaust denier. “I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via censorship…. The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth,” she told BBC News.

There are, admittedly, two ideas here. One is that speech glorifying the Nazis or minimizing the Holocaust is grotesquely more offensive than cartoons of Muhammad that, at least to Western eyes, seem fairly innocuous. The other is that censorship is censorship. But though it’s tempting to call these competing ideas, they’re really not. The more offensive the speech, the more protection it needs. And, obviously, ideas don’t get any more offensive than Irving’s.

Roger Cohen, writing (sub. req.) in the International Herald Tribune, neatly defines the hypocrisy:

It is precisely such supposed double standards that irk [Arab League secretary general Amr] Moussa. Irving, a historian with a screw loose who never hurt a fly, questioned the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz — the very gas chambers that drove surviving Jews from Europe to the Middle East — and was sentenced to prison by an Austrian court.

Yet Flemming Rose, the culture editor of a Danish newspaper, chooses to impugn the foundations of a global faith, Islam, through the publication of cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad — an act seen as sacrilegious by Muslims — and Europe moves to defend him in the name of freedom of speech as dozens are killed from Pakistan to Libya.

The Independent today has a terrific backgrounder on Irving. Here’s a particularly shocking statement of his, uttered in 1988: “I don’t think there was any overall Reich policy to kill the Jews. If there was … there would not be so many millions of survivors. Believe me, I am glad for every survivor.”

Nat Hentoff once said that the urge to censor is stronger than the human sex drive. Hentoff, by the way, favors publishing the Muhammad cartoons. (And yes, I realize that by linking to Hentoff’s column, I am showing you one of those images. I don’t favor publishing the cartoons, but neither do I favor making a fetish of it.)

But you can be sure that Hentoff opposes sending David Irving to prison, too. So should we all.

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  1. Neil

    >The more offensive the speech, the more protection it needs.Only to an extent of course. Free speech isn’t absolute anywhere. “Fighting words” are offensive but not deserving of protection so are illegal in the US. So it becomes a question of where a govt chooses to draw the line. The Europeans made Holocaust denial such an exception to free speech after WWII for fear of a resurgence of the Nazi party. Unfortunately it is an antiquated law now, and since it involves the hated Jews, provides a perfect example of a double standard to those poor put-upon offended Muslims. The law should be rescinded so that the charge of hypocrisy can be put away. Then the Holocaust deniers and the ridiculers of the Prophet can have their sorry fun in equal measure.Charming. Such is the beauty of the marketplace of ideas in a pluralistic society.And though it’s foolish that the Austrian courts sentenced old nutty Irving to actual prison, I was disappointed in the guy for waffling at his appeal–well I’ve learned a lot since then er, I didn’t really mean it! Oh come on tough guy, at least have the courage of your convictions. Revealed not only as a hatemonger but a craven git too.I’m with Dan that the cartoons need not be published. It’s the easiest thing in the world to create an offensive image. I fancy myself a bit of an artiste, and just this morning drew a picture of the Pope dressed in a…but what is to be gained by distributing it–news value? No. It’s like proper media republishing a rumor under the guise of covering the story of how a rumor got started.It’s curious those European editors who expressed solidarity with the Danish paper chose those particular cartoons to publish. If you want to publish offensive material for the purpose of examining self-censorship, why choose this one topic? Why not publish racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, Holocaust denying content too? As Dan says, publish Irving’s “Hitler’s War”! Ah but they won’t do that, will they. Because they will not publish content that they themselves find repugnant. And that is the true nature of self-censorship.

  2. Neil

    Hentoff’s article is worth reading by the way (tx DK). He explains how the Imams went shopping for outrage. And his conclusion is chilling:The Organization of Islamic Conference’s goal is to inhibit criticism of Islamic jihadism by threats of violence. It’s beginning to work. On the same day, Kofi Annan agreed with an OIC proposal mandating that a revised U.N. Human Rights Council “prevent instances of intolerance discrimination, incitement of hatred and violence . . . against religions, prophets, and beliefs.” The language is intentionally very broad.This would enforce censorship by U.N. members and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations there) against purported defamation of Muslims in print and other forms of speech.Even so, to show you do not respond to threats is not a sufficient reason for publishing something you otherwise wouldn’t publish anyway. These are insufficient reasons I think to publish:–to test the concept of self-censorship–to show solidarity with the Danish paper–to show that we do not respond to threatsThe latter reason is like a response to the schoolyard “double-dog dare”: I dare you to throw a rock through the principal’s window! So you do, even though you don’t want to, to show that you honor the code of the “dare”.If you throw a rock through the principal’s window, I’ll kick your ass! So you do, even though you don’t want to, to show you don’t respond to threats.This is not to say I have any sympathy for those who practice the political art of the taking of offense. But if you’re going to give offense anyway, might as well wait till you’ve got something more to offer than a gratuitous slap.

  3. Anonymous

    I have no doubt that Nazis persecuted Jews systematically, and as a matter of policy, and killed some large number.Whether the number was as high as 6 million, and whether all we have been taught about the Shoah is true, seems open to inquiry.I believe Irving has recanted his onetime view that there were no gas chambers used. He rejects the label, “Holocaust denier” or “minimizer” although he does own up to being a Holocaust “reductionist.”He, and others who might question claims made concerning the Holocaust, should be entitled to say and to publish whatever they please.It is disquieting that one can say the Earth is flat, the moon landings were faked, 9-11 was done by boxcutter-wielding Arabs with no government complicity, and all manner of things, without being prosecuted.It is only questioning the Holocaust, which (whether it was a million, or four million, or six, was a huge atrocity) took place in the context of World War II, in which I believe the overall death toll was, gee I barely remember . . . 50 million? A million here, a million there . . . but while the Jewish deaths count not less than the non-Jewish ones, they sure had lots and lots and lots of company.Freedom of speech is more important than even a fairly well-accepted version of historical “truth.” Irving may be demented, or a fool, or indeed evil . . . but he absolutely should NOT be in jail for taking a disfavored position. It’s a terrible, terrible precedent.And, no, the Zionists are not entitled to decree what views will land a person in jail.

  4. Jay Rosen

    “I don’t favor publishing the cartoons, but neither do I favor making a fetish of it.”That’s my stance too, Dan. But you put words to it. Cheers.

  5. neil

    In this week’s New Yorker, Art Spiegelman of “Maus” fame (a graphic novel about his father’s survival of the Holocaust) has published “Three submissions for Iran’s Anti-Semitic Cartoon Contest”, complete with the drinking of Palestinian blood, hook noses, and a bag of money. One caption is, “So let that be a lesson to you Abie, it is forbidden to depict the PROFIT!”He thus easily outflanks the Iranians, and demonstrates a level of self-awareness seemingly beyond the grasp of many Muslims, to whom the concept of self-deprecation seems completely alien. Humor is a tool of the oppressed, not of the bully. It seeks to subvert authority, not enforce it. It’s the voice of the wisenheimer piping up from the crowd, not the mullah hectoring from above. They can’t mandate vengeance in the form of humor onto the Jews, it doesn’t work that way.Let’s see if anybody dies from rioting by offended Jews and their infidel lackeys outside Iranian embassies, as a result of the Iranian Anti-Semitic cartoon contest.

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