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.