Monday, September 24, 2007

Free Speech at Columbia

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, spoke at Columbia University with thousands of protesters in attendance. Spurred by comments by my blogosphere friend Chani, I got into a decided difference of opinion with Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt. Rather than clog Lipstadt's blog with an argument from a nonscholar, let me respond to her response here.

In brief, Lipstadt had berated a student who supported the presence of Ahmadinejad, arguing that it was a good way for students to become informed. From what I have gathered from her blog, Ahmadinejad's cardinal sin in Lipstadt's book is hosting and encouraging a Holocaust denial conference.

I responded:
You're on the wrong side of freedom in this one, sorry. Barring someone from speaking at a university is precisely what the Nazis would have done -- and did.

Ahmadinejad is not as simply reduced to five points as you did. He represents a form of anti-Semitism that is quite different from European hatred of Jews, that is in part related to some versions of Christianity -- about which all of us in the Western world are familiar.

Asian anti-Semitism is a phenomenon all its own. You find it in the Arab world for obvious reasons, but you also find it as far away as Japan and China. Iran is situated in the middle of Asia and Ahmadinejad's mixed policies reflect a straddling that requires some mental gymnastics to understand, let alone perform.

You can read U.S. newspapers and still be left empty. Students are well served by exposure to this peculiar form of odious speech. To beware of it, to understand the subtleties of the adversaries of our way of life.

What is the difference between your denying him a platform at Columbia and his denying you one at his Holocaust denial conference?
Lipstadt graciously replied:
I never said my list was complete. Believe me I know it is not but I wanted to keep it simple for this student.

Your comparison to my wanting to "deny" him a platform to the Nazis is staggeringly off base.

First of all the Nazis [and the many many professors who supported them] did not just deny Jews platforms at universities; they fired all of them [prior to killing as many as they could].

Unlike Ahmadinejad, these Jewish academic had not attacked anyone [verbally or otherwise]. They had not called for Germany or any other state to be wiped off the face of the map. They had not denied history. They had not jailed academics who they believed challenged the regime. They had not arrested women for smoking in public. And so forth and so forth.

Denying a platform to Ahmadinejad as a head of state is completely different than denying him a platform because of his faith or ethnic identity [which is what the Nazis did to the Jewish professors].

Finally there is no difference between him denying me a place at his Holocaust denial conference, except that he would not invite me to his conference and I would not go.

What you seem not to grasp is that Holocaust denial is not a "point of view" or a "lonely opinion." It is based on lies and distortions. Why would I go to a conference which was based on falsehoods? It would be like going to a conference which argued that men were inherently to women or whites to blacks or….

If you have any questions about that familiarize yourself with David Irving v. Penguin UK and Deborah Lipstadt at or take a look at my book History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving.
Setting aside issues of the he said/she said variety -- I will grant Lipstadt that one can never outline one's thinking on complex issues fully in a blog -- I find the substance of her reply wanting and her rebuttal imprecise.

Denying the Holocaust is, first of all, silly. Of course the Holocaust occurred. One might as well question, as Macauley once jokingly did, whether Napoleon existed. However, denying the Holocaust, even with malice forethought rather than merely stupidity, is not identical to advocating it (although many deniers do), or being morally or psychologically capable of replicating it (although some deniers suggest they are).

Here's where the free speech problem begins.

No one is asserting that Ahmadinejad should be granted the right to fire Jewish professors at Columbia, much less kill them all after squeezing the last bit of useful physical labor out of them under inhumane conditions.

Thus, although we all know what the Nazis did to Jewish professors, barring someone from speaking at Columbia is not appropriately compared to the entire Holocaust. It's only comparable to the censorship of academia (and other sectors of society) imposed by the Nazis.

The Nazis denied Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Romano Guardini free speech in their preaching and teaching, precisely because neither one accommodate his ideas to the Nazi "new order." What happened to either Bonhoeffer (who was killed) or Guardini (who was removed from his chair) was immeasurably less than what happened to their Jewish peers in death camps. Similarly, Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia is much less than what Nazis did at death camps, too.

Speech is either free for all, even -- or perhaps especially -- for those with whom we disagree, or it's not free at all. A university in which the spectrum ideas to which a student is exposed is limited to what professors think is within a pre-determined correct range ceases to be a place of learning and becomes merely an institution of indoctrination.

I understand the vehemence of feeling against Ahmadinejad. I applaud the protesters (who are exercising their right to free speech). I understand Lipstadt's assertion that Holocaust denial is not merely a "lonely opinion"; to me it is a fool's errand often carried out by people with malicious intent of the worst order.

Yet bad ideas, lies and distortions are never satisfactorily answered by muzzling them. Like pus in an infection, they will ooze out or spread. They are only properly replied to with good ideas, truths and accuracy in the open marketplace of ideas in which speech is free.

This is what scholars such as Lipstadt have done in their admirable public rebuttals of deniers such as David Irving. It puzzles me to see such a noble figure take up the wrong side of free speech as the weapon of choice.
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