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.


Anonymous said...

I distrust Ahmadinejad way less than Bush. If fact, I distrust Bush absolutely and totally (and every other emphasis). Why should I believe Bush when he's such a liar? I think if people _listen_ to Ahmadinejad we may find that he's not too crazy.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Ms Lowde generous allowing you to retain your power of free speech by not 'making' you take your previous postings down!

Thank FJL for that (the doyenne and saint of free speech!)

thailandchani said...

With all the propaganda floating around, I think it's important to hear all points of view without filtering through someone else's moderation.

I also don't trust George Bush. About anything. If he said the sun was shining, I'd verify it.




Anonymous said...

I wrote quickly this morning without reflecting on the lack of free speech given to Ahmadinejad. With all the amplified din surrounding whatever he says, whenever he speaks, it is difficult to hear him. I don't agree with everything he says, of course not.

In regard to the uproar at Columbia, I am glad Jews have a place of their own and I hope they have it forever. But I agree with Ahmadinejad that the Holocaust is no excuse for the continued displacement of the Palestinians. Can he not say this? Can not the rest of us, few we might be of this line of thought?

Israelis' are applauded for building their country out of a third-world, postwar poverty, sandy, desert, nothingness. [All of pre- and immediate postwar eastern Europe and Western Asia (& much of the rest of the world) were just emerging from antiquated agricultural customs and devastations. Palestine was not a "nothing", it was a home to its own.] However, the Israelis' did not make the success Israel is by themselves. International support in its nation's creation and billions of dollars given to them makes it incumbent on them to remember the *good* that has rested on them since the Holocaust and to show similar goodness to the Palestinians. That's all.

[One more addition if the blog-owner permits, is an editorial by James Carroll: It may need cut'&pasting.]

Anonymous said...

Sorry, it does not copy.

The op-ed is "N.Y. site transcends boundaries" James Carroll, 9/24 Boston Globe. If interested in reading it.

Cecilieaux Bois de Murier said...

Folks, I'm not sure I even want to get into the Middle East politics of what Ahmadinejad says. I learned many years ago, that one gets trapped going round robin. The only stake I have in this debate is the matter of free speech, which Ahmadinejad was not denied.

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Anonymous said...

And I've heard you get your kids taken off you in the US if you refuse to have them vaccinated.

Anonymous said...

You sure like to start these round robin debates don't you Mr Aux?

Is is that you like to think of yourself as some sort of Devil's Advocate, marching in where angels fear to tread?

I think it's possible for everyone to speak their mind - but still do so politely. There's no more need to get into arguments than there is to get into wars. The common ground must always be found. That is the basis you start from.

Anonymous said...

For a host to invite the President of Iran, under the guise of giving him an opportunity to communicate, then to immediately and confrontationally castigate him is a shame to the U.S.
Our laws protect free thought and speech, but not brutality.
Free thinker, I've never heard of children removed from parents who've refused vaccinations for them.

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Cecilieaux Bois de Murier said...

For the Europeans among us, in the USA there are laws against many things.

Not looking after the health of your children, unless you can persuade a judge it is the expression of your peculiar system of belief (Christian Scientists, the Amish, etc.) is not constitutionally protected speech. Most of the time it's not speech, just laziness.

The Constitution -- which is not at issue in the Ahmadinejad -- only guarantees that the government may not prevent you from saying something. If what you say demonstrably causes harm, it's up to those harmed to deal with the matter.

Hate speech is constitutionally protected. That's why the ACLU fought -- and won -- against efforts to prevent neo-Nazis from marching in Skokie, Ill., a number of years back.

Hate crime is not protected. It's one thing to say you hate Xs; it's quite another to start killing Xs.

The government may not stop you from saying you hate Xs; you may not kill them. If what you say demonstrably incites others to do so, you may be held liable, not for speaking, but for causing violence to happen.

Got it?

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