Austria has just sentenced an eccentric, obsessed historian to jail for three years because he expressed his opinion that Auschwitz didn’t have gas chambers. David Irving violated Austria’s law which provides for up to 10 years imprisonment for Holocaust deniers. It is ironic that many of the people cheering this suppression of free speech in Austria are the same people decrying Muslim attempts to do the same in Denmark.
Even on this side of the Atlantic, people are paying a heavy price for expressing their views. Harvard University’s president, Lawrence Summers, was just forced to resign, essentially for suggesting that it might be worth studying whether innate differences would explain why fewer women than men succeed in math and science. Professor Alan Dershowitz rightly called the affair an academic coup d’etat.
In the Wall Street Journal, writer Dawn Eden describes how the New York Post fired her after several warnings concerning her beliefs as a Christian conservative. The paper said Miss Eden possessed “rabid anti-abortion views.”
Of course, I am not suggesting that the Holocaust, Islamic fundamentalism, Harvard University and the New York Post are all equivalent. I am suggesting that the thoughtful among us ought vigorously to oppose all attempts at policing thoughts and beliefs. Freedom of belief and speech is a good idea even if we find some beliefs and speech disgusting.
Peril lurks in the wings when we put people in jail for expressing opinions – even bizarre ones. We Jews especially ought to fight this trend of suppressing what some find offensive. There are too many great ideas enshrined in Judaism, such as marriage meaning one man married to one woman, which others are finding ever more offensive.
One British Jewish leader, Lord Janner, said that he was “pleased” at Irving’s conviction. “It sends a clear message to the world that we must not tolerate the denial of the mass murders of the Holocaust.”
I do hope that Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad heard this “clear message to the world.” Perhaps now he will apologize for saying that leaders in the West “invented a myth that Jews were massacred.”
Rabbi Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center announced that the Irving sentence “serves a direct challenge to the Iranian regime’s embrace of Holocaust denial.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad mending his ways on account of this “direct challenge.”
I am not being cynical. It is just that I see no practical good coming from prosecuting Irving and the other fools of the world. I do, however, see much potential harm. Look, if suppressing the ideas of these idiots made the world a safer place for Jews, I’d be all for it. However there is no evidence that doing so has this effect. On the contrary, prosecuting people who believe and say offensive things is dangerous to us all. It places limitless power in the hands of government. After all, once government claims to know what I believe and claims the right to punish me for those beliefs, I am effectively enslaved. Irving may be an ugly poster child for freedom, but his case certainly should be a warning to us all.
Some might say that 60 years is too soon after the murder of 6 million Jews for a dispassionate, intellectual analysis. I can accept that view particularly since ancient Jewish wisdom discourages us from attempting to console the mourner “while his dead still lies before him.” Sixty years is just not that long for people who remember God giving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai as if it happened last week. However, the issue is not consolation, but Jewish communal policy. And because of its serious long-term implication, policy should be set only by means of unemotional analysis. The issue is whether we should suppress beliefs that we find obnoxious and prosecute people who express those beliefs.
American society has come to persecute people who nourish beliefs it considers odious, but it cannot prosecute them. The creators of our Constitution regarded the Bible as God’s instruction manual for humanity. From that book, they knew that only God knows the heart of man. They knew that for government to prosecute a citizen on account of what it claims to know lies in his heart is the highway to tyranny.
Jews and Christians, who similarly regard the Bible as God’s instruction manual for humanity, should think twice before applauding the punishment of people for their beliefs. That Bible, which forms the bedrock of our belief, contains ideas toward which the secular wing of our society is becoming increasingly hostile. Feeling offended should not be the basis for suppression and criminal prosecution.
Being offended is very subjective. When someone claims to be offended, we don’t really know whether he suffered a grievous insult or whether he is just too thin-skinned. Punishing people for being offensive – and that is why Irving is being jailed – opens frightening floodgates. There is really no fair reason why Jews should be the only people guaranteed freedom from offense.
How about environmentalists who feel offended by my views on recycling as a meaningless sacrament of secularism? How about feminists who feel offended by a university president’s open mindedness? How about American Muslims who feel offended by public celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day in Los Angeles? How about employers who feel offended by an employee’s Christian faith? Or, for that matter, how about Christians who feel offended by the idea that abortion is a constitutional right?
Suppression of “offensive” ideas is an unwise direction for us to follow. David Irving’s pronouncements pain the heart, but policy needs to be formed with the head, not the heart. If we applaud the suppression of Irving’s views, consistency demands that we side with the Muslims who wish to suppress cartoons they consider offensive. From there, it is only a short step to suppressing views that homosexuals find offensive. Indeed, in Canada they have already stepped onto that slippery slope with criminal investigations of clergymen for quoting verses from the biblical volume of Leviticus. As Andrew Sullivan recently put it in Time Magazine, “Freedom means learning to deal with being offended.” Freedom of belief and of speech needs to be defended and the political correctness movement with its medieval witch hunts dangerously jeopardizes that freedom.
Generally when people try to suppress a viewpoint, it is because they lack a coherent rebuttal. The educational bureaucracy’s attempt to silence the voice of intelligent design in public schools reveals deep underlying fear. Secular attempts to silence Jewish and Christian opposition to same-sex marriage reveal similar fear of debate. We have little to fear from Holocaust kooks. We generally do not prosecute people who claim the earth is flat. We don’t even allow ourselves to feel offended by them. We ignore them because we prefer their own stupidity to indict them. That approach would work best with all who express stupid and distasteful ideas.
Radio talk-show host Rabbi Daniel Lapin is president of Toward Tradition, a bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation’s survival.