It is easy to dislike David Irving and to wish him good riddance as the British writer/historian begins a three-year prison term in Austria for Holocaust denial.
The challenge in these ultra-sensitive times is to let him and others like him speak freely even as we cover our ears.
The latter option is the American way, a bit of grace we take for granted most days. In Austria, where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust, citizens also do not enjoy a First Amendment. Speak skeptically of certain histories there — or in other countries where speech and thought are controlled — and you may wind up in a prison cell.
Irving's sentence comes in the midst of another free speech spectacle — the publication in Denmark and other European countries of several cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad deemed blasphemous by some Muslims.
Or more accurately, cartoons that were marketed as blasphemous by a few imams who bolstered their case by throwing in some other drawings, allegedly of Muhammad, that had nothing to do with the Danish newspaper that allegedly launched the Muslim world into warp-spasm.
Because I've urged American editors to publish the cartoons — not to inflame or provoke, but to inform — I've received several challenges to defend Irving or confess to a double standard. If freedom of expression means that some inevitably will choose to be insulted, then we must allow equal-opportunity offenders to poison the public well.
What's good for Muslims must also be good for Jews, or something like that.
I couldn't agree more and don't think David Irving belongs in jail for telling lies or inflaming passions. I think he deserves to be ignored. As a matter of record, however, the Austrian embassy has not been ringing me up for advice, nor have any Austrian citizens tried to recruit me to help revise their country's laws.
Until they do, we might tend to our own fragile hold on free speech, especially these days as proposed "hate speech" laws and demands for politically correct expression threaten the higher calling of truth.
To be perfectly clear, Irving is a thoroughly unpleasant chap. I don't like one side of him, as they say in my neck of the woods. Among some of his more infamous statements are that Hitler was "the best friend" of the Jews and that "More people died in Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in gas chambers in Auschwitz." He also proposed forming a group called Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust, and Other Liars, or ASSHOLs.
It is possible that Austria — which produced Hitler and later elected a former Nazi officer, Kurt Waldheim, president — suffers a surfeit of guilt, hence the criminalization of Holocaust denial. But Austria's overcompensation to assuage guilt or to demonstrate virtue may as likely backfire. Repressing freedom of expression nearly always spawns more and darker degrees of what is denied.
The closest corollary in this country is our tolerance of skinheads or the Ku Klux Klan. We don't like them, don't want them in our towns, don't want them marching in our parades or protesting in our streets. But we let them, not because we want to, but because we must. Not only do our laws demand it, but common sense suggests that it's better to let evil display itself in broad daylight than to let it fester in the shadows.
A simple example: Adjacent to the entrance of the 2004 Democratic National Convention hall in Boston was a caged area designated for protesters. As I was making my way to the press entrance, I stopped to watch a group ranting into a microphone. Consummately unattractive, they wore T-shirts and carried posters reading: "G-d hates fags."
I stood next to a police officer as a few others gathered to watch. The sensation was like watching a reptile exhibit at the zoo. No one among those gathered booed or reacted in any way. By unspoken assent, the general attitude was palpably clear: What a bunch of pathetic losers.
And then we walked away, leaving those so filled with hate to stew in their own venom. We ignored them, in other words. But first we allowed them to reveal themselves as the bad actors they are. Likewise, Austria might have ignored David Irving, who has been revealed as a liar and a hatemonger.
Prison for him seems superfluous. More important, given that his lies were nothing more than opinion, the question now becomes: Who, for his unacceptable opinions, will be next for the penitentiary?