Reason - not law - will defeat hate-think

Legislating what can be discussed is inherently anti-liberal.

May 9, 2007 22:08
4 minute read.
Reason - not law - will defeat hate-think

ku klux klan 298.88. (photo credit: AP)

In April, the European Union outlawed racism, xenophobia and the "denial of genocide," though the legislation, known as a "Framework Decision," did not mention anti-Semitism or the Holocaust by name. The legislation, promoted by Germany, criminalizes "publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes." While at first blush this sounds like a good idea, it actually reinforces a closed-minded attitude promoted by Europe's well-meaning elite. It is a mind-set that is slowly impinging on people's freedom of speech and which - in the long run - may lead to a backlash from the very extremists the legislation aims to silence. The EU legislation is also dangerous because it essentially treats history in the simplified terms of black and white, rather than the shades of grey that any historian would tell you an intelligent discussion of the past requires. Of course, the evidence of the Holocaust is irrefutable. But is silencing Holocaust denial the best way to combat it? I think not. Moreover, not all cases of genocide are as conclusive. What happens if we have a case that is claimed by one historian to be an act of genocide when other serious historians dispute that it meets such criteria? Will the dissenting historian now be silenced by this law for the sake of not offending those who claim to be oppressed? THIS LEGISLATION was understandably supported by Europe's Jewish community. And it was not surprising to see the European Jewish Congress upset that it did not go far enough in specifically banning Holocaust denial and the displaying of Nazi insignia. However, perhaps the EJC should reflect on what this legislation could mean for a future study of Israeli history. Historians, including the anti-Zionist Baruch Kimmerling, have claimed that Israel has been attempting "genocide" against the Palestinian people since the origin of the state. It is conceivable that if this directive is enforced, in the future it could theoretically be used to silence those who would challenge Kimmerling's claims. This legislation is partly a byproduct of Germany's hypersensitivity to its own dark history, making it a country which fears controversial discussions of history. But for my money it is not wise to allow groups representing the persecuted, or the formerly persecuted, control over what is allowed to be discussed in the public domain. FOR EXAMPLE, in April the rock singer Bryan Ferry was pressured by the World Jewish Congress to apologize for saying publicly that he admired Nazi architecture and the work of Hitler's filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. The little Nazi architecture I have seen firsthand never made much of an impression on me, but Riefenstahl's work was revolutionary in terms of her cinematographic techniques and conveys the power of Nazi rallies in a quite awesome way. Expressing my view on this matter hardly makes me a Nazi sympathizer. In fact, it is only by admitting my own admiration for the skill of Riefenstahl that I can begin to understand the power of Nazi propaganda and how the Nazis were able to captivate a whole nation with their twisted ideology. Ferry was essentially making the same point, but nonetheless Jewish pressure groups called for the Marks & Spencers department store to axe him from their advertising campaign until Ferry backtracked with a public apology. This legislation, along with similar laws such as Britain's Religious and Racial Hatred Act, have come partly in response to the EU's awkward integration of Muslim immigrants and the resultant increase in the popularity of right-wing xenophobic parties. HOWEVER, passing restrictive laws seems to be turning a blind eye to the root causes of these tensions. Just as you are not going to convince someone that it is wrong to insult another person's religion by making it illegal to do so, you are not going to convince skeptics that an act of genocide happened by making it illegal to say it did not. The fact is that legislating what we can and cannot discuss is inherently anti-liberal and goes against the very ethos of an open debate that leads to a better understanding of history. It also shows up governments which claim to care so much for our individual freedoms as being hypocritical. Unfortunately this also plays into the hands of extremist parties. The popularity of the far-right BNP in Britain, although still small, is gradually increasing and it is no coincidence that their official Web site describes them as "the voice of freedom." White Britons who have scant understanding of the Jewish people or Islam are prepared to listen to the racism of the BNP because they feel their government is blocking its point of view. To the extent that governments are trying to shut down debate rather than fostering informed discussion they are actually stimulating distrust of authority and playing into the hands of the very nefarious attitudes that need to be openly challenged. The writer, who is British, is a Jerusalem Post intern.

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