Denying Genocide Deniers
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, November 3, 2006
Bernard-Henri Lévy—the Antonio Banderas of philosophers—has a weekly column in Le Point, the French newsmagazine. In the last few weeks, he’s defended Pope Benedict for his comments that offended “two billion Muslims” — not because the comments citing a crusadingly bigoted pope were not offensive, but because their context was not. He did not defend Günter Grass for Grass’s revelation that he had been a member of the Waffen SS, but rather thought that his confession and the tame way it was received was symbolic of “something rotten in the kingdom of language and German memory.” He’s essentially said that if September 11 hadn’t happened, it would have had to happen somewhere (“ il devait… d’une manière ou d'une autre trouver son lieu.”) And he’s just written a column defending laws that he called an “Elegy to political correctness.” So he’s unpredictable in a predictable way: wherever the wind blows his unruly hair, his mind beneath goes in the opposite direction.
It’s the elegy to political correctness that begs for a little focus here, given its own context: France ’s lower house of parliament has just passed a bill that would prohibit the denial of the Armenian genocide by Turkey at the beginning of the last century. Lévy, who’s fresh from his “American Vertigo” tour of the United States, speaks derisively (thankfully) about those silly campus speech codes, about attempts at censoring Snow White out of respect for dwarfs (that is, little people) or feminist rewrites of the Bible from God the Father (“Dieu le père”) to “God the father-mother” (“Dieu le père-mère”). He even gives his blessing to “free speech without limits.” But that’s just a set up. His column is a defense not only of France ’s prospective law (which has no chance of making it through the French Senate), but of any law that would prohibit the denial of genocides, the Holocaust or “racism.” His statement is one big brash apology for prohibitions. It sounds positively Marxist in its sweep—prohibiters of the world, unite!—which is strange for someone who was a neocon before neocons were hip: BHL, as he’s known in his world, pretty much single-handedly demolished Marxism’s hold on France’s old left in the 1970s. But here he is advocating some of these prohibitions-for-your-own-good that seem inspired by exactly the sort of idea-policing fascism BHL is conducting his own jihad against.
Granted, the way he phrases his prohibition is seductive. He does know how to turn a phrase, and I doubt my translation does him justice. So he recognizes the stupidity of regulating speech, but then he asks, in that cool, disheveled way of his, whether it’s so crazy, “this idea that it’s in language that calamity’s archives sludge it out?” (“est-ce qu’elle est si folle que cela… l’idée que c’est dans la langue que se sédimente l’archive du malheur?”) Just for that I’m willing to give him my attention. He goes on: “Hasn’t it changed matters, in the American South for example, to associate racist language to an offense? In other words isn’t a dose of political correctness welcome on two or three fronts—racism, anti-Semitism, the recognition of genocide—where the social bond connects and plays out?” Irresistible words, to be sure. And let’s not miss out the allusion, never spelled out, to affirmative action: When a massive wrong has been committed against a great number of people, isn’t just, isn’t it necessary, if only for a while, to restore some justice even by the force of law, when hearts and minds aren’t there yet? That’s where he’s going, and he has a pretty persuasive arsenal at his disposal.
He slams you with the real substance of his argument, the smoking gun, by piggy backing on someone else’s. He cites Claude Lanzmann’s recent argument in another French publication that to allow the denial of the Holocaust in any manner is to repeat the crime of the Nazis by other means. Claude Lanzmann, remember, is the Ken Burns of the Holocaust; his nine-and-a-half hour documentary of the Shoah stands as the greatest work on the subject in that genre. In his recent essay, Lanzmann argued that the act of negation was part of the crime itself, that in the very act of killing Jews was not only the obvious act of denying the existence of Jews, but the denying that the act of killing them ever took place. In other words the Nazis were the very first Holocaust deniers. No one will dispute that, or rather, no one should dispute that. But BHL goes further. He claims that the principle of denying the Armenian genocide, or any genocide for that matter, is identical to the Nazis’ principle of identifying the Holocaust. And if the principles are identical, then the aim is identical, then the crime is identical.
There are so many dots to connect here that maybe I shouldn’t compare BHL to Antonio Banderas but to Oliver Stone. There is such a thing as using the techniques of conspiracy theories in intellectually respectable arguments, and I think that’s what BHL is doing here. To put it more politely, he’s making spaghetti out of a syllogism. To be clear: I’m not denying Lanzmann’s argument at all. I agree with it. I’m not denying that there is at least the form of a malicious intent, maybe even a criminal intent, in denying the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide or, for that matter, denying, as some unreconstructed Southerners do to this day, that slavery was a crime against humanity. But there’s a problem in BHL’s leap from seeing the crime of denial in Nazi action, in the genocide itself, and imputing that crime on, say, a historian like Harry Elmer Barnes (who was an otherwise wonderful cultural historian with stellar credentials at Columbia University), or more recently David Irving, the historian who’s actually serving a three year prison sentence in Austria for his works and pronouncements denying the Holocaust.
The leap is simply senseless: it’s divorced entirely from history and reality. A Holocaust denier today has no more effect than the publicity he garners, and the minor, self-incriminating following he might get in sodden little conference rooms and on the kind of Internet circuitry that has as much credibility as the North American Man-Boy Love Association or the news releases out of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. It is giving the deniers way too much credit to justify their existence by means of laws prohibiting their existence. In a paradoxical twist that should insult the likes of BHL and anyone hoping to keep Holocaust deniers swimming in their scum ponds rather than finding audiences, attempting deny their existence by erasing their means to legally speak and publish their mind ends up legitimizing, encouraging and probably multiplying them more than they could have ever achieved on their own had they been given all the freedom to say and write what they please. The proof? Many of us know of the existence of David Irving only because of his trial and imprisonment. Who among us knows of the existence of Holocaust deniers who ply their miserable little trade in the darkness of five-a-week Internet hits?
BHL’s leap is senseless for another reason: 2006, or 1998, or 1965, is not 1944. The world, let alone Europe (where all these laws abound) is not at war, it isn’t in the grip of extermination mania, nor will contrarian claims about the Holocaust lead, by any stretch of the imagination, to anything like a Holocaust; it seems silly to make a statement like that, but also necessary, because what are those laws against Holocaust-denial for, if not to achieve a “responsible” end and prevent some hurt? Hurt feelings alone aren’t it. The prevention of actual harm all the way up to and including repetition of the original crime is the ultimate aim. But to think of the laws in those terms undermines the laws’ credibility, it exposes their ludicrousness. A hardcover book is not Treblinka. A historian denying the Holocaust is not one of Hitler’s willing executioners. Hitler is dead. Neofascists are considered what they ought to be: depressing, minor terrorists who deserve the paddle more than the gallows.
And finally, BHL’s leap is senseless for the also-obvious slippery slope that it seems to welcome, skates at the ready. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in The Guardian last month, with just enough sarcasm,
... let this be only a beginning in a brave new chapter of European history. Let the British parliament now make it a crime to deny that it was Russians who murdered Polish officers at Katyn in 1940. Let the Turkish parliament make it a crime to deny that France used torture against insurgents in Algeria. Let the German parliament pass a bill making it a crime to deny the existence of the Soviet gulag. Let the Irish parliament criminalise denial of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Let the Spanish parliament mandate a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment for anyone who claims that the Serbs did not attempt genocide against Albanians in Kosovo. And the European parliament should immediately pass into European law a bill making it obligatory to describe as genocide the American colonists' treatment of Native Americans. The only pity is that we, in the European Union, can't impose the death sentence for these heinous thought crimes. But perhaps, with time, we may change that too.
I’m willing not to deny entirely the validity of BHL’s approach. The Arab world is ripe for laws that forbid the denial of the existence of Israel, to say nothing of the denial of the Holocaust. Except that the moment Arab nations, my own native Lebanon among them, could get to the point where such laws could pass, the laws would be unnecessary. The fact that the climate exists making such laws possible becomes the proof that the laws are unnecessary. In that case, I can hear the counter-argument, why ever have had such laws as affirmative action? Because we are not dealing with thought in those cases. We’re dealing with actual jobs and schools and all sorts of other opportunities that had to forcibly be pried open even as minds stayed closed (and as minds remain closed to this day, in many cases). And we’re dealing with a temporary pry. Affirmative action will die of its own, if it isn’t dying already. The irony of prohibitive laws about genocides is that they are only now emerging, in the maturity, the alleged maturity, of liberal democracy. Which raises the very real possibility that, to paraphrase BHL against him, there is “something rotten in the kingdom of language and European memory.” That something, it seems to me, has nothing to do with the ideal of protecting minorities from offense, or protecting the future from a repeat of past cataclysms. It has to do with an unwillingness to face pluralism without bounds, the despicable effluents of pluralism included. It isn’t responsibility toward the social welfare. It is cowardice on behalf of the social welfare. It is a surrender to the fear of offense by negating the possibility of offense.
Speaking of denial.