Monday, December 11, 2006

RSVP'ing to The Iranian Holocaust Conference: To Attend, or Send Regrets

The New York Times today reports on a conference being hosted by the Iranian Foreign Ministry titled "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision." The conference is the brainchild of the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose own views on the Holocaust have been widely reported. Speakers at the conference include such notorious deniers of the Holocaust as David Duke and Robert Faurisson, although the Times report suggests that the conference organizers provided enough contrary information to offer at least a window-dressing version of diversity of viewpoint (if one can even speak of diversity of viewpoint concerning the historical existence of the Holocaust). Let me make a couple of observations about this conference; it may be giving undue attention to what is undoubtedly a parliament of knaves, but so be it.

The first is to note that part of the ammunition for such a conference stems from European and Canadian laws restricting or criminalizing the denial of the Holocaust altogether. Thus, some of the conference participants from Western nations effectively described the very existence of such a conference as liberating, noting that, for instance, "We are forbidden to have such a conference in Germany." Of course, these speakers could have pointed to these laws for purely opportunistic reasons. Nevertheless, as a matter of optics, it might be said that this is a conference underwritten not only by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, but also by the existence of laws in otherwise openly speech-loving and epistemically agnostic societies that criminalize the very fact of Holocaust denial. among other forms of dangerous speech. Of course, notwithstanding the efforts of the conference organizers to equate "Western taboos [concerning the Holocaust] and the restriction imposed on them in Europe," any pressures against Holocaust denial in the United States come solely from social forces, and not from any legal restrictions. By avoiding any legal penalty for stating such wrongheaded ideas, American law both permits such ideas to circulate and strips from their adherents the dignity of martyrdom. They are protected, but they are also at the mercy of the marketplace and likely (one hopes) to be generally ignored as a lunatic fringe. If David Duke were a German, he would be an insurgent and a champion of free speech; here, he is reduced to his natural state -- laughingstock. I'm glad he has to travel to Teheran to get any attention.

One might ask a separate question, though: What would be the proper response to such a conference for someone who writes and speaks in the area of Holocaust studies -- who, in other words, quite rightly understands the Holocaust as a historical event? Is it better to ignore such a conference altogether, or would it be more beneficial to take advantage of the conference's pretense of fair-mindedness and show up to refute the denialists? I can't definitively answer such a question, and there is much to be said, of course, for ignoring the conference altogether, so as to avoid giving the appearance of controversy to what ought to be uncontroverted. But so, too, there would be something to be said for appearing: for showing up long enough to squarely address and definitively refute the claims made by denialists -- not for the sake of the conference audience, but for the sake of the world at large, and also out of a sense of defiance, a will to demonstrate that the truth just is, and demands to be heard anywhere and everywhere. Such issues of course also arise when considering debates on intelligent design, race, and a variety of other issues. But they are certainly raised in a particularly striking fashion in this case.