Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Normative Significance of Holocaust Denial

Columbia President Bollinger scolded Iranian President Ahmadinejad's denial of (or on Ahmadinejad's account, at least to Western audiences, questioning of the evidence for) the Holocaust on the ground that this denial (or questioning) is factually preposterous: The Holocaust, Bollinger noted, is extraordinarily well-documented historical fact.

Fair enough, but the assertion of factually preposterous views (or even the questioning of extraordinarily well-documented facts) is not ordinarily denoted a moral failing. In the United States, millions of citizens disbelieve the extraordinarily well-documented scientific fact that human beings evolved from other species. Three of the out-and-out evolution deniers are candidates for the 2008 Republican nomination for President and President Bush himself has said that "the jury is out" on evolution. These are preposterous views, to be sure, but not the sort of thing that would get you imprisoned for espousing in Germany or Austria.

Holocaust denial is not a crime in the former Third Reich merely because the Holocaust is an extraordinarily well-documented fact. It is a crime because it so often is a view espoused by neo-Nazis. Likewise in western countries that do not criminally punish Holocaust denial, its offensiveness stems largely from the likelihood that someone who denies the reality of the Holocaust may very well wish to repeat it.

Exactly why a neo-Nazi would want to deny, rather than celebrate, the Holocaust, is not entirely clear, but probably has something to do with the fact that literally promoting genocide could lead to imprisonment in countries with less speech-protective notions of incitement than the United States. That can't be the whole of the story, however, because even in the United States, where "abstract" expressions of sympathy for the Nazi program would be protected by the First Amendment, anti-Semitic groups such as the Aryan Nations deny (or question) the Holocaust. Their evident goal is to demonize Jews for spreading the "myth" of the Holocaust. Thus, here, as in Europe, Holocaust denial is a marker for neo-Nazism (and associated ideologies).

Holocaust denial (or questioning) by strongly anti-Israel figures such as Ahmadinejad is most clearly meant to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel, which was created in part as a refuge for Jewish Holocaust survivors. To be sure, Ahmadinejad and others also say that the Holocaust does not legitimate Israel because victims of a European crime should not have been compensated by the displacement of Palestinians who, for the most part, did not participate in that crime. (Ahmadinejad would describe Palestinians as completely innocent but I say "for the most part" because some Palestinians, including Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini did try to assist Hitler.) In general, the argument that one set of innocents should not be made to suffer for the sins of others has considerable moral force, which leads one to wonder why Ahmadinejad et al feel the need to supplement this prima facie plausible argument with the completely implausible claim that the Holocaust is a hoax. And that in turn leads one back to the usual explanation for Holocaust denial, namely sympathy for the Nazi program.

(Just to be clear, and in the interest of avoiding extended discussion on this tangential point in the Comments, I am NOT saying in the preceding paragraph that the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 means that Israel is today or ever was an illegitimate State. I AM saying that this argument at least has some theoretical force to it, while the "argument" that the Holocaust is not established fact has no force to it whatsoever, and thus leads one to worry about the motives of anyone who makes it.)

Posted by Mike Dorf


Yonatan said...

Just one small comment by way of nomenclature - I think there is a difference between something that people can attest to first hand (and have widely done so) and something that no person can attest to; thus, the Holocaust is a well documented FACT, whereas evolution is a well documented THEORY. BTW - what's preposterous about denial of evolution is, I think, not the denial itself, but rather the alternative theories offered up by those who deny evolution - theories that customarily have NO evidentiary support and that cannot account for the findings on which the theory of evolution is predicated. As one commentator in a NY newspaper wrote following the first GOP debate, if presidential candidates are asked about their attitude towards creationism, we might as well also asked them where they stand on the whole tooth fairy issue.

Kenji said...

Thank you, yonatan. I believe in the theory of evolution, but it irks me when its proponents overstate what it is (although I accept that this is not central to Prof. Dorf's post).

Michael C. Dorf said...

I've got to disagree with both of these comments. There are debates in biology that further research will resolve: e.g., how much of a role "switching genes" play in natural selection. Unless our understanding of the world is completely wrong--including the understanding which we have from first-hand sense data of the sort that Yonatan credits with respect to human history--no further research will discredit the fact that human beings evolved from other species. The evidence is simply too overwhelming. As for the distinction Yonatan draws, it doesn't hold up. We might discover that we're all really just being made to hallucinate the world by evil robots, as in The Matrix. If so, then first-hand reports of all events would be unreliable. It would take the same sort of astounding discovery to overturn evolution. E.g., a few thousand years ago, angels planted fossil dinosaur bones in various spots in the earth, as a means of testing our faith in the Biblical account of creation. Sure, we COULD discover this, but it's no more likely than discovering that we're hooked up to the Matrix.

Howard Wasserman said...

Another reason Neo-Nazis or other anti-Semites might deny the Holocaust is to take away the "Never Again" argument. If the original Shoah is a myth, then so, too, are any stated concerns that it could happen again. And so, too, are calls for steps (such as silencing or condemning anti-Semitism, etc.) to prevent a repeat.

Hillary Burgess said...

In response to your comment about why neo-Nazis don’t revel in the holocaust:

I think the denial of the holocaust runs deeper than just the denial of the legitimacy of the state of Israel. It is a continuation of the victimization that defined the holocaust.

This denial is akin to the ways rapists often treat rape victims. On an individual level, when a criminal victimizes another person and then delights in it, the victim at least has a legitimate sense of victimization without discrepancy. However, when a criminal commits victimizes a person and then denies it, the victim is left justifying and defending their victimization before they can even move into the acceptance of being a victim so as to move beyond it. Before the victim can receive social support, she has fight for the “right” to be a victim. She has to fight for the “right” to be defenseless against a physical attack. This struggle usually instills in the victim more of a sense of “being” a defenseless victim rather than being a person who experienced a bad event. Denying the victimization is the ultimate continuation of the crime.

Similarly, for Jews, the holocaust was the ultimate demoralizing act. As a people, the Jews were unable to defend themselves against rape, torture, and genocide. To deny them the fact of the holocaust is to force them to fight for the “right” to be holocaust victims. To have to spend time proving that the holocaust existed forces Jews to live in the past of victimization, not in the present and future that they can and are creating.

While denying the holocaust is an easy way to justify the illegitimacy of the Israeli state, and a significant argument on the international political front today, the hatred for the jews pre-dated the creation of Israel, as is evident by the holocaust itself. And the denial of the holocaust continues that tradition by continuing the victimization.

Ori H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ori H. said...

If I may, a few random comments on the whole issue as well as on holocaust denial,

1. The notion that the state of Israel is or was justified or legitimized by the holocaust is erroneous and dangerous. The holocaust may have served as a force to urge certain world powers and to shame other world powers, during the late 1940’s, to support and allow the creation of a Jewish state, but the core justification for the state is the right of self-determination. If the right to politically control one’s own destiny etc is contingent on suffering genocide then few countries today have it.

2. Bollinger’s exhibition “introducing” Ahmadinejad proved that even he did not expect any exchange, debate or whatever. He broke the rules of academic discourse from the get go. One is left wondering what was the value of this whole affair, even in the eyes of those that let it happen. Was it just the “goings on” or was it the publicity?

3. I support the notion that the fact/theory distinction is problematic. Holocaust denial comes with the worse kind of anti-Semitism and that is why it so illegitimate - it is the motivations and actions that go with the view, not the view itself. In this agree with Professor Dorf.

4. Putting it all on the Dean of SIPA is problematic. With things of this magnitude the buck stops at the top. Pres Bo could and should have stopped this.

5. The facts are this:

a. A holocaust denier and agent of genocide spoke in Columbia.
b. Many in the audience (both inside the hall and on campus), even after he denied the holocaust, clapped in support of this man at various junctions of the event. Which to me means that, as feared, he (not all his views) was legitimized by the event.
c. We helped legitimized the speaker without endorsing his views, and by legitimizing we helped him opened the door for others to endorse. And they have in the past and they will in the future.
d. Bollinger came out of this affair a naïve and misguided man but also a mench. Being rude and breaking protocol (name calling, not shaking his hand doubting the guest’s intellectual honesty before he even said a word etc) was the only thing a person of principle could have done under the circumstances. At the end he did the right thing, even at the cost of being ingression and unkind host. This is better I suppose than being a naïve misguided dushbag. The Neville Chamberlain analogy is off the table. (I hope such language is not overly frowned upon in this forum. If it is, apologies).

Ori H. said...

It occurred to me after posting my badly edited post (twice!) that people may take section 5 of my comment as directed at one or some of the participants of this forum. I want to be clear that it is not.

No Exit said...

From Juan Cole's analysis of Ahmadinejad's comments about "wiping Israel off the map."

Ahmadinejad said, "Iran is not a threat to any country, and is not in any way a people of intimidation and aggression." He described Iranians as people of peace and civilization. He said that Iran does not even pose a threat to Israel, and wants to deal with the problem there peacefully, through elections:

"Weapons research is in no way part of Iran's program. Even with regard to the Zionist regime, our path to a solution is elections."

Ahmadinejad seems to be explaining what his calls for the Zionist regime to be effaced actually mean. He says he doesn't want violence against Israel, despite its own acts of enmity against Middle Eastern neighbors. I interpret his statement on Saturday to be an endorsement of the one-state solution, in which a government would be elected that all Palestinians and all Israelis would jointly vote for. The result would be a government about half made up of Israeli ministers and half of Palestinian ones. Whatever one wanted to call such an arrangement, it wouldn't exactly be a "Zionist state," which would thus have been dissolved.

The schlock Western pundits, journalists and politicians who keep maintaining that Ahmadinejad threatened "to wipe Israel off the map" when he never said those words will never, ever manage to choke out the words Ahmadinejad spoke on Saturday, much less repeat them as a tag line forever after.

Supreme Jurisprudent Khamenei's pledge of no first strike against any country by Iran with any kind of weapon, and his condemnation of nuclear bombs as un-Islamic and impossible for Iran to possess or use, was completely ignored by the Western press and is never referred to. Indeed, after all that talk of peace and no first strike and no nukes, Khamenei at the very end said that if Iran were attacked, it would defend itself. Karl Vicks of the Washington Post at the time ignored all the rest of the speech and made the headline, 'Khamenei threatens reprisals against US." In other words, on Iran, the US public is being spoonfed agitprop, not news.

Although Iran's protestations of peaceful intentions are greeted cynically in the US and Israel, in fact Iran has not launched a war of aggression in over a century. The US and Israel have launched several during that period of time.

Sobek said...

Off topic, but it appears that a former Italian president has returned his honorary doctorate from Columbia.

Unfortunately the only link I have is to a poor translation of a Polish news source, because American papers seem oddly uninterested:

Kenji said...

"Unless our understanding of the world is completely wrong--including the understanding which we have from first-hand sense data of the sort that Yonatan credits with respect to human history--no further research will discredit the fact that human beings evolved from other species."

You are right, but this only points to the logical problem of scientific inquiry. If you operate within the realm of scientific logic, what other results would you expect?

Kenji said...

Let me illustrate my point in a different way. Take a look at the following list of numbers:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, __

What should be the next number? If you answer, "13," you would probably do very well in a standardized exam. The problem, of course, is that there is no logical reason why 13 is a better answer than, say, 20 or any other integer, for that matter, because you can always create a polynomial function to generate any combination of the above six numbers and another random integer.

So, the key logical problem for the theory of evolution is this---when you say that the evidence is overwhelming, is it because you are seeing an equivalent of Fibonacci numbers (in the above example) and not being creative enough to see a polynomial function to explain the available dataset?

This is why yonatan's point still holds. There is a difference when people can attest to something first-hand and when no person can.

Ori H. said...

no exit,

1. The current regime in Iran has not existed for 100 years but only around 30. You should probably focus only on that time period.
2. Iran has been fighting a low intensity proxy war against Israel through Lebanon for over twenty years and lately through Hamas in the occupied territories.
3. Iran has initiated terror attacks against Jews. For example, the attack on the Jewish center in Argentina in the eighties that took the life of dozens of people.
4. I am not sure what you mean by “wars of aggression”. This is an opaque term. The question is not whether a state has had the misfortune of being involved in wars but whether that involvement was justified. You must explain why Israel’s involvement in such wars was unjustified.
5. Iranian officials, including its current president, have made more ominous threats against Israel and its people than just having a referendum, such as “Israel can be destroyed with one bomb” etc. If you choose to take the word of the great democrat Ahmadinejad about a referendum in Israel as the right way to understand his openly expresses intentions to destroy Israel etc. than you are either very very generous in your interpretation or disingenuous.

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