British historian David Irving was arrested last week in southern Austria on a warrant accusing him of denying the Holocaust . . . .
Irving was detained on a warrant issued in 1989 under Austrian laws that make Holocaust denial a crime, Golia said. The accusation stemmed from speeches Irving delivered that year in Vienna and in the southern town of Leoben.
Irving in the past has faced allegations of spreading anti-Semitic and racist ideas. He is the author of nearly 30 books, including "Hitler's War," which challenges the extent of the Holocaust. . . .
If formally charged, tried and convicted on the charge, Irving could face up to 20 years in prison . . . .
Let me briefly explain why I think Holocaust denial laws are so pernicious:
Naturally, I don't remotely agree with Irving's views, as I've heard them described. But why? I haven't researched the subject myself. I'm relying on the consensus of scholars, as we must on virtually all topics (except the few on which we can do primary research).
Yet that conventional wisdom is only reliable to the extent that people are free to challenge it. If both sides are able to make the arguments, and the overwhelming majority of experts comes to a particular view, that's pretty strong reason to believe that view. But if one side is barred from making its argument, then the consensus of experts tells you much less about the true merits of the debate. Maybe there's some fact out there that would shatter the consensus, but it just isn't being exposed because it's a crime to make that argument.
Consider a subject on which we've heard much less, the death of millions of Armenians in Turkey during World War I. I suspect that this subject is much less familiar to our readers than is the Holocaust; it certainly is much less familiar to me. Ask yourself: Which scenario would most make you confident of the assertion that the Turks deliberately tried to exterminate the Armenians -- (1) leading historians all agree that this happened, and while contrary arguments may legally be made, leading historians aren't persuaded; (2) leading historians all agree that this happened, and it's illegal to make contrary arguments? It seems to me that scenario 1 would create far more confidence than scenario 2.
True, the fact that advocacy of a historical position is banned by a generally democratic country is some evidence that the position is false. In that sense, the laws banning Holocaust denial do have their intended effect of further discrediting the false theory. But it's not very strong evidence, it seems to me; even generally democratic countries are capable of promulgating myths, and political judgments will often turn on matters other than dispassionate historical inquiry. On balance, it seems to me that the fact that a theory may be spread but has been roundly rejected is much stronger evidence of the theory's invalidity than is the legal judgment that the theory may not be spread.
I've always had little patience for claims that speech can't cause harm. Of course speech can cause harm. If speech has the power to do good, it has the power to do harm; and many kinds of harm -- political violence, organized racial violence, and the like -- are almost always caused in large part by speech. People can vandalize, steal, rape, or kill simply because of their own purely internal passions. I suspect that they can even attack someone of another group without having heard bigoted speeches. But people generally don't plan suicide bombings without having been primed for this by political or religious advocacy. They generally don't organize pogroms without having heard racist hatred.
Rather, it seems to me that speech must be defended on the grounds that letting the government restrict speech ultimately causes more harm than protecting it. And it seems to me that letting the government decide that certain historical claims are illegal will ultimately do much more harm than good.