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In Defense of Free Thought | The Nation

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In Defense of Free Thought

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Robert Scheer is editor of TruthDig, where this essay originally was published.

I think as I please
And this gives me pleasure.
My conscience decrees,
This right I must treasure.
My thoughts will not cater
To duke or dictator,
No man can deny
--Die gedanken sind frei.


--(Sixteenth-century German peasant song revived as a protest anthem against the Nazi regime)

About the Author

Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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The news on Monday that an Austrian court has sentenced crackpot British historian David Irving to three years' imprisonment for having denied the Holocaust seventeen years ago should have alarmed free speech advocates--particularly at a time when Muslim fundamentalists are being lectured as to the freedom of expression that should be afforded cartoonists. In the event, however, a lack of noticeable outcry has exposed a longstanding double standard in the West about who is entitled to free speech and why.

To be sure, Nazi propaganda is an extremely sensitive issue in Hitler's birth country, which for the most part endorsed the madman's vision of the Third Reich. But the repression of the free marketplace of ideas is an endorsement of tyranny rather than its repudiation. And it is not just Austria, and Germany itself, that have banned the views of Holocaust deniers: Eight other European states have joined in. Muslim fundamentalists outraged by the cartoons that have appeared widely in the European media thus have the right to question the conflicting standards of what is considered worthy of censorship.

The muted response of the Western media to the Irving decision is difficult to fathom. Not much has been reported on this case and what has appeared often assumes that this severe limit to free speech is obviously justified. For example, a BBC report over the weekend concluded with this ominous paragraph: "In a letter to the BBC from his prison cell, Mr. Irving said some of his views on the gas chambers had changed--but he also expressed opinions which would be challenged by mainstream historians."

Since when has it been accepted as a crime to challenge mainstream historians, even when, as in this case, the challenge is without foundation? Should a deeply wrongheaded view, even one motivated by vile malice as Irving's critics claim motivates him, lead to incarceration? The case made for criminalizing speech in the West is usually based on the concept that it is not OK to yell fire in a crowded theater--or incite violence. The argument for jailing Irving is that denying the Holocaust is equivalent to stoking the fires of anti-Semitic violence. "Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism dressed up as intellectual debate. It should be regarded as such and treated as such," stated the head of the UK's Holocaust Educational Trust, by way of defending the Austrian verdict.

But by that standard, the artists who drew the cartoons depicting Muhammad should also be arrested, as well as their editors and publishers. Critics of the Danish newspaper that commissioned the Muhammad cartoons claim that its editorial slant is anti-Muslim and that they were attempting a deliberate provocation. So should the paper's editors be prosecuted? After all, people have died protesting these inflammatory comics. Will Austria and the other nations that ban anti-Semitic books now ban expressions judged by Muslims to be unacceptably hostile to their religion? Unfortunately, they may do just that out of political opportunism, given the rioting and trade boycotts that followed the publication of those cartoons. But they would once again be wrong.

Speech that is not felt by some powerful group to be loathsome is hardly in need of protection. The value of an absolutist opposition to the censorship of speech, as enshrined in the US Constitution's First Amendment, is that it holds out the prospect that the right to speak will be honored even when the content of those utterances is not. What is disturbing in both the Irving and Muhammad cartoon situations is the stuttering hesitancy of many who claim to be committed to free speech to speak out in opposition to those--be they Muslim clerics or Austrian judges--who seek to limit the free expression of individuals expressing views they detest.

In both instances, the world has been presented with a teaching moment, in which the argument for free thought--that die gedanken sind frei ("thoughts are free") that the Nazis and every other absolutist dictatorship have excelled in crushing--was not advanced by those who know better. As a result, a world sorely in need of a crash course in the efficacy of free debate received nothing of the sort. Instead, the lesson has been that the suppression of ideas is valid, as long as the suppressors are convinced that they are in the right.

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