In Our Orbit

In Our Orbit


“Court rise!” begins D.D. Guttenplan’s courtroom thriller The Holocaust on Trial. “With the clerk’s shout we stop talking and struggle to our feet. David Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt opens on a gray morning at the height of London’s flu season.” Unlike other courtroom thrillers, in this story the defendants are on trial not for murder but for libel. David Irving, the historian and author of such highly praised works as Hitler’s War, took to court when an American academic named Deborah Lipstadt wrote a book terming him “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial” and charging that he bent historical evidence “until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda.” (Among Irving’s claims was that no Jews were killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz, which was merely a slave labor camp. It is that thesis that ultimately brought the opponents to court.)

Irving’s contention that the label “Holocaust denier” was a professional death sentence and erroneously applied, and Lipstadt’s defense of the claims she made in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, shape Guttenplan’s book. The trial took place over a three-month period in 2000, with Irving representing himself before a judge but no jury. Guttenplan, who with Maria Margaronis heads The Nation‘s London bureau, not only followed the trial but conducted extensive interviews with the principals, both before and after judgment.

The trial’s implications extended far beyond the libel question. “Where does our knowledge of the past come from? How is it transmitted? Do documents deserve greater weight than the testimony of witnesses?” asks Gutttenplan. And politically, “Does a history of persecution create any entitlement–for example, to legal protection from those who would deny that history? What is the proper response to hate speech?… What is the connection between hate speech and racial violence? Is the protection of free speech always a good thing?” The judge, by the way, found for Lipstadt and Penguin, calling Irving “a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist” and his falsification of the historical record “deliberate.”

Parking Ticket

Murray Tepper, the star of Nation “Deadline Poet” Calvin Trillin’s new novel, drives a dark blue Chevy Malibu. Rather, he parks it–in coveted spots all over Manhattan–at nightfall to read the New York Post, “which he still considered an evening paper, even though it had been coming out in the morning for years.” Using various signals, including a finger-wag he perfected overseas to ward off prostitutes and beggars, Tepper wordlessly informs hungry parking-spot-searchers that no, he isn’t going out.

Sixty-seven-year-old Tepper’s got a garage spot, of course. But using it means he’s “given up.” For years he relished meeting the challenges of alternate-side parking on the Upper West Side: “As he moved down the street, looking for a spot…he’d say ‘Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday’… He’d listen intently for the sound of an ignition being turned.” Now, he looks for good spaces with meters.

One day, while parked outside a Lower East Side deli, Tepper meets a young “sort of reporter” who wants to do a story on him. The article, “Quiet Wisdom in a Chevy Malibu,” appears in the East Village Rag, and Tepper becomes a minor celebrity.

A line forms nightly outside his window; strangers want to talk. Asked by one man if he has a few minutes, Tepper replies from his spot on 78th: “I’ve got more than a few minutes. It’s Tuesday, a little after six-thirty, and this place is legal until Thursday at eight.” Many “wanted to tell him about something in their lives that they found irritating or even infuriating.” Tepper’s simple, sage advice: “There’s always something.”

Control-freak Mayor “Il Duce” Ducavelli, nearing a bid for re-election, does everything he can to stop Tepper, and eventually gets him ticketed. But in a final scene at City Hall, when Tepper shows up for a hearing, it’s clear whose side the voters of New York City are on: “Tepper isn’t going out, Tepper isn’t going out,” they chant. Little do they know, their hero is about to sell his car.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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