Tuesday, 27 November 2007

BNP debate at the Oxford Union: an eyewitness account

I've just returned from tonight's Free Speech Forum at the Oxford Union. It's been a strange night, and to some extent, a really unpleasant spectacle. I believe I've seen the very best and the very worst of political thought and activism on display tonight. I'll try to describe things as I saw them, rather than go on another big rant about free speech.

The anti-fascist demonstration was scheduled for 7pm, so I arrived at the Union at quarter-to, hoping to get in safely before any trouble started. The Union consists of a main building (with the bar and the library), the imposing Victorian debating chamber opposite, and a garden in between. The whole thing is surrounded by a high brick wall, with one small gate giving access to St Michael's Street. There's a back entrance too, but for tonight, it was barred and shuttered: that small gate was the only way in or out.

St Michael's Street is a small, largely pedestrianised road just off the Cornmarket, and the demonstration was taking up the entire road. The police hadn't set up a cordon between the protesters and the Union gate, and it was pretty evident that as soon as the crowd built up, it was going to be impossible to get in and out. I made it in just in time. Within fifteen minutes, the anti-fascist demonstration was filling up the only route into the Union, and a row of demonstrators were sitting down, deliberately blocking the gate.

I went into the bar with Micah, a fellow Jewish Society member. We'd corresponded over Facebook about the event - we'd disagreed over whether or not the debate should take place, but now it was happening for certain, Micah had decided he'd rather be in the chamber arguing with the speakers than outside it demonstrating. He'd had to leave most of his friends on the other side of the barricade. We were both hoping to speak in the debate, so we had a beer together, compared what we'd both written, and chatted about lines of argument. We were both concerned that since the motion was about free speech, it was going to be difficult to challenge either speaker on their more controversial views. We compared incriminating quotations and disgusting BNP policies, and decided that if Tryl told us off for speaking off-topic, we could always invoke freedom of speech as a defence.

At about 7.30, there was a serious commotion outside - we rushed out into the garden to see. Students with tickets for the event had arrived en masse, and were being forcibly prevented from getting in. Cameron, a friend from my college, stuck his membership card and his event ticket between his teeth, and vaulted over the wall. Others pushed or jumped their way through the gate, with anti-fascist protesters trying to drag them back. There were cries of "shame on you", lots of very fuzzy megaphone rhetoric, and anti-BNP chants. We stood in the gardens, the hundred or so that had made it, out of over four hundred that had tickets.

Around 8pm we went into the chamber and sat down, with the debate scheduled for 8.30. We were checked through individually, and our membership cards were scanned one by one. By this time, there were serious worries about the event going ahead, as anti-fascist demonstrators had climbed onto the Union's wall and were overlooking the gardens. It was pretty obvious that security had been very heavily compromised. In the chamber, there was no sign of Irving or Griffin; we were told to sit tight and stay away from the windows.

Then a group of 20 or 30 anti-fascist campaigners got through the gate and into the gardens, and tried to storm the debating chamber. Apparently the security guards had tried to let some Union members in through the gate, but a surge of demonstrators had muscled their way through. Most students in the chamber stayed sitting, but group of around 20 debate-goers stood against the doors and stopped demonstrators from coming in. The standoff continued for 10 or 15 minutes; then a few of the event organisers in the chamber decided it would be best to let the demonstrators in. There were a few scuffles as they came through, and I saw some grabbing and shoving from both sides, but no punches thrown.

Micah commented to me: "I've never felt so threatened by my own side!"

The group staged a sit-in on the floor of the debating chamber, singing anti-racist songs, chanting, and megaphoning us. A few Union members tried to talk to them, but they seemed far more interested in shouting us down than in discussing the issues. I cobbled together a makeshift banner in blue fountain pen and bits of A4 paper. It said "FREE SPEECH IS YOUR BEST DEFENCE. One of the photographers snapped it; I don't think anyone else noticed.

Around 9pm, the police finally arrived, - where had they been up till now? - and herded everyone upstairs into the gallery, checking everyone's membership card on the way. They rooted out the protestors, escorted them out of the building, and a few minutes later brought us back down into the chamber, checking all the membership cards a second time. They obviously didn't do a great job, because I found myself sitting next to two students from Exeter who'd come to demonstrate, but were now curious to hear what Irving and Griffin had to say, and asked me not to rat on them.

At ten to ten, Lib Dem MP Evan Harris came in. He was one of the scheduled speakers for the event. He explained that another large group of Oxford students was in the main building; they'd been brought in via another entrance - I heard anecdotally that they'd come in via the fire escape that leads to the Union's underground nightclub. They couldn't be brought into the debating chamber, because the demonstrators on the wall were making it impossible to cross the garden between the two buildings. Apparently, the forum was going to be split into two halves, with Irving speaking at one, and Griffin at the other.

Five minutes later, Luke Tryl arrived, repeated what Harris had said, and asked us specifically not to applaud, jeer, or make any other loud noise throughout the event. He didn't want to give the demonstrators an impetus to storm the building again; it was clear they could swarm over the wall given half a chance.

He went out for a few minutes, and came back accompanied by David Irving; apparently the other group had the dubious pleasure of being addressed by Nick Griffin. Evan Harris and Anne Atkins were also speaking.

The seating arrangements were interesting. Tryl was in the centre, at the speakers' table, where you'd expect the President of the Union to sit for a discussion forum. Harris and Atkins sat right next to him, on the benches to his left. Irving was on the other side, on his own, right in the middle of a bench. Nobody was sitting anywhere near him. He looked like a pariah; he looked very gruff and very sullen.

As Tryl introduced the speakers, he made it very clear that he was distancing himself from Irving. ("Like all of you, I abhor his views, but ...") He called him "despicable" and "abhorrent". It wasn't quite as eloquent as Lee Bollinger's introduction to Ahmadinejad, but it was heading in that direction. His introductions of Harris and Atkins were very matter-of-fact by comparison.

Evan Harris kicked off the debate. He was his usual self - very slick, very personable, a decent public speaker. He said that he would be fully behind the protesters if only they were arguing against Irving's and Griffin's views; but since they were arguing against their right to express those views, he couldn't back them. He slammed the police for failing in their duty to protect the debate, and asked why they hadn't formed a proper cordon around the Union. He also told us a bit about his decision to speak: he'd been invited to the forum before it became public that Irving and Griffin were going to speak, but once he found out that they were coming, he decided that it would be very unprincipled to drop out.

Irving was up next. I have to say that I was very surprised by him. I expected an angry diatribe from a stern-looking hatemonger. Irving comes across far more like an academic, with a clipped and slightly soft accent, very English. He spoke quite calmly. He started off by thanking the Union for the chance to speak - this was his seventh invitation, and the only one that hadn't been cancelled. He expressed his hope that the demonstrations were largely aimed at Nick Griffin rather than himself.

He began his argument with the words "I'm not a Holocaust denier - but you've never had the chance to find that out." He insisted time and time again that he published what he believed to be the truth, and that he was being victimised because his view didn't correspond to the orthodox one. He peppered his speech with references to the Holocaust, and it sounded as if he was doing it rather self-consciously, almost defensively. He paraphrased Animal Farm, claiming that he was "less equal than other historians".

At this point, the two demonstrators from Exeter who were sitting near me got up, and stomped out of the hall in disgust.

Irving then went on a bit of a general rant about free speech. I felt extremely uncomfortable as I found myself agreeing with much of his rhetoric on the subject, although I was well aware that in every sense, he had utterly failed to live up to what he was preaching. He said "freedom of speech means the right to be wrong sometimes" - I doubt he's admitting that his views are wrong, but in truth, it shouldn't be a crime to lie (or, more likely, to delude oneself) about historical facts.

His parting shot should be a serious warning to the anti-fascist demonstrators: "Every time I'm banned from another country, I regard it as a victory ... it means there's no-one there who can debate against me!"

Anne Atkins was next up. She took much the same line as Harris on free speech; its noteworthy that as a Christian writer, she argued for the repeal of the blasphemy laws ("God doesn't get offended!"). She also told us that the protestors outside had been chanting "kill Tryl", which in her view very much fell outside the limits of legitimate free speech: it was incitement to murder; how ironic. She spoke about people in the past who had been killed simply because they spoke against the view of the majority - her main example was of course Jesus, whose views were considered dangerous and worthy of suppression by the Roman rulers of the time.

By this point, the constant din of anti-fascist protesters outside had almost entirely vanished. It sounded like they'd given up. It was almost 11, close to the time limit for the debate, and neither Micah nor I got to make our speeches. Tryl decided that instead of opening the debate to the floor, he'd allow questions and answers instead. Predictably most of the questions went to Irving.

Wasn't he a hypocrite to defend free speech when he had sued Lipstadt in order to silence her? No, he said, he had agonised for a long time over whether or not to take legal action, but did so ultimately because "she had amassed a landslide against me", and because "free speech doesn't mean a licence to smear". He did, however, agree that "it looks hypocritical". There was, apparently, a "fine line".

He also said that the trial took place seven years ago, and that if anyone accused him nowadays of being an active Holocaust denier, they were slandering him: "I don't buy the whole package, that's all - but it doesn't make me a denier." No jeers - people reluctantly obeyed Tryl's request - but there were hisses, muffled expletives, and very audible intakes of breath.

Micah got his hand in, and asked about Irving's infamous racist poem, which he'd written for his young daughter:

I am a Baby Aryan
Not Jewish or Sectarian
I have no plans to marry an
Ape or Rastafarian

The reply wasn't very edifying. Irving admitted to writing it, told us how it had been used against him in his trial, and pointed out that it was only 19 words long, and was found after people had trawled through hundreds of thousands of words of his diaries. "Whatever that poem represents, it's a very small percentage of who I am ... I told that to the judge, and he wasn't impressed." Nor were any of us, and the under-the-breath hisses told it all.

It was about quarter past eleven, and Tryl called time on the debate. Irving was escorted out of the room; we were told to stay put until it was safe for us to leave. Anne Atkins and Evan Harris kept us amused by taking more questions and answers, until at about 11.30pm we were told we could go. The protest had dispersed by then; just banners strewn all over the floor. St Michael's Street looked like a total mess. I took my little makeshift banner on the way out; somebody patted me on the back as I held it up. Coming onto the Cornmarket, I walked straight back to college, and made a beeline for the computers, which is where I am now. Writing it all up.

It's too late, and I'm too tired, to formulate any sort of coherent response to what's happened today. I'll just set out a few quick thoughts, in the order that they ooze out of my brain.

Firstly, it's ridiculous to claim to be anti-fascist when you're blocking a public right of way, and stopping people from getting to a legal meeting, however much you disagree with that meeting.

Secondly, the argument we heard time and time again about the threat from BNP activists being so great that it trumped the right to free debate. I didn't see any BNP people at all (although I'm willing to admit I wasn't in a position to see everything that happened, and they may well have been there). What I did see was a large group of so-called anti-fascists prepared to use physical force to stop people getting to a debate, use large amounts of amplified noise to try and drown the debate out, shout abuse and intimidation at students going about their lawful business, and call for the death of a 20-year-old young man with pretty mainstream political views.

Thirdly, I felt sickened by Irving's constant references to the Holocaust, coupled with his constant efforts to underplay the scale and meaning of it, and his noxious suggestion that Britain should have done a deal with the Nazis in 1940, and pulled out of the war - it would have meant the subjugation of the entire continent and the eradication of European Jewry, but Irving maintains it would have been in the best interests of Britain. As an internationalist and as a believer in universal human rights, that sickens me.

Fourthly, I'm immensely glad that I was able to hear Irving speak. I don't think it endangered me or put me at risk of corruption. It broadened my horizons and let me find out something about a man who up till now had only ever been a sort of bogeyman - and some of the things that I found out were genuinely surprising. I don't see why I should have been barred from going to this talk because of somebody else's arbitrary judgement. I'm also quite glad that Irving's views were shown up and challenged very strongly by students in the audience.

Fifthly, I'm physically and mentally shattered, it's quarter to two in the morning, I'm not sure I can stomach any more of this whole saga which has dominated Oxford life for the past two months, so I'm going to bed!

70 comments:

glad thereafter said...

I have spoken to other people at the debate and yours seems an honest report of events - although it has only "dominated the Oxford life" for "the last two months" of the most committed anti-racists.*

But I doubt you can justify your opinions based thereon. Will you try?

I've sent you an email offering us both an opportunity of honest discussion - but live up to your rhetoric JW - let this post stand.

* By "anti-racists" I mean only those who are committed to the silencing of those committed to the survival of European peoples - it's the most horible misnomer in our culture.

Anonymous said...

You should not be so upset by Irving’s counterfactual argument vis a vis Britain withdrawing from the war in 1940. His point is based on an analysis of Britain’s power position in the world both before WW2 and after it, and such an analysis of a state’s power basis, and the likely repercussions on that power basis in consequence of a certain foreign policy, has been used by the majority of statesmen and diplomats throughout the history of international relations. So, Irving comes from a strong school of thought on this particular issue. Your internationalism, on the other hand, just will never work in practice.

More to the point, do you feel that Irving and Griffin were ‘crushed in debate’? Has the truth come through, as you said it would, via free and open debate?

In addition, perhaps the key flaw in your analysis vis a vis the debate has been with regards to its likely consequences– that is the long run impacts of yesterday’s event.

You and Tryl claimed that the BNP would be destroyed in debate, and that this would consequently help us defeating the BNP at the polls. By contrast, McClusky noted that the BNP would gain credibility as your invitation implied they had something worth listening to.

Well, after all the press coverage of the event, it seems likely that McCluskey will be proved more accurate. Why? Because your fellow Britons have heard very little about what was said at the debates, and therefore have not seen or been able to read of the BNP’s views being demolished. In short, your raison d‘etre for the debate is failing to live up to its noble ideals. What is the point of people who already hated the BNP watching a debate where their views about the BNP are just re-confirmed. What you need, for your arguments for the debate to hold up, is for the details of the debate to be published and disseminated as widely as possible amongst those who feel so let down by mainstream politics that they turn to the BNP.

Furthermore, another key outcome of tonight’s debate is that the public just saw petulant posh Oxford students screaming on the telly, and a softly spoken Irving explaining how pleased he is to be attending the debate. That alone, for those who are unaware of what Irving has really said, implied that he was more civilized than Oxford students. And although you are not responsible for that,
you cannot really deny that this is an outcome of your cherished ‘free speech forum’.

glad thereafter said...

JW, I should have asked too that you restore my post in the other thread or explain its deletion. Ta.

Paul Walter said...

Jonny well done for a thoroughly gripping write-up and I agree with the thrust of your views expressed throughout. One thing though:

"that Britain should have done a deal with the Nazis in 1940"

I think you should not be sickened by this. Yes, looked at from 2007, it seems a sickening idea, perhaps. But perhaps you ought to refresh your mind as to what was actually going on at the time - when people didn't have the benefit of hindsight? If you read dear old Roy Jenkins' biography of Churchill you will read of Lord Halifax who represented a strand of patriotic British opinion that thought that some sort of deal with Hitler was appropriate.

Jonny Wright said...

Glad Thereafter - I haven't deleted any comments in any of the other threads. I have no idea what might have happened. I suggest you re-post it. I wouldn't have deleted any comment unless it was either illegal or full of swear words. I haven't deleted a comment on this blog in about a year.

Mark Mills said...

Great post, Jonny.

The behaviour of the protestors was disgusting and entirely counter-productive.

Congratulations on taking part in the debate.

Simon Holt said...

Cheers for your exhaustive write-up, Jonny. In response to the earlier comment about what peole think, well it's been discussed at length where I work (in Gloucestershire, at a place with about 100 employees, only one other of which went to Oxford apart from me). Nearly everyone I have spoken to has pointed out the irony of 'anti-fascist' Oxford students protesting to deny someone free speech. This is the over-riding impression that ordinary people are getting in my experience.

I hope you are comfortable with such a legacy. I wouldn't be, that's for sure.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

I hope you had a good sleep, jonny. I wish I'd been i side the Uion too. I did go in here last year when somebody signed me in.

I think racism of any kind is grotesque and stupid, but getting Griffin and Irving into an open debate is the solution to dealing with it. I agree with Evan Harris. Let's not turn Griffin and Irving into martyrs. If their beliefs really are all nonsense then let that nonsense be blown apart in the marketplace of ideas. Locking it away from sight will not make it go away. On the contrary, it will just fester in the underbelly of society, praying on the dissillusioned and desperate, people fed up of being told what to think!

I was outside by the gate. Seeing the protesters made me wonder which would be worse: a BNP governement of one ruled by left-wing censors and supressors?

Antipholus Papps said...

I wonder if the 'anti-fascist' protesters could channel some of their passion into campaigning against our actual fascist government's actual fascist policies? Aggressive war, detention without trial, shamelessly and relentlessly promoting hysterical fear of terrorism to bypass due process and destroy the rule of law... that kind of thing. You know? The kind of thing that real Nazis do.

Did you know that once again there are blackshirts on the streets of London? Only this time, they have little badges that say 'Metropolitan Police'. They were all over Leicester Square station on Friday night. It is time to leave the country methinks.

Ben said...

Jonny, you say "it's ridiculous to claim to be anti-fascist when you're...stopping people from getting to a legal meeting".

You seem to suggest that's some kind of principle - you can't oppose fascism by using non-violent force against them.

As a fellow Jew who was protesting outside, I think it definitely would have been a 'good thing' had the Nazis been opposed in their 'perfectly legal meetings' before such opposition was banned.

Obviously this was a meeting giving them a platform, rather than a BNP meeting, but do you seriously think it's contradictory to oppose fascism in this way in all circumstances? That seems to be what you suggest.

The point made by many last night was that it wasn't that Jews, Slavs, Socialists, gay people, Roma etc. lost a philosophical debate and so were murdered, but that the Nazis gained the power of the state by using the system. Limiting yourself to debate when trying to defeat them only improves their chances of success.

Alasdair said...

Interesting post. I think it was, on balance, a bad idea to host Griffin and Irving at the Oxford Union, but your comments gave me second thoughts - I still think the whole business has brought the OU into disrepute, but it's good to know that there were some positive outcomes of the debate.

For what it's worth, though, I don't agree with the protesters who were trying to stop Griffin and Irving getting to the debate - I don't think they should have been invited in the first place, but once they were they should have been allowed to speak. There's a fine line between legitimate protest and disrupting free speech, and from the sound of it some of those protesters were on the wrong side.

Norfolk Blogger said...

Jonny, You got to hear the arguments. The rest of us and the masses get to hear that David Irving got to speak to the Oxford Union.

Does this lessen or diminish his standing with those who were not able to go ? My view is that it has helped legitmise him with people who didn't go. That's why he should never have been invited.

Steven Allan said...

I have found your blog via Google, as the only news that the media seems to offer in repect of the debate is that there was a protest outside.

You are a LibDem and I am a Conservative but no matter. I have to congratulate you on a most excellently written essay. The amount you have written in such a short space of time, the standard of English, the quality and balance of the piece are superb.

I also agree with most of your views but not on the result of Britain coming to an agreement with Hitler in the early days of the War. This suggestion has regularly been aired by many moderates since. If he had overrun Europe again or done anything untoward, we could have started another war with him. We would not have rendered ourselves powerless and he would have known that. As far as I know, this is not an extremist view.

I am disgusted by the incitements to kill Luke Tryl by the far left group outside who have called themselves anti-fascist, but appear not to know the meaning of their title. Furthermore, I admire Luke for doing his job properly and having the guts to stick to what he believed to be right.

As for winners and losers, I would say that the left wing ( which common sense tells us must include Labour supporters ) has lost. The right wing hasn't achieved anything. Luke Tryl is the only winner and has shown himself to be well-informed, level headed, brave and intelligent.

Anonymous said...

What no one has explicitly stated, and what we need to fundamentally realize, is that Luke Tryl has broken the 40 year convention of precluding far-right speakers having a major public platform. It is outrageous that a 21 year old student politician believed he had the moral authroity and sense to do this!

Moreover, Luke argued that his debate would 'crush' the BNP, and in turn lead to a fall in the BNP vote at national elections. That was his justification for the debate. However, there is no evidence at all that the BNP were crushed in debate. In addition, many of those who vote BNP, the isolated working class white male, will not have their minds changed in consequence of yesterday's debate.

In short, Luke's justification for the debate, namely to crush the BNP and thus to help reduce their voter share, is likely to be a complete failure. Instead, the BNP will be perceived as more credible, which in turn will augment their vote. Hence, there is one conclusion: Luke and Jonny’s policies will yield the counter outcomes that they predicted. Therefore, both of you will ultimately be remembered as failures, for politics, when all is said and done, is about outcomes and people's welfare – it is much less about general abstract principles, however noble.

Anonymous said...

"Luke Tryl is the only winner and has shown himself to be well-informed, level headed, brave and intelligent"

I disagree with this statement. He has shown himself to be reckless, totally reckless! I have little doubt that this event will hurt his political ambitions.

Also, he showed himself to be a poor organiser of security - what ever did he think would come of having that one tiny entrance to the union, and all attendants to the debate being surrounded by irrational, oikophobic, and spoilt lefties.

Peter Bancroft said...

This is the best blog post I've read in a long time - combining the two rare virtues of factual accuracy and thoughtfulness.

It also helps that I agree with your conclusions, though having been there it must have been a more emotional experience.

simoncross said...

First of all thank you for this article. This is the fist proper account of last night and the actual debate I have found. Your account is factual and your views perfectly legitimate.

To those who think the debate was wrong because it didn't achieve a defeat of BNP views, ask yourself why? Perhaps, it was because there was a howling mob outside who attracted all the publicity for their disgusting actions. Actions that have no place in a democracy - they should be ashamed of themselves.

According to this account, the mob stopped the debate and turned it into a Q&A. So the case could not be argued. The losers in all this are 'the mob' and their views. The majority of comments on a variety of sites are conclusively against them.

The winners are the BNP - not because they were invited, but because they stood up to the mob without any counter protest; whilst those who wanted to oppose were defeated by their own. And I admire them for going at all.

Now consider this for a debate in your rarefied Oxford towers. What would you do if you lived in a Northern town and saw you culture destroyed around you, your elderly parents disadvantaged whilst new immigrants are given all they need, and Muslim women harassed and intimidated until they wear the veil. Who would you turn to in your despair and frustration after last night?

The thugs who think you should put up and shut up and don't give a damn about you, or the people who think your treatment is wrong. Although you don't get to hear what they are actually saying, because 'the thugs' shout them down; thugs who are delusioned and brainwashed by an inadequate education that spent far to long teaching Nazi history and not enough time on a full and rounded account of what made Britain a great democracy !!

monsterravingloony said...

Jonny, this goes beyond blogging. This is Citizen Journalism!

Exciting stuff!

Anonymous said...

Jewish? I think not. If you had half an ounce Jewish blood in you, you would not be taken in by the bullshit argument of 'free speech.' There's only one way to deal with this filth and that's to introduce their heads to the pavement. It must be so easy for you; closeted away in your debating halls while the real struggle aginst fascism goes on outside. Liberal wankers like you should wake up to the reality of what it's like for oppressed minorities in this Country. It was the ANL who cleared the NF off the streets in the 70s, AFA and Red Action that smashed the fash in the 80s/90s and my Grandad and thousands of others who died preventing the spreading of that disease to this Country in the 40s. Did they die to give you the the right to let the bastards in by the back door? I think not.

Jimmy Seal

glad thereafter said...

Jonny, I’m pleased you didn’t delete my post - it definitely appeared on your ‘dereliction of duty’ blog, but an hour later had disappeared, I guess it happens. I’ll re-post something similar.

Back to this blog - I'll spell out the references you made that I hoped you would justify: ‘disgusting BNP policies;’ your expectation that Irving would be a ‘hatemonger’ offering an ‘angry diatribe;’ that Irving had ‘in every sense [...] utterly failed to live up to what he was preaching;’ that Anne Atkins’ placing incitement to murder as outside the limits of free speech is ‘ironic;’ your implication that Irving’s rhyme is immoral; and your belief that British disinterest in Central Europe circa 1930s would have led to the ‘subjugation of the entire continent and the eradication of European Jewry;’ - I am assuming you are ironic about Bollinger’s eloquence.

Re: the BNP, you know full well that every senior politician of the three largest parties supports the ethnic nationalist policies of the Israeli state. If it’s the BNP’s far less stringent approach to ethnic matters that you find ‘disgusting’ – you ought include the Conservatives, Labour, and Lib Dems in your condemnation.

Re: Irving , you need to think about how laws are made, how history is framed, and how opinions about facts are given undue moral weight by those in control of public dialogue. Some of the those persecuted in America’s famous Sedition Trial of 1944 had previously welcomed the establishment of the laws used against them because they were initially talked up as anti-communist legislation. And what was Irving preaching that he has failed to live up to? You really ought to say.

Re: AA, whose murder has she incited?

Re: the Irving race rhyme, what’s the problem?

Re: WWII, the British government said it made war on Germany to ‘Save Poland,’ but as we all know Poland was lost to Communist totalitarian rule for five decades – as was most of the continent. As for the Jews – as I understand it the idea of the Holocaust was only formed in 1942. Perhaps Anne Frank need not have died in a Nazi-run hospital suffering German efforts to save her life?

Anonymous 20:55:00, you speak respectfully of the forty year convention offering no platform to ‘far-right’ politicians who dare to be concerned with the ‘isolated working class white male’ constituency. You speak volumes more than you realise.

While every other party solicits the counsel and support of minority ethnic interests and considers them most legitimate (in fact unimpeachable) when specifically race-based, and every other party considers the politicisation of English and white ethnic and race interests strictly taboo - even criminal - the BNP say what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The back-bone of the country ought not to be deliberately isolated simply because it's white, working-class, and male. And more and more people see that this Con/Lab/Lib bias is the only endemic, institutional racism in modern Britain, and that the BNP approach of acknowledging ethnic interests for people happening to be the majority and white is the only truly non-racist option.

(And when working-class people look at the policies of the BNP, they are more likely to see old-left than ‘far-right’ characteristics - the far-right tag was intended to smear mainstream conservatism with ‘racism,’ it has little objective policy basis, and less and less weight.)

Anonymous said...

J S Mill discussed the issue of free speech. He believed that through open and free debate, the truth would usually come through in the end, thus benefiting mankind in taking us nearer to truths and away from falsehoods. An argument such as this has been replicated by Luke Tryl and Jonny Wright. Let us not loose sight of this fundamental point: both Tryl and Wright argued that by inviting the BNP, we would expose the falsehoods that they hold. Tryl and Wright went even further, claiming that such a debate would help combat the BNP’s growing support in the country as we would expose their views as being awry.

However, they have failed to fully appreciate a key insight of Mill’s thesis. Freedom of speech is beneficial solely when the benefits, what he called utility, outweighed the costs, what he called disutility. Utility is caused by free speech leading to truth being gained, which makes mankind happier. Disutility occurs when free speech fails to clearly yield truth, or when extreme offense is caused by free speech, or a riot breaks out in consequence, therefore yielding great unhappiness.

Well, what did yesterday’s debate yield? Will we gain utility by the BNP being smashed at the polls because they were smashed in debate? I think not. The BNP’s views were not actually smashed, as they were discussing free speech, not their policies - so no real benefit here. The BNP also gained significant publicity. Consequently, it is more likely that they will gain credibility rather than lose any, and therefore will receive increased votes. Some may say that my point is nothing but speculative. Maybe. But do you really believe that Tryl and Wright’s argument that the BNP vote will decline carries any more weight? Thought not.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the BNP votes stay exactly the same. Would that justify Tryl and Wright’s debate? Again, no! Independent of views being smashed and some truth being gained, many people were offended. This offense, and the poor publicity gained for Oxford, outweighs the benefits that were gained – and no benefits were really gained regarding truth being gained or BNP votes being likely to fall.

So, on the two counts upon which Tryl and Wright justified the debate, they have been shown to have failed:

1) The truth was not really yielded by demolishing the BNP’s views;
2) The debate will not add to the smashing of the BNP electorally, by showing the public how the BNP hold falsehoods.

But offense and a poor reputation for Oxford resulted, which is significant disutility. Simple!

HENCE:

Dear Minster Tryl and Mister Wright,

Based on Mill's analysis, which you both invoked, you have been shown to have taken the morally wrong policy choice. Until you counter these charges, they will remain with you, and show the intellectual bankruptcy which you both hold. I await your response, but I am quite confident that any response you do give will deviate from the Millian thesis you originally used, and will no doubt edge towards deontological defenses of free speech – and that is equivalent to the last defense of a scoundrel.

Charlie said...

A very interesting and intelligent piece, far more so than Micah Smith's in the Guardian from which your post was linked.
Irony is overplayed a little too much, but this isn't the first time that I've read criticism of the Anti-Nazi League's tactics. I'm sure that the irony is completely lost on them since most radicalised groups are a little short on self-reflection.
Whatever David Irving's views on the Holocaust and Britain's position in 1940 one has to remember that as an historian he has just taken his own particular angle on the the evidence before him. Yes he has been selective with that evidence, but then as all history teachers will tell you, history is written by the victors.
Sadly it seems that the debate was compromised from the outset. Had I paid I would rather seen Griffin and Irving on the same stand. I find Griffin highly offensive but it is important to hear what he has to say.
Such is the beauty of free speech.

Tristan said...

Jimmy Seal:

Surely if anyone should understand the importance of free speech it should be those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
The lack of free speech went a long way to covering up those atrocities and denying Germans knowledge of what their government was doing.

I'd also like to attack your collectivisation of Jewish people. JW is an individual. Part of his identity is formed from being Jewish (I assume), but not all of it. You cannot simply claim that all Jews are the same and must hold the same views - that's the sort of rationale behind most antisemitism...

Jonny - a very good post.

Anonymous - your analysis is flawed. You assume you know what is best for society, but how can you, or any individual ever know that. For that reason no limit must be placed upon freedom of expression by the state.

Anonymous said...

Tristan,

You quoted my piece by saying

"Anonymous - your analysis is flawed. You assume you know what is best for society, but how can you, or any individual ever know that. For that reason no limit must be placed upon freedom of expression by the state."

By that very statement, you are therefore implying that you are a relativist. Because we can never know what is best, or what actions have moral worth or a lack of moral worth, you argument leads you to conclude that there is no difference between the morality of being a paedophile to being the Good Samaritan who helps people. There is no difference between Mother Theresa and Stalin. Noone knows what is best, therefore all value statements are neither better or worse than any other. Therefore, let people express themselves how they will; let there be no law, just free speech and free expression!!!

Well, I am no relativist! Indeed, I called a deontological argument the last defence of a scoundrel. Well on that I was slightly mistaken. A deontological argument, although unconvincing, is far superior to the relativist argument you just deployed. It is you who therefore are in fact the scoundrel!

Yes free speech MUST HAVE LIMITS. To argue to the contrary is to argue against all law, and against people harming other people through their self-expression. But we need a standard by which we temper such freedom of expression, and Mill simply looked at utility – the measure of the benefits and costs of free speech.

And the main point of my last piece was to highlight how Tryl and Wright’s arguments for the debate have not yet shown their validity – and that they probably never will. I consequently expect both Tryl and Wright to move to a deontological, as opposed to the Millian teleological argument they initially deployed. But that is moving the goal posts, and analytically pretty unacceptable, therefore intellectually uncompelling.

Balder said...

The most fantastic part of it all is these Jewish groups and defenders of the holocaust story who rant about the 'racist' BNP!

The Jews actually invented racism long before there was anything called Germany or Nazism.

It's all in the books, it is practiced today, and it is law in Israel.

The Jewish organizations don't make a secret of their opposition to race mixing.

So demonstrators who pretend to protect the myth of the singular holy holocaust by preventing 'racists' like Griffin and Irving are really protecting Jewish racism and chauvinism.

At least Irving's Aryan Rastafarian poem does not call for the slaying of the apes or Rastafarians, as do the Jewish scriptures. They demand 'even the best of the Gentiles' to be killed.

The subject of race and racism definitely needs more attention.
I have made an attempt here.

By the way, if you missed out on the BBC giving a platform to violent anarchist opponents of free speech, you can still watch it here:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=ZRW3Avl3FYQ

Mark Mills said...

"Whatever David Irving's views on the Holocaust and Britain's position in 1940 one has to remember that as an historian he has just taken his own particular angle on the the evidence before him. Yes he has been selective with that evidence, but then as all history teachers will tell you, history is written by the victors."

No, he is not a hstorian he is a propagandist. His use of evidence is not merely selective but extends in many cases to outright falsification and manipulation.

monsterravingloony said...

@Balder

Re: "The Jews actually invented racism" and your other comments

And demonising the entire Jewish people is not itself racist?

Strikes me as not a little hypocritical, and that's being kind.

Tristan said...

Anonymous:

No- a paedophile harms a person, therefore they are in the wrong and their actions should be illegal.

I also believe that morally Irving and Griffin are repugnant, but that is no reason to restrict their right to self expression. The state's job is not to enforce morality but to protect the individual from attack by another.

It is impossible to know what's good or bad for society so we cannot restrict free debate and expression.

Note, this is for society. An individual can know what's best for themselves, and they should be free to pursue that without hindrance (excepting where they come into conflict with another individuals equal rights).

The only limit on free expression by the state should be that harm is caused in the commissioning of the expression by the person doing the expressing.

There is no other reason. To argue that it is bad for society, or bad for another person to willingly listen to those views is morally wrong and opposed to any principle of self ownership and individual liberty.

Argument based on society is merely an attempt to obfuscate and appeal to the 'won't someone think of the children' sentiment.

Balder said...

@ monsterravingloony

Re: "The Jews actually invented racism" and your other comments

And demonising the entire Jewish people is not itself racist?

Strikes me as not a little hypocritical, and that's being kind.

What do you mean deamonizing 'the entire Jewish people'?


I am actually trying to un-deamonize Irving and Griffin and the silly notion that 'racism is an evil thing per se'. It is just hypocritical to allow Jews to be racist and condemn the others.

And indeed 'the Jews' invented the racism and the suppremacism of Judaism. It wasn't Christians who wrote the Old Testament nor the Talmud, the Zohar and the other smelly old stuff which makes up Judaism. I didn't say that there are not many Jews today who oppose racism, and I don't condemn neither them nor those who are racist on those grounds. It is all a matter of opinion.

By the way, it is true that many of todays Jews do no longer believe in the Judaism of the Tora or the Talmud. They have another religion now; it's called 'The Holocaust'.

And they are marketing it very agressively to the rest of us as a replacement for Christianity, Free Speech, and traditional European thought and philosophy. It has been singled out as the new religion for a new world order, starting in Brussels from where Jews, Zionists, multiculturalists and merchants looking for cheap labour see a common interest in using 'the holocaust' as a means to advance common interests. That's why free speech suddenly is under threat everywhere in Europe and the US as well. There is no end to new legislation mocking free speech, since total control is needed to be able to proceed with the far reaching plans.

According to the Jewish born jazz musician Gilad Atzmon 'The Holocaust is as old as the Jews'.

Very insightful piece of work by an insider.

monsterravingloony said...

Balder, I don't need to comment further. The more you write the deeper the hole you dig for yourself.

Balder said...

@ monsterravingloony

Yes I understand. You have the choice now either to pretend that I am unworthy of debating (suppremacist stand), or you can try to convince the owner of the blog to block my comments, the same thing the fascist 'protesters' outside the Oxford Union did.

Nice 'nick' by the way...

Anonymous said...

Tristan,

I do not think that you really understand your argument.

You state: "It is impossible to know what's good or bad for society so we cannot restrict free debate and expression."

You then go on to say that harming someone IS bad, and the state should stop that. Indeed, you state "a paedophile harms a person, therefore they are in the wrong and their actions should be illegal".

Well, I am sorry, but you are contradicting yourself. Your argument is that it is impossible to know what is good or bad for society, yet we KNOW it is definitely good for society to stop paedophiles who harm others. So, first things first, REALSIE your contradiction.

Moreover, as you actually believe that some things are bad, and thus morally wrong, you are making moral judgements for society, and imposing these judgements on the rest of society through the law. In coming to such a conclusion that harm must be stopped, and therefore free speech does have its limits, you are implicitly making the assumption that there are costs to free speech, as well as benefits.

Therefore, your implicit position, whether you realise it or not, is identical to mine and J S Mill’s. Consequently, if you can just stretch your thoughts a little further, you will realise that the costs of the Union debate with the BNP may well have outweighed the benefits. Therefore, as Tryl EXPLCITLY argued that the contrary would occur, but that in reality costs have outweighed benefits, Tryl and Wright are therefore in the wrong. They made a Millian argument, and have been proved wrong on Millian terms.

Now, you may want to invoke deontological arguments. Fair enough. But you cannot praise Tryl and Wright for their liberal teleological arguments, and then go on to justify the debate in deontological terms. So which is it? What do you think?

monsterravingloony said...

Balder, I very much doubt Jonny would block your comments. He campaigned on a free speech platform so that David Irving would be allowed to speak at the Oxford Union, despite being opposed to Irving's views. He is hardly likely to make an exception to his principles for you.

Say what you want to say (within the limits of common decency and the law) and be judged accordingly.

Jonny Wright said...

@ Balder and monsterravingloony

Just to clarify, you can be as critical or even offensive as you like in your comments, and I won't delete them. I'd only get rid of a blog comment if it:

a) was illegal, ie. incitement, libel, all the sort of things that go against the legal limits of free speech;

b) was full of expletives and personal abuse - I have some younger readers, including some younger Lib Dem Youth and Students members, and I want this to be reasonably family-friendly!

(And no, that's not an infringement of your right to free speech. Any idea is allowed, however offensive; you just have to express it without being gross. I pay for the hosting, so I get editorial discretion on that!)

Anyway, the upshot is, I haven't deleted a blog comment in about a year, and I'm not going to start now.

@ everyone else = sorry not to have replied to your comments in detail. I'll sit down when I get a few free hours in a row, hopefully tonight, pick out all the points that need responding to, and write up a reply.

Balder said...

Jonny Wright said:

I'd only get rid of a blog comment if it:

a) was illegal, ie. incitement, libel, all the sort of things that go against the legal limits of free speech; asf.


Thanks for pointing that out Jonny, though I never doubted it. Sounds perfectly reasonable.. Why is there really such a fuzz about such a natural thing as defining reasonable free speech? It seemed all so simple before this immigration / holocaust business came to my attention;

There were dictatorships like USSR, China, and Eastern Germany and there were the democratic countries, where one had freedom of speech. But it seems that illusion came to an end at around the same time as communism fell. There was no need to keep the illusion up right after that, or so it seems.

What worries me in discussions like this is that many people seem to be offended by ideas they actually have not studied or heard explained from the actual source.

It is like some people just reserve the right to reject ideas on the basis of what antagonists of these ideas tell them about those ideas and their originators.

In other words, they accept somebody else's moral authority; something that has filled me with contempt since early childhood. You know, I was brought up with the 'free speech religion'. I am definitely a fundamentalist in that respect.

I have coaxed a number of anti-racists and left wingers into reading my views on racism, and I have never been met with the usual slanderous cries and contemptuous remarks afterwards. I don't know Griffins exact views on race, but I think his views will actually be acceptable to most people, as mine seem to be according to the lack of abuse I receive. And I got it available in three languages now.. -;)

Viva the Internet as long as it lasts.. which may not be very long..

Anonymous said...

Johnny, Thank you for your report on what you experienced at the OU. Glad Thereafter and others, thank you for your perceptive comments. What I would now like to know is, what was actually said at the meeting? What questions were asked, and what answers were given? Could we have a podcast of the debate? To the contributor who advocates "introducing" his opponents' "heads to the pavement," I can only say that you do more to incite (or invite) hatred of Jews than any denial of the Holocaust possibly could.

Enlightened 1 said...

Love, and Freedom, of which free speech is a composite part, are endearing qualities of life.

Adapting Shakespeare's words on love to free speech, we have:

Free speech is not free speech which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.....

In other words, there is no compromise. Free speech is simply free speech, no exceptions.

We have laws for libel and they have to be proved applicable in court.

It is the weakest of arguments to say that allowing someone a platform to espouse his ideals, or to challenge a piece of history enhances his influence.

It is also demeaning to others to say one is protecting them because one doesn't feel they have the ability to reason, and apply their own minds on right and wrong.

If otherwise - why give them a right to vote and tell them that what they think really matters?

This is more so when such 'free' speech, is taking place in such hallowed halls of higher learning,
where the audience has, or should have, qualities of reason and logic way above the norm.

What it brings into question is what is really being challenged, and/or threatened?

When you outlaw, or attempt to compromise free speech, then the next step is free thought, and then the rest of the freedoms.

Yes, Irving knew what he was likely stepping into when he returned to Austria.

That merely indicates, as it has throughout history that people are prepared to stand by their convictions - come what may. People have, and will continue to, die for them - right or wrong.

For either man to have the guts to stand up and place his head on the block in a situation where so many would be organised to call for their blood and the whole of the media supporting this backlash will
be seen as strength of conviction, not weakness. And no amount of manipulating the event to prove otherwise will change 'free minds'.

The weakness is only evident in the argument of those who oppose.

Anonymous said...

Jonny,
Congratulations on your write up. It is reasonable, objective and thoughtful.

Regarding David Irving's views on the holocaust. It is quite clear to anyone prepared to listen to Irving that he is not a Holocaust denier. He openly accepts that the Nazis killed million of Jews in WW2.

What he questions is the role of the Auschwitz camp. This is an interesting question. Firstly, we must understand that Auschwitz was located in a part of occupied Poland that was incorporated into the Reich. This is in contrast to the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmo which were intentionally located in the 'General Government' part of occupied Poland which was not incorporated into the Reich. It is highly unlikely that the Nazis would want a purpose-built death camp on what they considered German soil. Auschwitz was clearly conceived and designed as a slave labour camp to provide labour for the industries that the Germans had set up around Auschwitz.

The central question of controversy is were people gassed at Auschwitz.
Irving's big mistake was to publically buy into the Leuchter Report in the late 1980s. Fred Leuchter is a man who took samples from the alleged gas chamber buildings at Auschwitz and had them tested for cyanide residue. Most of the tests came back negative and Irving stood by the Leuchter Report using very crude language such as 'more people died on the back seat of Kennedy's car than died in gas chambers at Auschwitz'. This clearly went down very badly and Irving became the victim of an orchestrated campaign to vilify him and destroy his reputation as a historian.

Irving has partially recanted in recent years and now even accepts that gas chambers (known as Bunkers 1 & 2) were used at Auschwitz.

However, the bird has flown regarding Irving. He is tarnished by his past bold and offensive proclamations together with his less than condemnatory attitude to Hitler dislayed in his books.

Personally, I rate him as a good historian who has been the architect of his own downfall. I will continue to read his excellent books.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I just spent the better part of my afternoon reading these comments, especially when I,m supposed to be working!
Well done to you all (save for one or two rouges).
Being a physicist I can't claim to know much philosophy, I however would like to forward the fact that minorities have always been scapegoats in political trivia, with the "capable" playing on the mind/s of the "lazy" coupled with inherited doctrine it seems a potent mix.
Coming from Zimbabwe, I realize the importance of freedom of speech; I also know the consequences of meticulous dogma to the untrained mind (weak or not) and the latter causes me to believe that this whole debacle could/should have been avoided and maybe a Cambridge Union debate might just bring us back to where we were exactly 24hrs ago?..maybe

bam said...

I think most of us will admit that all our freedoms have some limitations and the case of Irving should be an excellent example. I can't fathom why people who would agree that it is immoral for someone to make false factual claims about someone else (libel/slander) would allow Irving to make false factual claims about the Holocaust.
Nobody would stand for allowing a history professor to teach his class that, in his unorthodox' opinion, the american war of independence resulted in the death of only 100 men and it was not in the interest of the american people --aside from the ridiculousness of this argument, it is factually incorrect.
The lies this person spews and continues to spew stand in the face of mountains of evidence and documents (the Holocaust is the most documented case of genocide in history). All victims of Nazi atrocities (dead and alive) are profoundly insulted when their murderers and torturers are defended by Holocaust deniers.
So, if you ask me, I have a major problem with people who use their intellect to manipulate people into thinking that facts can be viewed as opinions and vice versa. If you want to legalize slander and fraud (another form of expression of free speech) then I will see things differently. until then, shame on oxford for allowing this aryan excuse for a human being to pollute the world with his so-called historical opinions.

Anonymous said...

Bam,

I would like you to tell us in your own words the precise lies that David Irving has told?

bam said...

anonymous,
why should i get into a debate with you about things that were already decided by a british court, and that are plainly accessible to anyone with internet access...while you obviously can't attack my logic, you resort to contesting the veracity of facts...hmmm, let's debate the fact that the earth goes around the sun! that's more interesting

Anonymous said...

Jonny, do you ever respond to comments?

John. O said...

Seems people are missing the idea of the creating the debate in the first place, i guess it's easy to argue which view best supports your opinion.
Two views would be as i thought everyone would udnerstand by now "The BNP Has a lot of ideas which could only conclude in perherps the demise of all we've worked for over the past years, their ideas are as trivial as their existence in this present state of multi-cultural cohabitation. Sadly their true agendas are not known by the vast public consequently some people still believe they have some reason to exist, or sense in their actions so putting all their ideas in public view will show EVERYONE just how well, stupid and senile they are and everyone would take them as nothing more than senial old men trying to relive the days of slavery, or simply retarded kids playing racist."

The second view, is the thought that giving them such a platform would build their credibility, wrong they already had credibility because they're true views were often if not always hidden from the general public under the protection of anti-facist screaming "silence!".

I'm not quite sure how the debate went but i hope it was recorded and will be on the ever receptive youtube ; ]

As for the "Make a deal with the Naziz" point, well making deals for your survival with a nation ready to slaughter literaly "Millions" if not billions because a fool woke up one day and thought "Hey, my eyes differ in colour to yours and so is my skin, i don't feel like looking at anyone who looks like you"
doesn't exactly scream logic or common sense, what's to say he won't assume you both breathed a different air and try to erase you from existence the next day, who will then fight for you when he's maddness turns on you. Hitler had no logic, he had no common sense, he's actions were of spontaneity and sheer impulse.
Some germans followed him because he gave them pride and told them how better they were than everyone else

It's ideas like this that the world or at least britain should realise, and proceed to point their pitchforks at the BNP and eradicate them from society.

I sinserely hope this debate has accomplished all it said it would. A man who gives the response of "Because it took you a while to find my racist poem, i'm not really racist" should be kicked out of britain. Simply makes the world laugh at us.!

John.o said...

Forgive the written errors on my post, it's been one of those days.

Enlightened 1 said...

Emotion, here, runs high, and reason runs out of the door (if it ever came in) - as always.

However, the quiet thinking man knows that if the German U-boat blockade had succeeded against Britain, and our food lines cut.

It would have meant starvation for all.

If our airforce had been defeated and Japan had not attacked the US bringing them in the war, whether they liked it or not, allowing the enemy to have invaded with impunity - what do you think they would have found in our 'alien internment camps'?

They would have been the last to get our food. Many would have died
from age, starvation and disease.

For a while their bodies would have piled up, and like we would do with any mass bodies in the conditions that would prevail, I am certain the order would have been given to burn them.

Now I am not saying that is what happened in Germany as I was not there.

But how would the Germans (or any enemy for that matter) have used it. Can you not see the photographs, and films circulating the world?

Documented? Any enemy so inclined could have created all the documentation they desired. They could have had a field day. Yes, there would have been children and women among the starved and dead.

They say military history is always written by the victor.

Never mind what Irving said, he has never been on the 'inside' as so few are, or have been.

But what did D'israeli mean when he held the all high position, of the world's, at that time. greatest power, and said:

'This world is run by far different personages than is believed by those on the outside'

In those words, perhaps is a clue to providing answers to much controversy.

But alas, what is gradually coming is only the ability ti 'think'. To voice thought is a freedom we are fast losing. It all happens in steps. That way, most hardly notice.

How do you eat an elephant? - one bite at a time.

How do you break a bundle of sticks? -one at a time.

Take heed of those one bites, or one sticks.

Jonny Wright said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for all the comments. I appreciate you taking the time to write in with your reactions. I’m sorry it’s taken me till now to find the time to sit down and respond properly. In my defence, I’m a part-time blogger, and a full-time student – and this week has been pretty darn hectic!

Glad Thereafter – thanks very much, I received your email. I’ll post a response to your comment on the other thread; it seems like the appropriate place to do it.

Anonymous 3.52 – I think “my” internationalism did work, in the sense that Hitler was defeated and Europe is democratic. Irving may come from a perfectly mainstream school of thought; I don’t know, I’m not a historian, and you probably know a lot more than I do about the various academic debates and counter-factual arguments. In my layman’s opinion, it would have been morally wrong to cut and run from WW2, abandoning Europe to fascism and Germany’s Jews to the gas chambers.

Paul – same to you, really. You may well have a point about the counter-factual argument. I just gave a personal reaction, rather than a qualified academic opinion.

Ben – I strongly disagree, sorry. Jews, slavs, socialists, roma, LGBT people weren’t murdered in Germany because they lost some philosophical argument: that’s true. But free speech is only one part of a stable and liberal democracy. There are many other basic rights, and they all have to be respected equally. Nazi Germany doesn’t represent a failure of free speech – it represents a failure to respect the human dignity and the right to life of innocent people, based on purely arbitrary decisions by the regime. When you restrict the right to free speech, as you apparently would have us do, you make a similarly arbitrary judgement. You may have the best intentions in the world, but when you chip away one basic human right, you damage the whole system, and put everyone in a very dangerous position.

NB – are you saying that once a debating society gets to a certain level of fame, it can no longer invite anyone to debate, in case some of its respectability rubs off on them too? As I see it, the Union is only as famous as it is because of its tradition of providing a forum for any viewpoint, and because it’s always been willing to tackle thorny issues.

Stephen – thanks for your comments about my writing style, much appreciated. It probably wasn’t as carefully-drafted as normal, but then again, I wrote it very late, wanting to get it finished whilst things were fresh in my memory.

Anonymous 20.55 – there’s no rule that says you can’t debate against the BNP. All there is is a cowardly culture of refusing to engage in debate against them for fear of letting them into the mainstream. It really won’t happen; the BNP have everything to lose as soon as people find out what they actually stand for. How are you supposed to beat them if you won’t debate against them? The convention is misguided, and Luke was well within his rights to challenge it.

Anonymous 21.03 – I think the police are far more at fault than Luke Tryl. The Union’s internal security for the event was watertight. Why did the police fail to set up a cordon to stop protesters from blocking the entrance, and climbing the wall? The Union can only police its own premises: it’s the job of Thames Valley Police to see to Cornmarket and St Michael’s Street.

Simon – you’re quite right that Griffin and Irving would have faced much more robust scrutiny if there’d been time for a real debate. The fact that it became a watered-down Q&A, through no fault of the Union, really damaged the forum’s claims to hold their extremist views to account. I disagree with your assessment of the BNP themselves, though. Of course immigration is a legitimate concern, and I can well understand why people in Britain are upset about aspects of immigration policy. But the BNP go far far beyond what is reasonable in that debate. It’s one thing to argue against the way immigration policy has been handled; it’s quite another thing to argue that people should be treated differently because of the colour of their skin. The BNP would happily “deport” people who are British, who were born here, who have no other home than Britain, simply because they’re not white. However legitimately upset you are by policies related to immigration, I don’t believe there can ever be an excuse for turning to a party with that sort of nakedly racist outlook.

Jimmy Seal – sorry, but that comment is outrageous. Why should I have to believe a certain thing just because I’m Jewish? I’m entitled to hold whatever political views I like as long as I’m prepared to justify them in debate. Moreover, do you really want to live in the sort of country where you can introduce people’s heads to the pavement, as you so charmingly put it? Is that the sort of democracy your granddad fought for? Both my grandfathers fought against Hitler in the war, and I doubt they would have wanted to live in a Britain like that. Call me a “liberal wanker” as much as you like; frankly I take it as a compliment.

Glad Thereafter – “disgusting BNP policies”, I’ve already covered. Irving as an angry hatemonger – that was my preconceived idea, and one that was very different to the soft-spoken reality. On Anne Atkins – I think you’ve misunderstood me. (Admittedly, looking back at what I wrote, my wording was perhaps a bit sloppy.) When I wrote “how ironic”, I was referring to the protesters calling for Tryl’s death, when the main argument against the Free Speech Forum was the threat of violence. Anne was quite right to point that out, and I agreed with her. She certainly hasn’t incited murder herself, as far as I’m aware! I strongly disagree with your views on ethnic nationalism. My concept of what it means to be British isn’t based on race. The fact that I’m of eastern European Jewish background doesn’t make me any less British, or any less English. I have friends who are proud to be British, and come from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. This is a very big topic, so I might well write a whole blog post on it in the near future, and deal with all your arguments in more detail then.

Gah, it’s almost 2am again. That’s about all I have time for tonight. I’ll come back in the morning and put up responses to all the other comments. Bear with me, I’ve had a lot more reaction to this blog posting than I’m normally used to getting!

anticant said...

Thanks for your excellent account and thoughtful perspective.

See my post at http://www.antarena.blogspot.com/ and http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2007/11/27/mob-rule-at-oxford-university/

As a defender of free speech, I find it dismaying that so many commentators here cannot distinguish between free speech as an inviolable principle, and the merits of the issues being discussed. Surely, whether or not a view is mistaken, obnoxious, or downright wicked is irrelevant so long as it is not advocating coercive violence against others.

In my view, those who maintain that free speech should be limited to the expressions of opinions they agree with, or do not consider harmful, are clueless as to its actual nature. It is always the 'hard cases' - the racists, the Holocaust deniers, even the defenders of paedophilia - who put the free speech principle to the test. Those who would ban or prevent the peaceful expression of such mistaken views because they believe they will do harm by seducing the unsophisticated are themselves the enemies of free speech, democracy, and an open society, as was quite clear at Oxford on Monday night.

Steven Allan said...

"I’ve had a lot more reaction to this blog posting than I’m normally used to getting!"

This could be because no-one else has written such a comprehensive piece, and a first hand account at that. With so many of today's youth going off the rails - idle hands making work for the devil - it's really uplifting to witness the achievements and the views of yourself and Luke Tryl.

Just a point on the comments. There seem to be an awful lot of assumptions in respect of the BNP's policies, some of which are wide of the mark. Perhaps people ought to have a look at their website and read their manifesto. Not only that, but the BNP is not a one policy party; it has a full manifesto with policies on all of the major issues.

For all that, as a Conservative, I look forward to the day when Luke becomes the PM. Maybe you'd like to consider changing parties, Jonny, so that you could be in the cabinet with him in the not too distant future ?

Keep up the good work, anyway.

EricFowler said...

A splendid post by a fine reporter. I thank you.

I agree with most of your opinions but choose to take issue with your being "sickened" by Irving's assertion that Britain should have cut a deal in 1940. That may be an unattractive choice, but wasn't the war pretty sickening too? A lot of lives could have been saved.

glad thereafter said...

The fact that I’m of eastern European Jewish background doesn’t make me any [...]less English. Jonny.

Your idea that the English group includes in its ranks ethnic Jews and, presumably, Somalis, Sikhs, Han, and Hutu, would mean that 50 million people in this country are without ethnicity, and can't enjoy the benefits of community feeling and heritage that this basic human bond brings.

Once again, note the double standard: minorities as a rule jealosuly guard their ethnic attachments and community coherence, while demanding that the majority's sense of itself is universalised and non-people specific.

Apparently the English MUST forget themselves at the behest and for the advantage of other ethnies, or else they, the English, are labelled 'racist.'

I don't think so Jonny.

Jonny Wright said...

Sorry Glad Thereafter, I don't agree. I was born in England, and have lived in England all my life. I'm English. My religious background is neither here nor there.

I think we have a different idea of what the word English means. I'm using it to describe my national identity, you're using it to describe your ethnicity.

I'd argue that "English" is a national identity, whereas "white Anglo-Saxon", for example, is an ethnicity.

I've never tried to deny anyone their right to a community identity, but I resent being told I'm not a proper Englishman or a proper Briton simply because my family history on this island happens to be five generations long, rather than fifty.

freethinkingnation said...

Hear, hear Johnny.

The English group doesn't include Jews? What English group is that?

johnaveson said...

Thank you. Its nice to know what happened. I had a ticket but couldn't get in. I can't even begin to understand what screwed-up logic justifies that and tries to pass itself off as liberal and democratic.

monsterravingloony said...

@ericfowler

Re:"take issue with your being "sickened" by Irving's assertion that Britain should have cut a deal in 1940. That may be an unattractive choice, but wasn't the war pretty sickening too? A lot of lives could have been saved."

Of course you'd save lives if you could, but if the saving of lives trumps all then you'd never go to war to fight for your freedom and your way of life, for yourself and future generations. You'd always capitulate or compromise in the face of aggression.

Jonny Wright said...

A few more responses, while I have 5 minutes spare (between a talk at the Union and a German translation class!) - I'm just going through comments in order, unless I think I've dealt with the points in a response to an earlier one.

Anonymous 04.59 - I think you're wrong to apply the utilitarian argument to one individual debate. I'd apply it more to the entire culture of free debate. Think of it like a hand of poker: you can play a hand perfectly correctly, according to the maths, but still lose it. But at least you know that if you played that same hand exactly the same way, whenever it came up, you'd win it more often that not. In the same way, yes, sometimes fascists come out of individual debates looking good, but if there's a culture of free debate, then in the long run they will always come out worse. I'd also point out that Irving took a fair battering in the debate, came across with real question marks over his sincerity, and anyway: if the protesters had let us have a real debate, instead of a very watered-down Q&A, we'd have made far more progress.

Tristan - spot on. Thanks!

Balder - you can't just say "the Jews" - as Tristan points out, everyone who is Jewish is also an individual, and deserves to be treated as an individual, rather than a member of a group. My opinion is totally independent of anyone else's, and the fact that I'm Jewish doesn't change that in the slighetst. I agree totally that there are things in the Old Testament which look racist to modern eyes, and I believe that if anyone nowadays took the sort of ethnocentric views that you read in ancient scripture, they would be a racist, pure and simple. As a student of (amongst other things) medieval German literature, however, I believe it's entirely wrong to judge ancient text against modern principles. You have to read the Bible as a product of its time. I doubt any author 3,500 years ago would have preached universal human rights, or supported the idea that one's tribe or race shouldn't be a factor in judging others.

That's all for now, more replies tonight!

Jonny Wright said...

Another quick installment of replies:

Enlightened 1 - that's my favourite Shakespeare sonnet. You can't go around editing it, that's just criminal! The bard got it right first time. ;-)

I agree with your argument about the acceptable limits of free speech, although I'm not sure I agree with your assessment that Irving and Griffin were desperately brave to go to the Union. I'm sure they've had enough criticism in the past to be fairly thick-skinned about this sort of thing.

I'd be tempted to think they were scared, with good reason, of getting blown to bits in debate, bit I don't think they were. I'm quite sure that they genuinely believe - in the face of all possible evidence - that their views are correct, and somehow capable of standing up to argument. People say Irving is a liar: I believe he's more likely to be deluded than a deliberate liar.

Bam - I don't agree with your analogy. When a teacher or a professor gives a lecture to students, they're in a position of authority. When I go to a lecture on Kafka at the Modern Languages Faculty in Oxford, the lecturer is *endorsed* by the University, who wouldn't employ an academic if their research was unreliable or under allegations of falsehood. The situation with Irving is quite different: he wasn't asked to give an authoritative lecture on history; he was asked to speak on one side of a debate. The Union certainly didn't endorse his opinions, or the opinions of any other speakers.

Anonymous 21.33 - yes I do, always! Sorry it's taken me a couple of days, though.

Steven Allan - thanks again for your comments, very kind. I'm sure Luke Tryl would make an excellent Prime Minister, but I somehow doubt he'd want a Lib Dem like me in his Cabinet ... and no, I'm not switching!

I think that covers all the comments so far. Sorry I've skipped a few; I just felt that some of them were repeating arguments I'd dealt with elsewhere. If you think I've missed any important points, write back and I'll come and deal with them.

Once again, thanks a lot for the response.

Anonymous said...

Jonny,

You stated: “I think my internationalism did work, in the sense that Hitler was defeated and Europe is democratic.”

Hitler was defeated by a 3 major powers: the US, the Soviet Union, and Britain. These powers allied together out of self-interest and in pursuit of their own security. No noble sentiments towards internationalism led to this alliance. Indeed, Britain and Soviet Russia hated each other, and US-British relations were not that great either. But all powers realized that they shared the common security goal of destroying Hitler – self-interest led to the ending of Hitler, not altruistic internationalism.

Vis a vis the Utilitarian argument, there is no evidence that other politicians will host BNP speakers, therefore free speech will not be carried out over the long-run so as to yield the benefits of exposing the BNP’s views. Therefore, we need to look at the costs and benefits of Tryl’s debate in isolation – and the results indicate net disutility! The BNP are not exposed as nutters, many individuals were offended, and people saw the BNP gaining credibility.

Hence, I think you are wrong to apply the utilitarian argument over the long run. Anyway, even if we did, it is not necessitated that the BNP would be more exposed over the long-run. Comsider the scenario that more free debate led to more publicity for the BNP, and their votes going up. Would you be content with that outcome? Can you accept that free debate with the BNP may lead to their popularity rising? And do you accept that if that happened, both you and Tryl are partly responsible!?!

BNP in parliament because of you!

glad thereafter said...

-- Jonny: 29 November 09:49:00

Sorry Glad Thereafter, I don't agree. I was born in England, and have lived in England all my life. I'm English. My religious background is neither here nor there.

I think we have a different idea of what the word English means. I'm using it to describe my national identity, you're using it to describe your ethnicity.

I'd argue that "English" is a national identity, whereas "white Anglo-Saxon", for example, is an ethnicity.

I've never tried to deny anyone their right to a community identity, but I resent being told I'm not a proper Englishman or a proper Briton simply because my family history on this island happens to be five generations long, rather than fifty.


Jonny, I’m afraid that when I hear people make arguments like these I begin to doubt their sincerity.

You and I both know that to equate Jewish status with belief in religious Judaism is dishonest – and that all Jews know this, while most non-Jews don't.

Neither Israel the state, nor Israel the people (Jews), make absence of Jewish religious belief a barrier to citizenship or community of fellowship.

Your deliberate conflation of religious and ethnic Jewishness (when I had clearly made differentiation) and your conflation of English and British status (again, contrary to my specific focus on the English – not the ‘British’), add depth to a pattern of double-standard.

So yes, I agree with the straw-man: your religious beliefs are neither here nor there in determining your status as English; but equally I know that your religious beliefs are neither here nor there if you seek citizenship in Israel or claim Jewish identity – but I insist they are necessarily equal and valid standards unless we be anti-Gentile and anti-English.

This means of course, that even if your ‘religious’ misdirection were valid (and it isn’t), it would lead an English nationalist to expect support from the three largest parties – including your own – for a policy of ‘Anglican’ nationalism which discriminated against Jews, Muslims, atheists, and Catholics, among others, for precisely as long as those parties supported Israel’s right to exist as a ‘Jewish state.’

Would you then resort to a third level of Jewish racist and main-party double-standard? I would recommend rather that you all stop digging, and start treating all peoples equally – even if they happen to be English or non-Jewish.

By any objective standard the three main parties are anti-Gentile and anti-English in comparison with their approach to Jewish group-interests, with the BNP rather less so, while all are equally pro-Israel and pro-Jewish.

(With regard to definitions of ethnicity and nationality, you are defining English ‘nationality’ as vaguely resident-based, and you are again denying English ethnicity altogether. You should be aware that neither of your definitions has academic or objective validity. They are opportunist local-political arguments and objectively racist, and ethnocidal.)

Archibald Drax said...

The point of allowing free speech should simply be to find out what it is the speaker thinks. If it's good, let's embrace it, if it's bad, let's reject it. But unless we hear him or her out, we'll never know.

Those who have seriously worked with problem-solving know that nothing beats a free for all brain storming. Let everyone speak their mind, no matter what we think of them in advance. Very often a gem will pop up from the most unexpected corners and solve the problem.

If David Irving, or Adolf Hitler if you like, claimed that 2+2=4 then what, it couldn't possibly be, because we wouldn't want to agree with them?

Airing opinions and arguments should always be allowed. Deeds not necessarily.

So "all" Jews aren't alike? But "all" of the rest of us are? I never hear this comment when it's about "The Germans invaded Poland" and similar. Did "all" the Germans invade Poland? Were "all" Germans for this invasion? Etc.

Sadly, our age will in the future be known as Dark Ages - The Sequel.

Ibraham Av said...

I just read your comments which were sent to me by the rabid neo-nazi, Ingrid Rimland. She even included a compliment from David Irving.

I congratulate you on the ability to maintain a rather objective view point.

Hopefully you will go into politics when you are done with academics

Anonymous said...

View how the Holo-Hoax is getting exposed world-wide on:
http://www.codoh.com/

Anonymous said...

1. Irving's statements that he is no Holocaust-denier or no anti-Semite are silly. Just read the transcripts of his 2000 London trial, there you'll find all the evidence to prove that Irving is a Holocaust-denier (he declared himself a "hard-core disbeliefer" of the Holocaust), an anti-Semite and a deliberate falsifier of history. Why should any serious historian get into a discussion with someone like that?

2. Irving's Freedom of Speech is not confined in any way, if he would not have been invited to Oxford or disinvited later on. Freedom of Speech doesn't mean you have the right or possiblity to speak everywhere. I, for example, would not give him the chance to speak in my appartment. Not giving him a stage to speak does not equal silencing him. He builds his own stages with his lectures, his website, his books etc. and will - and can! - go on in doing so. Will the OU invite known rapers and child abusers in the future to discuss their understandung of sex? Certainly not. But they certainly have Freedom of Speech too!

3. Irving is very sensitive, when other people don't like to let him speak where HE wants. But, as his 2000 trial showed, HE does not want to allow other people (Deborah Lipstadt) to use THEIR Freedom of Speech. It was Irving, who tried to silence her. Everything he accused her of doing against him he does himself to other people. It is Irving who makes disgusting jokes of Holocaust survivors and smears historians (e.g. Richard Evans, Eberhard Jaeckel and labels them "cowards and liars")!

shlemazl said...

A very interesting post. While we agree on the concept of "free speach", we disagree what it means.

Firstly, the demonstrators had a right to demonstrate. That's their free speach.

Secondly, Oxford Union had an absolute right to invite Irving and Griffin. Does not mean that I have to agree with it.

You see, Moira Hindley, Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper all have/had a right to free speach as much as Irving and Griffin. Irving and Griffin most certainly practice this right in the UK - check out their websites and public engagement list. Indeed Hitler practices this right too - including debates with Jews that he refers to in Mein Kampf.

Their right to free speach does not mean that I would have invited any of them to speak to me in my home. The fact that Oxford chose to exercise its right by providing this scum with a platform speaks volumes about Oxford.

fathorse said...

Oh god, I love debates. I love how they continue after hours, in pockets of the country, in houses, between friends...or on the public platform that is the internet. You don't have to make every point during the actual debate in order for them to be discussed - even if the BNP's views were not 'crushed' during the official discussion, the question of free speech and the peculiar threat of the BNP is now being reconsidered up and down the country.

In any case, I thought the debate was about the importance of freedom of speech, not about whether or not the holocaust actually did happen or if the members of the BNP are morons. These are asides that people have brought to the debate through their prejudices. The BNP's REPUTATION for being racist gives their argument an interesting slant, and, when discussing freedom of speech, HOW could you possibly justify missing out the views of someone who has been locked up in a 'modern' European country simply for expressing his opinion of events? For me, his inclusion was the most interesting aspect of the debate - that this wasn't just western liberals shaking their fists at totalitarians, but was an examination of our own conception of democracy and the place of freedom of speech within it.

Inviting controversial speakers to the event caught people's attention, and I wonder if anyone would have been interested in the discussion (for it is an important one) if it had just looked like being the usual one-sided argument.

I'm interested in the debate of Jewish identity in this thread. I am not Jewish myself, and so you might argue that I cannot possibly comment, but I'm going to anyway. So shoot me. (Or don't shoot me, depending on whether you think I have the right to air my views or not, whatever they may be.)

I'm a student and our union is more or less ruled by the Jsoc and the Isoc (Islamic society). The Jsoc win a motion, the Isoc demand a re-vote, and vice versa. Both are as bad as each other, and it has crippled the Union in terms of constructive debate and elections. Last year, for example, one of the societies disagreed with the first motion and, seeing that it was going to be passed, walked out of the general meeting taking all their members with them. There were not enough attending the meeting, therefore, to pass any of the motions. Very clever, but what a complete waste of everyone else's time.

I am not saying here that either the Jewish student community or the Islamic student community is to blame for screwing up our union, just that some societies are too powerful for their own good. The union steps of an election day are packed full of the members of both societies, harassing you as you wander down the street and slagging you off if you don't stop and listen. It puts everyone else off Union politics, which isn't good really, is it? All we ever hear about is middle-eastern problems. It's been a long time since the Union took an interest in issues that directly relate to our actual university, or at least the country we live in.

So I applaud Luke Tryl's recognition of the need for two sides in a debate. I congratulate him on his impartiality and his principles. Let's not forget that there were other people speaking at that debate. The controversial speakers had not been invited to go and proselytize, but to contribute to a much wider debate than whether or not immigrants should be shot or death camps forgotten. It seems to me that the protesters took their invitations too personally. All this discussion of Jewish identity is irrelevant - Irving was not trying to prove that the holocaust didn't happen, but that he had the right to make this claim. Personally I think it's very peculiar that it is illegal to make that claim in some countries. It's a bit 1984 for me. If there can only be one version of history, who is to choose it? (And before you jump on me, I do not deny the holocaust, I do not think that Irving's is the correct version of events. But if we are going to be so strict over such views, why don't we lock up all the people who think that God created the world in seven days, that evolution is rubbish, or that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS?).

The Nazis blamed the Jewish community for all history's wrongs. Now it seems that anyone who so much as smiles at Nazism is a fascist - the Root of all Evil!! Who was it recently who acknowledged that the Nazis were good with their propaganda? I can't remember, but he was instantly required to apologise for not spitting upon the dirty fascist scum. The truth is, they WERE good at propaganda. That's the whole point.

Which brings me on to my last point in this (pretty unstructured) comment - image. If the not-so-secret point of the debate was to 'crush' the BNP and put them in a bad light, this was completely undermined by the attitude of the protesters. Free speech in itself is not the tool of the racist or the extremist. Their arguments in themselves are not dangerous to society. It is the reaction of the masses that dictates the damage those words can cause. If so many people disagreed with the debate, then they shouldn't have turned up. If the auditorium is empty, then foul words cannot worm their way into impressionable minds. Instead, as has been noted in previous comments, the arrogant, nonconstructive attitudes of the protesters served only to elevate the speakers into a position of not only intellectual, but moral superiority over the unruly mob.

People can say whatever they like, so far as I'm concerned. It's up to me whether I follow their advise or not. If you don't like a debate, don't go. if you don't like porn on the internet, don't look at it. if you don't like you kids sitting in front of the telly all day, turn it off and kick them off the sofa. I think people grossly underestimate the agency of the human race. To suggest that if I hear some nutter telling me that homosexuality is wrong I am more likely to believe them than if no one discussed the issue at all is, quite frankly, insulting. I watch adverts for Bacardi all the time, but I still don't like it. I read arguments in books all the time, but I don't necessarily agree with them.

I don't see why everything must come down to law and politics.

I don't agree with Thought Police.

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Richard Gadsden said...

This posting has been nominated for posting of the year in the Lib Dem Blog awards.

http://www.libdemvoice.org/blog-of-the-year-awards-2008-the-shortlists-3575.html

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juliodebate said...

Well, the situation often debate and touch you live in that debate could realizar.La fortunately true that many people confuse the issue of freedom of expression and abuse ellla ago.

Anonymous said...

This is good , what has happened, goodness is balance, Greek thought,
We in the BNP are delighted that the left wing attack us, Lord Wellington put it well, in regard to a small French man, who invaded Russia,/ stupity is the most desired, quality in ones enemys mind ,and should be encouraged at all times, A BIG THANK YOU, UAF, BCP,search dark, FROM A BNP MEMBER.