Thursday, 18 October 2007

Nick Griffin, David Irving and free speech

The Oxford Union, the world-famous private debating society (not to be confused with the student union), has been courting controversy. The current President, Luke Tryl, has organised a forum for 26 November, on the subject "Even extremists should be entitled to free speech" - and he's invited two extremists along for the ride. Nick Griffin, leader of the openly racist British National Party, and David Irving, the discredited pseudo-historian and Holocaust denier, have been asked to speak.

The event has caused a huge amount of controversy. The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) and Oxford University Jewish Society (JSoc) are very strongly against the invitation, and members have set up Facebook groups calling for the event to be scrapped. The NUS and Unite Against Fascism are campaigning for the invitation to be withdrawn.

And I think they're completely wrong.

If free speech is to mean anything, it has to apply to everyone - and not just to nice people. Once you start restricting people's right to debate ideas in public, you're going down a very dangerous road. The only limits to free speech should be against incitement to violence and discrimination - and we already have robust laws for that.

Like the overwhelming majority of Oxford students, I abhor the BNP. I've gone out to campaign against them in local elections. And as a Jew whose great-grandparents fled from the Nazis, I condemn Holocaust denial as a disgusting perversion of history. But I believe the best way to beat racism and deceit is to tackle them head on in open debate, where they will crumble. Silencing Griffin and Irving will only make them martyrs; but if they’re subjected to proper scrutiny, they can be beaten.

To try and counter OUSU and JSoc’s stance, I’ve set up a Facebook group of my own – you can join it here. Over 350 students are members so far, which is encouraging.

Quite a few JSoc and OUSU antagonists have "joined" my group as well, and are using the discussion board to make their case against me. This sarcastic little number is particularly noteworthy: "If only had there been some good debates at the time, perhaps the Holocaust would not have happened? Millions were not murdered because their arguments were not good enough ..."

It goes to show just how completely these people have missed the point. Millions were murdered because the Nazis arbitrarily decided that some people are different; that some people deserve fewer rights than others; that some people deserve to be killed. It's precisely for that reason that we have a concept of universal human rights - basic entitlements that people can't take away from us just because they don't like us.

The supreme irony of the situation is this: it is only because they have the human right of free speech that the JSoc crowd are able to protest against Griffin and Irving in the first place. As my friend Charlie Cooke points out, “It's like holding up Parliament with an assault rifle to force them to ban firearms.”

I’m going to stick my neck out here: those who are trying to shut down this free speech forum are actually more dangerous than either Griffin or Irving. At least the controversial duo hold idiotic, racist and anti-semitic positions, which most people can see straight through. But the useful idiots from JSoc are intelligent, genuinely well-meaning students from Britain's top university, who are asking in all sincerity for our most fundamental human right to be taken away. I know which one of those viewpoints does more damage to society!

It's funny really - JSoc (of which I'm usually proud to be a member) was very vocal about free speech last term, when the ridiculous proposal for an academic boycott of Israel was hitting the headlines. Now that we're talking about the free speech of extremists, rather than Israeli teachers, JSoc has quickly come to the conclusion that free speech needs to be limited, and that they get to decide just what the limits are. The hypocrisy of their about-turn is breathtaking.

The acid test of a true supporter of free speech is this: are you prepared to stand up for the rights of everyone, or just those people you find palatable? It's intellectually very easy to defend mainstream, decent people. It doesn't take huge moral courage to stand up for brave Burmese monks, for politically-blameless Israeli physicists, or for dissident Chinese bloggers. But can you stand up for two truly odious men, who want to exercise, within the limits of the law, exactly the same fundamental rights as everyone else?

If the answer is no, then you are only a fairweather friend of our civil liberties.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. Tough one this. I agree with you that free speech should be universal, subject to some necessary limitations (such as hoax shouts of "Fire!" in theatres, or anything that might qualify as incitement to racial hatred or similar). I do question whether Irving's stance, for example, is not an example of incitement to racial hatred. At best it's borderline.

But what follows is the key point. Let's accept that Irving's position, though hateful to many including myself, fall short of incitement to racial hatred. He is thus entitled to free speech. Fair enough, but what the Oxford Union is doing goes beyond recognising that right. It's giving him a platform. That's quite different. It lends him a measure of recognition and credibility he does not deserve.

Sure you might (no doubt will) lay a trap for him and make him crumble during the debate. I certainly hope you do, although I promise you he won't crumble that easily. He is dangerous and no fool. But even if his arguments were ridiculed, the problem is that the debate will only be heard by the people present and go largely unrecorded. What will hit the public consciousness is the fact that the Oxford Union saw fit to give him an airing full stop.

This sounds more like the Oxford Union courting controversy to promote its public profile more than achieving anything very positive for free speech, and potentially doing some real harm.

If it were down to me I'd have nothing to do with this. If the likes of Irving and Griffin are determined to spread their views, within their rights under free speech, let them do it the hard way. I would not be doing anything that might give them publicity or lend them an iota of undeserved extra credibility.

Tristan said...

The thing about free speech which nobody seems to get is that it means that government should not impose restrictions upon speech.

In my house, I am well within my rights to restrict your speech by refusing you entry, or refusing you permission to speech. Similarly in the comments section of this blog, you have the right to censor other's comments if you wish.

This leads to the oft-cited case of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre - its wrong because the owners of the theatre do not allow it - if you had a group of people who went to the theatre to shout fire, or have it shouted whilst they were there, with the permission of the owners, it would be fine.

So, I support the Oxford Union's right to have this debate, I oppose attempts to shut down speech. If JSoc or the NUS don't want to give a platform to such people then fine, that's their business, the Oxford Union wishes to and that's up to them.

Anonymous said...


Of course the Oxford Union have the right to stage the debate. Doesn't make it a good idea. I (and anyone else) have the right to speak out in favour of or against it.

It is as you say ultimately up to them. I hope they use their rights wisely.

Anonymous said...

'Millions were murdered because the Nazis arbitrarily decided that some people are different; that some people deserve fewer rights than others....'

That is a true gem of wisdom....However, two extremists speaking at such a situation would do more harm then hurt; most people, sadly, will come with a pre-determined view, and I'd imagine that these people would assert their view at the convention to the fullest legal extent possible.

Of course, we all deserve rights, because whatever someone thinks and believes in is the themselves. No-one is right, and no-one is wrong, and free speech is such an iffy thing that its limits should be determined on a situation-to-situation basis.

Anonymous said...

The Union has cancelled Norman Finkelstein - who was suppoosed to be speaking at the Middle East debate on Tuesday - because he is a Holocaust Denier. Thus it has recognised that 'free speech' is not absolute. David Irving is also a Denier. It would be inconsistent to invite one Denier but invite another. QED.

Anonymous said...

There was a great letter in Cherwell this week which says it all:

"I think it is a great idea to have a 'Free Speech Forum'. But for several reasons it's a bad idea to invite David Irving and Nick Griffin. Apart from anything else, I don't think they are appropriate speakers at such a Forum. Using the analogy of a football match, Irving and Griffin are the players, whereas in my view what you really need for such a Forum are the referees. Trevor Phillips would be a possibility. He can give examples of trangressions of free speech and - importantly - can discuss how the boundaries of free speech change over time and space, and why. The players simply cannot do that.

Regardless of the subject of the debate, I also think it is wrong for the Union to offer a platform to either Irving or Griffin. The BNP in my view foments race hatred. Irving was exposed in Court by Judge Charles Gray to be a deliberately fraudulent academic whose purpose was to rehabilitate the Nazis. Here is an extract from his judgment: Irving's "falsification of the historical record was deliberate and ... motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence." Judge Gray declared it "incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier".

Our University is a place of careful scholarship where racism has no place. Giving a platform to fraudulent historians or racists is therefore entirely inappropriate and insulting to the ethos of the University and to those who strive to uphold it. It also sets a dreadful precedent. The Union can have no doubt that both Irving and Griffin will try to use their invitations to the Union to give respectability to their causes.

A Union member was quoted as saying something like "If it's OK for Columbia University to host Ahmadinejad then it's OK for Oxford to host Irving". I also argued that Ahmadinejad should not have been hosted by Columbia. But at least the President of Columbia (Lee Bollinger) delivered a devastating introduction to Ahmadinejad's speech.

Will the Union President offer his assurance that if Irving and Griffin do come then a figure of similar stature in the university or outside (eg Deborah Lipstadt) will be invited to 'introduce' them?

Balder said...

If you want to belief the 'holocaust is the most researched part of history' bit, and that David Irving is a discredited anti-Semitic charlatan, the people quoted below were sure taken for a ride for many years.

Most of the arguments that are being made against Irving being a serious historian and the rest of the comments of the believer crowds can be easily rebuked.

That's why the strategy of the most humane of the smear mongers is; don't let him speak, don't debate the issue, there is no issue.

The less humane want to block his meetings, put him in jail or have whoever can be used to do the dirty work, throws stones and eggs at him, impound his papers and achieves or burgle his house.

And all these things have been tried against Irving, which from my point of view entitles him to the utmost protection and the effort of all sentient beings to help him speak his mind to whichever audience wants to hear him, using the greatest possible courtesy and helpfulness.

The smear mongers' strategy also is an absolute indicator for the high probability that Irving might have gotten something right which is not exactly convienient for a number of parties.

People don't usually get silenced, jailed, mugged or stoned for saying they think they are Jesus, believe in a threat from Mars or even for saying the Mossad planned 9/11 or the murder of JFK.


Quotes on David Irving and his books, before Judea Declared War on Irving for being a threat to Jewish, Zionist and politically correct beliefs, convictions and agendas.

1: On Hitler's War: "It was thoroughly researched and employed a variety of themes. . . It also confirmed Irving's reputation as one of the world's most thorough researchers and an exciting and readable historian."

- Board of Deputies of British Jews, 1992, secret report

2: On Churchill's War: "Enormous mastery of the sources and ability to maintain a sweep of narrative and command of detail that carry the reader along."

- Professor Donald Cameron Watt

3: On Hitler's War: "No praise can be too high for Irving's indefatigable scholarly industry. He has sought and found scores of new sources, including many private diaries. Mr Irving's craftsmanship as a writer has improved immensely, and I have enjoyed reading his long work from beginning to end."

- Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper

4: On Hitler's War: "This ground is traversed with a sense of immediacy and grasp of detail lacking in many of the recent Führer biographies . . . Mr Irving's mastery of the German sources is superb."

- Professor Donald Cameron Watt

5: On Hitler's War: "DAVID IRVING has ransacked the world's archives; he has discovered eye-witness accounts; he has unearthed diaries and correspondence which were thought to have been destroyed. . . a narrative which is, for all its inevitable complexities, remarkably comprehensible and, surprisingly readable."

- Professor J.E. Molpurgo,
The Yorkshire Post

6: "British historian, David Irving, perhaps the greatest living authority on the Nazi era"

- Professor Stephen Spender,
The New York Times review of books

7: On Goebbels: "Irving does not deny that Jews were horribly butchered or just kept in such conditions as to die in their millions. Nevertheless, the book has received execration in some American pre-publication reviews for its alleged denials of the Holocaust and exculpations of Hitler. . . . There is no truth in these accusations."

- Professor Norman Stone,
The Sunday Times

8: On Goebbels: "David Irving knows more than anyone alive about the German side of the Second World War. He discovers archives unknown to official historians ... His greatest achievement is Hitler's War ... indispensable to anyone seeking to understand the war in the round. Irving as usual, knows more than anyone of the details [of the death of the Goebbels family in 1945]. He does not spare us."

- Professor Sir John Keegan,
The Daily Telegraph

9: On Goebbels: "Some critics, including Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, have accused Irving of 'trying to destroy the memory of those who . . . perished at the hands of tyrants.' Even a cursory inspection of this new, 700-page plus account [Goebbels] does not support that assertion."

- Professor Francis L. Loewenheim

10: On Goebbels: "Silencing Mr Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from the annoyance that he causes us. The fact is that he knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933 1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit to his energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigor of his publications.

- Professor Gordon A Craig

11: "On Göring: "Irving's research effort is awesome."

- Professor Larry Thompson,
The Chicago Tribune

12: On Göring: "At the Nuremberg trials he defended himself with vigour and rebutted some of the charges that had wrongfully been made against him. It also came out in matters of art, on which David Irving is rather good."

- Professor Norman Stone
The New Statesman

13: On Göring: "A very readable book, for Irving has always written with verve and energy. . . It tells us a great deal that we did not know. . . Highly interesting. . . Marvellous stuff.… An absorbing account. . . Most intriguing."

- Professor Gordon A Craig

14: On Churchill's War: "A vivid portrait accompanied by much striking and original analysis. It is certainly no mere repeat of the usual hagiography. Once again David Irving shows himself a master of documentation."

- Professor John Erickson
University of Edinburgh

15: "On Göring: "Irving's research effort is awesome."

- Professor Larry Thompson,
The Chicago Tribune

16: On The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe: "... deserves a warm welcome ... Mr. Irving has made splendid use of the Milch papers and other German records which he has been able to study."

- Stephen Roskill
British official historian

17: On Rommel: "Most of Irving's books are big, solid works like this. All are well written, exciting, fun to read, and all contain new information based on sensational discoveries."

- Professor Stephen Ambrose
Washington Post

18: On PQ.17: "David Irving knows how to appraise the unassuming heroism of the ordinary man. From both points of view, his present book on the destruction of convoy PQ.17 is even better than the one which made his name on the bombing of Dresden. It is a melancholy story, with many separate strands leading to disaster."

- Professor A. J. P. Taylor
The Observer

19: On Rommel: ""I am tremendously impressed. . . A superb character study and a fine work."

- Matthew B. Ridgway
General, U.S. Army

20: On The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe: "The result is a biography of Milch, slanted as it were towards the Luftwaffe. . . This one is scholarly, fair and highly informative."

- Professor A. J. P. Taylor
The Observer

21: On Rommel: ""A fascinating study of the brilliant Rommel. It enables the reader to experience the emotions of a warrior in battle."

- Mark W. Clark
General, U.S. Army (retired)

22: Rommel: David Irving has been so successful in building up a reputation as The Man You Love To Hate that his merits as an historian are too easily forgotten. . . Professional historians have always envied him his immense capacity for work and his astonishing luck in finding new documents; and they should be grateful to him ... But his fellow historians can take nothing but pleasure in [this] work

- Professor Michael Howard
The Times


One article about Jewish behavior and psychology in connection with 'the' holocaust which made a lasting impression on me is, perhaps surprising to some commenters, not David Duke's 'My Awakening', but an article written by the Israeli born Jazz Musician Gilad Atzmon.

AIPAC Mordechais, the holocaust religion is as old as the Jews.'

Or short:

Anonymous said...

And so it starts... a holocaust denier is portayed as a creditable historian. No-one can debate with liers and win. They will just make up the evidence as they go along knowing they have pulled of a coup of having their lies have endorsed with acadminc prestige.

And of course Grifin won't come alone. The jackboots in suits will be there. Combat 18 and Redatch will also be on hand to teach any real demoncrats and defenders of free speech the error of their ways.

So tell me - how many fascists does it take to make a liberal see sense?

hug a hoodie - more like a door holder for nazis.

Jonny Wright said...

"How many fascists does it take to make a liberal see sense?"

The more fascism I see, the more determined I become to defend our democratic values, such as free speech. The fact that Nick Griffin and the BNP thugs would love to take our civil rights away from us makes it even more important to defend those rights - otherwise, the fascists have already won.

Anonymous said...

I believe obligations are a corollary of every right. Sure, it is easy to argue that there should be no restrictions to the freedom of speech, but would this not be inferring that Hutus inciting against their Tutsi Brethren were well in their right to do so? Would you hold them culpable if any Hutu listening took their advice? Why then should Irvin and Grifin be given a platform to incite racial and anti semitic hatred-even if the podium is less gullible?

Anonymous said...

"I may destest what you say but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it"

Seems right?

Anonymous said...

"I may destest what you say but I will fight to the death to set up and promote a special event for you to say it at"

Does that still make sense?

Anonymous said...

I think my friend you are confusing what the right to free speech is... If we are allowed to say ANYTHING we like, then I could be justified, if someone gave me a platform, to go on and curse everyone and everything. I could have a programme on TV, and swear English people for example. Would you still support my freedom to free speech then? Of course not...
When you speak in public, you have to be careful... People that watch and listen to you might be influenced or insulted by what you say. The right to free speech is different when you speak with a friend, and different when you speak in public. Freedom does not mean we can go out and swear and insult other people because that's what we like to do in our free time...
A basic principle of democracy is that your freedom ends there where the freedom of someone else starts. This is a wise saying, and if we followed this, nobody would be insulted, and nobody should feel restricted. I am Greek, and I would not like to listen to someone insulting Greeks. Therefore, I believe that if I do not like this, I should not do it to anyone else as well.
My opinion is that the right to free speech is just an excuse of racists and fanatics.

glad thereafter said...

The remarkable thing is that it's Irving and Griffin whose acceptability is debated.

Irving is a professional historian, and if we live in an age where debates about history are controlled by the politically powerful we none of us are free in any sense at all.

Griffin is a politician whose primary demand is the control of native peoples of their homelands - a cause most of us accepted as legitimate 50 years when we acceeded to African and Asian peoples' demands for self-determination.

What kind of a world must we be living in that the avowedly liberal and progressive are the ones crushing dissent and punishing those who defend native ethnic interests? Surely not one in which men are free.

No man chooses to care more about other peoples than about his own, or to deny himself free inquiry.

When the free-est societies, which happen not coincidentally to be the most tolerant, allow themselves to be silenced by other less-free and tolerant societies and communities in their midst, both freedom and tolerance are diminished - the pendulum has swung too far.

The real question is - when will it become acceptable that the peoples of Europe say that they will continue to live as distinct peoples in their homelands, and will live how they like?

When will balance - and justice - return?

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