Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Lies and memory

Lest anyone forget that eliminationist hatred is a global phenomenon, this week's Holocaust Denial conference in Iran is a vivid reminder of the ways this kind of vicious bigotry can spread to every corner of the globe.

Indeed, according to the New York Times report, many of the same players who spread this poison here in the United States are showing up in Tehran this week:
The Foreign Ministry had said that 67 foreign researchers from 30 countries were scheduled to take part. Among those speaking on Monday were David Duke, the American white-supremacist politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader, and Georges Thiel, a French writer who has been prosecuted in France over his denials of the Holocaust.

Duke's remarks were expected to assert that no gas chambers or extermination camps were built during the war, on the ground that killing Jews that way would have been much too bothersome and expensive when the Nazis could have used much simpler methods, according to an advance summary of his speech published by the institute.

"Depicting Jews as the overwhelming victims of the Holocaust gave the moral high ground to the Allies as victors of the war and allowed Jews to establish a state on the occupied land of Palestine," Duke's paper says, according to the summary.

Especially noteworthy was the fact that this wasn't merely a private convention, the kind where this material is commonly spewed. This was a government-sponsored affair entirely under the aegis of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
The conference was being held at the behest of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who likewise called the Holocaust a myth last year, and repeated a well-known slogan from the early days of the 1979 revolution in Iran: "Israel must be wiped off the map." He has spoken several times since then about a need to establish whether the Holocaust actually happened.

Most of the speakers at the conference on Monday praised Ahmadinejad's comments.

Anne Applebaum in Slate (whose strangely inane front-page head for the piece described Holocaust revisionism as "silly, but very scary") has a fairly accurate assessment of this:
Unfortunately, Iran is serious -- or at least Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is deadly serious. Holocaust denial is his personal passion, not just a way of taunting Israel, and it's based in his personal interpretation of history. Earlier this year, in a distinctly eerie open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he lauded the great achievements of German culture and assaulted "the propaganda machinery after World War II that has been so colossal that [it] has caused some people to believe that they are the guilty party." Such views hearken back to the 1930s, when the then-Shah of Iran was an admirer of Hitler's notion of the "Aryan master race," to which Persians were meant to belong. Ahmadinejad himself counts as a mentor an early revolutionary who was heavily influenced by wartime Nazi propaganda. It shows.

... All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this particular brand of historical revisionism is no joke, and we shouldn't be tempted to treat it that way.

Applebaum is right, of course. However, it has to be remembered that "this particular brand of historical revisionism" -- embodied by people like Duke and David Irving -- isn't relegated strictly to Holocaust denial.

Recall, if you will, that the same white nationalist faction that spreads this anti-Semitic hatred is engaged in revising history on a number of fronts. There are, for instance, revisionists who claim that slavery was a benign institution.

The phenomenon is not simply relegated to the American far right, however; it has in fact crept well into mainstream conservatism. Take, for instance, right-wing author Thomas Woods, whose chief thrust is that civil-rights advances in the 20th century were actually harmful for minorities.

More notoriously, there was Ann Coulter's attempt to rehabilitate McCarthyism in her book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism by engaging in precisely the kind of historical distortion in which the Holocaust deniers engage -- eliding contradictory evidence, distorting and falsifying facts.

Applebaum actually addressed Coulter's work as sham history -- it made her want to "throw the book across the room" -- but treated it mostly as, well, a bad joke. She neglected to observe that the enterprise constituted precisely the kind of historical revisionism that she now recognizes as innately destructive. Even worse, she equates Coulter with Michael Moore:
Still, it isn't hard to imagine using the same methods to write the same book from precisely the opposite point of view, and indeed someone has already done it: Michael Moore, in Stupid White Men.

Yet Moore's methods -- for all their flaws, which are considerable -- are decidedly not the same as Coulter's (nor, for that matter, are Tammy Bruce's, whose work she also equates with Coulter's). At no point in Stupid White Men does Moore attempt to revise history or present an "alternative" version of history; accusing "pretty much everyone on the right of corruption and venality" is simply his perspective -- and Lord knows that, in distinct contrast to Coulter, not only did Moore have a substantial mound of hard factual evidence, the succeeding years have provided a veritable mountain of it to support his thesis.

Another noteworthy example of this brand of historical revisionism appearing in the guise of mainstream conservatism was Michelle Malkin's attempt to justify the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II -- a matter that, as far as I can tell, Applebaum never addressed. As I observed at the time, while Malkin's enterprise was not as profoundly vile in nature as, say, David Irving's, her methodology was remarkably similar:
In Defense of Internment ... employs a methodology very similar, if not identical, to the deniers: It fudges numbers, claiming, for instance, that the numbers of Nisei serving in the Japanese Army ranged "from 1,648 ... to as high as 7,000", a range that renders it almost meaningless, while omitting the fact that many of those Nisei were unfortunate students forcibly conscripted into service. It elides whole ranges of evidence and manipulates other pieces of evidence in a way that is clearly deceptive. It rationalizes the internment by raising the canard that because many of the Nisei were technically "dual citizens," their loyalty was suspect, thereby minimizing the impact of the incarceration for thousands of loyal citizens. It tries to place the decisions that drove the internment in a false "context" of supposed military concerns about an imminent invasion (though Malkin has since conceded that the military's only real concern was about spot raids similar to those that wracked the East Coast -- where German American citizens were not incarcerated -- as well). And it raises "fresh evidence" in the form of MAGIC encrypts, the significance of which has consistently been discarded by serious historians as minimal at best, for sound factual reasons.

As the Irving example suggests, this kind of approach to history -- in which facts are mere indulgent playthings to be manipulated and distorted at will, all in the service of "proving" a thesis -- is more than a mere exercise in pedantic polemicism. It inflicts real-world harm on the lives of ordinary people by minimizing the tragedies of those who actually lived through the events whose memory they abuse so blithely.

Worst of all, in doing so, they pave the way for these tragedies to repeat themselves. And that, really, is what makes Malkin, Irving, Gibson and their like truly reprehensible.

Historical revisionism is not only never a joke, it is positively an evil. Because history, in the end, is about preserving intact the memory of real human experience. Lies about those memories are intended to destroy them and, in the end, to destroy our sense of history.

Those who forget history, as Santayana put it, are condemned to repeat it. And those who destroy it are condemning the rest of us to the endless cycle of hatred and violence.

That is as true in America as it is in Iran.

UPDATE: Eric Muller has a personal take on the Tehran conference.

UPDATE II: Natasha at Pacific Views offers a broader perspective.

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