Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Beware the thought police, even when well intentioned.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran. That means he’s a politician. That means you can’t believe 90 percent of what he says.

Ahmadinejad just presided over a conference mainly comprised of professional Jew-haters who gathered to question the validity of the Holocaust.

The conference was a set-up and really meant as part of Ahmadinejad’s response to the Danish cartoon controversy. Islamists wanted the cartoons of Mohammed banned because it was considered offensively. Ahmadinejad responded by promoting a contest for anti-Jewish cartoons. And in his response he wanted to show how certain Western nations try to ban free speech on the Holocaust.

So Ahmadinejad told the conference: “Iran is your house and the house of the world free-thinkers, where everyone can fully express themselves in a brotherly, peaceful, free and calm atmosphere and exchange views with others.” Sure, I see that. And there is a Santa Claus, crystals really do heal, there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Republicans believe in less government.

This reminds me of the old joke about the Soviet Union. An American walks up to a Russian in Red Square and tells him. “In America we have freedom of speech. I can get up in public and say anything unpleasant I want to say about our government.” The Russian looked around carefully and responded: “In the Soviet Union we Russians also have free speech. I can get up in public and say anything nasty about your government that I want.”

Of course there is no real free speech in Iraq. Their free speech is like the Soviet version. You can say anything nasty about Jews that you want. One can’t get up and say anything derogatory about Mohammed. One can’t preach liberalism and social tolerance. One can’t buy adult material or hand out Bibles (yes, censorship cuts both ways).

Ahmadinejad was taking a dig at the hypocrisy of the West, mainly European, countries which allowed the Danish cartoons (as well they should) and which ban anything called Holocaust denial. And the hypocrisy is pretty obvious. Now it is being used rather effectively by a lunatic to encourage further hatred of the West.

The inconsistent view of Europe on human freedom is one that plagues the West. These Europeans like to look down their noses at the US for hypocrisy over things like torture, concentration camps, suspension of habeas corpus and the like. And on those issues they are right. The United States, under Bush, is no longer a free country. But the laws in Europe are just as bad.

People go to prison for saying there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz. This is absurd. Individuals should be free to express any opinion about history they want. It should be legal to say that the US invaded Canada in 1923 even though no one actually believes that happened. People ought to be allowed to believe false things. They ought to be allowed to express their opinions even when those opinions are wrong -- any law that mandated that one could only speak the truth would close down parliamentary debate the world over.

These laws are counterproductive. They don’t stop these ideas from spreading any more than censorship laws stopped erotica or the war on drugs ended marijuana use.

Worse yet these laws turn some really unpleasant people into martyrs for their cause only furthering their reputation and giving them the publicity they crave. Even worse it makes them the standard-bearers of a time honored Western value -- freedom of speech. It turns devils into saints.

And consider how these laws are used to verify the nonsensical conspiracy theories of the Jew haters. They argue that Jews run the world or about to take it over. These laws are used by them as proof.

Even worse some good people, mistaken as they may be on this issue, are made the philosophical allies of the very people they condemn. The National Socialists of Hitler were not advocates of free speech by any means. One does not fight fascism by emulating it any more than one fights attacks on freedom by destroy freedom.

The most damning response that the Jewish Board of Deputies, or anyone else supporting bans on free speech, can give when told that someone is denying the Holocaust would be to say: “Really, how amusing.”

The laws forbidding Holocaust denial are wrong. They only help fuel the anti-Semitism they are meant to stop. They give undue publicity to the cause of these individuals, makes them appear to be martyrs to the high ideas of Western liberalism and encourages authoritarian movements. It is time to get rid of them.

"I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman's club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave." H.L. Mencken