Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Holocaust History and the Law

History: the legalised version
click for the Guardian Comment is Free link - and the remarkably sane comments..

Legislating against scepticism is a slippery slope.

February 26, 2007

"What is truth" is not a question for politicians - they are the worst equipped to recognise it. Armenian genocides, the Holocaust, do not need politicians to sort out what happened. Politicians just need to make sure it does not happen again.

In 1897, the Indiana legislature passed a remarkably incoherent bill establishing that pi was equal to 3.2 or 4 or even 3.23. But not 3.142, etc, ad infinitum. It was stalled in the state senate, after being referred, in what one hopes was a sense of merriment, to the Committee on Temperance.

We should be lucky they were not Biblical literalists of the kind who keep trying to usher Darwin out of the schools and smuggle creationism in the front door. The Book of Kings clearly mandates that pi is three. If the creationists were only to travel in aircraft and cars designed on that basis, there would be an interesting demonstration of Darwin in action. It would do wonders for the gene pool.

As Mark Twain once said: "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself ..." Twain, who was never an American parochialist, couldn't have intended to refer simply to American legislators.

Despite the Patriot Act, the US is (temporarily) ahead because of First Amendment fundamentalisms, even if honoured in the breach more than the observance, as sundry Palestinians who have espoused unpopular causes can testify. Without such protections, Twain's idiots are going through Aye lobbies across Europe to put small print in the history books.

Almost as bad as legislative poking around in test tubes are lawmakers making history. For example, there were indeed massacres of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman era, and from what I have seen of the evidence, there is strong evidence that Istanbul officially condoned and probably conducted the operations. But I think the idea that France should make scepticism about it illegal is every bit as inane as Turkey making it illegal to say that it happened.

Of course it happened, and the cleverest thing the Turks could do is to say, "Hey, it happened under the Sultans. But we aren't responsible. We've had a revolution, we got rid of the Sultan, dissolved his harem, and we're really sorry for anything the corrupt old polygamist and his crowd got up to." It may not be entirely true of course: the military that removed the Sultan were involved in those operations, but it would show willing.

Contemporary politics rarely provides a good platform from which to solidify retrospection. Indeed, the Armenian genocide became tangentially involved with the Jewish Holocaust in 1990 when Senate Leader Bob Dole moved a resolution to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Originally Dole had a clear majority in support but then the Israel lobby "lent" a dozen or so senators to the Turkish lobby, to cement Israel's alliance with Ankara. When they withdrew their votes, without making Galileo-like disclaimers, like "they are still dead", it made Bob Dole a strong opponent of loan guarantees to build Israeli settlements, and still has repercussions as various presidential candidates adjust their positions.

As governor of Texas, George Bush took McCain to task for not supporting, but is now, as president, fighting shy of supporting similar measures for fear of Turkish displeasure. He does not have many friends left internationally, after all.

And this time around, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has espoused the cause, which, apart from ethical qualms, is why the Turks are having difficulty enlisting pro-Israeli groups to fight their fight. Indeed, the wonder is that they ever succeeded.

Almost as contentious across Europe is the actual Jewish (and Roma and gay) Holocaust. There should be no exceptions to legislating history. The writers, like David Irving, who have been imprisoned for "Holocaust" denial, are not nice people. But to imprison them for expressing views on a historical matter is on a par with rounding up the Flat Earth Society and sending them down. It is not just bad history: it is bad politics. Imprisoning and persecuting them makes them martyrs and attracts a whole world of wackos to think that if governments want to silence them, then there must be something behind it. And it provides cover for not doing anything about contemporary and future mass murders.

One could understand feeling that action is necessary for someone who says: "The Holocaust did happen - and a shame it did not finish the job," or similar noxious sentiments that could incite. But for someone who denies it, surely care in the community is the better road? We do not send everyone who thinks they are Napoleon to St Helena, do we?

How do we approach the legislator who wants to penalise scepticism about the Gulags under Stalin, or the famines under both him and Mao? Will the French pass a resolution apologising for their behaviour in Algeria and making apologetics for it illegal?

How about legislation penalising glorification of mass bombings of civilians during the second world war? It is a slippery slope. The Tonkin Gulf incident or George Bush's Vietnam war record could be voted into veracity, along with Iraqi WMDs and Saddam Hussein's part in 9/11.

No, it may be irritating when idiots indulge in history, but it is disastrous when congressmen and their overseas colleagues indulge.

No comments: