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Earlier this week, the Detroit Free Press reported on a speech by Elie Wiesel, the venerable Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor who had this to say about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world’s most famous holocaust denier:
Just as Pinochet (late dictator of Chile) was arrested a few years ago, he should be arrested and brought to The Hague (court) and be indicted for incitement of crimes against humanity.
This is a continuation of statements Wiesel has made of late that shows an irrational fear of speech. In a forum held earlier this month in Toronto, Wiesel said Holocaust denial should be the one exception to free expression, although he added the caveat that this should not be the case in the United States, where free speech is arguably our most treasured right. He also used the forum, which was billed as a debate with the author Salman Rushdie, to criticize Iran’s suppression of expression and the reactionary attitude towards “blasphemy” in radical Islam, in general.
Wiesel’s statements go beyond just wanting to control speech, but let’s stop there for a moment. Over at ScienceBlogs, on a page called Respectful Insolence linked to below, the author rebuts Wiesel every bit as well as I could have and did it earlier, so:
I never thought I’d say this, but here Elie Wiesel is dead wrong. I really hate to say it about who’s done things as great as what Elie Wiesel has done with his life, but he is human, after all, and therefore has his blind spots. Quite frankly, Wiesel’s advocacy of a ban on Holocaust denial while championing free speech to criticize Islam doesn’t just look hypocritical. From my perspective, it is hypocritical. Why this one exception to free speech for Holocaust denial bans? Why not other exceptions to free speech–such as for criticizing religion or racist hate speech against others besides Jews?
Of course, Wiesel has always had a worldview that extends well beyond Judaism. I’m not qualified to discuss whether this view has tightened over the years, although the criticism is fair enough I guess. But in his speech in Detroit this week, he explains himself a bit.
Referring to the Holocaust, Wiesel said:
“If this tragedy were to be forgotten, it would be a tragedy not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world.”
And he’s right about that. But Wiesel, it seems, is willing to retain the memory of the Holocaust with a troubling authoritarianism. He does not just want to control speech, but the social memory of that terrible moment in history. I sympathize. Someday Holocaust survivors won’t be able to tell their own stories. Will movies, books, museums and monuments be enough to remind us of our inhumanity to ourselves? It’s a real fear.
Wiesel stressed the importance of memory and not forgetting even though we may want to. ”The body fights memory,” Wiesel said, because it is sometimes about pain.
But, he added, “History without memory can’t exist. Civilization without memory can’t prevail…Books can disappear. Memory can be wounded.”
But of course, collective memory cannot be harnessed any more than individual memory can. Wiesel must trust that the truth about the Holocaust will live on for the same reasons he must believe that peace might someday prevail in the world–the human march towards fulfilling our potential for goodness. If he can’t trust that, I suppose I understand why. But if he cannot trust, as Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith once led him to proclaim, that the universe leans towards justice, then no laws will help his cause.
Excepting such hopes, there’s only one way a collective memory stays alive: through activity. And here we find the great irony that Wiesel seems to be missing: Ahmadinejad helps keep the Holocaust alive in our active collective memories. When he makes his inane comments denying or downplaying the genocide, an avalanche of evidence rolls down upon his arguments and we are reminded again of the truth. Rushdie certainly sees this:
It would be very inappropriate to think of any system of ideas as something that should be protected from debate. This is in a way at the heart of the free-speech argument, that you should by all means protect individuals against discrimination by reason of whatever their belief system may be. But the beliefs themselves are open for debate, criticism, satire, and all kinds of disrespectful remarks.”
“We are in danger of losing the battle for freedom of speech”: Salman Rushdie – National Post, June 1, 2010
Not that the memory’s survival necessarily staves off future atrocities. We’ve already learned that many times over. But when you institutionalize a memory through laws, when you disallow the free flow of opinions, you are dooming that memory to become a ghost or, worse, forgotten altogether.
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