by Jeremy Young | 10/19/2008 12:48:00 PM
I've given myself a day to think over my comments in this thread by Ahistoricality, which were (my comments) pretty intemperate. I've realized that I need to apologize on a couple of fronts. One, I had a very visceral negative reaction to Timothy Garton Ash's use of the term "nanny state" in defending the "Appel de Blois." "Nanny state" is a right-wing frame that feeds what I consider the tragically incorrect opinion that government itself is the cause of all (or even most) of our problems. For Ash, who is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, this is probably a correct use of the term, but I recognize that neither Ahistoricality nor the predominantly liberal group of historians who signed the Appel (including the unrepentant Marxist Eric Hobsbawm) hold this view, nor is it integrally related to the Appel's argument, and I apologize for insinuating otherwise. Two, contrary to what I stated in the thread, I know very well why "articulation" and other cross-curricular standardization efforts are dangerous to the teaching and practice of history, and it was petulant and disingenuous of me to state otherwise. My apologies for that as well.

However, I still find the Appel itself troubling, and at least some of what I stated in that thread -- particularly my references to David Horowitz, David Irving, and Ward Churchill -- contains clues as to why. In what follows, I'll try to expand on my comments in a more thorough and less ham-handed fashion.

First, David Horowitz, one of whose books I reviewed here (I've read two of them, Indoctrination U. and The Professors, both kindly provided by Horowitz free of charge). Even putting aside our political differences, I have a great deal of trouble with Horowitz's methods as an activist. I think he is his own worst enemy; I think he turned a reasonable debate about academic freedom into a witch hunt, and consequently made the argument all about him. After corresponding extensively with Horowitz via e-mail, I'm convinced that even he understands at some level that his actions in the controversy dd him no favors.

But buried beneath Horowitz's dizzying array of allegations is a truth that I think is relevant to this discussion: people have a stake in their own history. Put another way, history shouldn't be created in such a fashion that it's completely divorced from the interests of those who lived it and of those who are its legacy. What Horowitz misses, of course, is that all people have a stake in their own history, not just upper- and middle-class white males. In fact, historians have for half a century been hard at work to restore the forgotten voices of women, African-Americans, and other underprivileged individuals to the historical canon. It's desperately important work, and it has rightly changed our outlook on our history and will continue to do so. That's why narrowly nationalist or triumphalist outlooks of the sort that would inevitably be the product of "articulation" or standardization are wrong -- they don't take into account the multifaceted nature of history, and they don't leave room in the classroom for new innovations which might reveal more of the innumerable facets of that history.

But acknowledging all this good that has come from the historical profession, we must also recognize that emanating from the vox populi there is a growing sense that the profession has strayed too far from its roots, that its arguments or conclusions no longer resonate with the people who lay claim to the legacies about which historians write. That's a failing in the profession that I try to combat every time I write a post for this blog, in an accessible style and location meant to bring historians and non-historians together over a virtual water cooler. What I don't have a chance to comment on generally are the instances in which history can do real damage to the people it's being written about -- and that's exactly what's at issue in the Appel de Blois.

As good Lockean liberals, we all believe in the freedom of speech, and most of us reject the question "How much freedom of speech is too much?" as one that shouldn't even be asked. However, at the same time, we're perfectly willing to accept certain limits on that speech that constitute a clear and present danger to society or to individuals in society. The most oft-cited of these exceptions is also the least controversial: it's illegal to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But many of us are willing to accept further limits on freedom of speech. It's illegal to tell demonstrable untruths about a person in public (slander) or in print (libel) if those untruths are calculated to harm that person. In states where hate speech is outlawed, it's illegal to walk into a bar and start shouting about how all gay people should be killed, or to yell anti-Semitic slurs at Jewish children on their way to school. It's illegal to knowingly incite a riot through words, as former Navajo Nation chairman Peter MacDonald learned when he called on his supporters to forcibly oust the Nation's new government, sparking a pitched battle that left two people dead.

Here's where I think people having a stake in their own history makes a concrete difference. On most issues of historical import, there is wide disagreement, even among those who claim ownership of the events discussed, as to what constitutes the "true" or "right" interpretation of these events. But on a minuscule few issues, there is near unanimity among all concerned -- as near unanimity as there is regarding the notion, for instance, that killing all gay people is an immoral idea, or that inciting a murderous riot in a democratic society is a bad thing to do. On an even smaller subset of these issues, this agreement holds that expression of the opposite view actually constitutes a clear and present danger to society or to individual members of society, every bit as much as do the examples above. In such rare cases, and in these cases alone, I think it is the right of ordinary people to criminalize this kind of speech, to use the intervention powers of their government to stop such speech from being spoken in public or written down.

This is exactly what happened in David Irving's case. The Austrian people and their government have determined that publicly denying the historical truth of the Holocaust, a nearly universally-recognized fact, is itself an incitement to violence and an attack on a group of individuals who suffered from it (the Jews). The unfortunate name of this crime, "trivializing the Holocaust," in no way renders it any different from the crime with which Peter MacDonald was charged, or from hate speech. David Irving, the world's most prominent published Holocaust denier, was arrested and charged under this law, pled guilty, and was hauled off to jail. His arch-enemy, historian Deborah Lipstadt, called the verdict censorship; I disagree with her assessment. Irving was, through his writings, inciting people to violence; the Austrian government had every right to prohibit his behavior.

Ward Churchill is a more difficult case. Obviously his firing from the University of Colorado faculty was the result of his falsifying his CV and committing various acts of malfeasance. However, it's equally clear that there are hundreds of tenured professors across America who have probably committed comparable sins, and that Churchill was only investigated in the first place because of his comment that the victims of 9/11 were "little Eichmanns." So we have to admit that Churchill got in trouble with the authorities (in his case, a state university system) because he expressed an unpopular opinion. Many have defended Churchill's right to say what he said (including, according to self-report, David Horowitz), and I wouldn't suggest that Churchill should be prosecuted for it. But did his words alone merit an internal investigation into his conduct at the University? I would argue that they did. Churchill's comments undoubtedly constituted material harm to the families of those who died in the World Trade Center. While it has to be a right of all Americans to harm the rich and powerful with our words, we have no such right to harm victims of an unfathomable tragedy.

My comments here should not be construed as implying support for the curtailing of free speech in all areas of academic life. In fact, many of the cases cited in Ash's article involve laws that clearly discriminate against unpopular viewpoints in situations where those viewpoints do not constitute a clear and present danger to anyone. Also, I'm very attuned to the slippery-slope argument that Ralph Luker makes in his comment in the previous thread. But I think in this instance it's safer to put on crampons and trudge a few paces down that slope than to deny ordinary people the opportunity to have any say in policing their own history, even when they might be materially harmed by their failure to do so. Similarly, I think we should fight individual laws that overstep the bounds of free speech without issuing a blanket statement that denies the common man even that agency we give to the editors of historical journals and academic publishing houses.

As always, I am open to being convinced otherwise. I don't like the implications of what I'm arguing, and if someone can show me how we can provide this common agency without treading on free speech, I'm all ears. And I'm sorry if my views have offended anyone's sensibilities, as I'm certain they have. This is merely a statement on my current thinking on the subject, not a profession of my unchanging views for all time.



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Anonymous Ralph Luker on 10/19/2008 3:58 PM:

Jeremy, Your position throws the doors wide open to forces like Hindutva, who would establish politically acceptable research, speech, thought, by criminalizing what is unacceptable. It also throws the doors open to campus speech codes that are fortunately, in our public institutions, at least, quite simply unconstitutional. It says that we have a right to demand that we can live in a society in which there is *no* speech that offends us. That is, I'm afraid, a totalitarian instinct. In your better moments, you wouldn't make this kind of argument.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/19/2008 4:13 PM:

Ralph, I appreciate your comments, but I'm attempting to split this nut in half. You may recall that I oppose campus speech codes, defended your AHA bill at length on this very website, and have announced my intention to vote for it if I'm ever at a meeting where it's proposed. I also reject the idea that anyone has the right to "live in a society in which there is *no* speech that offends us." "Offense" is not the criterion I'm using; clear and present danger to society or to individuals in society is the standard I'm suggesting -- a standard already well-supported in areas of speech (such as crowded theaters and riots) that don't involve academic freedom. Should we be able to say things in scholarly books that would be illegal to say on the street corner? I don't think so.

I hadn't heard of Hindutva until you mentioned it, so I think I should hold off on passing any judgment there. Off the top of my head, my challenge to believers in Hindutva might be to show me exactly how opponents of the theory of Indo-Aryan migration constitute a clear and present danger to anyone.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/19/2008 8:53 PM:

Anyone can claim that denigration is the first step to genocide. Anyone can claim that a positive historical narrative is essential to the well-being of the nation.

Your argument that there are a few topics which justify censorship beyond the "clear and present danger" standard puts us on the slippery slope, and your belief that we can anchor ourselves on the slippery slope is outdated, at best.

As for Hindutva (which you've got backwards; they're opposed to the migration narrative, because they believe in an ahistorical cultural continuity between modern Hinduism and pre-Vedic tradition and an absurd genetic purity associated with this continuity that permits no foreign bodies) a movement that induces archive-destroying rioters (is there any less forgivable act, among historians?) and death threats against distinguished scholars is not merely about early migration theory.

I'm glad, though, that we've actually reached the core of the discussion, and thanks for clarifying your earlier comments.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/19/2008 9:03 PM:

I don't, in any way, support what Hindutva is doing, as per your description. But isn't the very problem with those acts that they are extralegal? How does a band of hoodlums firebombing an archive compare with the democratically-elected government of Austria arresting a notorious Holocaust denier?

Note that I would be very unhappy if Hindutva were elected to the Indian government and proceeded to order the firebombing of all the archives they didn't like. That's why I'm imposing the "clear and present danger" standard -- which I think they would be hard-pressed to surmount in the court of world opinion.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/19/2008 9:20 PM:

Hindutva politicians have called for the use of the power of the state to punish historians, has called for the extradition of historians to face charges of disrespect and undermining the nation. Hindutva politicians have pushed for increased legislation against critical and honest history and Hindutva groups in the US have used state-level education boards' textbook processes to push for alterations to primary and secondary texts.

This isn't a theoretical problem.


Anonymous Ralph Luker on 10/19/2008 9:30 PM:

Hindutva is *not* merely "a band of hoodlums". It is the primary intellectual influence in the BJP, which formed India's "democratically-elected" government from 1998 to 2004 and is, now, the primary opposition party. I am astonished that you are not opposed to state regulation of research, debate, publication, and speech. You need to be prepared to defend the freedom of speech of speakers whose views you find contemptible. Otherwise, you're no civil libertarian at all.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/19/2008 9:42 PM:

Ralph, I've never claimed to be a "civil libertarian." I was, and am, a proud statist. Then again, so is Eric Hobsbawm, exponentially more so than I am, and he's signed the Appel. So I don't really think that's what's at issue here.

To both of you, granted that this isn't a theoretical problem. But I'm arguing that we're on that slippery slope already, and that protecting historians from the very real consequences of their actions -- something we wouldn't do for anyone else -- may not be the best course of action. As for the example Ahistoricality linked, I think "using the power of the state to punish historians...[for] disrespect" is bad, and using already-existing textbook-editing boards to press partisan claims is fine. Actually, I'd probably stay out of the K-12 discussion altogether, since my real views on that subject are esoteric and would require a lot of explanation. But I don't see how I'm failing to "defend the freedom of speech of speakers whose views [I] find contemptible." It's not a contemptible opinion I'm attacking, but a contemptible opinion that has the very real potential to incite violence. That, I cannot defend.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/19/2008 9:44 PM:

And, again, that's the standard that I don't think Hindutva has met, even editing out the utter contempt in which I hold their ideas: I don't think they've proved that the opinions with which they disagree constitute a clear and present danger to their nation. I don't think David Irving can plausibly claim that his opinions don't constitute such a danger in a country that elected Joerg Haider only too recently. As for Churchill, yes, that's a grayer area -- but aren't his words themselves a clear and present danger to the victims?


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/19/2008 10:02 PM:

aren't his words themselves a clear and present danger to the victims?

Only if there was a potential for someone to take his words seriously enough to do harm to the relatives of the victims. Or if he makes a charge specific enough to be deemed slanderous to the estate of the deceased. You're claiming that there's a bright-line distinction to be made here, but you're fuzzing it up for Churchill.

'm arguing that we're on that slippery slope already...

And we're arguing for getting off it.


Blogger mark on 10/19/2008 10:06 PM:

Hi Jeremy,

David Irving is an abhorrent person who has made it his life's project to rehabilitate Nazism. He's an evil man.

That said, until he causes actual, quantifiable, harm, I still wouldn't throw him in prison for his speech or writings because the principle on which Irving is imprisoned - that certain kinds of peaceful political speech are inherently dangerous - can and eventually will be wielded against advocates of other ideas (it also makes Irving a martyr for freedom of expression, an honor he certainly does not deserve).

In practice, such standards of "dangerous speech" get reified to become increasingly broad, vague and Orwellian because they feed the appetite of the worst elements in society to accumulate power by giving them a club with which to beat others.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/19/2008 10:12 PM:

You're claiming that there's a bright-line distinction to be made here, but you're fuzzing it up for Churchill.

That's because what was done to Churchill was fuzzy. He wasn't prosecuted or fired for his comments, only investigated. The investigation happened to turn up the fact that he'd violated the standards of academic professionalism on completely unrelated issues, whereupon he was fired.

Mark, I recognize the argument you're making, and that all of you are making. Obviously I need to give this some more thought. But one more question before I retreat into my cave for solitary thought: what recourse do ordinary citizens of a democratic society have against the likes of Irving if they're not allowed to pass laws criminalizing his behavior?


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/19/2008 10:25 PM:

No, what happened to Churchill is quite clear: he got noticed and carefully examined, and was discovered to have violated the basic tenets of the profession. No different from someone who gets audited because some IRS algorithm notices something.

Here's the thing, though: you're attempting to argue, as I read it, that Churchill's speech was on or close to the line, when it was, in fact, exactly the kind of general political statement which ought to be completely protected by any reasonable understanding of free speech.


Anonymous Anonymous on 10/20/2008 9:01 AM:

from Proximity1:

This is a fascinating discussion.

The Blois Appeal sprang from some specific episodes.

Read all about them here:

bravo for these threads!

And, J., your disputants are right on this one. ;^)


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/20/2008 10:22 AM:

Hi Prox -- thanks for the link, which I'll make my way through later today. After taking another night to think this over, I think you and they are right...


Blogger Valtin on 10/20/2008 10:28 PM:

A fascinating discussion, and a thorny issue. I agree with Ralph and Ahistoricality that generally there should be no state intervention in any intellectual production, and this includes the research and writing of history.

The issue becomes even more murky, if one tries to attach causation to an ideological position or academic work. To borrow some of Ward Churchill's thinking, should a history book that minimizes the effects of U.S. imperialistic campaigns in Indochina, the Philippines, or the Middle East (say), be suppressed, because it allows for the recruitment of a murderous imperialist army and the perpetuation of deadly policies abroad?

I mention Churchill because his case is instructive. The man had made many enemies over the years, not least since his research into Cointelpro. That he was a sloppy academic and something of a demagogue is either besides the point or very much to the point, depending what side one wishes to be on. But many of the points he was making in his "little Eichmans" article were very important, and it is a justifiable criticism of him that he made them in such an inflammatory and careless way. (How many janitors, secretaries, cafeteria workers, etc. were killed at WTC on 9/11? Churchill's denigration of the fact mirrors the arrogance of Madeline Albright, whose position on the children who died as a result of Clinton's Iraq embargo and bombing Churchill rightly and wonderfully condemned.)

It is clear to all that Churchill was witchhunted. It was not anything like an IRS algorithm that caught him. It was something more akin to Nixon's use of the IRS to destroy his enemies. Churchill was sloppy. He was arrogant. How many others in the history profession (or one like my own, psychology) would be brought down by such like scutiny? One could ask the ghost of Cyril Burt.

For all the above, I sympathize with Jeremy's reluctance to sign the petition, though perhaps not for the reason he states. There is something about it that appeals to an idealized view of historical truth, or of a process of discovery that seems very ivory tower to me. The writing of history does affect human beings, as does the writing of all the sciences. I do not think, in a moment of grave danger, a state would allow its historians to publish a volume that pilloried its champions and advocated for its opponents. But such moments are rare, moments when the state is truly in danger, and even then the question of what constitutes such a danger is an ideological one, a question of commitment. In the end, I see the manufacture of history as a reflection of the various struggles in history, primarily between classes.

Milton made the opposite argument in his Areopagitica. It didn't stop him from missing the executioner's ax by a hair's breadth. As revenge, he rewrote a divine history, and changed English literature as a result. That's some kind of revenge. We mere mortals must be content to muddle along.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 10/20/2008 11:25 PM:

There is something about it that appeals to an idealized view of historical truth, or of a process of discovery that seems very ivory tower to me. ... In the end, I see the manufacture of history as a reflection of the various struggles in history, primarily between classes.

Given that class struggle is frequently played out in the arena of state power, it would seem that establishing a firm limit on that power with regard to historical narratives would benefit the weaker side in that struggle.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/20/2008 11:44 PM:

Actually, the example Prox cites is far worse than any that Ash brought up in his post. Any law that makes it illegal for you to say you don't like that law goes against the nature of democracy.

I have to say, I'm coming around to the other view.


Anonymous Anonymous on 10/21/2008 7:54 AM:

"Any law that makes it illegal for you to say you don't like that law goes against the nature of democracy."

Exactly right.

But there's so much more to consider and it's why this is such a rich topic: it draws out so many of the aspects which are at the core of so much contemporary controversy--political, social, historical, you name it.

One example:

When the extraneous verbiage is cut away, what's revealed as the main motive behind those who persued Professor Pétré-Grenouilleau is very simple and very basic to human nature. His essay lacked what his critics saw as the appropriate degree of moral outrage due and demanded for all the suffering of particular class of ancestors whose historical "cause" they've made their own raison d'être.

What's being insisted on again and again here and in more and more similar instances is not just that people whether specialists or laymen be _aware__ of the history of such persecuted classes, but indeed much more---that they have (and even demonstrate whenever called upon)an abiding sense of just how terrible this group (fill in the blank) had been treated by (fill in the blank).

Some of the allusions made in the chronology are probably not familiar to people who don't follow the daily controversies of French society and politics so, to mention one:

Not so long ago, President Sarkozy proposed that every second or third grader in the country be assigned by his history teacher the work of becoming familiar with the life of a young Nazi holocaust victim lost in World War II. The notion is something akin to each school child's "adopting" a case---"Here, François, yours is the case of eight year old Jerôme, who died at _________",... etc.

The object of such a vast program is clear. The worry is that, while children (children of, say, eight or nine years of age, mind you!) learn their grade's complement of Holocaust history, they might, all the same, "escape" without what's deemed as the properly due sense of moral outrage for the circumstances they learn about.

When the state puts itself in the position of attempting to ensure that everyone not only is instructed in the facts of history--as the state sees those facts--but also that they _draw__ from them not only the appropriate moral conclusions but, even, find themselves "guided" in attaining the correct degree of emotional involvement, you have the basis of what prompted the historians to object and issue the Blois Appeal.

--- proximity1


Anonymous Anonymous on 10/21/2008 8:06 AM:


as usually happens in France, and fortunately so, the suit was withdrawn

" Patrick Karam devait annoncer lors d’une conférence de presse, vendredi 3 février, le retrait de la plainte qu’il avait déposée à l’encontre d’Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau. Le Monde 06/02/2006"

[Patrick Karam to announce at a press conference Friday, February 3rd, the withdrawal of a court complaint he filed against Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau. Le Monde 06/02/2006"



Blogger Jeremy Young on 10/21/2008 10:36 AM:

Thank goodness!

Regarding Sarko's idea of personalizing the Holocaust, I have to say I'm not certain it's such a terrible idea in general. Young children (and even the rest of us!) have a hard time understanding the relevance of historical events without a name and face to put to the event. So as a pedagogical tool, it's interesting. As a national mandate from the state? Not so much.