Freedom and Truth

History on Trial
History on Trial

History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving
by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Truth isn’t part of a cultural conversation if freedom of speech doesn’t accompany it. That’s the most salient–of many–lessons that emerges from Dr. Lipstadt’s powerhouse account of her 2000 trial defending herself from a libel suit by David Irving. I can’t endorse this book enough. Pardon the long post, but this work deserves it.

You may have noticed a certain theme on this blog, a recent uptick in posts about truth, logic, reason, and ethics. I’ve discovered of late that my secular humanist perspective makes me particularly cranky about anti-science, anti-intellectual, or dishonest ideologues. David Irving fits all three descriptions. An “eminent” historian with several books to his credit, Irving morphed into a vocal Holocaust denier in the last thirty years or so. It was thus with great relish that I read and enjoyed the thunderous smackdown this dissembler received at the hands of Lipstadt and her attorneys.

The story (in brief):
Lipstadt, an historian of the Holocaust from Emory University, wrote a book in the early 1990s called Denying the Holocaust, in which she documents the rise of revisionist history and its role in fomenting antisemitic and neo-Nazi sentiments. In a fairly short (apparently) passage of a few pages, she explains that the military historian, David Irving, is a Holocaust denier. While he disputes the facts of the Holocaust in a number of places, the most blatant example of his views comes from a denialist trial in Canada, where he testified, essentially, that the Holocaust was a legend. Lipstadt’s book was published in the U.K, and Irving sued her for libel.

British Libel Law.
This is where it gets interesting. (Aside: I was alerted to this book by Orac, who mentioned it in reference to Simon Singh’s current troubles with the British Chiropractic Association) You see, unlike America, with our meaty Freedom of Speech to protect us, Britain has “notoriously plaintiff-friendly” libel laws. Lipstadt explains:

British libel law… presumes defamatory words to be untrue, until the author proves them true. The burden of proof is, therefore, on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, as would be the case in the United States. Consequently, had Penguin and I not defended ourselves, Irving would have won by default. I would have been found guilty of libel and Irving could then claim that his definition of the Holocaust had been determined to be legitimate.(31)

Lipstadt further explains that Irving’s status as a public figure would have made it nearly impossible for him to sue her in the U.S. In Britain, on the other hand, she had a long and costly court battle that she could legitimately lose — as relying on reasonable source texts is no defense if the court finds one guilty.

(This is the one place where I feel the book doesn’t spend enough time, though to be fair, my hobby horse isn’t the focus of her book. the British libel law stifles critical speech. Because the expensive onus rests with the defendant, it’s often far cheaper to settle and retract one’s statements than to defend them. As such, the libel law can be used like a club to stifle dissident voices. The DMCA’s ubiquitous C&D notices in the U.S. have often been used in a similar way, though sometimes to hilarious effect.)

Instead of caving, however, Lipstadt and Penguin, with help from Emory University and dozens (hundreds?) of individual donors around the world, stood up to Irving’s suit and rode it to court (four years later).

The Trial:
Wades through the minutiae of Irving’s errors and misstatements, wallowing in the daily arguments. It might be boring except that it’s so satisfying to see an asshole hoisted on his own Petard. Each time he was caught up in a lie or a complicated web of them, I thrilled a little bit. There are few moments so delightful as the villain’s comeuppance, and in some ways this book is 200 pages of it. I won’t detail too much more except to say that the verbal gymnastics Irving uses to justify his nonsensical positions defy imagination.

"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"
"It would not be difficult, Mein Führer. Nuclear reactors could - heh, I'm sorry, Mr. President"

There is one more moment I want to mention from the trial, from the closing statements. By this time, Irving has to defend himself against glaring evidence that he abused the process of historical research and skewed evidence to his own ends, he has been labeled a racist and connected to extremists of all stripes. He’s flustered and, in speaking about a rally he spoke at where the audience chanted “Sieg Heil,” he claims the defense only mentioned this as an attempt to smear him. Lipstadt writes:

Irving was anxious to distance himself from these chants. That may explain what happened next. After repeating that he tried to stop the chants, he looked at Judge Gray and, instead of punctuating his remarks with “my Lord,” as he commonly did, he addressed him as “mein Führer.” There was a moment of intense silence as the entire courtroom–Judge Gray included–seemed frozen. Then everyone erupted in laughter. Ken Stern turned to James and said, “This is out of Dr. Strangelove.” From behind me, I heard someone humming the Twilight Zone theme. Irving, who seemed not to have grasped what had happened, marched on…”(263).

In some ways, this moment emblematizes many bits of Irving’s testimony: he often doesn’t grasp the significance of what he’s saying. Another example? In order to prove that he’s not racist, he told reporter Kate Kelland “that his ‘domestic staff’ had included a Barbadian, a Punjabi, a Sri Lankan, and a Pakistani. They were ‘all very attractive girls with very nice breasts.’ “(183). This cluelessness translates to the solipsistic justifications for antisemitic comments implying that Jews were responsible for the hatred heaped on them, etc.

The Ramifications:
Aside from the issues regarding freedom of speech, Lipstadt’s defense introduced into the public record expert testimony devastating many of the “classic” rhetorical moves made by the denialist community. As she put it, Irving isn’t very important, but winning the case was immensely important.

As I said above, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s gripping and involving, tells the story of a triumph in the face of the worst kinds of dishonesty and ideology, and cracks along at a nice pace.