Update posted on June 1, 2019
Since sending the open letter for Michael Mostyn to my MP, the Honourable Rachael Harder, I have received no reply. I make no assumptions about the reasons for this. I have made no follow-up.
Given my lack of follow-up you might think that I have simply let this initiative drop. But this is not so. I am puzzled, but not about the perspective of the three individuals to whom the open letter is addressed. I am puzzled about what to do about popular illusions. How can I help dispel illusions that have a hold over most citizens while I myself am still learning the truth about some of the illusions that have held sway over me? Also, there is little point in throwing stones at a castle wall of illusion. It is better to find the key to the door. Perhaps there are several doors, but the key to one of them is the protection of freedom of expression.
We ought not trust any professed authority in any area of study in which freedom of expression is systematically suppressed. For example, we cannot trust the court system in Germany to produce just decisions when defendants are muzzled, as was Monika Schaefer or Sylvia Stolz. We cannot trust universities to be producing “knowledge,” when suppression of free speech yields to systemic confirmation bias, as happened in the case of Professor Tony Hall at the University of Lethbridge or Joel Hayward at the University of Canterbury. [If you’re new to this site and are unfamiliar with these names, keep reading this page.]
One could make a very long list of areas of study in which we should suspect that suppression of freedom of expression may have distorted our understanding. Here are a few: the legal status of land claims of indigenous peoples with whom Canada has not made a treaty, the environmental risks of hydraulic fracking, the possibility of false flag operations in the war in Syria, anthropogenic causes of global warming, the downside risks of vaccinations, and whether Julian Assange should be tried for espionage against the United States.
No one has the time or resources to do a careful study of all of the issues that might be put on such a list. We need to be able to rely on the claims of fellow citizens who have become genuine authorities because they have become adept at overcoming confirmation bias, and have put in the time and intelligent effort necessary to make themselves worthy of trusting what they say. Universities have a special role in this because they make it the professional responsibility of certain citizens, i.e., professors, to become such authorities. Failing to protect freedom of expression makes it impossible for them to meet this responsibility, not just because it muzzles them, but because it muzzles others who might be able to correct their errors.
The area of most concern to me is that of propaganda that prepares a populace for going to war. Here there is a long history of the failure of universities to ensure that people are adequately informed about the nature of their alleged enemies. It is easy to point to the anti-Jewish bias of universities in Germany prior to World War II as an example, but not so easy to point to the failures of the universities of the victorious Allies, whose academics have written the accepted narratives.
One of the most important things that a university can do to contribute to a well-functioning democracy is to help its citizens assess who they should trust as an authority. It is not enough, of course, for a university professor to say “Trust me. I have credentials.” They must also be able to explain to their students, and to the public, what sorts of methods they have used to arrive at what they say. But my point goes further than that: it would be helpful for academics to be good models of how to become an authority and to give good guidance on how to evaluate the claims and methods of anyone who claims to be an authority in their field (not necessarily academics). Citizens who think for themselves cannot become experts in everything, but it is very helpful for them to be able to recognize those who have genuine expertise.
An example of good guidance is that given by Graeme MacQueen in JFK 55 years on: Casting Light on 9/11 & Other 21st Century Crimes, who offers well-reasoned arguments for why we should not trust the authority of the 9/11 Commission in arriving at its conclusions in The 9/11 Commission Report, or the National Institute of Standards and Technology at arriving at their explanations for the collapse of the World Trade Towers. This approach is so helpful because it does not bury an individual truth-seeker in an avalanche of evidence to be sorted out by oneself, but enables one to step back and assess how those who claim expertise are dealing with the avalanche.
Modelling competent authority and giving good guidance cannot occur at universities if freedom of expression is suppressed. Thus it was with a flash of hope that I recently learned of a Proposal for an Act to Protect Free Expression at Alberta’s Public Colleges and Universities, titled “Empowering Free Inquiry“, written by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). I wrote an email to them and established contact with their president, John Carpay. My email has been copied at the end of this update. Acts similar to their proposal have been passed recently in Ontario and in many of the states of the United States.
If such an act is passed in Alberta I hope to form a study group at the University of Lethbridge to monitor the effects of the legislation and to promote a better understanding of the importance of freedom of expression to a functioning democracy. My plan – still somewhat tentative – includes setting up a wiki to enable the gathering of case studies and an examination of the issues they bring to the fore.
A particularly crucial point in my letter to the JCCF is buried in the text, so I highlight it here:
“There needs to be an arrangement of some kind that puts whatever government is in power at arm’s length with respect to the selection of Council members and its operation.”
[The Council refers to a newly-created body, as suggested by the JCCF, to investigate complaints that freedom of expression has been violated.]
Here is my email to the JCCF, sent on May 28, 2019:
Hello John Carpay, Jay Cameron, Lindsay Shepherd, and whomever else it may concern,
Like you I believe that our universities have failed to give adequate protection to freedom of expression, and so it is with immense interest that I have read your recent Proposal for an Act to Protect Free Expression at Alberta’s Public Colleges and Universities, titled “Empowering Free Inquiry“.
My own viewpoint is that of classical liberalism, as represented by John Stuart Mill. Between 1985 and 1998 I taught philosophy of education as a non-tenured professor at various universities in Canada. I see a deep connection between the acquisition of genuine knowledge and being free to think about truth-claims from all perspectives. In 1998 I made a career change to software development and am now a retired citizen, living in Lethbridge, Alberta.
I am completely supportive of your aims, and would like to make a few comments on your proposal.
First, in sections 2 through 8 of the proposal, you often refer to faculty as well as students. In section 2 you refer to “any person, student or otherwise”. But in section 10 you propose the creation of a Council to hear “student complaints”. Why should the complaints be restricted to students? Why not faculty too? Similarly, in the proposed amendment to the Post-Secondary Learning Act, Section 15.1(3) (c), censorship of students is prohibited. Why not anyone, faculty included?
Though no one should be censored and, in principle, anyone should be able to make a complaint, there may be practical constraints on opening the input of complaints to everyone. All the same, in your proposed addition of Section 15.1(7) (a) I would prefer the words “citizen input” to “student input.” In Section 15.1(7) (e) (ii) I would prefer the words “freedom of expression of any citizen” to “freedom of expression of students.”
Second, the proposal does not explicitly deal with the curtailment of freedom of expression on campus of citizens who have expressed unpopular views off campus. Though such cases are implicitly addressed I would like to see them mentioned specifically. A typical case would be that of a faculty member who has expressed an “unacceptable” view on social media, and is then suspended, or dismissed, and barred from campus. Another would be that of an outspoken member of the public who wishes to ask a question at a public speaking event on campus, but is prevented by security from doing so out of anticipation that the question will make the speaker uncomfortable.
Third, though I am supportive of what the proposal is attempting to do, I fear that the legislation that actually gets passed, and the way in which it gets implemented, may make a bad situation worse. There needs to be a check on the power of the Minister of Advanced Education. In particular, what is to prevent the minister from rigging who gets to sit on the Council suggested in section 10, thus giving the appearance of upholding freedom of expression while stifling views that the government does not like. This is essentially the critique that the Canadian Association of University Teachers makes of the legislation passed in Ontario in its article Ontario “free speech” requirements for universities and colleges cause for concern. It is also a concern of Jim Turk, Director of the Centre for Free Expression, as expressed in his post A manufactured crisis: the Ford government’s troubling free speech mandate. On my view these critiques underestimate how big the problem of censorship within academe has become, but they do offer a critical objection that deserves careful consideration. There needs to be an arrangement of some kind that puts whatever government is in power at arm’s length with respect to the selection of Council members and its operation.
Whatever legislation gets passed, and however it gets implemented, it is important that citizens understand what freedom of expression is, and why it is so essential to the proper functioning of a democratic society. Not only does it include the right to express one’s own view but it also includes the right to be the recipient of views that differ from one’s own. This includes views developed by researchers who have been free to do their work in an atmosphere of academic freedom. Special interest groups do not have the right to distort the search for truth with bribes or threats. I will be doing whatever I am able to foster such understanding.
On a different note, you should be aware that exploring your website has been very frustrating for me. On three occasions the wordpress security plugin, Wordfence, has blocked my access to the site, and I have had to wait a day or so to regain it. This has delayed my being able to send you this message. I expect that Wordfence can be configured so as to minimize the problem. It displays this as the reason I get blocked: “Exceeded the maximum number of page not found errors per minute for a crawler.” But I am not a crawler. This, too, is a matter of freedom of expression.
Dr. Andrew Blair
Posted March 3, 2019:
To the Honourable Rachael Harder: Please have your staff find an address for Michael Mostyn, and forward the link for this website to him. That is all I ask.
To Michael Mostyn: Please read this post, and give me a reply, either by email to Andrublair@gmail.com, or in the comments box below.
Monika Schaefer, a Canadian citizen of German heritage, was imprisoned in Germany for 10 months, beginning in January 2018, for having made a video in which she apologized to her deceased mother for having blamed her for failing to protest strongly enough against the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. Monika’s brother, Alfred, was also imprisoned, and is still serving his sentence.
The video was titled Sorry Mom, I was wrong about the Holocaust. It is 6 minutes long. If you want to watch it, click the linked title.
Prior to serving time Monika was pilloried and shunned in the Canadian town in which she lived, Jasper, Alberta. For more on this you can visit Monika’s own website, Free Speech Monika.
The video violates the Working Definition of Holocaust Denial and Distortion of the International Holocaust and Remembrance Alliance, which was adopted in Toronto in 2013 by 31 countries, including Germany and Canada. This definition is not legally binding, but “Holocaust denial” falls under Section 130 (Incitement to hatred) of the German criminal code.
Not long ago I would have thought that Monika had been gulled by some ill-educated fringe group, but now that I have done some research of my own I am not so sure. I have always had a strong skeptical streak, but I have also thought that we can provisionally accept as true whatever are the prevailing beliefs in a liberal democratic culture. In such a culture, I thought, false beliefs are weeded from the main currents of thought. Sure, such beliefs remain on the fringe, but if a large majority of people think them false then they probably are. Actually, I still believe that. But recently I have come to doubt just how liberal or democratic our culture is. It is as if I were on a suspension bridge on which some of the slats beneath my feet have fallen away.
My own position regarding freedom of expression is that of a classical liberal, as typified by Harriet Taylor Mill and her husband John Stuart Mill, who thought that all views, whether true or false, should be allowed to engage with each other in a marketplace of ideas. In On Liberty they offered three arguments for protecting freedom of expression, roughly as follows:
First, sometimes views that seem to be far-fetched turn out to be right.
Second, even if our own views are substantially right, we hold them more clearly, rationally, and securely, as a result of being challenged.
Third, opposing views often contain a part of the truth, and acquiring a fuller, more accurate picture, requires sifting the false from the true, and combining the elements of truth from all sides.
All of these arguments have some bearing on how we should regard how Monika has been treated.
I know that there are counterarguments to Mill’s arguments, and, true to my liberal attitude, I want to hear and consider those counterarguments, but for now I am simply stating my position.
To me, freedom of expression is the foundational principle of a democratic society, and whatever else we might disagree about, it is a principle we should regard as most precious. Thus I found the incarceration of Monika to be extremely alarming, and I wrote several letters (mostly in response to newspaper articles) in defense of Monika’s right to freedom of expression. One of my emails was addressed to the Honourable Rachael Harder, who, to her great credit, responded.
Picking Up the Email Thread
The initial email, written by me, was this:
This Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, Canadian citizens Monika and Alfred Schaefer will be sentenced in Germany for acting according to their consciences. Their case is a reminder of how long and deep are the roots of the idea that “Error has no rights.” Thinkers of the enlightenment disagreed. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued for freedom of expression in his Notes on the State of Virginia (See pp. 47 – 49.) “It is error alone which needs the support of government.” he said. “Truth can stand by itself.”
Which side do you stand on?
To this there were a number of replies by several people. In order to protect their privacy, and also for the sake brevity I am omitting these. I will pick up the thread with the last reply, written by Monika, then continue with my own remarks. In these remarks I urge Rachael not to respond to Monika, for reasons I will give.
Monika’s reply, sent on January 10, 2019:
Hello to all the people on this email thread,
I had intended to respond earlier, and now with the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations behind us, I will just say better-late-than-never.
I am happy that my incarceration generated a little bit of a discussion. Thank you Andrew for starting this particular thread. I know you have been very active in fighting for freedom of speech and expression, and that is an extremely important struggle. Here are just a few of my comments in relation to what has been said in this conversation thread.
To Rachel Harder, could you please explain exactly how my video was hurtful and offensive to you. Those words “offensive and hurtful” are repeated ad nauseam in this narrative of so-called incitement to hatred. What does it actually mean? What do these feelings have to do with historical exactitude?
I welcome a debate or a discussion with any of you on actual historical matters. xxxx [Name removed by Andrew] you say my research may be “a tad shoddy”. Please point out exactly which part of what I said is based on shoddy research.
Here are interesting facts about how the German so-called justice system works:
~ If you are facing a “speech-crime” charge, you cannot actually defend yourself by bringing forth evidence, nor can you explain how you reached your conclusions without committing a new “speech crime”. You will face new charges and the whole cycle begins again. New trial, defence with evidence and argument, you have committed new crime. New charges, new trial, talk, new crime. New-charges-new-trial-defence-new-crime. You get the drift. Evidence is illegal! Argument in the court is illegal! Is this not rather a case of verdict first, kangaroo court show trial later?
~ As an example of the above, you can research the case of Sylvia Stolz, a German attorney who went to jail for over three years, simply for doing her job in defending Ernst Zundel.
~ Articles 19 and 21 of the Nuremberg trials post WW2 basically stated that the holocaust was common knowledge and therefore did not require evidence to prove it. They thereby set the bar for many court cases to follow. Not to mention the use of torture on the defendants at Nuremberg.
It is interesting to see the qualifiers that people put into their messages, that even though they support freedom of speech and disagreed with my incarceration, they found it necessary to explicitly state their disagreement with my views. I suspect this is because of the fear of recriminations, job loss, ostracization, and yes even incarceration, if anyone is seen to possibly agree with me.
It is also interesting to note that participation in the CODOH video in which the simple question “why do you support open debate on the holocaust?” was criminalized. I would like to hear one good argument from any one of you, why this should be a crime. I have linked the video below to refresh your memory of what was said in the less-than-4-minute video. I challenge you to imagine replacing the word “holocaust” with any other subject in the same question, and check your reaction. Is it still offensive? Should it be criminalized to discuss and debate?
[Why do YOU support open debate on the Holocaust?]
My response to Monika’s email
Hello Rachael and Monika,
In this reply to us Monika asks you to explain what was hurtful and offensive to you in her video, Sorry Mom, I was wrong about the Holocaust. This is a reasonable request, and in normal circumstances it would be good of you to reply. However, these are not normal circumstances. I hope you think it not too presumptuous of me to give advice: You should not respond. You are no stranger to controversy, and I know you are not a moral coward, but in this situation any reply carries a risk not worth taking.
On the one hand if you indicate that you have a hint of understanding for Monika’s perspective, even if you think her wrong, it will be political suicide to say so. Were such a hint to become known you are likely to be facing a vicious defamation of your character. The defamers will think that their methods are justified because they think they are standing against hate speech and defending human rights. They will remove any power or influence you might have for long into the future. I am reminded of what happened to journalist Lesley Hughes, who was asked to step down in her run as member of Parliament for the Liberal Party. By the time she was exonerated from the charge of anti-Semitism it was too late.
On the other hand if you have no understanding of her perspective whatsoever, and you say so, you will be chiming in with Elie Wiesel when he said “Every Jew, somewhere in his being, should set apart a zone of hate—healthy, virile hate—for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German.” (p. 142 of the Kindle version of Legends of Our Time.)
Elie Wiesel was a holocaust survivor and I think he is entitled to a feeling of hatred. But you, Rachael, should not chime in, not because it would be hateful to do so, but because of where Wiesel directs his hatred, that is, toward “what the German personifies and for what persists in the German.”
What the hell is that? Neither Germans nor Jews nor Canadians personify anything in particular.
I do not doubt that many horrors occurred during World War II, especially to Jewish people, who were indeed discriminated against by the National Socialist regime. We would do well to study why these things happened. But there is not some essence of Germanness to blame. It is in the nature of any people, under the right circumstances – with cultural understandings, education systems, political arrangements, in time of war, subjected to propaganda conducive to certain attitudes and behaviour, etc. – to act as the Germans did during World War II, whatever that was – not that they all acted the same way. The question is how to identify what those circumstances were so that we may avoid a repetition of the horrors that happened. Fuelling a feeling of ill-defined guilt on the part of German people for events that happened in long past circumstances that hardly anyone fully understands anymore, does not help us understand how to avoid the creation of such circumstances once again.
Suppression of Free Speech Creates Doubt
In light of what has happened to Monika, and to many others, I have come to doubt the truth of what I once thought we knew about the nature and scope of the horrors called the “Holocaust”. If the story is still shrouded in the fog generated during World War II (and all wars produce a fog) then how can we get a good sense of what to do to avoid a repetition? I want to respond as best I can to the call “Never again”. But I do not believe that sheer revulsion for “Nazism” is the answer. Moreover, I fear that undermining liberal democracy will lead to the very sort of thing that a stand against antisemitism is trying to prevent.
Liberal democracy is, of course, compatible with a stand against antisemitism. But the methods used by the present German legal system to fight antisemitism are anti-democratic. (Germany is not alone in this. See Laws against Holocaust Denial.) Monika alerts us to this in her last email, quoted above. At her suggestion I have done some research on Sylvia Stolz, a lawyer, who has served several years in prison for defending so-called “Holocaust deniers”. I came across the speech for which she was charged (for the second time), for breaking the law. It is titled “Speech Forbidden, Evidence Forbidden, Legal Defence Forbidden: The Reality of Freedom of Expression,” (1 hour, 40 min) which she gave on 24 November 2012 at the Anti-Censorship Coalition in Chur, Switzerland.
The speech is a well-reasoned argument against the constitutionality of the German law. It may be summed up in a quote she gives from the Berlin newspaper Die Tageszeitung at the 1 hr, 20 min mark in the video:
“In the end, the court tersely rejected all evidentiary motions on the succinct and, to some of the anti-Fascists in the court, shocking grounds that it was completely irrelevant whether the Holocaust took place or not. Its denial is illegal in Germany and that is all that matters to the court.”
(I checked the accuracy of the quote by going to the newspaper itself, and found the article at https://www.taz.de/Archiv-Suche/!318416&s=Meinerzhagen&SuchRahmen=Print/. I ran the article through Google translate. The translation produced is a little different, but the quote is accurate.)
Those who support such laws commonly offer the argument that the Jewish Holocaust is “well-documented”. Stolz shows why the sheer assertion that everyone “knows” that something is true is not good enough for the courts.
The logic used by the German courts is similar to the circular logic used by the Spanish Inquisition against those they regarded as heretics. The Inquisition thought that those who could not see it their way were wicked. Many were burned alive, including Jews. Thank God the penalties are more merciful now than they were then.
Mill’s first argument for freedom of expression applies:
“To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.” [pp. 41-42]
Perhaps there are some historians who have a really good grasp of all the evidence, and who know for sure that the conventional narrative of the Jewish Holocaust is pretty accurate. But which of these historians should the rest of us believe? How are we to know who the credible ones are? We must have some reason to give them credence.
One of the best methods for deciding whether to give someone credence, in any subject area, is to see if they are willing to consider and respond to counterarguments to their claims. If they are then it shows that they are making an honest effort to sift truth from falsehood. Otherwise we cannot be sure that they are not just being dogmatic.
I have tried to get a good sense of the credibility of the work of the dean of Holocaust studies, Raul Hilberg, who wrote a three volume study titled The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961. It is clearly an effort of great diligence, but when it comes to some of the key issues he says very little, and I cannot be confident of his claims. For example, he estimates the number of Jews killed at somewhat more than 5 million (but not the 6 million of the usual story). In Appendix B of his great work he has some tables (“Deaths by Cause” and “Deaths by Year”). He fills in the cells of his tables with numbers in order to arrive at a total figure. But I cannot see where the numbers for the cells come from. I would be willing to give credence to his numbers if I could see that there had been a back and forth process with other historians offering reasons to believe different numbers – that is, if I could see that corrections for errors were taking place. But I do not see this. This is not to say that I believe his numbers to be wrong, but simply that I do not know them to be right.
I do not think Hilberg should be much faulted for this. The writing of history about so large a topic as the Jewish Holocaust is necessarily a collaborative effort on the part of many researchers. No one person can do it all. The problem of who to give credence to is not so much that of assessing the integrity of any individual, but of assessing how well the whole field of study is capable of self-correction. From my perspective (which is still in an early stage of development) the subject area appears to be shot through with taboo. If historians cannot properly collaborate because some of them are subject to severe intimidation then skepticism by the public is called for.
As Mill says, in offering his third argument for freedom of expression:
“Truth … is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness …. When there are persons to be found, who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence…. The quiet suppression [of the dissentient side] is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood.” [pp. 86-87]
In the field of Holocaust studies there are many dissentients who have done a great deal of careful research and whose claims lie outside the spectrum of socially acceptable views. Dubbed “revisionists,” their voices are subject to suppression, though some manage to squeak out. Paul Rassinier, for example, was one of the first who thought that Hilberg’s numbers were exaggerated. A pacifist, he had been a history teacher for many years prior to the war. During the war he participated in the French resistance against the Nazis, was caught, tortured, and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, then to Dora. He survived more than a year of internment. Despite his suffering he did not think he should remain silent when, after the war, he thought the history of the Jewish Holocaust was being distorted. Such revisionists are defamed as antisemitic, bullied, sometimes physically harmed, ostracized, and regarded as not reputable. Robert Faurisson, following in Rassinier’s footsteps, was severely beaten at least 10 times. But how is someone like myself, who hasn’t yet been immersed in the primary evidence, to know whether the judgment against their views is fair?
When I read what Deborah Lipstadt has to say against Rassinier (and many other revisionists), in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, I find myself totally unpersuaded. Her arguments are textbook cases of the fallacy of begging the question, and of ascribing bad motives to anyone who offers counterarguments to the orthodox view. As Mill says,
“The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interested in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion … while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them.” [pp. 97-98]
The treatment of the revisionists is a prima facie strong indicator that reasons to believe the orthodox narrative are inadequate. Though I do not have a well-substantiated view of my own, the important question is this: Should I not doubt the conventional story when it is maintained through intimidation? As Hilberg himself said: “It is a sign of weakness not of strength when you try to shut somebody up.”
It is also worth noting how Hilberg himself replied when asked the question, “What direction should research on the Holocaust take now?” He said “The second thing that we should and must do is look at those aspects of what happened which are still taboo.” He did not say “still unresearched,” or “still unknown,” but “taboo” – things that cannot be talked about. Hilberg was not referring to the number of Jewish deaths when he said this, but how can we know that he himself did not have doubts about that? Where taboo holds sway we cannot be sure of the views of anyone.
Mill’s second argument for freedom of expression is also relevant. As he and Harriet put it, the silencing of the expression of an opinion is an evil because it robs the human race whether it be right or wrong.
“If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” [p. 33]
Suppressing Free Speech Leads to Confirmation Bias
Starting with unsubstantiated pre-assumptions is always a problem in the writing of history, but it is particularly acute when writing about National Socialist Germany. The presence of taboos makes the field of study subject to confirmation bias, where evidence is selected to substantiate pre-assumptions as opposed to checking them. It is not just that any given historian may suffer from confirmation bias, but, where taboo holds sway, the whole field is likely to be distorted by the failure to correct such biases. In the absence of taboos the normal discipline of academic research, including practices such as supervision of students by real authorities (i.e., those who have genuine knowledge), peer review, etc., tends to correct confirmation bias. But in the presence of taboos these very practices may actually work to reinforce errors, not reduce them.
Here’s how it works. Any student who questions certain aspects of the received story will meet with strong resistance from their professors. This will make most questioning students shy away from the subject area, leaving those who do not question. The unquestioning students may go on to do work in the area, and in good faith propagate their unexamined assumptions. In rare instances there will be a student who does question and persists in their studies, but such students will be shut out from getting a university position in their field. If they publish anything they will be cast as unprofessional, antisemitic, and not worth paying attention to.
To illustrate I mention an M.A. thesis I am currently reading, written by one of those rare persistent students. In addition to being a questioning student, he had a supervisor who supported him. He has left up Prof. Joel Hayward’s Old Website as a record of what happened to him.
Dr. Joel Hayward was, for five years during the late 80s and early 90s a member of a national organization, The New Zealand Friends of Israel, as well as a local organization in Christchurch, Opposition to Anti-semitism. During this time he wrote an article, titled Holocaust Revisionism in New Zealand: The ‘Thinking Man’s Anti-Semitism’? The theme of this article is well-encapsulated in this quote from it:
“This is the principal dilemma arising from the dissemination of recent Holocaust revisionist material, which is not overtly anti-Jewish. People could read these books or listen to these tapes, not knowing that they are in fact very anti-Semitic, and believe them. It is only then a small step, from believing that the Holocaust never occurred to hating the ‘liars’ who say it did: the Jews.” [p. 47]
Given his background Hayward thought it appropriate to write a thesis for a Master’s degree at the University of Canterbury, in which he would give a fair and impartial assessment of the revisionist material he thought to be so anti-Semitic. He wrote to leading academics with expertise on the history of the Holocaust, asking them for counterarguments to the arguments put forward by the revisionists. What he received was “nothing more useful than accusations that revisionists are fascistic scumbags”. Then his thesis took an unanticipated turn and he produced a sympathetic assessment of the revisionist perspective.
After going through the normal courses and examination procedures for a Master’s degree, Hayward was awarded First Class Honours with an A+ for his thesis in 1993. He continued his studies in a different area, and received a Ph.D.
The library of the University of Canterbury placed an embargo on the thesis for an unusual duration of time. It did not become publicly available until 1999. Then all hell broke loose. In brief, Hayward became the subject of much abuse, receiving floods of hate mail, death threats against the lives of his young children, job loss, sustained defamation and shunning. At one point he had to sell his beloved book collection in order to support his family. His emotional health suffered greatly.
In the aftermath Hayward apologized many times for any hurt he might have caused. He changed his mind about some of the claims he made in the thesis, but insisted throughout that he was doing his best to be honest. He became sick of the whole business, and fled the field without explaining much about what aspects he had changed his mind about since writing the thesis, or why.
Hayward was not the only one who suffered. Dr. Thomas Fudge, a medieval historian at the University of Canterbury familiar with patterns of unjustified persecution, wrote an article for History Now, titled, The Fate of Joel Hayward in New Zealand Hands: from holocaust historian to holocaust? The article caused a panic among the university authorities and they immediately recalled all physical copies of the journal in order to have them destroyed. A digital copy of the article survived, which is linked above.
Finding himself in a very uncomfortable environment, Dr. Fudge resigned from his university post, and, despite having two PhDs, found it difficult to get another teaching position. The editor of the journal, Ian Campbell, was effectively removed. Fear of speaking honestly fell upon everyone, except, perhaps, the aggressors, who had a different fear of their own – that heresy might spread.
When I read about such cases, and there are others, I become unable to retain confidence in what academic historians have to say about the Jewish Holocaust. It’s not that I think that the orthodox historians are entirely wrong, or dishonest, or incompetent, but I realize that those who work in universities are in an environment where there are severe constraints on what evidence they can bring forward, and on what they can safely say about how to interpret the evidence. They are subject to systemic confirmation bias and live in an echo chamber whose walls are buttressed by bullies.
Even in the absence of taboo, confirmation bias can be powerful. An illustration is the story of the Indian rope trick. According to the story one end of a rope is thrown upwards and disappears into the sky. A boy then climbs the rope and also disappears. Western illusionists could not figure out how this trick was done. According to historian Peter Lamont the existence of the trick was a complete hoax fabricated by journalist John Elberte Wilke, who later became the first director of the United States Secret Service. The Chicago Tribune printed Wilke’s account of the trick in August of 1890, and then retracted it 4 months later. Wilke apologized for having written the story, saying that he had done it for the purpose of entertaining the readership of the Tribune. But the story refused to die. The legend lived on, embellished with details of dismembered body parts of the boy falling from the sky. The parts reassemble themselves, and the boy walks away. Over the decades the story grew, with many eye-witness accounts, photographs adding to various explanations and controversies, references to similar stories from before 1890, and so on. (For a book length account of this history see Peter Lamont’s The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History.)
If a known hoax like that can take on a life of its own why should we not be open to the possibility that some of the anti-German atrocity stories propagated by the Allies during World War II might also have taken on a life of their own? If historians are to be academically responsible they must treat all stories told during the fog of war with an extra dose of circumspection – especially those told by the victors. But unlike the Indian rope trick story, the Jewish Holocaust story is reinforced with intimidation, some of which is quite brutal.
Academic Responsibility Depends upon Academic Freedom
Academic responsibility requires being tethered to reality, but remaining tethered to reality itself depends upon being able to work in an environment of academic freedom. Historians must have a space in which they can safely and honestly consider whatever heterodox ideas are compatible with the evidence available.
Students too must have academic freedom. Deborah Lipstadt, in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, says
“I have encountered high school and college students who feel that the deniers’ view should at least be mentioned as a “controversial” but somewhat valid view of the Holocaust. Colleagues have related that their students’ questions are increasingly informed by Holocaust denial: “How do we know that there really were gas chambers?” “What proof do we have that the survivors are telling the truth?” “Are we going to hear the German side?” This unconscious incorporation of the deniers’ argument into the students’ thinking is particularly troublesome.” [Denying the Holocaust, Kindle edition, p. 4]
But simply telling students what to think is not education. Although it is often good pedagogy for a teacher to let students know what they think the truth is, real education entails, above all, helping them learn how to think for themselves. A teacher who reacts hysterically to the sorts of questions mentioned by Lipstadt is not engaged in education. To allow the questions to be asked – even to encourage them – does not mean, as Lipstadt would have it, that the teacher is failing to meet their “responsibility to maintain some fidelity to the notion of truth.” [Lipstadt, p. 3]. Questions are an aid to understanding. Why not just answer them? In fact, why not introduce the best counterarguments that can be thought of, and answer them too? But Lipstadt says that those who ask such questions are sure to be deniers attempting to “hide the fact that they are fascists and antisemites with a specific ideological and political agenda” [Lipstadt, p. 4].
At the end of her book Lipstadt says
We cannot debate them [the revisionists] for two reasons, one strategic and the other tactical. As we have repeatedly seen, the deniers long to be considered the “other” side. Engaging them in discussion makes them exactly that. Second, they are contemptuous of the very tools that shape any honest debate: truth and reason. Debating them would be like trying to nail a glob of jelly to the wall….
When we witness assaults on truth, our response must be strong, though neither polemical nor emotional. We must educate the broader public and academe about this threat and its historical and ideological roots. We must expose these people for what they are….
The effort will not be pleasant. Those who take on this task will sometimes feel—as I often did in the course of writing this work—as if they are being forced to prove what they know to be fact. [pp. 221-222]
Any revisionist writings that I have explored display an attitude that appears to me to be the diametric the opposite of being contemptuous of truth and reason. Lipstadt seems to think that anyone who does not believe as she does must necessarily be intellectually dishonest. What I find most extraordinary is that she does not like “being forced to prove” what she believes. Perhaps absolute proof would be expecting too much, but being willing to look at all evidence, and showing that on balance it points decisively to one’s own conclusions is not. Isn’t that what an educator is supposed to do: give students sufficient reason to believe what they are being told?
Once again, Mill’s second argument is relevant:
If [one of orthodox opinion] is unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. [p. 67]
Academic freedom to explore all perspectives is essential to truth discovery. It is also essential to the maintenance of rationally grounded confidence in truths that have been established.
Despite the lip service they pay to academic freedom universities sometimes fail to defend it. I have had a ringside seat to observe this here in our riding of Lethbridge, with the failure of the University of Lethbridge to protect the academic freedom of tenured professor, Dr. Anthony Hall. In letters written to the university administration by the B’nai Brith (and other lobby organizations), Hall was falsely accused of being “one of the most prominent Holocaust deniers in Canada” when he had only said that all subjects should be open to debate. Then he was framed by someone who, without his knowledge, put up an extremely hateful antisemitic post on his Facebook wall. For more about this see https://academicfreedomanthonyhall.ca/.
What to do?
The current state of affairs reminds me of what W.E.B. Du Bois, American historian, sociologist, and civil rights activist said of the U.S. in 1960:
“Democracy has so disappeared in the United States that there are some subjects that cannot even be discussed. The essence of the democratic process is free discussion. There was a time when men were not allowed to talk about universal suffrage or the education of women, or freedom for negro slaves.”
The observation applies, I think, to all times and places, including now and in Canada. It does no good to act as if we have freedom of speech when in fact we do not. The observation, however, is a description of how things are, not a recommendation for how they ought to be.
Under present conditions it is impossible for Western universities to be hosts of a productive exchange of views between conventional historians of the Jewish Holocaust and the “revisionists”. As the case of Hayward illustrates, universities do not protect students who wish to explore all sides of the question. No good comes of the ensuing acrimony when an attempt is made to transgress the taboo. The truth, whatever it is, does not emerge. The fracas creates more heat than light, and achieves nothing more than the destruction of the reputations of individuals and of institutions.
Furthermore, as the cases of Monika and Alfred Schaefer illustrate, any citizen who studies the views of the “revisionists” and lets it be publicly known that he or she thinks that they are right, or even partially right, will be defamed, shunned, and quite possibly thrown in jail.
Does this situation matter? I think it does, and not just because of the personal consequences for people like the Schaefers or Professor Hall. For one thing, it makes it impossible to respond realistically to the call “Never again.” As long as taboo permeates the field we cannot collaborate honestly about what happened to the Jews during World War II, why, or what to do about it. Our understanding is blocked by accusations of antisemitism and fingers of blame pointing every which way. This is so even if the received narrative is, for the most part, correct.
What then should we do?
I have a suggestion. Instead of having an exchange of views about first order questions like “Were 6 million Jews killed by the Germans during World War II?” could we have a productive exchange about the second order questions about freedom of expression and academic freedom in the context of “revisionism”.
I would like to set up a platform, a wiki probably, on which these second order questions can be discussed.
As I see it a productive discussion of this would be a very good thing. The failure of universities to protect academic freedom in this area undermines their foundational aims of producing and conveying knowledge. Despite that I am not in favour of trying to generate unproductive discussions that blow up in acrimony. Nor do I want to create an online ghetto in which the arguments of only one side are published, while the other side issues insults and threats from the outside.
But is a productive discussion possible? I do not know for sure, but I am pessimistic. I am pessimistic because the second order questions are likely to be subjected to the same methods of repression as the first order questions. What happened with Professor Hall is an illustration.
Those who use these methods will likely think along the following lines. Debating the second order questions opens up the possibility that some university will become committed to protecting academic freedom for revisionists. This will give the revisionists the appearance of legitimacy. Then false beliefs about the Jewish Holocaust will spread. Jews will be seen to be liars. Jews will be offended. Jewish students will be discriminated against. So, antisemitism like this must be nipped in the bud.
I fear that this sort of thinking actually provokes antisemitism, especially when it is accompanied with intimidation. Such antisemitism often goes underground where it cannot be seen or countered with reason. I think it better to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Despite my pessimism about being able to have a productive discussion I think it worthwhile to ask the chief instigator of this repression in Canada, the B’nai Brith Canada, if they will indeed try to disrupt an exchange of views on the second order questions if I try to set something up. That is why I am asking you, Rachael, to forward this email to Michael Mostyn, the Chief Executive Officer of the B’nai Brith.
With regard to the principle of freedom of expression, the B’nai Brith has shown their colours by their role in the convictions of the Schaefer siblings. Here they say “B’nai Brith Canada provided detailed intelligence reports to German officials, leading to their eventual arrests.” Michael Mostyn goes on to say: “We commend the German justice system for effectively dealing with a blatant manifestation of antisemitism.” So much for B’nai Brith support for Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Granted, elsewhere Michael Mostyn says “While B’nai Brith appreciates the value of free speech, we do not believe that individuals should be allowed to spread hatred or incite violence against our communities without consequences” Okay, maybe, but where is the hatred in Monika’s Sorry Mom video?
James Bacque, in his book Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War ll, says that about one million German prisoners were deliberately starved to death in American and French concentration camps. In Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, he says that upwards of 9 million were killed or deliberately left to die by the Allies after World War II. So if someone says that James Bacque overestimates the number of German people killed after the war are they spreading hatred toward Germans? Even if Bacque’s numbers are wrong, where is the logic in that? What is the difference between what Monika has to say and imputing hatred of Germans to someone who disagrees with Bacque?
With regard to academic freedom, the B’nai Brith has also shown their colours by their actions against Professor Anthony Hall. They pressured the university administration to abruptly suspend him without due process in mid-term in October 2016 and created such a poisonous atmosphere at the University of Lethbridge that he decided to retire two years later. Once again, here is Michael Mostyn: “This is a monumental and precedent-setting victory for human rights in Canada. B’nai Brith commends our supporters for keeping pressure on the university, the Government of Alberta, and ultimately on Hall himself. Students should not be subjected to Hall’s brand of hatred and xenophobia, which clearly have no place in an academic setting.”
I have known Professor Hall now for two and a half years and have had many conversations with him. The claim that he is hateful and xenophobic is completely false. He is a courageous man, willing to speak truth to power, and to fight for the underdog. So much for the support of the B’nai Brith for the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel (Sec VI.A.27)
“The principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to … the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof.”
As the longtime general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Alan Borovoy, used to say “Hatred is a nebulous and, therefore, a dangerous concept.” [When Freedoms Collide, p. 42]
The actions of the B’nai Brith Canada have done enormous damage to Canadian democracy have they not? I recognize that there should be some limits to freedom of speech, but where should the line be drawn? Perhaps the B’nai Brith could offer arguments for drawing the line where they do.
I now directly address Michael Mostyn, assuming he has read this: Are you willing to work with me to find a way to conduct in public a respectful exchange of views on the two questions:
- “Should the freedom of expression of those with revisionist views of the Jewish Holocaust be upheld?” and
- “Should universities protect the academic freedom of those who wish to explore the possibility that the history of the Jewish Holocaust needs revision?”
There are three roles you and the B’nai Brith could possibly play. The first, which would be most welcome, is to participate, and thus to help us all understand better your point of view. The second is to simply stand aside and let the exchange take place. Would you be willing to rebuke any member of the B’nai Brith who attempts to disrupt such an exchange? The third is to smear and intimidate those who engage in such an exchange.
You, Michael, have the power to thwart my plan. If that is what you choose I do not have the wherewithal to overcome your influence. But where do you stand?
For those interested in what Michael Mostyn’s response is I will post an update on this site on or before June 1, 2019, as well as what the plan is in the unlikely event that I get a positive response.