Re: Re: Don’t Teach Holocaust Denial

by Patrick Brennan

In his reply to Jonah about whether schools ought to be using Holocaust denial as a topic for debate, Charlie explains that he doesn’t consider the debate over the historical reality of the Holocaust a matter of actual or legitimate controversy, but still maintains the following:

[Holocaust] denialism is something that most people will encounter in their lives, and I think we might equip people better to deal with it. Currently, we arm them with a shortcut: outrage. I suppose what bothers me here is that I don’t think that someone’s saying, “hey, this guy thinks the Holocaust didn’t happen!” and then watching the condemnation pour in is anything like as virtuous as saying, “look what I found when I looked into it a little — this idea is nuts.”

I disagree with a couple of the premises here: One, that people are even likely to encounter Holocaust denial in their lives. Unless they pursue a Ph.D. at Patrice Lumumba University or join a Palestinian aid organization, Holocaust denialism is unlikely to enter into their lives directly. So I don’t see why it’s such a bad thing that this meritless argument doesn’t get met with anything more than outrage, or why equipping people to answer it competently is all that important.

Holocaust denialism is nothing more than an academic gown for anti-Semitism; it’s hard to imagine an intellectual debate where the facts are so clearly on one side and heaping malevolence so clearly on the other. I understand Charlie’s argument that it could be a useful educational exercise to confront a stupid piece of historical revisionism and explain why the evidence clearly contradicts it – “Is the Declaration of Independence a hoax that has been invented by white people?” is his example — but it does seem that a similar but much more useful exercise, in a world with limited educational resources, would be to consider real historical debates where the facts could be in question. (I’m not even sure, prudentially, that is a good use of educational resources for eighth-graders either.)

Furthermore, if we think Revisionism Self-Defense class is important, it seems like there are any number of other examples of historical revisionism we could use that don’t exist solely because of one of the world’s most ancient prejudices. Charlie may think there’s a good reason to choose one of the most pernicious possible historical-revisionism arguments to legitimize by having eighth-graders debate it — he should explain why that is. I think the harm to what those eighth-graders were doing is relatively limited, but it strikes me that it far outweighs the benefits of teaching them how to handle hateful historical views in a careful, fair-minded way.

An instructive parallel, I think, is the “slavery wasn’t so bad for blacks” canard, which similarly is so detached from the facts that it should, in the main, be considered racist bile and nothing else. Yet when Cliven Bundy recently explained to the New York Times that he’s sympathetic to the idea, Rich explained on the Corner why this is not just offensive, but delusional and of course factually incorrect. 

There are costs to deciding that this charge is even worth answering, but the occasional sympathy this view gets on the political right means that it’s worth having National Review knock it down. The equation, it seems to me, is the other way around when it comes to eighth-graders and Holocaust denial (or eighth-graders and slavery-wasn’t-so-bad, for that matter).