Since the end of World War II the United States has not been without its share of kooks and frauds who deny that the holocaust ever happened. So has Europe. In most of Western Europe and Russia, holocaust-denial is illegal. It can land you in jail. It’s never been illegal in the United States, nor should it be. The way holocaust-denialism has been handled in the United States is a useful template for evaluating current controversies about fact and fabrication and the ways government or private media contend with speech, free or false.
Holocaust-denialism has always been recognized for what it is: a sinister attempt by bigots, cynics, attention-getters, neo-Nazis or David Duke-type politicians to rewrite history and appeal to people’s baser instincts. The motive, the means and the ends are vile. There are no exceptions, no possible accommodations for “on the other hand” qualifiers under any guise, academic freedom included (though some deniers do get accommodated): fraud is anathema to intellectual freedom.
Those dregs on the fringe don’t–or didn’t–get much attention because responsible people from publishers to college and university departments to media organizations kept them in their gutter. Reputable publishers did not publish their books, newspapers did not quote them or run their letters, television stations didn’t devote magazine features to them, except from the knowing perspective of exploring bigotry.
In other words, if deniers were discussed or quoted at all, the discredit of their position was if not assumed at least reasserted up front, even in objective news reporting. No reporter was ever accused of editorializing for calling a Holocaust-denier a liar or a bigot. Not doing so would justifiably put the reporter’s credibility in question, just as it would if a reporter in a profile of Eli Wiesel had then turned to David Irving, the British writer whose books absolve Hitler of responsibility for genocide, for a “balanced view.” That wouldn’t be balance but mendacity.
And yet mendacity in the guise of balance has become normalized. We saw it for many years in reporting about global warming, where deniers, a fringe of the scientific consensus, were quoted on par with other scientists. We occasionally see it whenever the teaching of evolution is challenged in one Scopes monkey jurisdiction or another and a reporter who wouldn’t know objectivity from Adam might feel obliged to defer to the William Jennings Bryan of the moment, again in the name of “balance.” We’ve been seeing it endlessly in the ongoing battle over masks or vaccines, with mask-deniers multiplying the monkey jurisdictions, our own among them (though in fairness the anti-vaxxer phenomenon is as old as the prejudices that shadowed the first vaccines since 1720s England, when the first smallpox inoculations were catching Voltaire’s attention and endorsement).
And of course we keep seeing it with election-denialism. Doesn’t matter that in every case the questions have been settled. The lies continue, and deference to liars, even by reporters and politicians, continues along with it. We would never afford the same freedom to holocaust-deniers. Election-deniers somehow get a pass. I count at least four of them on our local government boards. No doubt a few more are in the closet on that score.
Holocaust deniers are routinely banned from social media. That’s what keeps them in their place. That’s the difference between a society that self-regulates truth and civility and a society that–like the Balkans before the catastrophic wars of the 1990s, like Rwanda before the genocide–not only allows incendiary lies to run free, but amplifies them on mass media, stoking violence.
Companies’ decisions to ban Trump over his election-denialism was no different or less justifiable than banning holocaust-deniers. He was peddling a dangerous lie that goes to the core of the nation’s institutional credence. It wasn’t just words, as we saw from the violent and deadly January insurrection. And it’s not about balance. On one side, we had 63 court decisions, including the Supreme Court, that demolished the fabrication of a stolen election, as did innumerable federal, state and local election officials. On the other side, we had Rudy Giuliani, a television network whose name rhymes with onanism and conspiracy theorists in the grip of what David Brooks called “a venomous panic attack.”
Still, no one is quashing even these deniers’ “First Amendment rights.” I put the terms in quotes not to diminish the meaning of the terms, but because those who invoke them as alleged victims of censorship often do, by cynically misapplying them. Newspapers, television stations, social media platforms aren’t First Amendment zones. They exercise their rights under the First Amendment. But they don’t owe anyone a voice. It’s up to their editors to decide who gets one. Thank heavens they do, if not always judiciously. Call it editing, call it censorship, call it whatever you like, it comes down to the same thing. Editors judge. It’s in the job description. It’s in the word edit. That’s not an infringement of anyone’s rights but an exercise of private rights. Government interference would be the unconstitutional infringement, not the other way around.
Florida lawmakers’ just-passed bill forcing social media companies to give Trump-type liars free rein shows how partial for totalitarian methods those lawmakers supposedly so fond of the Constitution happen to be. Government may neither ban nor compel speech. Private companies are not so constrained.
Unquestionably, there are excesses. What’s being called the “cancel culture” (to excess) is giving us daily examples–in media, on campus, in popular culture, in publishing. It’s difficult to gauge which is worse, government censorship, which does not exist, or self-censorship–or self-flagellation–by private concerns, which does.
Publishers are now under pressure over book deals with several former members of the Trump administration, among them Mike Pence. There are fears that these ex-Trump officials may use their books to peddle the stolen-election myth, among other lies. It raises a fair question: if Twitter can ban false tweets about the election, what makes book publishers less responsible in that regard? But it doesn’t. Book editors fact-check. Mike Pence’s manuscript would have to pass the test as any other writer’s manuscript would, keeping in mind that former former White House alumni, some of them more lurid than Trump’s crew, never faced the same scrutiny. Liars and mass murderers such as Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were never denied their big deal book deals. So the standards have changed, but not for the worse.
In any case none of these people are being denied their First Amendment rights, with or without quotes. Heaven knows they’re not shutting up on any of the nation’s vast right-wing radio and television panic attacks. And few of them, Trump’s crew especially, couldn’t afford to self-publish or to find themselves less scrupulous publishers to get their fabrications hardbound. Trump himself certainly did with his previous fictions, which sold bundles.
What the rogues are looking for are the big imprints–Simon & Schuster, Random House, Norton–which lend a legitimacy that shadier publishing does not. Simon & Schuster recently dumped Josh Hawley, the fabulist senator from Missouri, but is sticking with a Pence deal, though 200 employees protested. The company also signed Kellyanne Conway, out of whose rib Trump fashioned his reign of alternative facts. Good thing most of the floors in and around Simon & Schuster’s tower on Manhattan’s 6th Avenue are empty: the company can fill them with fact-checkers.
Chances are the likes of Pence and Conway will behave, the way Pence finally did even as insurrectionists were gunning for him. It’s the insurrectionists’ enablers, the “stop the steal” catastrophists, the unbalanced Trump fanatics and dregs on the fringe who claim that “fear and violence are the butter to the bread of our politics,” whose fabrications hope to fuel the next grab for power. The hope depends on a degree of mainstream buy-in as in 2015 and 2016.
That buy-in–the failure of 2016–is gone. They can embrace whatever sordid brand of denialism they like. But don’t expect responsible media to be their accomplices. And if that relegates them back to their underground, that’s their problem. Denialism is their right. It’s not our fate.