By David Gehrig
Only a few days after the U.S. Constitution's 226th birthday on Sept. 17, we in Urbana saw a dramatic demonstration that the First Amendment applies to all Americans, including — for better or worse — its bigoted idiots. On Sept. 22, the Urbana Free Library hosted (but did not sponsor) a 9/11 Truther talk by Jim Fetzer, a nationally known Holocaust denier.
The central tenets of the Holocaust denial movement have been the same for four decades, since Nazi apologists like Ernst Zundel and Arthur Butz started printing them in the 1970s:
— There's no reason to believe that Hitler wanted the Jews of Europe dead, they say. Sure, they'll admit that being a Jew under Nazi rule was a pretty bad gig, but wanting to wipe them all out? Hitler wasn't that crazy, they say.
— Those gas chambers at the death camps? No proof they existed, they say.
— And the number of Jews the Nazis murdered, 6 million? The deniers say that number was probably made up too, and the real figure was far, far lower.
— We misunderstand the fate of the Jews under Hitler, say the deniers, because a colossal international Jewish conspiracy has promulgated a fraud of unmatched scope through Jewish control of the media, the press, academia and international law.
As you can see, Holocaust denial is irremediably an anti-Semitic enterprise, grounded on bedrock prejudices about Jewish conspiracies of satanic scale. It is not merely wrong and dumb, but inescapably centered on the fantasy of conspiratorial Jewish power.
In 2000, Holocaust denial suffered its greatest legal setback. British pop historian David Irving sued an American professor, Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, for libel for having called him a Holocaust denier. Turns out she was right. The central beliefs of Holocaust denial, as embraced by Irving (and Fetzer), were laid out in the court's verdict, each one in turned popped like a balloon. It ended Irving's career, and exposed Holocaust denial as an anti-Semitic fraud.
The movement reacted to the implosion of their position with one simple tactic. Their central lies and arguments about the Holocaust were left unchanged, with one exception. The perpetrators of the supposed hoax — otherwise identical to its previous neo-Nazi version — were now said to be "the Zionists." (When addressing the public, at least; in their own forums, it's still "the Jews.")
Recasting Holocaust denial, deceptively, as a form of "anti-Zionism" brought the movement something hadn't seen for a long time: a little growth. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took up the banner. And creepier parts of the already conspiracy-friendly Truther movement embraced it happily, while downplaying or ignoring its neo-Nazi roots and baked-in anti-Semitism.
Thus the local Truther who staged last weekend's talk has videos on his website promoting Holocaust denial, starring racists like Ernst Zundel and the KKK's David Duke. He has no problem with that.
Which brings us to a guy named Jim Fetzer, a tinfoil merchant from Minnesota invited to be the lead speaker of the Truther conference. Fetzer has clearly demonstrated, in a stream of comments on The News-Gazette site and elsewhere, that he's entirely on board with the tenets of Holocaust denial I listed above. (He's also on board with the belief that Stanley Kubrick helped NASA fake the moon landings. And don't get him started on grassy knolls in Dallas, either.)
So what's the best way to react when a nationally known purveyor of anti-Semitism is scheduled to speak in your hometown?
Some local "anti-racists" took the view that, as long as Fetzer wasn't going to be talking directly about the Holocaust "hoax," then his anti-Semitism was irrelevant. Some anti-racisms are, apparently, more equal than others. It's a bit like inviting a Klan leader to your garden club to talk about gardenias — I mean, who could object to that, right? And mentioning his pointy robe, well, that would just be rude, wouldn't it?
The moral side of the issue is clear: Fetzer is an anti-Semite. But the Constitutional side is also clear. The Urbana Free Library had the ugly duty to host the talk. In doing so, they honored the First Amendment principle that free speech is not just for the pure of heart, but for the mendacious bigot as well. Their approach was the right one. The First Amendment guarantees to a bigot and crackpot like Fetzer the freedom to open his mouth and show the world just how cracked his pot truly is, and how deep his anti-Semitism flows.
David Gehrig is a software developer for the University of Illinois and a former member of the Urbana City Council. He lives in Urbana.