Transribed from the lecture, as requested, up to seven minutes. More to come.
Fire, fire, fire, fire. Now you’ve heard it. Not shouted in a crowded theatre, admittedly, as I seem now to have shouted it in the Hogwarts dining hall. But the point is made. Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, when asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or define it as an action, gave that of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.
It’s very often forgotten what he was doing in that case was sending to prison a group of Yiddish speaking socialists, whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn’t read, opposing Mr. Wilson’s participation in the First World War, and the dragging of the United States into that sanguinary conflict, which the Yiddish speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape. In fact it could be just as plausible argued that the Yiddish speaking socialists who were jailed by the excellent and greatly over-praised Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes were the real fire fighters, were the ones shouting fire when there really was a fire in a very crowded theatre indeed.
And who is to decide? Well, keep that question if you would — ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I hope I may say comrades and friends — before your minds.
I exempt myself from the speaker’s kind offer of protection that was so generously proffered at the opening of this evening. Anyone who wants to say anything abusive about or to me is quite free to do so, and welcome in fact, at their own risk.
But before they do that they must have taken, as I’m sure we all should, a short refresher course in the classic texts on this matter. Which are John Milton’s Areopagitica, Ariel Pogetica being the great hill of Athens for discussion and free expression. Thomas Paine’s introduction to the age of reason. And I would say John Stuart Mill’s essay on liberty in which it is variously said — I’ll be very daring and summarize all three of these great gentlemen of the great tradition of, especially, English liberty, in one go: What they say is it’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen, and to hear. And every time you silence someone you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view. Indeed as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important, in fact it would become even more important, that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.
In more modern times this has been put, I think, best by a personal heroine of mine, Rosa Luxembourg, who said freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently. My great friend John O. Sullivan former editor of the National Review, and I think probably my most conservative and reactionary Catholic friend, once said — it’s a tiny thought experiment — if you hear the Pope saying he believes in God, you think, well, the Pope’s just doing his job again today. If you hear the Pope saying he’s begun to doubt the existence of God, you think he might be on to something.
Well, if everybody in North America is forced to attend, at school, training in sensitivity in Holocaust awareness and is taught to study the Final Solution, about which nothing was actually done by this country, or by North America, or by the United Kingdom while it was going on, but let’s say as if in compensation for that everyone is made to swallow and official and unalterable story of it now, and it’s taught as the great moral exemplar, the moral equivalent of the morally lacking elements of the Second World War, a way of distilling our uneasy conscience about that combat, if that’s the case with everybody, as it more or less is, and one person gets up and says, “You know, about this Holocaust, I’m not sure it even happened. In fact, I’m pretty certain it didn’t. Indeed, i begin to wonder if the only thing is that the Jews brought a little bit of violence on themselves.” That person doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection. Because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might contain a grain of historical truth, might in any case get people to think about why do they know what they already think they know. How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else?
It’s always worth establishing first principle. It’s always worth saying what would you do if you met a Flat Earth Society member? Come to think of it, how can I prove the earth is round? Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true. Here’s someone who says there’s no such thing; it’s all intelligent design. How sure am I of my own views? Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the felling that whatever you think you’re bound to be OK, because you’re in the safely moral majority.
One of the proudest moments of my life, that’s to say, in the recent past, has been defending the British historian David Irving who is now in prison in Austria for nothing more than the potential of uttering an unwelcome thought, on Austrian soil. He didn’t actually say anything in Austria. He wasn’t even accused of saying anything. He was accused of perhaps planning to say something that violated an Austrian law that says only one version of the history of the Second World War may be taught in our brave little Tyrolean Republic. The republic that gave us Kurt Waldheim, as Secretary General of the United Nations, a man wanted in several countries for war crimes. The country that has Jorge Heider the leader of its own Fascist Party in the cabinet that sent David Irving to jail. You know the two things that have made Austria famous and given it its reputation by any chance? Just while I’ve got you? I hope there are some Austrians here to be upset by it. A pity if not. But the two greatest achievements of Austria are to have convinced the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese. Now to this proud record they can add, they have the courage finally to face up to their past and lock up a British historian who has committed no crime except that of thought in writing. And that’s a scandal. I can’t find a seconder usually when I propose this but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me. And I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.