Free Life 26, December 1996, A Book about the Holocaust and the Internet, Reviewed by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 26, December 1996
ISSN: 0260 5112

The Governance of Cyberspace: The Far Right on the Internet
David Capitanchik and Michael Whine
Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London, 1996, 16pp.,
Reviewed by Sean Gabb

I ordered this report expecting it to be another long moan about the Internet – how it enables holocaust revisionists and anti-semites to have their say, free from the usual means of shutting them up. In the event, I was pleasantly surprised. The report is a very good summary of the debate over free speech on the Internet. It is clear, informative, and – on the whole – balanced. It acknowledges that free speech is important. See, for example:

Arguably, the freedom of speech provided by the Internet and its resistance to controls, especially by governments, should not be lightly abandoned. Throughout history, those in authority have sought to restrict, if not suppress altogether, the expression of independent, critical, and unfashionable ideas and beliefs. [p.13]

Of course, I agree with this, and commend whoever wrote it for writing it so well. The problem with the report is not that its authors are lying bigots, but that they have made a fault of judgement. The above quotation continues:

However, as has often been pointed out, the Internet epitomizes the classic ‘liberal dilemma’. In this case maintaining the principle of free speech means extending that right to those who would use it to ‘promote violence, threaten women, denigrate minorities, promote homophobia and conspire against democracy’. [ibid]

Here I disagree. There is no such dilemma. There is a case for punishing someone who incites offences against life or property at a time when he knows that his listeners are already out of their right minds. He is then using those people as an instrument of his will, rather as if he were pulling the strings of a puppet. But my understanding of liberalism is that all other forms of speech are to be absolutely unhindered. Indeed, note my use of “rather” in the previous sentence. I can think of very few cases – governments and criminal conspiracies are another matter – where someone acts so completely under the will of another that this other ought to be held responsible for whatever crimes result. Punish those who push lighted rags through a letter box, but leave alone those whose writings condone or even incite such acts.

I know that for many Jews this sounds a bizarre statement. If I had been lectured all my childhood about pogroms and gas chambers, I might feel nervous about some of the literature now available on the Internet. But, though understandable, this is to be resisted. In the first place, there is no international Nazi conspiracy – certainly nothing that needs the kind of attention called for. Most active anti-semites are pitiable cranks, like Colin Jordan or Lady Birdwood. Many others are in the movement for the gay sex or as police spies. The sort of stuff one reads about in Searchlight or in Anti-Defamation League reports is very largely fantasy. Why this stuff is put out, and why so many people claim to believe it, are matters beyond my present scope. But the reason is not always honest mistake based on fears of renewed persecution.

In the second place, most “hate” literature on the Internet is not incitement to illegal acts, but claims about matters of fact – usually about whether the received account of the holocaust is the true one. The reply to these claims should not be calls for censorship, as at present, but open debate. Whatever feelings it may arouse in its victims and their descendants, the holocaust is an historical event like any other. As such, it must be open to any interpretation or view of its reality, no matter how malevolent these may appear. The received account must not be given the same privileged status as the core doctrines of Christianity still – regrettably – enjoy in this country.

And – as is said again and again in this journal – there is no surer way to promote holocaust revision and anti-semitism than to make them illegal. The revisionists are unlikely ever to win an open debate. But their enemies seem determined to lose the shadow debate now taking place. The most obvious effect of censorship would be to raise up a small army of martyrs, their faults obscured by their willingness to suffer. Even to call for censorship is stupid. What are people supposed to think of a truth that is supported less by argument than by threats of prison?

However, the debate covered by this report is about the Internet, not the Jews. Certainly, organisations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Board of Deputies of British Jews have made contemptible fools of themselves in the debate. But it must never be forgotten that there is no such thing as “the Jews”. There are Jews on both sides of this debate, and there are Jews on no side at all; and those on our side are among the most relentless and uncompromising advocates of freedom of speech. And even if the Jews on the censorship side were to fall silent, the clamour against the Internet would continue almost as loud as before. If it were not the holocaust, it would be something else. Indeed, in this country, it is something else: it is child pornography. The truth is that what the Internet allows is so powerful, so destructive of so many established interests, that its enemies can hardly be counted.

And what the Internet allows is freedom of speech. Yes, this means freedom for nazis and paedophiles to give endless offence, which is something that must be defended. But far more importantly, it means freedom for public opinion to be reborn as it used to exist before about 1910. Since then in England, the media has at least distorted the news. Instead of reflecting what people are really thinking, and reporting what the politicians are really doing, it has created a world close enough in appearances to the real one not to cause scandal, but in which nearly all the substance has been replaced. It may no longer be able to conceal things like the Abdication Crisis, or Churchill’s drunken incompetence. But it can still set a false agenda for public debate. It does this by a subtle yet effective framing of arguments, by turns of phrase, by terminology. We have, for example, the continued use of “right” and “left” – a dichotomy that never meant much at its most relevant, and which now describes political debate about as well as the Ptolemaic system described the universe. It is a dichotomy that, so far as public is concerned, serves to break libertarianism into disconnected fragments and to scatter these across the whole conventional spectrum of thought, and so to reduce its effectiveness as the main opposition ideology of our age. Or we have the repeated conflation of greenery with niceness, of coercive altruism with caring, of markets with throat-cutting greed, of anti-nationalism with a love of supra-national institutions like the United Nations and the European Union. It seems paranoid to say this in a country where no laws exist against propagating any point of view, but the issues are presented by the British media in ways that often prevent their being intelligently discussed. Part of this, no doubt, is due to the idleness and stupidity of most people who get jobs in the media. Part of it, though, is the effect of a centralised media the owners of which have been co-opted into the Establishment.

The Internet changes all this. The West is moving perceptibly into an age of zero censorship. We are not there yet – not even in America, where the revolution is most advanced. But it is plain where we are heading. The intricate web of laws and informal pressures that governs expression in even the freest countries is being broken through. If we want to publish unorthodox opinions, we no longer need to negotiate with editors, hoping at best for a letter to be published or to be laughed at even while allowed on to a current affairs programme. If we want to read such opinions, we no longer need to hunt down obscure little pamphlets and newsletters. It is increasingly irrelevant whether the media barons are offered bribes or threatened with prison: their ability to manipulate what we read or see or hear is withering almost by the day. If still only in small amounts, everything is now available on the Internet, and can be accessed as easily as looking for a Chinese takeaway in the Yellow Pages. And every day, more pages are created on the World Wide Web, and more data flows through the newsgroups. We are increasingly in a position to know what is happening, and to make our opinions about this directly available to millions of other people.

No wonder the Internet is hated. No wonder the established media outlets are choked with lurid tales of what corruption lurks on it, just waiting to pounce on children and the weak minded. It must be controlled before it can destroy the great counter-Enlightenment of our century.

Again, I thank the Institute for Jewish Policy Research for having produced so interesting a report. Even so, I do greatly regret that it is on the wrong side in this debate. I should have expected Jews, of all people, to fear censorship of any kind, and to recall what horrors of arbitrary government can flourish without the censure of a truly free press.

Marian Halcombe (Sean Gabb)

© 1996 – 2017, seangabb.

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