Philosophical Reflections on Iran’s 2006 ‘International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust’ (Part 4/4)
(Posts 1-3 can be located at this link)
► Changing Responsibilities: These posts arose out of an argument I had with a friend as the Iranian ‘Global Vision’ conference was well underway. We disagreed over how the conference was reported in the media. My friend argued that the media was justified in giving priority to the ‘Holocaust denial’ aspect of the conference, while I argued that priority should have been given to the political issues the conference meant to address. He claimed that doing what I suggested we would be entertaining the views of deniers and I claimed that as the Holocaust becomes increasingly secularized, concretized and desacralized, it will become, unfortunately, our responsibility to find ways of ensuring that phraseologies based on quantitative facts and scientizations are challenged as the dominant narratives of the Holocaust. I argued that in order to do this we cannot ignore deniers, for ignoring them would turn them into the underdog and provide them sympathy and compassion.
Deborah Lipstadt argues that it is appropriate to engage with deniers. Will such an engagement provide deniers with legitimacy or is it essential to “to expose the illusion of reasoned inquiry that conceals their extremist views”? (Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Free Press, 1993. P. 1). Even Vidal-Naquet, who remains ambivalent about this question toward engagement at the end of his Assassins of Memory, writes, “Every society has its sects and its madmen. Punishing them would serve only to work toward their proliferation.”
There are other reasons why it becomes necessary, in my opinion, to engage deniers. The ‘Global Vision’ conference was not merely symbolic of the incommensurability between phraseologies, but of a virulent hatred harbored by many of its attendees. This hatred, whose political and ideological goals threaten to destabilize entire nations, has latched onto a newly concretized and unstable historical event of tremendous magnitude. It is not, and has never been my intention to argue for or against Zionism in these posts, but merely to suggest that the Holocaust can no longer be understood as outside the language of world politics. Ahmadinejad claims, as he did in the Iranian Channel 2 interview that: “They [the Americans and Western European allies] know that if it [the Holocaust] faces doubts, this regime will collapse on its own. After all, once its raison d’etre ceases to exist, it will be finished! If not this year, then in three years’ time. Ultimately, it will collapse. There is no need for wars or quarrels. It will collapse of its own accord.” (Interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which aired on Iranian Channel 2” MEMRI. January 23, 2007.) This statement cannot be held in abeyance of the fact that the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, wrote his 1982 doctoral dissertation on alleged clandestine connections between the Nazis and Zionist leaders. (Yehoshua, Yael. “Abu Mazen: A Political Profile”. MEMRI. April 29, 2003.)
As the tragedy of the Holocaust becomes secularized and the political stakes continue to grow, we can expect the languages and phraseologies used to describe it to alter and congeal into new formations. We may find new sets of rules and new conditions emerging as a result of this process. Let us keep in mind that our relations of meaning and ways of phrasing the Holocaust are myriad and there has never been a consensus narrative. Perhaps we will arrive at a narrative that exists in a state of blurriness between what Lyotard refers to as a “well formed expression” and a “meaningful phrase”. When we are asked whether to let deniers espouse their views, I do not find it acceptable to refuse to answer. It is no longer viable to declare: “I am not answering the accusers, and in no way am I entering a dialogue with them. A dialogue between two parties, even if they are adversaries, presupposes a common ground, a common respect – in this case for truth.” Perhaps the common ground is precisely the recognition of the existence of divergent and heterogeneous narratives and phraseologies. Engagement would allow us to recognize the political and ideological imperatives that provide the impetus for the creation and performance of such phraseologies.
Education that teaches of both heterogeneous discourses and the political minefield that the Holocaust has become implicated in will yield what Lipstadt calls “canaries in the coalmine” who are capable of arguing with deniers and care about the truth in all its forms. It would also offer a hope of bridging the seemingly incommensurable chasm between a language of silence or feeling and a language of positivism and quantification. After all, as Lyotard points out, “The proof for the reality of gas chambers cannot be adduced if the rules adducing the proof are not respected”. By understanding the logic of the denial and its driving forces we might find a means of acknowledging such rules without respecting their authority. We would then be able to recognize the dangers involved in challenging one phraseology with another, dangers that have the power to transform a plaintiff into a victim.
In the Iranian Channel 2 interview cited earlier Ahmadinejad explains:
I am, after all, a teacher, and not a quarrelsome person. I merely raised a question. It is a question, not a war or a quarrel. Let them respond to it, and say it was one way or another… Either way, they have to respond. But since their claims [about the Holocaust] are basically false, and were meant to design a political rule of hegemony in our region, this issue has become sacred, and they don’t let us discuss it. (Interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which aired on Iranian Channel 2” MEMRI. January 23, 2007.)
What if we did not take his claim (“Let them respond to it, and say it was one way or another… Either way, they have to respond.”) as a threat, but an opportunity to act as “canaries in the coalmine” who can educate new canaries? What would a response look like that takes into account both the secularization and desacralized status of the Holocaust as well as Lyotard’s acknowledgment that deniers such as Faurisson are playing in a different genre of discourse, one where “conviction, the obtaining of a consensus concerning definite reality, is not at stake”? It certainly would not resemble the representations of the ‘Global Vision’ conference that were beamed into our homes by CNN and the Associated Press, representations that ignored altogether both of these important factors in order to more spectacularly demonize those who attended the conference.