Bad Idea #103 – Defending the indefensible

If there’s one thing I try to make a point of, even though comes pretty easily to me, its that of never trying to defend the indefensible. There are certain things you encounter in life that are just plain wrong, no matter how you try to look at them – and Holocaust denial is one such thing.

Of course that hasn’t prevented some commentators, on this occasion Dr Phillip Bounds from seeking to defend Nicholas Kollerstrom, or rather his alleged right to publish, without fear of consequences, ahistorical articles on the subject of the Holocaust of a kind that even Bounds concedes amount to no more than “execrable piece[s] of drivel” which repeat “most of the hoary old clichés which Holocaust deniers have persistently passed off as evidence of independent thought.”

The price that Kollerstrom paid for his poor scholarship and even worse choice of subject matter, earlier this year, was the loss of a prestigious honorary research fellowship at University College London, an honour that UCL withdrew in a somewhat perfunctory manner on having the nature of his extracurricular writings brought to their attention – and that was that, or it would be were it not for Bounds’ determination to defend the indefensible in the misguided belief that Kollerstrom’s loss of professional kudos has “damaging implications for academic culture as a whole.”

In keeping with Bounds’ commentary, I’ll leave it to Oliver Kamm to state the case for the prosecution:

The issue is not one of personal liberty or academic freedom. It’s about the purpose of the academy. Holocaust denial is a demonstrably false claim about history. It can be promoted consistently only by ignoring or doctoring the evidence. Indeed, the two most prominent Holocaust deniers in the West, my reader David Irving and Robert Faurisson, have been found in courts of law (in the UK and France, respectively) to have engaged in fakery. By taking the stand that it has, UCL has properly insisted that its academics adhere not to a particular view but to a method, that of critical inquiry.

It’s not that often that I agree wholeheartedly with Oliver Kamm, but on this occasion he hits the nail squarely on the head. Academic freedom is an important principle but the mere fact that a particular individual is an academic is not enough, on its own, to automatically engage that principle on each and every occasion they express an opinion. Academia is not the ‘Land of Do-As-You-Please’ and the freedom to speak freely and without fear of censure comes at a price, that of accepting a moral and ethical obligation which demands that academics openly acknowledge objective truths, where these exist, and adhere, as Kamm correctly points out, to the method of critical inquiry.

The Holocaust as a matter of historical fact is one such objective truth and no less a truth than, say, the Law of Gravity. One can no more make the claim that it didn’t happen and retains one’s credibility as an academic than one could claim that gravity is an illusion and that we are bound to the earth beneath our feet by nothing more or less that the will of god.

That the Holocaust, itself, stands as an objective truth does not. of course, mean that there is no scope for legitimate critical inquiry in exploring and examining its history and the many and varied events it encompasses. There are a number of admirable and conscientious scholars who, for example, have questioned the accepted ‘wisdom’ as to the its full scale and extent, the veracity of the oft-cited assertion that Jewish casualties, alone, amounted to some six million individuals. Revised figures, based on differing interpretations of the limited and fragmentary source materials available to researchers, have suggested that a more accurate figure for the scale of the Holocaust may have been one million Jewish casualties, or maybe one and half million, or three million or four and a half million. To a considerable extent, contention surrounding estimates of the scale of the Holocaust are of limited relevance to the broader ‘meaning’ of the Holocaust as a series of historical events. The ‘moral character’ of the Holocaust, its true horror, is not be found simply by enumerating the dead. Such a view merely invites facile comparisons with other similar atrocities, the suggestion, for example, that one can downplay the significance of the Armenian genocide simply because that atrocity engulfed only a fraction of the numbers murdered during the course of ‘The Holocaust’. This is nonsense, of course – the scale at which a state can set about exterminating a section of its population is, after all, only a function of the technology available to it. Nazi Germany succeeded in murdering Jews, homosexuals, Romanies, Slavs, the disabled and political dissidents on an industrial scale for other reason than it possessed the industrial technology necessary to effect a slaughter of that scale.

What gives the Holocaust its unique character in the annals of human atrocity is not its scale nor, with respect to its survivors and their personal suffering, it is necessarily their personal testimonies to the events that occurred in camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. These have immense value, of that there is no question, not least in ‘humanising’ the events and consequences of the Holocaust in ways which engage the empathy of later generations and, in turn, facilitate an essential understanding of the human cost of the Holocaust, but this is only part of the story and insufficient reason, of itself, to explain why it is that the Holocaust is, and should be, placed first amongst such atrocities and ahead, in qualitative terms, of the Armenian or Rwandan genocides, of more recent events in Darfur and off the massacre that took place in Srebrenica.

What makes the Holocaust different from these other atrocities is not its scale, nor the human costs revealed in stories of survivors, nor even the motives of its primary perpetrators; out-group prejudice is anything but a novel or innovative ‘justification’ for repression and mass murder even if some of the spurious reasoning behind that prejudice – i.e. biological theories of race, eugenics etc. – were of a relatively recent vintage. No, what truly sets the Holocaust apart is not to be found in raw statistics, nor in the personal testimonies of survivors nor even in the pages of Mein Kampf or the political rhetoric of the Nazi leadership – to understand the unique character of the Holocaust ones need to look, instead, to the testimony of Albert Speer, given during the Nuremburg trials, for its there that the true horror is revealed in full and, equally, its there that one discovers both the full significance of the death camps, and of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in particular and why it has been, and remains today, the primary focus of the efforts of latter-day Nazi apologists to obscure the truth of the Holocaust.

Understand that and you understand why Kollerstrom’s repetition of the ‘hoary old clichés’ contrived by Nazi apologists to create unjustified doubt surrounding the events that took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau matter and why, in turns, appeals to the general principle of academic freedom afford no reasonable defence for his actions.

Speer’s testimony to the Nuremburg Tribunal is crucial to the development of a full understanding of the true horror of the Holocaust, for all that it may be less immediately, and personally, engaging than the testimonies of survivors of the death camps. Indeed it is precisely because it fails to engage us emotionally, because it lacks any human qualities with which we might easily empathise, that it exposes in full the brutal and uncompromising truth of the Holocaust.

What the Nazis did, no more and no less, is industrialise mass murder, reduce it to a systematic, bureaucratically driven, industrial process in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and camps like it, were the end of the ‘production line’. Speer, from his Nuremburg testimony, appears for all the world to have harboured no particular ill-will towards Jews or any of the other groups that the Nazis sought to persecute to extinction, he merely did his job as efficiently as he was able to and did it while all the time blinding himself to the fact that ‘commodities’ that he was working to deploy as efficiently and productively as possible, and which were systematically and unthinkingly discarded if they were deemed to be of no material use, were human beings.

Even today, more than twenty-years on from first encountering this particular perspective on the Holocaust during the course of two excellent sociology lectures at university, I find it difficult to engage fully with its implications. It is, at the most basic human level, almost incomprehensible that anyone, any human being, could treat the transshipment of human beings to forced labour camps – and to death camps, of course – as if they were merely arranging a shipment of components to an armaments factory in the Ruhr valley; as nothing more than another line on the ledger to be processed, filed away and audited. Its not the immorality of the Holocaust that, as many suppose, makes it unique, but rather its amorality. One can understand, at least vicariously, the hatred, paranoia and prejudice of the Nazi leadership. One can appreciate how such emotions, perverse as they were, could lead the creation and adoption of policies designed to exterminate a defined section of a population, even if one considers such policies to be the product of deranged mind and a form of collective insanity. What was difficult to comprehend then, and remains difficult to this day, is quite how someone can then put such policies into effect, how they could facilitate their execution, and see their actions as being no more than a job, a task to be carried out with the maximum possible efficiency but without any regard for or recognition of the moral consequences of the actions they are undertaking.

We take it for granted that the dehumanisation of ‘the enemy’ is an essential component of atrocity within, and indeed outside of warfare. To see ones’ supposed enemy as human beings rather than as the amorphous and ill-defined ‘other’ is to invest them with ‘value’, with a moral character and with notional, not least of which the same right to life that we, ourselves, enjoy. This engages our moral ‘sense’, our instinctive and atavistic understanding that unless one’s own life is under direct threat then one should not consciously seek to kill another human being and only if one is conditioned to see ‘the enemy’ as being something less than human – or one is subject to a psychopathic or sociopathic disorder – can this instinctive moral injunction against killing a fellow human being be readily overridden.

Such injunctions are, of course, overridden and overridden relatively easily in times of war but the means by which this is achieved with which we are most familiar and, dare I say it, comfortable rely to a considerable extent on the fostering of negative, and to lesser extent positive, feelings toward the ‘enemy’. We are encouraged, by our political leaders, to hate the enemy and to harbour prejudicial feelings towards them or, as is becoming more common in the modern era, to invest them with extremes of moral opporobrium founded, in part, on feelings of sympathy towards their victims. This is precisely the fallback position adopted by the British and American governments in order to justify the invasion of Iraq once it became apparent that justifications based on the presumed imminent threat of Iraq’s alleged possession of WMDs would fail to hold water. Saddam Hussein, we were told, was an evil man – uniquely evil in the view (allegedly) of Tony Blair – and large sections of the Iraqi people were subject to what, by the standards of our own society, amounted to unfathomable torments under the repression visited upon them by the Ba’athist regime, torments that the invasion, and the removal of Saddam from power, would lift along with the yoke of tyranny in the course of what, we were told, would be a ‘humanitarian intervention’.

Whether and to what extent you personally by into that ‘account’ of the underlying motives for the 2003 invasion of Iraq is, for the purposes of this article, immaterial. What matters here, and what needs to be understood, is not only emotions play a pivotal role in either reinforcing or overriding our innate ‘moral sense’* but that, as human beings, the very idea that emotions function in such a capacity is one that we find both familiar and are, instinctively, comfortable with. Hatred, fear, prejudice, paranoia, disgust, compassion and sympathy, to name but a few of the emotions that may be engaged in modulating our moral sense, in making conscious distinctions between right and wrong, are all things which make perfect sense to us as components of a moral judgement and a means by which we resolve moral dilemmas, even if its not 100% clear as to whether these emotions serve primarily to direct those judgement or function more as means of rationalising them. Either way these are motives we find comprehensible – and human – even if we consider that the conclusions to which they lead either ourselves, or others, may be questionable or just plain wrong, and this is why we are comfortable with them as a basis on which to assess an individual’s underlying motives.

* I should say, at this point, that I’m firmly of the view that as human beings we, universally, possess an evolved ‘moral instinct’, a kind of Rawlsian ‘black box’ that generates moral intuitions which, in turn, interact with our emotions and intellect in order that we might arrive at moral judgements. The arguments and evidence for the existence of such are faculty are, as you might expect, somewhat complicated and lie right at the cutting edge of ongoing research at the interface between evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience. You can get something of flavour of these developments from this short paper by Marc Hauser on Morality without Religion, but to fully appreciate Hauser’s arguments you really need to read his 2006 book ‘Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong‘.

What is discomforting and difficult to comprehend in Speer’s account of his role in organising, coordinating and facilitating the bureaucratic and industrial machinery of the Holocaust is the absence of any such emotions and, with them, of any sense of moral engagement in his actions. Had he expressed a hatred of Jews or even a sincere belief in the ideology of the Nazi Party in the course of his testimony his actions, while no less reprehensible and inhuman, would have been at least comprehensible, rending his conduct immoral rather than amoral.

We’ve digressed a long way from the primary issue of academic freedom as it may or may not apply to Holocaust denial and have some way still to go before we return to that issue, but we take this detour with good reason. Such a debate is not one that can be fairly engaged and assessed in the absence of an understanding of what make the Holocaust a unique event in human history, even by the standards of humanity’s general capacity for engaging in atrocity nor can one reasonable apply the principle of academic freedom to this issue without giving due consideration to the motives and intent that underpins the practice of Holocaust denial.

Context is a critical component of any such debate but all the more so in dealing with Holocaust denial and, in particular, with that strand of denial that seeks to minimise the significance of the death camps, generally, and Auschwitz-Birkenau in particular. What makes the Holocaust unique is the existential horror revealed in Speer’s testimony to the Nuremburg Tribunal, the amorality and nihilism of the bureaucratic and industrial machinery of the Nazi state as it pursued its ‘Final Solution’, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its railway siding, its ‘shower blocks’ and its storage facilities with their neatly folded piles of clothing, racks of shoes and containers of gold teeth is the tangible expression of that existential horror; each buttresses the other to the extent that if an true understanding and account of one is lost then both lose their existential force and the unique quality of the Holocaust would be lost. It would become nor more significant a historical event than any other of the many atrocities that punctuate human history.

This, more than anything else, explains why Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than any other extermination or forced labour camp, has been and continues to be the focal point of Holocaust deniers’s efforts to promote their false claims about history. It is not simply that the camp is the most well known of an inglorious list that includes Sobibor and Treblinka, both of which have some measure of public profile – the former thanks largely to a TV movie – together with the less well-known Chelmno, Belzec (although this was the first extermination camp to open and the third-largest in terms of numbers killed), Majdanek and Maly Trostenents, but rather that it has come symbolise not on the the Holocaust, itself, but the systematic, industrialised manner in which it was carried out under Speer’s administration of the German war economy.

If they could convince the public that the industrialised elements of Auschwitz, the gas chambers and the mass transshipments of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi state, were fictions, deliberate frauds perpetrated by Soviet or, better still, Jewish propagandist, then – so Holocaust deniers typically believe – not only would the existence of the other death camps be called into question but the very idea that the Nazis carried out a systematic programme of genocide and did so with what passed for industrial efficiency, given that Germany was at war and subject to sustained bombardment by the Allies throughout the period of the ‘Final Solution’ proper (1941-45). Such fictions, were they to gain traction in the public domain, would not only strip the Holocaust of its essential character, its uniqueness but lay the foundations for a series of other well-rehearsed revisionist fictions. Dispose of the death camps and the focus of the deniers shifts to the forced labour camps, which would be recast as having been nothing more sinister than the internment camps operated by a number of Allied countries (the UK, US, Canada and New Zealand) in which German, Italian and Japanese citizens were detained during World War II.

Unjust and prejudicial as the policy of forced relocation and internment may seem, with hindsight, conditions in these camps were anything but as severe as those to found in the German and Japanese camps, nevertheless this is the comparison that self-styled ‘revisionists’ wish to promote as it lays the foundations for the suggestion that the appalling conditions discovered by Allied forces when liberating camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald were not the product of the systematic starvation, abuse and maltreatment which went hand in hand with forced labour but rather a direct consequence of the Allies disrupting supplies to these camps as a precursor to, and during the course of, the invasion of Germany.

This systematic peeling back of the historical facts of the Holocaust and their replacement with what are altogether more mundane, if ahistorical, accounts of Germany’s supposed use of internment in a manner comparable to that practised by the Allies is no mere attempt to re-write history for the sake of it. Holocaust denial, as it originated amongst Nazi apologists and Neo-Nazi ideologues, exists for a specific purpose, it has a clear and, when examined in detail, rather obvious political goal, this being the detoxification and rehabilitation of Naziism. That is fundamental purpose of Holocaust denial, a purpose that animates the whole genre of so-called ‘revisionism’ whether one is dealing with a committed ideologue, such as Ernst Zundel, Bradley Smith or Willis Carto, or a naive fabulist and unthinking fellow traveller such a Nicholas Kollerstrom.

Bounds claims in his article that the weakness in the position adopted by Oliver Kamm (and by myself) in regards to UCL’s decision to disassociate itself from Kollerstrom’s view, and from Kollerstrom himself is that we state our case in ‘far too inflexible a form’ as if to suggest that the relatively brief commentaries written by Oliver Kamm, myself and others, in support of UCL’s actions encompass the totality of the case against Kollerstrom rather than a summary of the main points of the arguments. If there is inflexibility in such arguments then it is mirrored by a similar lack of flexibility in Bounds’ own position, or rather in his efforts to derive a specific defence of Kollerstrom’s actions from a series of relatively uncontroversial statements of general principle.

There is, in principle, little to disagree with in Bounds’ exposition of the core principles of academic freedom.

Yes, universities and other public academic institutions do have a general duty to conduct themselves on broadly pluralistic lines and provide, within reason, an outlet for as wide a range of opinions as possible. The important qualifier that Bounds omits from consideration is, however, that of ‘within reason’. Academic ‘speech’ and opinion exists within certain defined boundaries upon which it depends for its legitimacy; boundaries such as objective truth, critical inquiry, reasonable – and reasoned – of evidence, the formalities of the scientific method (where relevant), etc. As I noted at the outset of this article, the mere fact that a particular individual is an academic is not enough, on its own, to automatically engage the principle of academic freedom in defence of their opinions, one has to consider, qualitiatively, whether the opinion itself is deserving of such a defence and its this test that Nicholas Kollerstrom failed, and failed miserably.

Kollerstrom’s loss of status as a direct consequence of his publicly expressed views on the Holocaust may, on a simple reading, seem at odds with the principle of pluralism but, in practice, and examined in detail these seeming inconsistencies evaporate. Pluralism is no excuse for a lack of appropriate academic rigour nor a viable defence for those who promulgate falsehoods and fraudulent opinions, however sincerely held, in the face of clear and unequivocal evidence which contradicts their opinions.

Bounds’ appeal to democracy as the foundation of academic pluralism is, again, superficially convincing in principle but fraught with difficulties in practice and nowhere more so than in the biological sciences, where the language of democracy and pluralism has been routinely and extensively abused by religionists in an effort to promote their unscientific beliefs about the origins of universe, of life and, in particular, human life as having, ostensibly, scientific and rational foundations. Such an assertion is, of course, a complete nonsense but this has in no sense prevented those who believe in creationism or its pseudo-scientific ‘lite’ version, intelligent design, from seeking to insert their beliefs into the science classroom and lecture theatre on the back of appeals to pluralism, equality and academic freedom.

Seductive as the idea of placing universities under a statutory duty to promote freedom of expression and pluralism might seem might appear to a man who holds a Phd in politics, like Bounds, to scientists, and particularly those working in the field of evolutionary biology, such a duty can only be a recipe for trouble, one that opens the door to yet more politically (and religiously, of course) motivated assaults in science education.

Across large swathes of academia and academic study within the natural sciences the very notion of pluralism is not merely undesirable but almost wholly irrelevant. From Newton’s Law of Gravity and Laws of Motion to Mendelian genetics and evolution there is no little or scope for pluralism because what one is dealing with are if not matters of verifiable fact and objective truth then matters described, explained and accounted for by scientific theories that are buttressed and supported by such an extensive weight of evidence that the very idea of holding contrary opinions becomes all but meaningless but for relatively minor points of contention over questions of nuance.

For all that Bounds mounts an erudite exposition of the principles of pluralism and academic freedom, allbeit that this has signficant omissions, nowhere in his argument does he directly address the central question of whether Kollerstrom’s writings on the Holocaust exhibit the qualities of intellectual rigour and critical inquiry necessary to bring them within the purlieu of academia, upon which judgement Kollerstrom’s claim to protection under these principles hinges. Indeed, in describing his article on the Holocaust as ‘an execrable piece of drivel’ and as reeking of ‘shoddy scholarship’ it seems clear even Bounds, if pressed, would have to concede that no such defence count reasonably be made.

For the second plank of his attempt to ‘defend’ Kollerstrom, Bounds turns explicitly to the issue of academic fradulence and, for the most, advances a rather generic argument which explains, in eminently reasonable terms, some of the difficulties and complexities of dealing with allegations of academic fraud, e.g.

Scholars who offend against the academic proprieties usually only do so in comparatively minor ways, so that their writings are compromised at the level of the individual sentence or paragraph but rarely in toto. Moreover, their scholarly lapses are often the product not of dishonesty but of over-enthusiasm, naivety or excessive faith in personal intuition. When a university accuses a man of fraudulence, it often ignores the fact that the bulk of his scholarship is sound and that his sins were unintentional. It is not clear that a robust academic culture can exist on this basis.

There is little one can argue with there, in principle, but equally little or nothing that is directly applicable to Kollerstrom’s writings on the Holocaust unless one is ascribe his seeming inability to recognise the inappropriateness of his chosen sources. Over-enthusiasm, naivety and excessive faith in personal intuition are excusable to a point – the point at which it is demonstrated to the scholar in question that they have acted out of over-enthusiasm, naivety, etc. A scholar who responds to such a challenge by exhibiting a willingness to re-evaluate their work and either acknowledge their error(s) or seek further evidence with a view to this either supporting or modifying their position is unlikely to have committed a deliberate fraud, and these are qualitities that Kollerstrom has entirely failed to demonstrate in response to criticism of his writing on the Holocaust. Indeed he continues to claim that his writings on Auschwitz are fully authoritative on, seemingly, the strength of their having generated a large number of comments on a ‘revisionist’ forum while claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy to silence him, none of which is necessarily proof of fraud but certainly suggestive of a delusion state of mind over and above the reasonable bounds of over-enthusiasm and an excessive faith in personal intuition.

That said, the sole concrete defence offered by Bounds is not that Kollerstrom’s academic sins are unintentional or the product of excessive self-belief bordering on delusion, rather he notes simply that:

In the case of Dr Kollerstrom, whose article on the Holocaust undeniably reeks of shoddy scholarship, it cannot be said often enough that his work on non-scientific themes had nothing to do with his employment at UCL. His research fellowship was awarded for his work in the history of astronomy, an area in which his scholarly output is apparently unimpeachable. Anything he wrote on the Holocaust, crop circles or 9/11 was produced in his own time. What this means, as Brendan O’Neill pointed out in a fine piece on the Index on Censorship website, is that Dr Kollerstrom has effectively been sacked for expressing his “private beliefs and habits”. To support UCL’s decision is implicitly to back the idea that employers have a right to supervise their workers’ private lives.

It means nothing of the sort, merely that we have a difference of opinion as where, precisely, the boundary between public scholarship and private belief sits in relation of Kollerstrom’s writings on the Holocaust.

Bounds (and O’Neill) would, admittedly, have an eminently arguable point were the circumstances in which Kollerstrom’s writings on the Holocaust were published and subsequently located by a blogger been rather different to those in which he was ‘outed’ as a Holocaust denier. Had Kollerstrom published these writings exclusively under a pseudonym or even, at a pinch, as plain old Nick Kollerstrom sans any reference to his academic background, a defence of his actions based on privacy would have been sustainable – but that’s not how things went down. Kollerstrom certainly used a nickname when participating informally in both ‘truther’ and ‘revisionist’ forums but in publishing articles on the main CODOH website he not only published under his given name but invoked his academic credentials in order to lend [unjustified] credibility to his writing. In using the appelation ‘Nicholas Kollerstrom, Phd’, Kollerstrom attached his academic reputation and credibility to his writings on the Holocaust and, in doing so, crossed the divide between the private and public domains, giving UCL every right to consider whether and to what extent these articles reflected badly on Kollerstrom’s public reputation as an academic and whether this, in turn, might reflect poorly on its own reputation due to its formal, if honorary, association with Kollerstrom. That Kollerstrom chose only to reference his academic qualifications and not his honorary fellowship of UCL affords him some small measure of mitigation – had he cited his position at UCL in ary of these I doubt that either Bounds or O’Neill would attempt to defend him on this point, if at all – but the mitigation this affords is marginal, at best and insufficient to relegate UCLs decision to sever all ties with Kollerstrom much beyond making the decision a reasonable judgement call as opposed to a ‘no-brainer’ had he been dumb enough to cite his association with UCL on any of the papers published by CODOH.

Bounds’ final strand of argument is, in some respects, his least convey the impression that UCLs decision to end its association with Kollerstrom is, somehow, a reflection of a broader cultural and political conflict in mainstream academia, one that has been raging unabated since the 1960s and which has its roots in the politicisation of academic life by the ‘so-called soixante huitards’, who entered the academy after the stirring events of the 1960s and openly pursued a “long march through the institutions” in the name of Marxism, feminism and other radical ideologies.

Again, as a general commentary on academic culture in Britain’s universities there is a grain of truth than underpins Bounds’ arguments, even if his characterisation of this raging ideological conflict as being one of left-wing radical invaders vs a traditionalist right-wing rearguard is rather dated – since the 1980s and certainly from the mid 1990s onwards the right-wing ‘backlash’ against the left’s ‘colonisation’ of academic (such as it is) has been led not by traditionalist conservatives seeking to defend “disinterested aesthetic values” but by what is perhaps best called the ‘new right’ – if only to avoid using rapidly devaluing terms such as ‘neoconservative’ – the main propenents of which are, in their own way, no less ideological or radical in their political views than their counterparts on the left, who they profess to oppose.

There is no doubt that the heavily politicised, and polarised, atmosphere within some sections of academia can, and does, exert a damaging influence on academic life, Bounds cites, as examples, Henry A. Turner and Norman Finkelstein, both of whom were denied tenure in controversial circumstances in the wake of savage, protracted and, certainly in Finkelstein’s case, heavily politicised ‘academic’ disputes – and can I just say [please] that this is not the time or place for a discussion of the merits, or otherwise, of either Turner or Finkelstein. One can, similarly, see the same kind of overt and oppressive politicisation of academic life at work in the lengthy saga of the University and College Union’s efforts to engineer a boycott of Israeli academics, or maybe something very similar to a boycott but not actually called a boycott for legal reasons – again I don’t wish to get into the full ins and outs of UCU politics here but I will say on reading the UCUs ‘not quite a boycott’ resolution, together with Eve Garrard’s account of the conference proceedings which passed this resolution, I was singularly unimpressed by the amount of outright weaselling its seems to have taken in order to get this motion passed and even less impressed by the union’s refusual to remit the motion to a full ballot of its members.

Even in conceding that there is more than an element of truth in Bounds’ characterisation of the overtly politicised atmosphere within some sections of academia one must again return to the question of whether this is at all relevant to case of Nicholas Kollerstrom, and one has to say that it isn’t. Norman Finkelstein’s academic career may well have, at least temporarily, imploded as a consequence of his heavily politicised and, frankly, extremely undignified, dispute with Alan Dershowitz but if one steps away from the politics and the accusations (and counteraccusations) of academic misconduct, the underlying issues at the heart of the scholarly debate from which this conflict of egos stems are ones in which there is legitimate scope for contention and for differences of opinion and interpretation, allbeit ones that would be much better pursued in a more reflective and scholarly manner.

No such claim can be legitimately be made for Kollerstrom’s writings on Auschwitz and the Holocaust and, as such, his situation bears only the most superificial similarities to those of Finkelstein and Turner and Bounds’ complaint that responded not to a ‘mass campaign’ against Kollerstrom but to ‘an e-mail from a member of the public’ is neither here nor there when one considers that Kollerstrom’s poor scholarship and even worse reliance on exclusively Neo-Nazi sources is self evident to any reader with the wit to Google just a few of his references and citations, let alone to his fellow academics at UCL.

Writing Kollerstrom off as a ‘rather ineffectual fantasist’ who’s ‘coarse and bovine’ opinions ‘cut against the grain’ is similarly no basis on which to either defend him, or castigate UCL for its decision to sever all connections with him. Ignorance, in an academic, barely qualifies as a defence at all. Wilful ignorance, of the variety demonstrated by Kollerstrom in the wake of his ‘dismissal’, not to mention his apparent willingness to peddle his his pet theories on an satellite ‘news’ channel funded by the notioriously anti-Semitic Iranian government, is no defence at all.

Bounds opines, somewhat bizarrely that ‘once upon a time the most politically conscious students might have marched in Dr Kollerstrom’s defence’ – quite when this fairytale event might have taken place but for in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, given that Kolloerstrom’s chosen subject matter is Holocaust denial, is anyone’s guess unless his estimation of what counts as the ‘most politically conscious students’ are those who would habitually spend most of their time trying to flog you a copy of Socialist Worker. Personally, I cannot think of anyone other than those fellow travellers of the hard left who have, in more recent times, switched their political attachment from the Soviet Union to Hamas and Hezbollah, who might have even contemplated marching in Kollerstrom’s defence and their judgement, as with their reputation, is no better than Kollerstrom’s nor any more defensible than his views on Auschwitz.

5 thoughts on “Bad Idea #103 – Defending the indefensible

  1. This is what someone needs to tell the Spiked Online crowd. Yes, people are entitled to their opinions, but some opinions are demonstrably false. It just isn’t true to say that all views are equally valid, and any old twat can have a platform to talk whatever shite happens to be at the top of his head.

    There are objective, verifiable standards. We should be rejecting relativism & speaking up for rationality.

  2. With apologies for not having read the whole post (which is a monster, even by your usual standards! ;-))

    “accepting a moral and ethical obligation which demands that academics openly acknowledge objective truths, where these exist, and adhere, as Kamm correctly points out, to the method of critical inquiry.”

    This disturbs me slightly. I would say that the university has the right to fire people for doing bad work, but not for saying things which aren’t true. 99% of the output of 99% of all scientists is probably “not true” but it forms part of a process that creates knowledge. Insisting on things we “know” to be true would likely stifle intellectual progress. If the guy had decent evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen, then it would be fine for him to say so, but he doesn’t have any such evidence and neither do any of the other Holocaust deniers.

    I would say that free speech is indeed sacred, but that universities aren’t obliged to pay for nonsense.

  3. Yes indeed I should have read the whole thing before posting. I had a quick look at Bounds’ article and found it initially quite convincing (especially the part about the fact that UCL wasn’t even paying this guy). But on reading yours in more detail, I found this from your article quite convincing:

    “Such a debate is not one that can be fairly engaged and assessed in the absence of an understanding of what make the Holocaust a unique event in human history, even by the standards of humanity

  4. A tough one but I still err on the side of letting people say what they want, whether thye should be funded to do so is another matter, whether they should still keep their job is also another matter, whether they should be be-littled and humiliated and exposed as asshats is a given.

    The Holocaust or any other event is not untouchable or somehow protected from idiots talking about it, I would think that the more these fools spout utter nonsense the more their backward thoughts are exposed and open to ridicule.

    On a slightly connected thought, I’ve just got back from a research trip to Poland and I discovered that I had been lied to about many key elements of the Second World War and Poland. Things like the allies did nothing to help Poland, that Poles were on an equally subhuman footing as Jews and that Poland lost more civilians than any other European nation in the war.

    I also learnt that the techniques of the death camps were first practiced on Poles and Ukranians, whether Jewish or not, in order to hone them for the Jews.

    I suppose the point I am making is, we have an individual responsibility to engage with all the info out there and investigate the elements in order to draw our own conclusions, rather than having some strands of thinking (whether it be Polish suffering in WW2 or UK inventing concentration camps) hidden from us to ‘protect’ us from all possible angles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.