Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Today is the second day of a conference in Teheran, Iran, organized by the Iranian government to "explore the validity of the Holocaust."

As outrageously stupid events go, this one pretty much takes the cake. No one with a brain can reasonably deny that the Holocaust, one of the most horrendous crimes in human history, actually happened. Mountains of documentation exist, including photographs, video, and the testimony of both survivors and perpetrators. There has probably never been a more thoroughly-documented crime. So how can anyone deny that it happened?

There are a few reasons, I believe. One is clearly political, and is at the root of the Iranian agenda: if one calls into question the reality of the Holocaust, one calls into question the moral and political basis of the UN's 1947 decision to partition Palestine and create the state of Israel. Another is simple anti-Semitism. And a third, which really grows out of the second, is that some people will believe what they want to believe, no matter how stupid (for an excellent discussion of the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, read chapter 14 of Michael Shermer's superb book Why People Believe Weird Things).

Now, having said that there's no question the Holocaust actually happened, and that the Iranian conference is utterly asinine, I think that - in principle - there's nothing wrong with Iran hosting the conference.

I have always believed in free speech. I have also always maintained that freedom of speech does not equal freedom of smart. If you give stupid people a platform from which to present stupid ideas, you give intelligent people the opportunity to challenge them. I still believe that, although, sadly, there is less critical thinking today on the part of people who should know better. The average person is too lazy to check facts, too quick to accept even the most outrageous claims, and too willing to give morons the benefit of the doubt. One expects that from people educated in madrassas which teach only the rote memorization of religious texts without critical interpretation; one doesn't expect it from people educated in modern schools.

The sad reality is that, although the entire premise of the Iranian conference is easily shown to be bogus, there is no shortage of people who will believe the drivel it produces. The great justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously said that "The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye. The more light you pour on it, the more it will contract."

And it's sad, but true.

Have a good day. More thoughts on this topic coming later.


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