An Open Letter from Noam Chomsky

On September 12, the French online magazine, rue 89, published an open letter by Noam Chomsky in support of a petition to release the French engineer Vincent Reynouard who is currently in prison for denying the existence of Nazi gas chambers.

In 1979, Chomsky defended the French literary academic Robert Faurrison against the same charges, using the same argument: Holocaust deniers also have the right to freedom of opinion. Whereas the U.S. has no law against Holocaust denial, the French loi Gayssot, which has been in place since 1990, punishes not only genocide denial but also racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic talk.

Chomsky writes: “I have been informed that Vincent Reynouard has been charged and imprisoned for violation of the loi Gayssot and that a petition for his release is in circulation. I know nothing about Monsieur Reynouard but I regard this law as an absolutely illegitimate infringement of the principle of a free society, as it is been understood since the Enlightenment. As a consequence of this law, the state has been granted the right to determine historical truth and to punish anyone who opposes its edicts. This is a principle that smacks of the sinister days of Stalinism and Nazism.”

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9 responses to “An Open Letter from Noam Chomsky

  1. OK, let me be the first to lift the lid on this can of worms. August 23’s blog was entitled “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” It’s a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I’ll let the rest of you comment on its relevance, or lack thereof . . . 😉

  2. That line of Moynihan is the theme of the fairly liberal American blog http://www.samefacts.org. I don’t take it to mean that the state has the power to impose the ‘real’ facts on everybody. I take it to mean that people’s statements of fact are open to challenge on more absolute grounds than their opinions, to which they may be entitled – though other people are also entitled to try to get them to change their opinions.

    Of course choosing the convenient facts (out of a possible array of ‘real’ ones) is a popular method of argument, and no doubt for forming one’s own opinions. Some facts have more appeal than others, and different people find different selections of fact appealing. Hence … arguments.

    Deciding which facts are most relevant to opinions on various subjects can be very difficult. Many people prefer simple answers based on a selection of supportive or comfortable facts; this makes people with a more complex grasp of facts, or a grasp of more complex facts, nervous, or furious.

    The challenge with the ‘fact’ of the Holocaust (I put it in quotes to indicate its officially approved status in this story, not because I deny it…) is that those who deny it usually have a political agenda that has led in human memory to very bad consequences. The law against denial of that fact turns on a desire to avoid the consequences.

    So one could argue against Chomsky that the banning of denial of the Holocaust serves the same purpose as denying the right to falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. The foreseeable harm is not quite as direct or as fast to occur, but perhaps a democratic state can choose to avoid that risk. It’s not a decision that should be made lightly … but never?

    our law generally says that speech is free unless it’s a direct incitement to violence. But France, with a different history (and Germany ditto), draws the line somewhere else.

  3. It is true that a holocaust denier generally has a political axe to grind. Therefore, it is not a question of free expression. Thus, I believe that Chomsky is wrong. I have an open mind and thus could be convinced that I am wrong. I will admit that I am really not very fond of Chomsky.

    • I think Chomsky is morally wrong to challenge the loi Gayssot because denying an obvious truth is offensive and painful to a huge majority of people in a position to know that the account we have of the holocaust is the truth. I am not sure whether I agree with the political-agenda-argument for holocaust-denying because it would also apply to people who, for their political reasons, accept the truth of the holocaust.

  4. It puzzles me how anyone can sincerely doubt that the holocaust happened. The physical evidence is still there and there are still survivors alive. However, I am not sure that jailing the deniers accomplishes anything.