"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." —George Orwell
What is true and what we believe to be true we take to be one and the same. Consequently, Denial was almost certainly not seen as a Zionist propaganda piece by Peter Sagal, the playwright, nor perhaps will it be by the majority of those who listen to it (it was written as a ‘staged reading’). Certainly, for all the characters in Denial but one, the salient features of what has come to be known as the Holocaust are accepted as givens. It follows that Prof. Bernard Cooper is either insane, or anti-Semitic, in questioning them. Thus – and in common with all propaganda – what are taken as the established facts predetermine our moral judgment of the characters before we even begin.
But isn’t there a problem with this? The Holocaust is not, at least for non-Jews, an unquestionable article of religious faith, like the Resurrection of Christ, but a recent historical event; part of World War II. As such one might suppose that it is as much a legitimate, and indeed a fascinating, target for scholarly scrutiny and possible reappraisal as is the rest of that appalling chapter in human history.
It is on the absolute rejection of the above assumption that the premise of this play rests; hence the conclusion that Holocaust revisionism is motivated by madness or mischief. Yet Abby’s perverse defense of the heretical, Holocaust-denying Cooper is that “Shutting down free expression is far more dangerous to the country than anything you [Cooper] might do”.
One might then legitimately ask, if belief in the Holocaust is a requirement for acceptance in sane society, what is the meaning of “freedom of expression” in the present context? When Voltaire famously declared that “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was he not categorically affirming that nothing is known for sure and for all time? What would be the meaning of the term “freedom of speech” if it simply meant the right to babble nonsense? Voltaire’s declaration stands as a monument, not to the charity of those who defend the nonsensical ramblings of madmen, but to the necessary humility we must all adopt in the face of the temporary nature of all knowledge.
But Abby’s concern is, of course, that Cooper’s Holocaust denial is not simply nonsense; it’s dangerous nonsense. His rantings risk conveying the semblance of truth to those (but only to those) seeking to attack Jews. Only an anti-Semite, after all, would indulge in denial of the Holocaust.
The heretic Cooper defends his position thus –
"You can only “deny” something that is proven fact, which is pre-judging the whole affair, isn’t it?"
But this introduces another difficulty: when does a fact become proven? If society is to remain cohesive (which it must, by definition) there has to be a bedrock of shared belief. If we keep questioning everything, all the time, then we can never settle on anything, and we will have, effectively, a Tower of Babel, in which no-one can communicate with anyone. At some point the buck has to stop. That point is bedrock for us, even though an infinity of unknowing still lies beneath it. Bedrock belief, then, rests ultimately on faith. "It's turtles all the way down". We believe because we believe. On these grounds, can it not be argued that Gersten and Cooper simply have different beliefs, and the Holocaust narrative should be left intact, like the turtles that support the Earth in Hindu mythology, for those whose harmless faith requires that it be true?
Setting aside the question of the harmlessness of Zionism, such might be the case if we did not live in the Age of Science. But “bedrock” suggests solidity, not mere wish or whim. The bedrock of belief is that which is most durable, and that, for most of us, means either ancient history, or the physical world. That all substance is, at bottom, ephemeral need not trouble us here; we determine the existence of things through experiment (such as walking into walls) followed by the corroboration of others of our kind, leading to agreement – “‘Walls’ are ‘hard’.” Out of such confirmed experimental results we build up a shared picture of our environment – a picture assuredly shared, in this physical regard, by Gersten and Cooper. The argument over the authenticity of the Holocaust is to be fought, if it is to be fought at all, over our interpretation of physical events to which we all supposedly have equal access, and whose interpretation, we suppose, should therefore be the same for all.
That, at least, would be the modern, scientific position. Prof. Cooper would I think argue, were he given the chance, that to believe the Holocaust narrative requires that an exception be made in relation to some of the laws of chemistry and physics. In this arena science trumps faith. We may legitimately demand physical and forensic evidence for those claims that depend on it. The Holocaust is such a claim.
But Sagal has introduced another dimension. He has subtly elevated Abby morally, even as he has subtly undermined Cooper. The attack on Cooper’s Holocaust doubt is less scientific than ad hominem. At the outset, Abby, our defense lawyer heroine, says -
"They say that my client has promoted obscenity. That he is hateful. And you know what? He is. If I found a child of mine reading that… periodical of his, I’d want to go down to my client’s house… and beat him to death with a rolled-up copy. You too, I bet.”
Oh, the power of righteous indignation! Thus are we invited – lest we, too, be labeled “anti-Semitic” - to become co-conspirators against Cooper. His disbelief in the Holocaust is motivated by hatred, ergo his arguments, however apparently rational, are not worthy of our attention.
Cooper’s Holocaust denial is further tainted by the slur of racism. Abby’s black secretary Stephanie is created for just this purpose, his ill-disguised distaste for her contrasted with the amiable sisterhood established between Stephanie and Abby at the opening of the play. More significantly, despite denying his anti-Semitism, phrases like “Why don’t they just go back where they came from?” drop from Cooper’s lips in apparently harmless reference, but pregnant with meaning. “And all that talk about money! Money, money, money, they grub after it like pigs in slop…” No names mentioned, but we know which group he’s stereotyping, don’t we?
Abby’s line of defense for Cooper is spare:
"By seizing these lists [of subscribers to Cooper’s anti-Holocaust periodical The Journal of Independent Inquiry], the government is violating your right to free association and free speech under the First Amendment…”
And she explains this economy –
"My client will be the First Amendment. I am interested in defending it, through you… you will not say a word about concentration camps, the Holocaust, and the International Jewish Conspiracy to fluoridate the water. We might be willing to defend your right to say what you want to whomever wants to hear it. But I do not, and neither does the court."
The fluoridation jibe brands the whole anti-Semitic program with the same stamp of absurdity. When asked if any criminal organizations are on his mailing list, Cooper cheekily replies “the B’nai B’rith,” to which Abby retorts “I was thinking more along the lines of the Ku Klux Klan”. Are we to see irony in this apparent symmetry, or is it assumed that the B’nai B’rith is the more noble enterprise? Isn’t Cooper now linked in our minds with the infamous KKK?
In this way racism and anti-Semitism are identified as the driving forces behind Cooper's questioning of the Holocaust. Why would he want to reexamine it, unless to undermine Zionism, and to what end undermine Zionism, unless to destroy the Jews? “Attack our past… and you attack us,” as prosecuting lawyer Ryberg grimly observes. Yes folks, this is war.
Is truth, spoken by the enemy in hatred, thereby nullified? Do lies, spoken in defense of the faith, thereby become true? The answer to both these questions appears, surprisingly, to be “yes”; that which serves the cause is true, that which detracts from it, false, and evidence be damned. Welcome to the battleground of competing faiths.
Those caught up in the heat of traumatic events are not always their most reliable judges. Later generations may view them more dispassionately – and reach different conclusions. And that, of course, is the problem with the Holocaust – the phrase “Lest we forget” is ever before us. We are never to allow the memory of the horror of the Holocaust to fade. It must ever remain fresh in our memory. Only in this way can it be kept safe from the cold scrutiny of the scholars that it would otherwise inevitably attract.
"A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing." —George Orwell
For some honest, dispassionate, scholarly research on this explosive topic, you may want to visit the following sites -