David Irving's been sentenced to three years in Austrian prison, for holocaust denial.
In some ways, this is terrific, because one of the first things that comes to mind when you hear about his brand of disgusting, irresponsible scholarship is: "there oughta be a law against that."
In Austria (and eight other European countries), there is.
So in my heart, I hope he serves every day and I hope it's awful.
But in my head, I wonder about whether this is a fair or appropriate use of the criminal justice system.
Bad scholarship shouldn't be illegal, nor should being an unrepentant bigot.
Scholarship that meets the legal standards of inciteful hate speech or libel should be illegal, and it is.
I haven't read too much of Irving's material, but I've read excerpts, and while there's no doubt he's a holocaust denier (which in my book puts him just below oil-company lawyers and Fred Phelps in the seventh ring of hell), I don't know whether his writings ought to classify him as a criminal. Obviously, in Austria and Germany the legislatures feel that the damage caused by Holocaust denial is significant enough to represent a threat to freedom, health, or safety. Or, at least, they perceived that threat when the laws were passed.
I have no trouble seeing the damage caused by holocaust denial, just as I have no trouble seeing the damage caused by expressions of racial or ethnic prejudice. These actions present a threat to the psychological health of individuals and their communities, as well as a threat to the integrity of current ideas and the historical record. But that's a risk inherent to the preservation of free speech. Without demonstrating a clear and present danger to freedom, health, security, etc. (not manufacturing one, as the Bush administration did with the Patriot Act), the anti-Holocaust denial laws do not seem justified.
Irving's nemesis, Deborah Lipstadt, agrees that the free speech concern should take precedent. But she manages a nice dig at the end of the article, which I think is warranted considering what he put her through.
Nothing is served by having David Irving in a jail cell, except that he has become an international news issue. Let him go home and let him continue talking to six people in a basement. Let him fade into obscurity where he belongs.