Saturday, 28 November 2009

Glorifying communism shouldn't be a crime

Having just finished reading Anne Applebaum's superb history of the Gulag, I'm inclined to welcome anything that reminds people of the horrors of Soviet communism. Still, I'm rather uncomfortable about this:

Up to two years in jail await anyone glorifying communism according to an amendment to Article 256 of the Polish criminal code — the race-hate article — which is likely to come into force next year. The ban outlaws “the production, distribution, sale or possession ... in print, recordings or other means of fascist, communist or other symbols of totalitarianism”

No, no, no. Poland, you don't need to do that censorship stuff any more. You're free. And that includes being free to glorify communism if you are stupid enough to want to do so.

“Communism was a terrible, murderous system that took millions of lives,” said the Polish historian Wojciech Roszkowski. “It was similar to National Socialism and there is no reason to treat these two systems, and their symbols, differently.”

Quite right. Poland's new law is a well-meaning attempt to show that communism was every bit as vile as fascism. This holds a certain allure for many, even for those who, like Tim Worstall, believe in free speech:

Well, actually, such limitations on free speech aren’t really desirable at all. But putting the two great murderous ideologies of the 20th century on an equal footing certainly appeals.

True, but I would argue (and I think Tim would do too) that Holocaust denial shouldn't be a crime at all. It is in Poland, of course, and in another 12 countries. It isn't in Britain but that didn't prevent British historian David Irving from getting banged up in Austria for "trivialising the Holocaust".

One of the main arguments against making Holocaust denial a crime is that the censorship won't end there. And that's exactly what's happened in Poland. There is a logical progression from banning the Swastika to banning the hammer and sickle. There is no reason to allow Gulag denial whilst Holocaust denial is a crime.

But then why not prohibit 'moon landing denial' as well? Ah, but the moon landing didn't kill millions of people. Alright then, what about climate change denial? Global warming will - according to many - kill more than Stalin and Hitler combined, and some people do indeed want to see its 'denial' made illegal.

David Irving is under arrest in Austria for Holocaust denial. Perhaps there is a case for making climate change denial an offence - it is a crime against humanity after all.

Another argument is that such laws are difficult to interpret and problematic to enforce. The banning of historic "symbols" is not as easy as it sounds, particularly in countries where such symbols were produced in their millions. What about antiques? Does a bust of Karl Marx count? Do war medals or books count? Again, the question is where does it end? As The Times reports:

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that a similar Hungarian ban on wearing “symbols of tyranny” was too broad and indiscriminate.

Britain faces the same problem with its ill-considered and badly written laws against "inciting religious hatred" and "glorifying terrorism". They are open to wide interpretation. Do Glaswegian football chants "incite religious hatred"? Would a biopic of Nelson Mandela's life "glorify terrorism"?

But the most compelling argument against denial laws (apart from the obvious issue of free speech) is that you can't keep track of the loonies and the cranks if you drive them underground. Historians have nothing to fear from Holocaust or Gulag deniers. As Anne Applebaum says in her book:

Our tolerance for the odd 'Gulag denier' in our universities will not destroy the moral fabric of our society.

The "deniers" are few in number and their claims can be easily refuted. David Irving is a fool and can be shown to be a fool, but I don't think he is a danger to anybody. And even if there are a million Communist "glorifiers" in Poland, their repression will only feed their anger and sense of injustice. That, in fact, is precisely what happened to Hitler and Stalin when they were imprisoned for their political views. Didn't exactly hold them back though, did it? And banning free speech and political "symbols" is exactly the kind of thing they did when they got into power.

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