Over the course of the last week, we have been inundated with comments of the most reprehensible quality. Anti-Semitism was bandied about in our comments section for our story on Alpha Epsilon Pi. This spurred a dialogue between Dean of Students Lori Berquam, Hillel Executive Director Greg Steinberger and the University of Wisconsin-Madison student body over appropriate speech and the need to repudiate anti-Semitic speech in all forms.
Unfortunately, someone accustomed to a particularly virulent brand of that speech picked up on this debate and found it to be a keen opportunity to strike.
Bradley Smith, an infamous Holocaust denier, took this opportunity to place a link to his denial website on our online site. He paid $75 for the ad, and we chose to accept the advertisement.
The placement is a vile, reprehensible and absurd recreation of history that would be rejected as blatant lies and fantasy by any rational student on campus.
But it is because of this very fact that I have decided to accept this ad and allow it to run its course.
The site itself, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, is a troth to lies that masks itself as an attempt to challenge conventional wisdom on whether the Holocaust and murder of 6 million Jews took place. The assertion is so wildly and obviously false that to even address its claims would be an exercise in futility.
But since its posting, members of campus and this office have asked whether that should be grounds for its deletion.
Since that question has been raised, I’ve poured over the arguments for and against. Deborah Lipstadt’s chapter on campus newspapers, whom Smith primarily attacks, detailed some students who chose to run the ad but defended it on First Amendment principle. Others rejected it as outright lies and apologized for publishing it in the first place. Some, unfortunately, gave the impression that it was merely a controversial “opinion” in the marketplace of ideas.
This paper did not want to give Smith or his foolish ideas any legitimacy, nor did it want to benefit financially from such a reprehensible idea. However, at the same time, I did not want to serve a paternalistic role, telling this campus that these thoughts are so painful and wrong that to even discuss them would be dangerous.
After wrestling with the consequences of my actions and the principles on which this paper is based, I came to the conclusion that I cannot justify the removal of this ad.
This newspaper has made a principle of accepting any individual or group advertisement submitted. The only cases in which we would reject an advertisement are if it exhibits threats toward any person or group or is of a libelous nature. This advertisement, while certainly fueled by veiled anti-Semitism, does not rise to the level of threats and therefore does not merit rejection.
The basis of these decisions does not rest on a desire to collect money for these advertisements, but on the editorial principle that no opinions or assertions can be so offensive that we cannot bring ourselves to hear them. If we run from manifestly vitriolic, destructive and false arguments when they present themselves, they will continue to roam and perhaps proliferate.
We attend a research university of nearly unparalleled intellectual might. As such, we have attracted the most intelligent minds of our country into one intellectual community dedicated to the perpetual search for the truth. This was our mission in 1894 when the UW System Board of Regents defended the “fearless sifting and winnowing” for truth, and it serves a guiding social principle for this campus to this day.
It is that mission that should guide us in this instance. It is patently obvious to the most rational individual that there is no truth to Bradley’s grand project. Any student of this university who views the page (or, perhaps even the link) would recognize his mission as a wholesale rejection of truth and, in turn, dismiss it.
Removing this advertisement would undercut and debase that belief in rational evaluation. The UW community has every ability to confront these lies and reject them on their face. To remove this advertisement would assume our community lacks the intellectual integrity to properly define this movement as an affront to objective truths. The absolute incompetence with which Smith defends his views can only be fully illuminated if this campus is faced to confront those views in their rawest form.
There are, of course, those who make the argument this advertisement will legitimize a supposed “opinion” by giving it publicity, placement and protection. I would argue the exact opposite would happen if we scrapped the advertisement: Smith would argue, as he has in the past, that such suppression is part and parcel of the exact reason he embarks upon this insane mission of his. He will caterwaul and gain a few misguided converts and move on to other student communities with a slightly increased entourage. What is more, many would still be drawn to the site through the sheer amount of ranting and resistance such a rejection would elicit.
By allowing the ad to run and acknowledging its completely vacuous nature, we place this idea in the marketplace where it will be met with disgust, bemused laughter and, above all, facts. Such refusal to accept these rotten goods will expedite its expulsion from this market; pretending they do not exist simply allows them to fester and pollute all items that surround them.
For all those who doubt this scenario and the rationality of the student body, I remind you of our most recent high profile case of rampant lies and rejection of the truth.
A few years ago, UW was presented with lecturer Kevin Barrett. His view, held by a fringe minority, that the September 11 attacks were planned by the United States government, was viewed in a much more dangerous context: UW classrooms. While many in the state Legislature fought for his removal, UW gave him the class and allowed him to teach and carry out his elucidation of this distortion.
The class came and went and the evaluations of Barrett were positive. But his continued push on campus of the conspiracy view of 9/11 for Truth was met with eye rolling and dismissal. He held press conferences on the subject, he crashed a lecture for David Horowitz with the topic and even ran for public office on the issue. It is not a coincidence that his false rant no longer plagues this campus as an issue of debate — his persistence was met with indifference and dismissal and now barely raises an eyebrow among the campus community.
The same process will and should take place with Smith. The money he paid for this advertisement will go toward efforts to counter his movement, as is the wish of the Board of Directors. The text ad to the left will be visited by some, but rejected by nearly all. His “argument” will flounder the second it is exposed. It will be viewed not as a revision of history but as a rejection of reality.
I understand the majority of this campus’ Jewish community must feel the placement of this advertisement compounds the harm created by reader comments. For that reason, every comment on this article will be intensely monitored for attacks, threats and expressions of hatred toward the Jewish community. Those comments will be deleted. There will inevitably be those comments that attempt to justify Smith’s position. Those comments will be posted. I can only hope that those who read these comments either meet them with deafening silence or come armed with the truth.
But if there is no debate, if the “sifting and winnowing” has been done, and there is no doubt that the truth is clear, we have nothing to fear when presented with obvious untruths. We must only stand guard of the truth while falsehoods are allowed to expend themselves of manufactured “legitimacy.”
For those looking for more information on the history of Holocaust denial and those fighting it, visit http://www.hdot.org/