As a former opinion editor for The Badger Herald, I have spent the past week processing the implications of Bradley Smith’s Holocaust-denial advertisement on The Badger Herald website.
My first thought was to note that The Badger Herald has a long tradition of promoting free speech on campus. Over time, this tradition has evolved into a responsibility. As Professor Donald Downs pointed out at its 40th anniversary gala, the Herald belongs among a handful of publications, which have become vital testing grounds for First Amendment propositions. Sometimes the Herald has happened upon this responsibility accidentally. At other moments, it has sought controversy deliberately. I am too distanced from the internal politics of this paper to know into which category this recent incident falls. I can only note that editors under a free press always retain the responsibility to challenge or reinforce the constitutional parameters to which they owe their existence.
That said, Bradley Smith is not worth the yarn it took to sew Jason Smathers’ socks. He is a reminder that evil, when it speaks, is not always bombastic or cinematic. It can be understated, peaceful, tentative, eloquent. Holocaust denial, as a pseudo-intellectual endeavor, is indeed tremendously evil. And yet, Mr. Smith’s modest advertisement demonstrates the First Amendment is not merely a right. It is a tool afforded by decent human beings to truly evil people who, left to their own devices, will discredit themselves more breathtakingly than any outside critic ever could.
To quote Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, “In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear.”
And now is the time to engage with Holocaust deniers. The stakes are too high. This is not a terribly optimistic historical moment for advocates against anti-Semitism, and the curators of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have a responsibility to directly respond to Mr. Smith’s taunting.
Consider the historical context: The Iranian government continues to march forward toward nuclear weaponry, evidenced by the regime’s rhetoric whenever another advancement is made on the pathway to uranium enrichment. (I have been cavalier in the past about advocating for Iran’s right to nuclear power, a position I herewith rescind; evidence of the regime’s intentions has reached an overwhelming mass.) For the first time in the decades since the closing of German concentration camps, a nation whose leadership persistently denies the Holocaust is poised to gain unprecedented international leverage. And here at home, the progressive media has made martyrs of untalented, belligerently pro-Palestinian professors who have used their legitimate concern for Palestinian rights as a shield against the equally legitimate academic concerns of tenure committees. It was refreshing to read Chancellor Biddy Martin’s eloquent letter praising the contributions of Jewish students. Indeed, it was sobering to note how seldom public universities take the side of Jewish students as forcefully or dramatically.
By running Bradley Smith’s advertisement, The Badger Herald has done more for Jewish students and authentic, fact-based Holocaust historians than it will ever know. It has reminded all of us that stupidity and nonsense exist in this world, from which flow the entrails of thinly veiled bigotry and deliberate deception. Those who rightly promote Holocaust awareness frequently admonish citizens of the world to “Never forget.” And yet we do forget. We forget that people with much more clout and resources than Bradley Smith, who tout an identical message, are gaining regional power in the Middle East. We forget how long it has been since public universities treated Jewish students with the vocal respect due to any minority group. Sometimes it takes a Bradley Smith to jolt us back to reality. The First Amendment works in mysterious ways. If our campus had “forgotten,” we have been woken up by an unlikely voice.
Eric Schmidt ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.