Why has a tiny ad on The Badger Herald site linking to a Holocaust denial website generated such fervor? This barely noticeable ad drew a flurry of seething comments, editorials, panel discussions, a letter from the Chancellor and a fumbling half-apology from the Herald’s Board of Directors.

Many evaluated the ad as a threat and a blow to the Jewish community and claimed that running the ad sanctioned evil. Was it their Jewish-ness or lack thereof that determined people’s response, as some suggested? Or was it their “sensitivity to the long-term intergeneration effects of trauma,” as the Chancellor suggested?

To understand this issue we need to examine not people’s nationality or their ancestors’ trauma, but the ideas informing their evaluations and reactions.

Certainly this issue is not about the historical facts of the Holocaust. If Holocaust denial actually involved destructive ideas, such as communism or Christianity, a rational evaluation would demand taking seriously the threatening ideas and working to demolish them through argumentation and debate. Holocaust deniers would be invited to debate the issue, and analysis of conflicting views would be presented in newspaper columns and editorials. Evaluated this way, there would be calls for more exposure of the offending ideas, not less.

If, on the other hand, Holocaust denial is non-intellectual in nature — if it’s the inane spewing of hatred by a small cadre of psychologically disturbed individuals — then there are no ideas to refute and no possibility of rational discussion. Accordingly, the proper response would be to ignore them.

Neither of these evaluations would lead to the kinds of responses witnessed in the past weeks. Many denounced the Holocaust deniers as raving idiots motivated by hate and bigotry, and then proceeded to detail facts and figures from the Nazi atrocities. The Chancellor provided an extensive list of reading materials and called on students to learn about the Holocaust.

But such appeals were really just gratuitous attempts to treat the issue as an intellectual one and assuage those who were upset by the ad. By their own admission, the facts of history are not in dispute; there are no competing arguments, and Holocaust deniers are just a bunch of crazies.

So it was not the idea of Holocaust denial, which is clearly vacuous in nature, which prompted denunciations of the Herald’s publication of the ad; people were responding to the mindless ranting of emotionally disturbed individuals. Why was this hatred and psychological depravity not regarded as impotent nonsense and ignored? Why did so many regard it as a threat?

In large part it depends on one’s view of the relationship between ideas and emotions in moving the world, of which the Holocaust is a prime example.

Fundamentally, it was not the evil leaders of the Nazi party, nor hatred, fear or prejudice against the Jews that lead to the Holocaust; it was basic ideas — ideas taught in German universities and widely accepted throughout the culture.

Adolf Hitler was explicit in advocating his platform and got elected by promoting ideas that resonated with the German people. In the years preceding the rise of Nazism, the culture had accepted the idea that sacrifice is noble and that individuals existed to serve the nation, race or common good. They had accepted the idea that individuals are impotent to run their own lives and must surrender their judgments to authority.

The Nazi monsters responsible for the mass slaughter of millions could not have risen to power without the moral and intellectual sanction of the universities and wider culture. Nazism would have been impossible in America, for example, where an individual’s right to pursue his own life and happiness was valued and protected from the whims of any collective or cause.

Unfortunately, our culture is slowly losing many of its founding ideals and adopting those closer to pre-Nazi Germany. We are inundated with calls for sacrifice and are increasingly willing to surrender our own judgment to authority, be it deciding to buy insurance, save for retirement or eat a trans-fat French fry. Instead of engaging over the merits and consequences of basic principles, emotions of hate and fear are elevated in importance while the basic ideas underlying those emotions get brushed aside.

Our culture will not succumb to the likes of Holocaust deniers because of hate mongering, emotional rants or the denial of obvious historic facts. If it happens, it will be because of our failure to understand the fundamental ideas openly promoted and accepted in our culture.

What should engage and inspire us to action are not the dark emotions of a few psychologically deranged Holocaust deniers, but the basic ideas animating a culture like pre-Nazi Germany or America. The similarity should give one pause.

Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in biological sciences.