Getting at the truth
By Charles Fried | December 13, 2006
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, the egregious president of Iran, is hosting a conference this week on whether the Holocaust really happened. There are serious questions that someone with Ahmadinejad’s hostile attitude toward the state of Israel might ask about the Holocaust — did it justify the settlement of its survivors in Palestine in the first place and has Israel misused the Holocaust to justify the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories — but whether the Holocaust ever happened is not one of them. To even somewhat sensible, mildly educated people, Ahmadinejad’s conference is like having a conference about whether the world might be flat after all.
What Ahmadinejad’s conference proclaims is that truth has no place in the world of politics ; that if your ends are just, you can say anything, no matter how far-fetched. Ahmadinejad tells us that his pursuit of advanced nuclear capabilities is for peaceful purposes only : power generation, medical applications, and not as part of a weapons program. Why would a rational person put faith in any assurance from a man so contemptuous of truth or even think there is any point in negotiating with him ?
But Ahmadinejad’s tortured logic seems almost broad-minded compared with Turkey’s stringent criminal prohibition on any suggestion that such a thing as its genocide of the Armenian people ever happened. Many brave Turkish writers and journalists have suffered persecution in recent times for proclaiming what no reasonable person would deny. Yet the Armenian genocide is as certain a historic fact as Hitler’s European Holocaust, for which Ataturk’s may well have served as a model and feasability study. (A recent brief, horrifying and thoroughly documented account can be found in Niall Ferguson’s "War of the World.") Turkey and Iran turn truth into either a crime or charade.
And then there is the converse : What about countries like Canada and many in Europe that make it an offense to offer propositions derogatory of races or religions, or to deny the Holocaust, or proposed legislation in France that would make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide. Here, too, the truth and how we come to know it suffers. States that forbid such palpable lies degrade the currency of truth as much as those who proclaim a lie as their national policy.
For in the end, the only way to bite the nickel to make sure it’s genuine is in discussion, debate, assertion, and counter-assertion. That is the process in which extremists in Iran and Turkey are shown to be what they are — charlatans and liars. But states that shut down that process, even to inane propositions like Holocaust or Armenian genocide denial, debase the currency of truth every bit as much as their opposites, For in their zeal, they assign to themselves, to politics, and to official power (with its attendant machinery of prosecutors, judges, juries, and jailors) an authority that can reside only in the forum of individual judgment and conviction.
There is such a thing as truth ; that is why Holocaust deniers are fools or liars. But that is exactly why there can be no such thing as official truth — truth endorsed, policed, and enforced by the power of the state. Truth is above politics, and judges politics, which is why politics has no authority to proclaim it. Official truth is a contradiction in terms. In one respect the Turks seem worse than the Iranians : They make it a crime to tell the truth, while Ahmadinejad claims to doubt what only a fool or scoundrel would deny. Because there is a truth about the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide, this doubt is foolish, but that judgment is not a judgment of politics but of the free mind that judges politics.
Charles Fried is a professor at Harvard Law School. His most recent book is "Modern Liberty and The Limits of Government."
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