Reaction was swift and condemning. There ought to be a law against that, some said. These Holocaust deniers are insulting to the victims of Nazis, and to the brave Americans who died in WWII saving the world from fascism and white nationalism.
It’s all free speech, said Billy Roper, organizer of what he called an “anti-Christian Holocaust Remembrance March.” When he and a handful of white supremacists showed up in Russellville, Arkansas on March 31, 2019 to protest Congregation Chaim B’Derech’s 5th annual Holocaust March for Remembrance, they carried Nazi flags and flashed white power hand signals to the media. “The Holocaust didn’t happen, but it should have,” read one of their signs. “Six million more,” the group chanted.
Most people don’t agree intellectually and morally with such nonsense. And most might agree that these groups should not be heard. But in America our right to free speech is guaranteed by the Constitution. In America, even ugly thoughts and vile speech predicated on historical lies are protected. The kind of hate speech and preposterous historical claims about the Holocaust we witnessed in Arkansas can be expressed in public without legal consequences.
In some countries, however, such speech is unlawful, considered too abhorrent to warrant protection. It’s infectious and dangerous (based on experience), capable of corrupting common sense and threatening the common good. As Matthew Leonoe recently pointed out in The Washington Post, countries protect themselves from such expressions and ideas with “memory laws:”
They criminalize specific statements about history. Modern memory laws were first promulgated in West Germany in 1985 and Israel in 1986 to combat Holocaust denial. France followed suit in 1990. In the 1990s, memory laws spread across Eastern Europe in states recently freed from Soviet domination.
In “It’s time to do away with laws enforcing triumphal national histories,” Leone’s says such laws in practice tend to enforce and privilege certain historical narratives at the expense of others. In short, the State decides what history is publicly acceptable. But there are unintended consequences. In Poland, for example, right-wing nationalists disagree with official narratives of WWII history but feel powerless to express their opposing opinions. Their frustration is turning into a dangerous social and political movement. There is a Turkish law that broadly forbids speech (even historical discussions) that lead to the “denigration of the nation.” In China, it is a slanderous crime to insult the memory of national heroes and martyrs.”
FREE SPEECH – FREE HISTORY
But in America, we are free to insult the memory of our national heroes and martyrs, such as the 400 thousand men and women who died in uniform during WWII. In America, we are also free to research, analyze, scrutinize, debate, and even rethink our history. We are even free to disrupt and revise it, as we’ve seen recently in our collective effort to more accurately understand and reveal our complicated history of racism in America, past and present.
Some Americans are now asking, “Why are we honoring Southern traitors to the US Constitution by displaying their monuments and flying their flag?” Others are asking, “Why do people want to ban us from celebrating our Southern heroes and martyrs?” Others are wondering, “How do we recognize and respect our shared history, while not censoring, politicizing, or exploiting it to support morally repugnant ideologies and causes?” Frustrated and annoyed by it all, some are asserting, “Who cares? History doesn’t have to be so complicated and controversial.”
But we know that dubious history (e.g., mythology, propaganda) is always marked as too simple, overly benign, one-sided, and unsupported by facts. Opinions serve to validate. Biases are legitimated. Dubious history is received from authority of some kind or another. Dubious history is always “official.”
What makes history so complicated and controversial is that it is a swirl of dynamic and often contradictory social, cultural, economic, and political forces of creation. It is never fully fixed and determined. And so the same influence that create history are also the same sophisticated heuristic lenses through which we must interpret history—critically, truthfully and accurately.
WHO’S HISTORY DO WE VALUE?
As public historians we have to be wary of dubious history, of course. But as Leonoe cautions us, we have to be mindful of history that is mandated, regulated, and approved by the state:
The earliest memory laws banned denial of the Holocaust, a historical fact. On its face, this was a good thing — Holocaust deniers are not only lousy historians, they are morally repugnant Nazi sympathizers. But not all historical “facts” are as clear as the reality of the Holocaust, and memory laws have been used to stifle legitimate debate. Worse, these laws put the power to police such debates into the hands of government, enabling leaders to buttress their power with childish myths of national glory and victimization. This is a real danger and should make us question the very concept of memory laws.
And let’s remember that local history is easily conditioned; communities and local governments make decisions about which versions of history will prevail based on understandings of history, motivated interests, social and religious values, moral appropriateness, and standards of public decency. And of course, histories that prevail are often those that are made public through the generous support of benefactors and patrons. Public history is usually shaped by the (sometimes unseen) hand of moneyed interests and underwriters.
High school history textbooks, local museum exhibits, public art projects, and civic activities such as parades and holiday observances are all defined on the local level by what counts as acceptable, if not official, history:
- There’s a Columbus Day Parade in San Francisco, but not in Denver.
- In Texas schoolbooks, the “heroes of the Alamo” will be remembered as worthy historical figures, but references to Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller are removed.
- Mississippi still wants to be represented by a Jefferson Davis statue in Washington DC.
- There’s a Robert E. Lee high school in Virginia, but not in Vermont.
- In New Mexico, a controversial monument praising the conquistador Onate was vandalized by having its right foot was cut off. It is said that Onate ordered the same fate of all Native American males who rose up against him in the 1600s. A note left behind read: “On behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo.”
- A school district in Juneau, Alaska determined that depictions of Native Alaskans (and others) were distorted, inaccurate and insensitive; they demanded rewrites of curricula.
- Seattle city council banned the internationally acclaimed “Bodies” travelling exhibit on bio-ethical grounds.
- The University of Southern Maine removed three works from “Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape,” following a complaint citing the painter’s previous conviction for sexual offenses.
- American University Removes Sculpture of Leonard Peltier from Grounds of Katzen Center Museum due to ‘complaints.’
- Burnsville Minnesota Arts Center cancelled a play over the word ‘mulatto’ in the title
- WPA paintings were moved from the University of Wisconsin-Stout because two of three historic paintings depicted interactions between white traders and First Nations people because of their potentially “harmful effect” on students and other viewers.
- California State University cancelled a race-related comedy at the Carpenter Center.
- The San Bernardino County government asked artists Armando Aleman and Efren Montiel Jiminez to remove paintings that contain nudity after receiving complaints from people who visited the building.
There are, of course, many more examples of the ongoing struggle over history at all levels–from global events to small town affairs. But in America, at least that struggle is permitted, officially.
This post is inspired by The Washington Post article, “It’s time to do away with laws enforcing triumphal national histories,” by Matthew Lenoe, associate professor of history at the University of Rochester.
PUBLIC HISTORY MATTERS
At The Social Voice Project, we celebrate history and people through our community oral history projects that give us a chance to look, listen, and record the voices and stories of our time. We encourage all local historical societies and museums to capture, preserve, and share their communities’ lived experiences, memories, customs, and values. Future generations are depending on it.
Contact TSVP to learn more about our commitment to public history and community oral history projects.