Free speech or self interest?

Many years ago a naïve young Turgon attended a school debate; the motion “This House would ban the National Front”. One quote I remember was from Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (although it seems Voltaire did not actually say that – see link). If you are interested the motion was defeated and the first speaker for the opposition achieved greater things going on to become the current Editor of the Newsletter. The rest of us just went on. I guess it was appropriate that someone who spoke for free speech went on to be a journalist; although I have no idea what his view on such matters would be now.

Oxford Union not to be confused with Oxford Students’ Union rather immodestly proclaims itself to be “The world’s most famous debating society.” Okay it seems to be a bit more upmarket that my school debating society or my other alma mater of debate QUB Students’ Union.Late last year, however, this most prestigious organisation was the scene of a near riot following the decision seemingly fronted by the Union President Luke Tryl to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin and the previously imprisoned David Irving who failed in a libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier (not that that failure has stopped further threats of libel – see link).

My initial impression of this was of extremely intelligent, liberal minded young people at Oxford thinking that they could take on and humiliate people whose views are pretty unacceptable to practically everyone. I suspected, however, that the students were making a mistake as they failed to take into account the encyclopaedic knowledge these two individuals have of their field and, hence, their ability to spin a huge number of “facts” to “prove” their position. As such I thought the idea of a debate showed a group of young people who were very clever, but naïve and maybe a bit arrogant.

A friend from Wales who attended Cambridge and is interested in politics, however, suggested an alternative option. This was that the President of Oxford Union is an excellent stepping stone to a career in GB politics. As such this president had gained great publicity and could in the future stand for one of the major GB parties and have as part of his appeal a free speech type ticket. Might this free speech ticket lead to even greater things than the editorship of a newspaper and was Mr. Tryl being more self serving than Master Templeton was when he supported free speech all those years ago?

Any thoughts?

  • slug

    I think the prevailing attitude among Oxford students was that there was a right of free speech even for those you disagree with and that the protestors were in fact giving publicity to nasty folks. As for the organisers motivation…well I am sure that there was an attraction of doing something to catch attention. After all you wouldn’t actually want to hear the views of these characters even if you believe in their right of speech.

  • jaffa

    True to your Cambridge friends suspicion Turgon;

    “The president of the Oxford Union, Luke Tryl, was unconvinced. “I think David Irving came out of that looking pathetic,” he said “I said in my introduction that I found his view repugnant and abhorrent because I wanted that on record.”

    On record for what?

  • Rory

    “…was Mr. Tryl being more self serving than Master Templeton was when he supported free speech all those years ago?”

    I don’t know how self serving Templeton’s contribution to that earlier debate was intended to be. It certainly doesn’t seem to have done him much harm. The widely accepted view on Tryl however on this side of the pond among all sections of the journalistic packhound is that, yes, the whole thing was merely a crude publicity stunt designed to promote his name and reputation for further advancement, if not as a Tory hopeful then he can be sure of being picked up by the LibDems.

    This whole nonsense that the issue is one of free speech is such a hoary chestnut. It is really a question of whether or not it is tolerable to give a platform to propagandists for the revival of Nazism. Whatever next – a platform for a reasoned discussion on the merits or otherwise of man/boy “love” as promoted by the National Association for Man/Boy Love (NAMBLA)? Though come to think of it I can see the attractions such a travesty might have for some who crawl beneath the gleaming spires.

  • joeCanuck

    Don’t know anything about Griffin but I’ll play the man for once and declare my belief that Irving is one nasty piece of work. Saw a documentary about him and one of his books a long time ago (back when I lived in N.I.) and his arrogant disgusting beliefs made my skin crawl.
    But, the invite having been issued, he should have been allowed to speak. I think that, for someone like him, it’s best to confront intellectually rather than trying to suppress.

  • Sorley

    I would agree Joe, the best way to deal with scum like those two is to engage them in calm, reasoned debate. If you shove those views underground they may actually gain strength, plus these people being in the public eye makes it easier for the police to keep an eye on them.

  • The whole issue of Irving in a debate is hauntingly familiar. When a member of QUB’s Historical Society’s committee (an august institution I was latterly to chair…) Irving was invited to speak to the society on a similar free speech ticket. His selling point (at that time) was that no-one could ‘prove’ Hitler had sanctioned the Holocaust, but that it had been undertaken by over-enthusiastic underlings, whereas Hitler rather fancied having Jews, Gypsies etc deported to an unspecified island. His repugnant notions were flattened during a tense q&a;session by both literate members of the Jewish community and several lecturers I have fond memories of (one of whom nailed Irving spectacularly by quoting from several sources). Thus I believe free speech was upheld by allowing an honest debate. However, it was a mistake to give the shit Irving ANY public platform. Better to let him rant alone to his mirror! Having said that the Brown Government’s determination to hold on to Blasphemy Laws, despite Maria Eagle’s recent climbdown, show that free speech is something to be aspired to rather than something enshrined in any current legislation. Anyhoos Turgon, President of QUB Historical Society failed to be a stepping stone to Labour front benches…

  • Rory

    Never mind, Metalman, it seems you got the balls and you got the heart and your account above shows that you tell a good story well and true. I am now minded to have you in my cabinet.

    Don’t worry about all this “Front benches” hooey. That becomes irrelevant once we dispense with the silly conceit of “other”, facing benches. Once we good guys win we ain’t gonna have no more bad guys.

    There is of course one platform that I would willingly assist Irvine and his chums to ascend, if only I can persuade the French Department of Justice to grant me permission for it’s use.

  • LOL Rory, would love the conceit that I had either balls or heart while at QUB, but rest assured it was rose-tinted niavete that allowed Irving a platform (albeit a limited one of about 40 people…all but two sad deluded peeps there to give the Nazi apologist a bad time). What stands out is that the lecturers didn’t interfere, rather they gave counsel and showed up to take on Irving manó to manó in the academic sense. Though after listening to him – and I paraphrase – ‘Dresden was really bad bombing’ but later on refusing to acknowledge Belfast’s terror at Luftwaffe bombing was also a pretty crap incident in WWII’ it was clear that he was a moral worm hiding behind bluster and bullsh*t. The scaffold is a waste for his types, rather much better than let him wallow in his own less than creative juices. The cruellest punishment one can deliver to such is to ignore them…if only the esteemed debating society had called me for advice! They must have lost my phone number or have failed to recognise me with the long hair and in my current PR role (hi Newton!) defending the rights of…no I’ll not go any further lest Newton finds another rant for his humorous tirades!

  • Harry Flashman

    *Whatever next – a platform for a reasoned discussion on the merits or otherwise of man/boy “love” as promoted by the National Association for Man/Boy Love (NAMBLA)?*

    My word Rory, how uninformed you are!

    The ACLU, an American ‘civil rights’ organisation, (actually it’s origins are as a hard left Marxist advocacy organisation) specifically defendeded NAMBLA in the US courts. They are very proud of this fact, especially as those stump toothed thicko Christians that you despise so much agreed with you that allowing such perverts a platform was an apalling position.

    Funny who your allies turn out to be Rory, isn’t it?

  • Rory

    The emotional malaise that festered in the blind resentment wherein Nazism spawned is observable in unhappy individuals in most societies.

    In most it is regarded, at best, as a source of concern for the poor benighted human so afflicted or, at worst, as a complete fucking pain in the arse and, more commonly, as an amalgam of the two. Societies can generally cope according to the priorities of their custom of individual or community care.

    The real problem arises when the profiteers in society find that their rapacious greed has placed them in crisis and that those upon whom they leeched are beginning to open their eyes.

    Then we have what I call the Steven Sondheim moment. This I relate to an all too common portrayal of Hitler as a clown. Cue: “Bring on the clowns”. The clowns are there to divert attention while the circus owners get their shit together to bring on the tigers.

    My argument is that it is best to shoot the fucking clowns. It will at least help to improve one’s aim should the tigers be loosed.

  • Rory

    I am aware, Harry of ACLU’s defence of NAMBLA (which I erroneusly identified – its the North American… etc., not the National).

    ACLU have also successfully argued the case (right to the Supreme Court I believe) for the right of the American Nazi Party to march through a predominatly Black neighbourhood.

    The reason that they are prepared to defend the constitutional rights of these who would be most abhorrent to their own principles is precisely one of the exercise of the safeguarding the vulnerable in society with the limited protection that the constitution provides but which is always under attack.

    The argument goes thus:

    Deny paedophile groups and Nazis the right to public meeting or demonstration today and the precedent becomes established for a similar denial to striking workers or vote-disenfranchised citizens tomorrow.

    The rich and powerful do not give a fiddler’s fuck for vulnerable children or the sensibilities of “Negroes”. Much less for citizens that they would rather remain disenfranchised – but they sure would love to deny workers of any constitutional protection for their right to defend themselves against the bosses and the bosses’ goons. Go figure!

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Rory: “ACLU have also successfully argued the case (right to the Supreme Court I believe) for the right of the American Nazi Party to march through a predominatly Black neighbourhood. ”

    Actually, it was the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, if memory serves…

    Rory: “The reason that they are prepared to defend the constitutional rights of these who would be most abhorrent to their own principles is precisely one of the exercise of the safeguarding the vulnerable in society with the limited protection that the constitution provides but which is always under attack”

    Which I might buy, were the ACLU not so vigorous in prosecuting other groups with less abhorrent positions. Likewise, the ACLU has gone in some areas to take some rather schizophrenic views, such as forcing schools to back away from Christmas, yet make a space for Ramadan and Eid…

    Which suggests that if Christians were more violent, their holidays wouldn’t be suppressed…

    Rory: “The rich and powerful do not give a fiddler’s fuck for vulnerable children or the sensibilities of “Negroes”. ”

    Apparently not, since the rich liberals of the ACLU work so hard as they fight for the kiddie-fuckers and the Nazis.

    Rory: “Much less for citizens that they would rather remain disenfranchised – but they sure would love to deny workers of any constitutional protection for their right to defend themselves against the bosses and the bosses’ goons.”

    As a dues paying member of a couple of different unions over the years, we’re were usually in far more danger from the union leadership (who rarely rise up from the production floor anymore) than we were from the “bosses.”

    As for goons, wake up and smell the cappacino, Rory Van Winkle. Shoulder hitters and the like have been passe since the early sixites, if that late, leastwise in these parts.

  • Bole

    Turgon,
    I obviously went to the same school as you and spoke at a debate in Sept/Oct 1985 opposing the motion ‘This house supports the repatriation of immigrants’ which was proposed by the current editor of the Newsletter. Is this the same debate, or did Mr Templeton speak at two debates in school in support of such views?

    Anyway, readers may be interested to know that following the debate, (which he lost resoundingly) the future editor berated me in the corridor with the words ‘You’re a traitor to your race’ to which I replied ‘I only belong to one race – the human race’

  • Mike

    Hmm, the Oxford Union. To those of us of a more ‘normal’ student disposition at Oxford, ‘the Union’ was seen as the perserve of odd political hacks, usually Toryboys, who spent their time playing strange backstabbing political games. Probably a good training for UK political leaders, on reflection. Meanwhile OUSU (the Oxford Univerity Students Union) was seen as the preserve of lefty loons promoting their brand of socialism (before eventually moving to careers in the Labour Party…).

    That said though most of us were sort of proud of the worldwide reputation of the Union, even if we never actually joined.

    I was a history student and remember David Irving being invited to the Historical Society, though I couldn’t attend. Frustratingly I have only a hazt memory of what controversy there was, I remember we debated it in our College JCR (Junior Common Room) – maybe over the fact of the invite.

    I remember more clearly the controversy in my second year when the European society invited Peter Sichrovsky of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) to speak and deabte at one of its meetings. The Anti-Nazi League among others demonstrated outside Exam Schools were the meeting was held and abused (intimdated, some would say) students for ‘crossing the picket line’ (many of whom were actually just going to lectures and not even to Sichrovsky meeting at all). They chanted something about banning the FPO and displaying banners stating “Haider = Hitler” and “1933-1945 Never Again”. They were very insistent this ‘Nazi’ shouldn’t be given a platform, any platform.

    This left me with a pretty deep antipathy to the ANL. I was interested to read in the student papers a few days later that the ‘Nazi’ Sichrovsky is Jewish…

  • Mike

    To take the last bit slightly further, the paper carried an interview with Sichrovsky in which he argued that Jews were expected to hold only certain positions on the political spectrum (generally left wing) and that there was no reason why one wouldn’t be right wing and Jewish. He also said some of his opponents labelled him ‘Haider’s court Jew’.

  • Rory

    Bole,

    I loved your account of your encounter with Templeton. Pity you didn’t punch him – his insult entitled you. Besides which you would have been striking a blow on behalf of the human race.

  • Bole

    Thanks Rory
    I wouldnt have dared hit the individual in question (much as I would have liked to).
    In those days he allegedly had links to illicit organisations in the Moss-side (that’s Moss-side, Ballymoney, not Moss-side, Manchester!) area.
    I could tell a few more tales about him – but I think I have said enough 😉

  • As noted above, the Oxford Union are somewhat johnny-come-latelys in the matter of inviting Irving, not least because the Socialist Workers et al have a well polished game plan for disrupting such invitations leading to the university backing down “due to police advice about the possibility of violence”. UCC invited Irving about 12 years ago and I believe again recently and neither event came off.

    It’s actually a good way to get your society in the media – invite Irving, issue press release, wait for spleen from various groups, cancel 15 minutes before, issue second press release lamenting the effect on free speech.

  • jaffa

    “there was no reason why one wouldn’t be right wing and Jewish.”

    And if one can’t a certain founder of the Chicago school will need to hand back his noble prize.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Friedman

  • Twinbrook

    Free speech is one of the markers of a liberal democracy…….

    isn`t it?

  • Rory

    I could tell a few more tales about him …”.

    Oh! do ,pleeeease, Bole. Like Dumbo -I’m all ears.

    If you’re shy of going public a simple click on my signature name will spirit up my e-mail address.

  • Rory

    Twinbrook, you will forgive me, please, for banging on with the same tired old mantra:

    This is not an issue of free speech“,

    but what is a man to do when nobody listens?

    Ervine already enjoys free speech in this “modern democracy”. Barring the constraints of the libel laws and the Public Order Act he is free to say what he pleases – just like you and I.

    This is a question not of the exercise of that right but of where he might be free to exercise it. For example he may not exercise it at my dinner table – because I won’t be inviting him – unless of course he’s reduced to a state of hunger when the laws of hospitality would demand it. But even then – though I realise it might hinder his eating – he’ll have to keep his trap shut

    For much the same reason, although I deeply respect his right to earn a living by it, I shall not be inviting Sir Cliff Richard to sing at my supper table.

  • Valenciano

    JoeCanuck, about Griffin, this from Wikipedia… >>In issue 12 of the BNP publication The Rune he called the Holocaust “the Holohoax” and criticized the Holocaust denier David Irving for admitting in an interview that up to four million Jews might have died in the Holocaust. Griffin wrote: “True Revisionists will not be fooled by this new twist to the sorry tale of the Hoax of the Twentieth Century.”< < A year later there was an appearance on the investigative Cook report http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6X8QQwU00Jk

    where he said: “There is no doubt that hundreds, probably thousands of Jews were shot to death in Eastern Europe, because they were rightly or wrongly seen as communists or potential partisan supporters. That was awful. But this nonsense about gas chambers is exposed as a total lie.”

    In recent times he’s got smarter with his words and thus more dangerous. A nasty piece of work and ten times worse than Irving.