Saturday, December 10, 2016

Denial

Based on a True Lie
or
Holes in the Argument

Denial is the story of a trial that actually happened, that being the Irving v. Penguin Books libel trial conducted in 2000, brought by author David Irving against historian and author Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher for one passage in her book "Denying the Holocaust." Here it is
"Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain's great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions. A review of his recent book, Churchill's War, which appeared in New York Review of Books, accurately analyzed his practice of applying a double standard of evidence. He demands "absolute documentary proof" when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving's tactics, but of those of deniers in general."

Sounds like every political argument I've had...well, ever. And it's become a cottage industry for the "don't confuse me with facts" crowd. "It can't be true because I don't believe it." People have an opinion and go looking for facts to support it, rather than looking at facts and drawing a conclusion about it. The latter is what intelligent people do, and that's just too inconvenient for those living in their bubble-verse to deal with. God knows, it would prevent the important work of being a "Sandy Hook denier" or a "Pizzagate" vigilante.

Irving took umbrage at this quotation I cited, appearing at one of Lipstadt's lectures—this one at deKalb College in Atlanta—(it wasn't exactly spontaneous as 1) he lives in England and 2) he brought along videographers), interrupting it and her, and challenging her to produce one shred of evidence that Hitler had authorized the extermination of the Jews in what would be called "The Final Solution." He waved $1,000 in the air, saying he'd give it to anyone who could produce that evidence. Of course, no one did because you usually don't carry documents like that into a lecture hall—just like no one brings heads of lettuce or rotten tomatoes, despite what the movies tell us.

Irving then brought suit in England, conveniently, not only for location but also strategically: in the Jolly Olde, the burden of proof isn't on the one who brings suit, it is on the ones they're complaining about. Rather than Irving having to prove his contention that he was libeled and suffered for it, it was up to Lipstadt to prove that what she wrote in the book could be proven as fact. Only then, could she win the libel suit. Given the stakes, and that she'd be the one with the most work to do, hired the legal firm run by Anthony Julius (played by Andrew Scott), who had famously represented Lady Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles and the Royal Family. Under the impression that there was nobody else who knew his material as well as he did, Irving chose to represent himself. And in so doing, he could use the court as a forum for his views on history. Tom Wilkinson plays Richard Rampton, who argued for Lipstade in court.

Trouble was, Irving was going to have to be confronted with "facts" in court. And it came down to his representation of what "facts" meant. He made much of an internal Nazi memo saying that Hitler wanted to put "The Final Solution" on "the back-burner" until after the Nazi's had won WWII, and a contention that the gas-chambers at Auschwitz were more to solve a delousing problem than as a killing device, based on something he read that contended that more Jews might have died of disease at Auschwitz than by outright murder. He chose to show as evidence of this that there were no holes in the gas-chambers through which the Nazi's could throw the pellets of Zyclon-B in order to carry out the killing, made conveniently tough by the Nazi's blowing up the chambers in 1944 to cover up the horrific crimes.  Photographic evidence during the war had clearly shown them, but the usual trope of "faked photographs" was used to discount this. People believe what they want to believe, no matter the facts.


The trial was tough for Lipstadt, too. She very much wanted to expand the scope of the trial to condemn all Holocaust deniers, but was urged to keep silent and let the results of the trial speak for themselves. She very famously made no comment when the court found in her favor and against Irving. As screen-writer David Hare (author of Plenty, and the film adaptations of The Hours and The Reader) makes it clear the "denial" of the title is not only of the Holocaust, but also her own instincts to insert herself into the machinations of the trial.

Hare's screenplay is scrupulously attached to the facts. One should expect nothing less, given the subject of veracity embedded in the trial, but also (one suspects) to avoid any further litigation. If anything, the broadest thing one can accuse it of is casting Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Scott as Julius...and, for that matter, Timothy Spall as Irving. That may be the one concession to drama that Denial allows, and, to tell the truth, I found it refreshing, even if it may not have added to the "weekend box office" among the movie-going public. I not only found it refreshing, I found it as something of a salve for a sensibility that had been pummeled by a steady diet of lies, damn lies, and discounted statistics over the last few months and will probably not abate until it's been proven, to the point even the lowest politician could agree to, that it just doesn't "work" any more. In which case, you'll never see another commercial again.

That'll be the day. Lincoln said "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time." He might have been optimistic. But, then, he might have been alive long enough to have heard P.T. Barnum say "There's a sucker born ever minute." These days, truth is slippery. And, if you don't believe that, look it up in Wikipedia. Or Facebook. Or anything on the internet—including this movie review site. Truth will out, they say, but only if there is someone who is willing to receive it. These days, lies are spread by far too many willing accomplices. And they should be ashamed, if their arrogance allowed such a concept of "shame" to exist. 

Denial reminded me of one of the most moving moments I ever saw in film, coupled with one of the most passionate speeches about humanity—in Jacob Bronowski's encyclopedic "The Ascent of Man." In the eleventh episode, "Knowledge or Certainty," (which I've included in its entirety at the bottom of the page), Bronowski, in a seamless thread, explores perception, the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg and the dangers of thinking something as absolute, even down to the microscopic level. He then goes on to talk about his friend Leo Szilard, one of the theoreticians behind the atomic bomb, of the migration of physicists from Germany during the war, and finally, ends it with this indelible moment...



This hit me like a hammer when I first saw it in 1978. And today, it is more pertinent than ever. Knowledge is ridiculed, statistics are ignored, and no one seems capable of facing facts if their opinion is in the way. It's what happens when intelligence is replaced by the very arrogance that Bronowski talks about. I see this happen all the time, and these days, it hits with a particularly resonant clang. If only there was someone to hear it...and then acknowledge it.

The director of that particular episode of "The Ascent of Man" is also the director of Denial—Mick Jackson.


And, oh, by the way. It's not verifiable that P.T. Barnum ever said "There's a sucker born every minute." It's also not verifiable that Lincoln said "...you can't fool all the people all the time." 

If only the sentiments were not verifiable by so much bloody evidence. 


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