I have been out of the country for a little while, doing my bit to support the Greek economy. I return to find a most surprising subject for the latest two minutes of hate.
Lest anyone think I’m just carrying water for a friend I suppose I should say at the outset that I don’t know Kevin Myers, and don’t believe I’ve ever met him. But like many other people I have admired his writing over the years, and think that his book ‘Watching the Door: cheating death in 1970’s Belfast’ is one of the best memoirs of the Troubles that I know. Brave, funny, moving and profound, it is - as Andrew Marr said – a book that ‘stinks of the truth.’
That work (published almost a decade ago) confirmed what anyone who had followed Myers’s journalism over the years already knew – which was that you couldn’t find a braver or more consistent opponent of the sectarian violence which tore apart Northern Ireland’s society. His often unpredictable work (which is also variable in quality, as whose is not?) has certain consistent strands. One is that his hatred of the behaviour of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland extends to him taking the position (uncommon in Ireland) of looking at the Israel-Palestinian dispute and not taking it as read that there are certain justifications for murdering Israeli families in their beds.
Now I return from my holidays to find that Kevin Myers has been written off not only as an anti-Semite, but also as a Holocaust-denier. I have read his column from the Irish edition of last weekend’s Sunday Times and think it a pretty poor effort. Had I read it that morning I would not have read past the first few lines. But the worldwide news headlines, including as one of the lead items on the BBC? The widespread calls for him never to be allowed to publish again? And then the insistence, followed by the apparently widespread assumption, of the claim that he is a Holocaust denier? These are ugly, ugly habits to indulge in and the people who have done so for their own short-term gain should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
The column in question made what looks to me like an attempt – a failed attempt as Myers himself has since conceded to make a joke along the lines of ‘They’re no fools, these Jews’. The point I imagine Myers was trying to make would appear, if anything, to have been somewhat philo-Semitic. But like a lot of philo-Semitism, it can sound uncannily close to its opposite number. And on this occasion it clearly did and the Sunday Times were right to apologise and un-publish the piece.
But once Myers was down and wounded a whole shiver of sharks closed in. There were, for instance, all the people who had been enraged by Myers’s support for Israel over the years and – no philo-Semites they – seized the opportunity to look like they weren’t the nasty bigots that so many of them are. For them it must have felt like a twofer offer. Then there are the other media outlets like the BBC who cannot conceal their glee when a rival (especially a Murdoch-owned rival) appears to have slipped up. It is useless, I suppose, to quote John Donne at them. And who are these people who now come out of the woodwork whenever someone errs to declare – as various groups did on this occasion – not only that the condemned man should never write in one venue again but that they should never be published again anywhere, ever? What is this sinister piffle? Are we to make people utter non-persons now? Can we have a banned list of people who can never be allowed to speak in public too? What happened to allowing editors to make their own decisions about who they publish and who they don’t, rather than a group of self-appointed censors ‘demanding’ that certain journalists become homeless in their chosen profession?
Most disgraceful is the now widely-spread claim that Myers is not just an anti-Semite but a Holocaust denier. How did we reach the stage in our public discussion where a defence of the right to free speech – including the right to free speech of actual Holocaust deniers – can have all its detail swiftly glossed over and then turned over so that the person opposing Holocaust denial laws can themselves be dismissed without any attention to detail as a Holocaust denier? Only, as Myers himself memorably wrote in ‘Watching the Door’, because we appear to have reached the stage where ‘In the absence of an agreed reality, truth is whatever you’re having yourself.’
Many of the public won’t have the chance to evaluate this for themselves, because since the outcry over last Sunday’s column and the claim (swiftly Googled, and swiftly skimmed, I would guess) that a 2009 column from the Belfast Telegraph proves that Myers is also a Holocaust denier, the paper which published that column (and which made it freely available for eight years) has now removed it from the internet. Fortunately somebody has kept the text which can be read here (beneath a bit of editorialising). Any reading of that 2009 piece would make it clear that Myers is not denying that the Holocaust occurred – he is making a point which has been made by many other people (including the late Christopher Hitchens) that the Holocaust-denial laws which have been instituted across our continent in recent years are poorly conceived pieces of legislation which among other things risk precisely the thing they seek to avoid in making our societies strangers to historical discussion and truth. I don’t think the 2009 column is Myer’s best piece of journalism or argument. But it’s a variation of a point many others of us have made. And what should be clear even to a child reading the column is that Myers is emphatically not saying ‘I don’t think the Holocaust happened’. He is saying that the genocide of European Jewry obviously did occur but that making historical events into dogma is a dangerous and in the end self-defeating pursuit.
So how do we get from there to ‘Kevin Myers is a self-professed Holocaust denier’? Only by allowing public debate to become so enfeebled that once someone cries ‘upset’ we’re not even allowed to read for ourselves what might lead them to make such a claim or judge for ourselves whether their claims have any validity or not. No, it appears that for now we’re just meant to allow a culture of hysterical offence-taking to decide such things for us.
Well I hope such people don’t win. Myers would appear to be a slightly difficult bugger, which is probably one reason why not many people have come to his defence. But I highlight this not just because I think we should try to retain some care for the truth, but because personally I would rather live in a country where difficult buggers who sometimes get things wrong don’t get their lives and careers destroyed by mobs of offence-takers who consistently demonstrate not only that they know nothing, but that they have not the slightest interest in rectifying that error.