On Monday this week, one-time historian David Irving was sentenced to three years in prison for 'denying the Holocaust'. That is, for denying it ever existed, or, if it did, for denying that it was anywhere as serious as all that, and that the gas chambers were a myth. Irving seems to live his life in denial. He's famous for it. Indeed, previous to his trial, he told the press, 'I deny that I'm a Holocaust denier'. He just can't help himself! After the trial in which - in a rare moment of non-denial - he pleaded guilty, he told the gathered throng, 'I'm appealing'. He isn't. He's a vile, despicable toad of a man and there is doubtless something very wrong with his brain. However, sending him to jail is, frankly speaking, stupid.
Of course, those who agree that Irving should go to prison for his word-crimes argue that denying the Holocaust is merely a pseudo-intellectual form of anti-Semitism. And of course it is. However, as despicable, dumb, fearful, short-sighted and pathetic as anti-Semitism is, it is not, nor should it be, against the law. One of the benefits of living in a free society is that people are free to hate just about whoever they like - Jews, Muslims, blacks, gays, women, George Bush, Jodie Marsh, Lassie. Whatever. If you can put a name to it, you can hate it. That's your privilege. However, when people take these petty hatreds and act upon them or attempt to encourage others to do the same, then we have laws to deal with that. But to prosecute and punish anyone for their opinions, no matter how idiotic or horrific, is just plain wrong.
Irving's reputation as a serious historian was shredded - one might even say gassed - in April 2000 when he lost a libel case he brought against Deborah Lipstadt, an American academic who had dubbed him 'one of the most prominent and dangerous Holocaust deniers'. Irving lost the case. One piece of condemning evidence was a video in which, during a speech to assorted fascists, Irving declared that, 'more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz'. Stupid, yes. Despicable, yes. Punishable by prison, well yes, in certain countries. Quite a few countries actually, including France, Germany, Israel, Poland, Belguim, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and of course Austria, where he was found guilty this week.
Interestingly, Deborah Lipstasdt, whose libel win against Irving six years ago bankrupted and humiliated him, is very much against his prison sentence. She told the BBC this week: 'I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship... The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth.' Quite right too. No matter how much we sometimes might like to, we really ought to resist jailing people for telling ludicrous lies. All that prosecuting an arse like Irving really achieves is to keep his pointless idiocy in the public eye. A fact of which he was only too well aware, as he stood outside the court on Monday, waving a copy of his book 'Hitler's War' at the cameras.
The whole Irving furore brings to mind the case of Robert Faurisson, another revisionist who was given a three-month suspended sentence in France in 1979 for denying the existence of Nazi gas chambers. A petition was raised to defend Faurisson's freedom of speech. The petition was signed by, amongst others, Noam Chomsky, who pointed out at the time, 'It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers.' We should hang on to that thought. Oh, and this one: 'If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.'
So - no matter how much it may rub against the grain - perhaps we need to start campaigning to Free David Irving. That's right. Get the anti-Semite back on the streets, and indeed, into the gutter, where he belongs.
It was never going to be easy, this Freedom lark.