It was unusual — tape recorders not being de rigueur in Britain — but this time there was a transcript of what was said. Just as unusual: It all began politely. The journalist, Oliver Finegold of the Evening Standard, asked Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, “How did tonight go?” Not so unusually, the mayor, who was emerging from a reception, responded with an insult: “What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?”
“No, I’m Jewish, I wasn’t a German war criminal and actually I’m quite offended by that. So, how did tonight go?”
“All right, well you might be Jewish, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?”
It was all downhill from there. The mayor called the Evening Standard “a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots.” The journalist published the interview. Other city politicians asked Livingstone to apologize. Knowing Livingstone — which I do, slightly; I once spent an evening listening to him defend Stalinism — no one should have been surprised when he refused. Which he did: “The form of words I have used are right,” the mayor said. “I have nothing to apologize for.” Whereupon, incredibly, something called the Adjudication Panel for England suspended the mayor from his job for four weeks.
So revelatory — so rich with lessons about modern Britain — is this incident that I hardly know where to begin. Here we have, in a nutshell, evidence of the breakdown in relations between the British media and British politicians; the increasing incivility of British public life; the nasty strain of anti-Semitism on the far side of the British left (Livingstone has just called Ariel Sharon a war criminal, clearly a favorite insult, as well); and, to top it all off, the growth in the power of undemocratic, unelected “quangos” — quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organizations — of which there are now hundreds in Britain.
We also have evidence of something that, in the wake of the cartoon fracas across the Muslim world, should interest us all: the Western world’s growing inability to deal with its own offensive, insulting and racially or ethnically controversial debates. We don’t, for the most part, burn flags, storm embassies or hang foreign prime ministers in effigy when someone offends the general public’s sensibilities, which is an extremely good thing. But neither does it seem right that an unelected committee should prevent the elected mayor of London from doing his job, just because that mayor is unpleasant and offensive (and I can personally testify that he is both). Surely it’s the voters’ job to weigh Livingstone’s behavior against the fact, conceded by all, that he has improved the flow of London traffic.
It is not directly analogous, but the recent imprisonment of historian David Irving is troubling in some of the same ways. In a Vienna court last month, Irving pleaded guilty to Holocaust denial — a crime in Austria — and received a three-year jail sentence. There is no question that Irving, too, is an unpleasant man. Irving, an extremely knowledgeable historian and the author of more than two dozen books on Nazi Germany, is nevertheless willing to twist that knowledge when the mood takes him, largely to create outrage and direct attention to himself. He has claimed, at times, that the Holocaust never took place; that it did take place but Hitler knew nothing about it; that millions died, but not at Auschwitz, and so on. He enjoys lecturing to Austrian and German neo-Nazis. He once joked — prepare to be really, really offended — that more people had died in the back of Ted Kennedy’s car than in Nazi gas chambers.
Still, I’m with Deborah Lipstadt, the historian whom Irving unsuccessfully sued for libel several years ago and who proved in the course of that trial, that he had altered facts and massaged documents to make his pro-Nazi case. “The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and truth,” she said — not jail sentences.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that both of these stories somehow involve World War II, a tragedy from which Europe, and indeed all of the West, has never recovered. Maybe it’s no coincidence that they both involve political mavericks, far left and far right, who aren’t influenced by normal political constraints. Or maybe they’re just a sign of the times. In a world in which a Jewish man can be found tortured and murdered outside Paris, as one was last week, in which imams issue fatwas against cartoonists, in which the golden domes of mosques explode and in which religious intolerance seems to be exploding too — it’s becoming far harder for everyone else to see the value of uninhibited, unrestrained and deeply offensive free speech.