Facebook’s Decision about the Holocaust

The vast majority of people, including your humble blogger, have never done any serious research on the Holocaust. In this case, our main reason to believe it happened is that, in most relatively free countries, anybody who had the opposite opinion has been free to defend it and that, obviously, it did not survive the shock of free debates. For the same reason, most of us non-physicists believe in quantum entanglement.

What will be the consequence of the legal bans on Holocaust denialism (often through so-called “hate laws”) that have spread in so-called free countries (but not in America)? And what will be the results of Facebook’s decision not to allow the discussion of this topic (“Facebook Bans Content Denying the Holocaust on Its Platforms,” Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2020)? These two sorts of ban are very different because Facebook is a private entity that, like any other, (still) has the right to decide which opinion it will allow to be expressed on its property. But, given the importance of Facebook (and Twitter) in public debates, the two sorts of restraints may well have similar consequences.

It is true that a lot of snake oil is peddled in popular opinions and on social networks. But we find ignoramuses in the intellectual establishment too. And it is not possible to protect “vulnerable” people against these dangers if only because the habit of not being confronted with contrarian ideas may make one more, not less, gullible.

The most serious reason to oppose speech bans was expressed by economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty (1859):

Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

Imagine what will happen after several decades of legal and practical bans on denying the Holocaust. There will be few discussions on the topic. Its deniers will be silent, except in private, in samizdats, or in violent groups. Its defenders’ research may have become rare because less apparently useful (and not without risk: suppose the researcher finds something that does not exactly fit the official wisdom?). The historical existence of the Holocaust will have become a sort of official mythology prone to jokes—think of the political slogans in the late Soviet Union—that most people will have no reason to believe.


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Happy Birthday, Thomas Sowell

The one constant on display through all these topics is an irrepressible mind digging through the data in order to understand the complex reality underneath. His intellectual process, plus his ability to write quickly, have resulted in dozens of books and hundreds upon hundreds of newspaper columns that have helped many of us learn. When I handed out my biography to students the first day of the class I taught at the Naval Postgraduate School (from 1984 to 2017)—with my Hoover Institution affiliation on it—a question I got from many was, “Do you know Thomas Sowell?” They mispronounced his last name, evidence that they knew about him from reading him rather than hearing about him.

This is from David R. Henderson, “Thomas Sowell, An Intellectual Giant,” Defining Ideas, July 1, my encomium to Tom, published on the day after his 90th birthday. The editor chose the title and it’s better than the one I gave it. Just choosing great punchy quotes from his work could easily made the piece 50% longer.

Another excerpt:

In The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, published in 1983, Sowell took the next step, looking at race, ethnicity, and culture across the world. He wasted no time in getting to the issues. On the first page of the first chapter, titled “The Role of Race,” he wrote, “The most ghastly example of racial fanaticism in history was the Nazi extermination of millions of defenseless men, women, and children who were so similar to themselves in appearance that insignia, tattoos, or documents had to be used to tell the victims from their murderers.” In that one sentence can be seen the passion, power, and clarity of Sowell’s writing.

And one of the important economic geography insights I learned while researching for the article:

“Geography is not egalitarian,” he wrote and then went on to show how true that is. The Sahara, the largest desert in the world, has isolated black people in sub-Saharan Africa. That makes economic growth harder to achieve than otherwise. He also pointed out that Africa, with twice the area of Europe, has a shorter coastline than Europe. It lacks the nooks and crannies that make for good harbors. Incidentally, that’s probably why my uncle and aunt, on their way to the Belgian Congo in 1941 to be medical missionaries, had to travel to to Cape Town first, rather than directly to the Congo. (They were captured by the German Navy, but that’s another story.)

Read the whole thing.



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