I picked up Slavoj Zizek's book Violence today which has some good jokes, some thought-provoking cultural references and some interesting ideas all delivered with panache. But ultimately I don't trust his judgement. Here's why.
No Socrates, Zizek like many postmodernists, poses as one who knows, who can see through ideology and diagnose the short-sightedness of those in the grip of naive enlightenment ideas or systemic violence that is more or less invisible to most of us. We dim-sighted ones naively rail against what he calls subjective violence (or what we traditionally call 'violence'), apparently blind to systemic and symbolic violence.
Unfortunately when he comes to discussing 'historian' David Irving he seems to commit symbolic violence himself (I feel liberated to use 'violence' in this metaphorical sense by Zizek's own practice). On p.92 of Violence, in the context of a discussion of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Zizek suggests that the freedom of the press in the West is not as extensive as we like to believe because we can't tolerate questioning of the Holocaust. He writes
'...we should examine the various prohibitions and limitations which underlie the so-called freedom of the press in the West. Isn't the Holocaust a sacred and untouchable fact? At the every moment when the Muslim protests were raging, the British historian David Irving was in an Austrian prison serving a three-year prison term for expressing his doubts about the Holocaust in an article published fifteen years earlier?' (Zizek, Violence, 2008, p.92)
This is a terrible analogy. First, defenders of the free press in the West are typically against the sort of localised martyr-making Holocaust denial laws that exist in Austria (I certainly am). And a trial followed by imprisonment is very different from an incitement to violence against the creators of the Danish cartoons even if the law which put Irving in prison was not one that should exist.
But, more worryingly, Zizek describes denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz (which Irving did in an interview in 1989) as 'expressing his doubts about the Holocaust'. This is serious economy with the truth by Zizek. For one allegedly so sensitive to the nuances of expression this is an odd lapse. Confidently denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz in the teeth of the evidence is far more than expressing doubts about the Holocaust. In 2005 when this occurred Irving had already been shown not just to be sceptical about the Holocaust but to be racist and anti-semitic (that is how he was described by Mr Justice Gray the judge in the 2000 UK libel trial Irving instigated and lost to Deborah Lipstadt). Some people are now reluctant even to describe him as a 'historian'. Judge Gray said that in some respects Irving "treated the historical evidence in a manner which fell far short of the standard to be expected of a conscientious historian."