“History on Trial”/”Denial” – Potential Discussion Questions

denialuserpic=tallitOn Sunday, October 9th, the Men of TAS (in lieu of our usual meeting) are going to see the new movie Denial, based on Dr. Deborah Lipstadt‘s book, “History on Trial” [Note that this particular meeting is open to everyone]. This book is about  Dr. Lipstadt’s trial in the UK when the Holocaust Denier David Irving sued her for libel. I was a student of Dr. Lipstadt’s when I was at UCLA (I was the only one turning in papers printed via nroff(1) off the Diablo 1620 in the CS Department); as such, I feel it is important to see this movie and have a discussion. Note that this discussion is taking place just before the 2nd presidential debate.

As I’ve read the book, I’ve come up with the following discussion questions. I’m curious if you have others:

  1. When reading this book, I was struck by a number of parallels between the issues raised in the trial, and this year’s election season. What parallels do you see?
  2. Is it ever right to distort facts for a particular purpose?
  3. What is the importance of fact checking, and how much room is there for the interpretation of facts? We have seen much of that this election season — from both sides — where the claim is made in the past that they supported some thing or position, and yet evidence is quickly found showing the opposite, to which the candidate provides a spin to justify their original claim. (Trump Example; Clinton Example). How is this fact checking similar to that presented in the Irving trial?
  4. Is there a distinction between proving the truth, and proving that someone is lying about the truth?
  5. When building your overall assessment of an individual and their viewpoints, which has greater import: isolated past incidents, or continual patterns of behavior?
  6. When is it right to speak up, and when is it right to stay silent in the face of denial of history?
  7. Is it right to deny history for political reasons? An example of this is the Armenian Genocide in the face of the Turks, where there has been hesitation to publicly acknowledge that genocide because of the relationship with Turkey. Does political expediency ever trump history?
  8. What is the relationship between the denial of history, and the denial of science? Does the notion of convergence of the evidence differ between history and science?
  9. How might one balance convergence of the evidence and belief? Are there any parallels between those who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible (such as those who have built the ark museum or fight creationism) and the denial of history?
  10. What lesson does this trial teach about fighting conspiracy theories, especially those theories that include the media as part of the conspiracy?
  11. When you are part of a team effort, when is it the right thing to do to suppress your desire to do it your way and go along with the remainder of the team?
  12. This trial ended over 10 years ago, yet antisemitism remains active? In what ways do you see antisemitism today? How do you battle it?
  13. Is there antisemitism present in this year’s election (for example, this or this)? Are any of these claims similar to the claims that Irving attempted while on the stand?
  14. In the book, Dr. Lipstadt edited it to ensure that antisemitism was always referred to without the hyphen. Why do you think she did that?
  15. Currently, the repeated efforts of the supporters of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sactions) movement against Israel are in the news? What is the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? Does the denial of history have any connection to the arguments of the anti-Zionists? There are some paragraphs in the conclusion of the book that note that various Palestinian leaders, over time, have either denied — or have at least publicly doubted — the extent of the Holocaust.
  16. Are there other instances you can recall where the reality of significant Jewish history has been denied? How has it been combated?
  17. What is the balance between remembering history and glorifying it? Contrast the attempt to remove all Confederate symbols and remembrances of actions that were insensitive to blacks (such as blackface minstral reviews) with an attempt to pretend that slavery didn’t happen and that the Civil War was for purely economic or states right reasons. Contrast that with attempts to glorify Nazi heros and eliminate any Nazi symbols or practices. Where do these fall on the level of denying history, and what is the right balance regarding remember past actions of your country or people when those actions were horrific in today’s eyes?
  18. The closing paragraph of the book is: “We must conduct an unrelenting fight against those who encourage — directly or indirectly — others to [deny history]. But, even as we fight, we must not imbue our opponents with a primordial significance. We certainly must never attribute our existence to their attacks on us or let our battle against them because our raison d’etre. And as we fight them, we must dress them — or force them to dress themselves — in the jester’s costume. Ultimately, our victory comes when, even as we defeat them, we demonstrate not only how irrational, but how absolutely pathetic, they are.” Are you aware of any deniers of history today, and are they viewed as statesmen or jesters? What does how we view such individuals say about how society has changed since the Irving trial?

You can learn more details on the meeting by visiting this page, and clicking on the October flyer (or clicking the flyer to the right). Here’s the description of the movie:

Based on the acclaimed book “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”, DENIAL recounts Dr. Deborah Lipstadt’s (Academy Award ® winner Rachel Weisz) legal battle for historical truth against David Irving (BAFTA nominee Timothy Spall), who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, in cases of libel, the burden of proof is on the defendant, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team, led by Richard Rampton (Academy Award® nominee Tom Wilkinson), to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred.

Additionally, here’s a preview of the notion of Holocaust defense in the movie, and how Dr. Lipstadt taught the lead actress to sound like a Jewish woman from Queens. That, of course, leads to the question of whether there is such a thing as the American Jewish accent, but that’s a question for another day.