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A Lesson From The Past Is Not To Minimise The Facts

History repeats itself with the US Immigration ban on citizens of seven Muslim countries. A reminder not to take the lessons of the past for granted. 

02/03/2017 05:02 SAST | Updated 02/03/2017 06:12 SAST
Elisabetta A. Villa/ Getty Images
Deborah Lipstadt

In 1924, my great grandmother and her four orphaned refugee siblings fled the Ukraine. The Bolsheviks killed their father, who was a well-educated factory owner in Pavlograd. My grandmother and her siblings, like thousands of other families fleeing anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, were turned away from the United States due to the immigration quota. Their uncle in South Africa eventually adopted them.

History repeats itself in 2017, with the US Immigration ban on citizens of seven Muslim countries. And if Trump has his way, families, not dissimilar to my great grandmother's, will be turned away at US borders. The ban is a timely reminder that we must not take the lessons of the past for granted.

"Not all opinions are equal. And some things happened, just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened. The Earth is round, the ice caps are melting, and Elvis is not alive." Says an on-screen Deborah Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz, in the film Denial. The film, based on Lipstadt's book History on Trial: My day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, follows the unsuccessful libel case brought against her by Holocaust denier, David Irving.

Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust historian, who did not address the media until the trial had concluded, was making an important point. Her intention was to illustrate the absurdity of denying the holocaust by listing it alongside other indisputable truths. A prescient warning.

Back in 2000, those examples were broadly accepted as mainstream facts. In the 2017, alternate-fact, post-truth universe of White House press statements, they are seemingly up for debate.

It seems like Holocaust denial is no longer a relic of the radical fringe. It has made its way, however softly, to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The official White House statement, just seven days into a Trump administration, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day made no mention of the Jews, their suffering or anti-Semitism. Lipstadt described the White House statement as 'soft-core holocaust denial'. She explains that this 'soft' denialism, while not denying the facts, intentionally seeks to minimise them. Meanwhile anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. In recent weeks hundreds of headstones have been vandalised at Jewish cemeteries in the United States.

This intentional minimisation of facts in a post-truth era is affecting the history of slavery too. There's a creeping failure to acknowledge the history and legacy of slavery on contemporary black American life.

Trump's Muslim travel ban sent shockwaves around the world but was welcomed by populist leaders too. What comes next? The leader of National Front Party and possibly France's next President, Marine Le Pen, wants to ban religious clothing in public. The primary target of such a ban is France's Muslim population, for whom Islamophobia is becoming increasingly inescapable. Le Pen told an Israeli news channel in early February that the ban should include the kippah.

This intentional minimisation of facts in a post-truth era is affecting the history of slavery too. There's a creeping failure to acknowledge the history and legacy of slavery on contemporary black American life. Trump has been far too busy tweeting attacks on civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis to reject the flurry of complimentary tweets he's received from the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, David Duke.

On the ice caps melting, the denialism has been far from "soft." President Trump told business leaders in January that environmentalism "was out of control". In 2012 Trump tweeted that global warming was created "by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive." The phrase "climate change" was removed altogether from the White House website shortly after his inauguration.

If you enter "did the" into Google's search bar, the first suggested search that is offered is "did the Holocaust happen?" In 2017 we can no longer take lessons of the past for granted. Teachers and journalists ought now more than ever remind us that the holocaust happened. That slavery happened. That the ice caps are melting, more rapidly than ever before. We must emphasise that facts are important and that history matters.

The populist movements that delivered Brexit and President Trump were sustained by a disdain for facts. In his 2000 judgement, Justice Charles Gray noted that David Irving's court submissions had "a distinct air of unreality about them." As right-wing populism continues to swell, Lipstadt's story as depicted in the film Denial is a reminder that falsifiers of history and truth must be called out.