In Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, Keith Kahn-Harris argues that “Holocaust denial is not just eccentricity; it is an attempt to legitimate genocide through covert means. Denials of the harmfulness of tobacco, of the existence of global warming, and other denialisms, are, similarly, projects to legitimate the unspeakable.” Among the “other denialisms” he cites non-Western-mainstream views on 9/11, AIDS, vaccines, the Armenian and Bosnian genocides, the “fine-tuning” argument for the existence of God, the Apollo moon landings, Lysenko’s genetics, Tiananmen Square, perpetual motion machines, and flat earthism.
What’s more, Kahn-Harris urges us to “remember that denialism can never actually be ‘free speech.’ Denialists are not speaking freely: they are speaking under the weight of an unspeakable burden. Restricting denialism is therefore not restricting free speech.” (!)
If that sounds absurd…well, much of it is. But though Denial takes a highly dubious road littered with wrong turns, cul-de-sacs, and detours through innumerable errors of fact and judgment, it arrives at a couple of interesting destinations. Kahn-Harris’s assertion that belief systems often reflect desire and emotion more than rational-empirical assessment is undoubtedly true—perhaps more true for people like himself who reflexively embrace orthodoxies than for those who take the time to investigate controversial issues and risk arriving at contrarian conclusions. (For a brilliant elucidation of why so many people are in denial about 9/11, read Fran Shure’s 21-part series “Why Do Good People Become Silent—or Worse—About 9/11?“)
Denial‘s final chapter “The Post-Denialist Age” makes the excellent point that public discourse seems to be coarsening as people like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Karl Rove (he might have added Ann Coulter, Silvio Berlusconi, Pam Geller, Jair Bolsonaro, Avigdor Lieberman, Ayelet Shaked, Yair Netanyahu, and many others) openly vaunt their grotesquely immoral desires and are handsomely rewarded for it. Apparently the civilizational imperatives that once prevented people from talking that way are falling by the wayside. Kahn-Harris, in one of his many mind-bogglingly wrongheaded moves, sees this as a good thing: for him, it is much better to enthusiastically advocate the murder of millions of people than to ask good questions about 9/11, vaccine safety, or the Holocaust: “The short-term shock of witnessing the horrors of moral diversity could give way to a politics shorn of illusion and moral masquerade, where different visions of what it is to be human can openly contend.”
Kahn-Harris’s ambivalently panglossian embrace of post-denialism, his call to crush the free speech of 9/11 truthers and anti-vaxxers while encouraging neo-Nazi incitement to mass murder, is obviously symptomatic…but of what? Is he in denial about the fact that some of the people he calls denialists are right? (No wonder he is so anxious to silence them!) Or perhaps the unspeakable reality he can’t face is that Western secular materialist civilization is in its death throes, and can no longer command people to subjugate their destructive desires to the greater social good. (As Dostoevsky famously said, if there’s no God, why should they?)
All of the sacred cows of secular materialist humanism—democracy, equality, the Good War, the Holocaust, 9/11, scientism, technocracy, climate change, gender constructivism, and more—are dying the death of a thousand cuts. Perhaps Kahn-Harris correctly senses that the heretics who openly challenge public myths are contributing to the impending collapse of the civilization held up by these imaginary sacred pillars. For those of us who expose forbidden truths in hopes of making the world better, that is a terrifying thought. I am grateful to Keith Kahn-Harris for forcing me to confront it.