Bradley Smith: In Memoriam

Published: 2016-02-23

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The first time I ever heard of Bradley Smith was about 30 years ago when he appeared on a radio talk show talking about how the history of the atrocities laid at the feet of the Nazis, and that includes the Holocaust, was probably inaccurate and historians and other intellectuals ought to be talking about it. As someone who had stumbled across the issue in my academic studies, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Skepticism about the Nuremberg Trial history was not uncommon, but it was unsaid to avoid any unpleasantness, and when the Nazi atrocities, and the Jewish catastrophe, were aligned with other contemporary atrocities and other contemporary catastrophes, even in articles penned by prominent professors, the editors of the usual academic journals would send back critiques that sputtered with denunciations, along with promises to resign if such an article were ever published. So much for the authority of refereed journals, for those who think academia cultivates dispassion, tolerance, or fairness.

But that’s getting me off track. I heard Bradley speak, and I was a bit embarrassed, mostly because here was this guy who was making no pretense of being educated or expert, asking questions about one of the Great Traumas of the 20th Century, and no one was responding to him, no one with any credentials was saying, “Well, this part you are saying might be right, and this part might be wrong, and here’s why ….” What he was getting were a lot of phone calls from people offering to beat him up, to which he memorably responded, “I’ve got more hair on my ass than you have on your chest.”

Many years later I came across Smith, again, this time when I heard that there was an attempt to shut down his website (www.codoh.com), and to ban his revisionist website, and all other revisionist websites, from the Internet. After that, I spoke to him fairly regularly for the next few years. Then, I lost touch with him. But two years ago, when I fell ill, one of the few emails I received while I was convalescing was from Bradley, giving me advice on how to improve my health. I will never forget that.

Bradley will always be associated with his decades-long campaign to bring the open discussion – by which he meant open and skeptical discussion – of the Holocaust to college campuses. To my mind, this campaign was, on the one hand, a fundamental success, but, on the other hand, a warning.

Before explaining what that means, I have to explain that, while Bradley campaigned relentlessly to get people to talk about the Holocaust more openly, he was no expert on the subject and really didn’t care whether he was right or wrong. That is, he thought he was right, and his conviction grew as his repeated queries “Tell me where I am wrong on this” or “How do you respond to this argument” led, not to dialogue, but rather to vituperation and relentless accusations. But he didn’t believe he couldn’t be contradicted. He had found an aching tooth in our historical memory and couldn’t stop poking at it. And he was right to do that. One might even say he had a duty to do that. Someone had to do it, and nobody else would.

Of course the college campus campaign never succeeded in the sense one might expect. Once in a while a college would place his advertisement to visit his website or read his materials, but the college newspaper would get hammered, pull the advertisement, and then offer profuse apologies. So in that respect, Bradley’s efforts were an abject failure.

Except. By advertising his views, and hosting a website that allowed contributors to say whatever they wanted to say, without attempting to direct them in one direction or another, he facilitated the research and publishing in the 1990’s that ultimately led to the retreat of those who wanted to criminalize, in the U.S. and Britain, any open skepticism or even discussion about Nazi crimes. I am convinced that this is not a coincidence, and in retrospect I count this an important victory for Bradley.

It’s worth keeping in mind what has happened in other countries that went down the road of criminalizing alternative historical interpretations. In France, the Fabius-Gayssot act was used repeatedly to club Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson over the head, but, later, the same principle was used to attack the Ottoman historian Bernard Lewis, finding him guilty of “Genocide denial” in the case of the Armenian destruction. After that, a newscaster who sought to debunk a shooting in the Gaza strip in 2000 (Muhammad al-Durrah) was also subjected to years of court proceedings, ultimately to lose, under the charge of “defamation.” These spectacles make it clear that history is being viewed no longer as an objective or semi-objective field of study, but merely as a meretricious garment for political interests. But if the study of history is reduced to simple pandering, wherefore the nobility of historical study?

Demands for criminalizing revisionism are rare in the English speaking world nowadays, but those demands have been replaced by others, to be enforced, not so much by laws, as by social ostracism, as the writer Matt Forney has observed. Once, Bradley Smith wanted to post a little advertisement, and it was denounced because it caused pain to interested parties. Nowadays, speakers, no matter how august, will be disinvited from our campuses if they should offend any group, or at least, the group that throws the largest tantrum, innocuous emails about Halloween costumes can lead to major confrontations, accusations of sexual assault can lead to violent demonstrations, even in the absence of any facts, guidelines are written for college campuses meant to police the speech of academicians so that they do no subject anyone to the dreaded pinpricks of micro-aggressions, and colleges and universities are being told to establish safe spaces for students who may be traumatized by the actual existence of contrary opinions about anything. And all of these things are everyday occurrences at our most elite institutions of higher learning. Those who took pleasure in suppressing Smith can now see the wages of their sin of pride. Bradley’s initial gestures were a challenge, and a challenge that was not met.

Personally, Bradley was nothing like the Satanic figure some painted of him. He was talkative, funny, more likely to reference Omar Khayyam, Lao Tse, or Krishnamurti than historians. He was a warm natural guy, a lower case beatnik with a more conventional life trajectory but the same exploratory, stubborn, and questing demeanor. He’s gone now. But the offbeat goes on.

I am saddened to hear about the death of Bradley Smith: I figure it must have been around his birthday, since I remember he was an Aquarian with all of the garrulousness of that breed. I suppose his death will go largely unremarked, and that his life, if mentioned at all, will be disparaged, in the wider world. But to me, he came across as a Socratic gadfly.



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Author(s): Samuel Crowell
Title: Bradley Smith: In Memoriam
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Published: 2016-02-23
First posted on CODOH: Feb. 23, 2016, 8:35 p.m.
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