I corresponded with David Cole for a time back in the mid 90s when I was assembling material for the second print issue of The Hoover Hog -- a substantial section of which was to be devoted to "the other side of genocide." I'd been following Holocaust revisionist arguments from a safe distance for a couple of years and the whole subject fascinated me for a number of reasons that still hold, not least because I had come to suspect that the bad guys were probably right about a thing or two, including, probably, the legendary status of the Nazi gas chambers. After seeing Cole's guerrilla Auschwitz documentary and reading his breezy essays in Pat Hartman's sadly forgotten zine, Salon, I figured he might have something to contribute. He was easy to contact, and he gave me permission to publish some good stuff. The fact that he was Jewish served to tweak the narrative, I suppose, but it really wasn't that important. What seemed to matter far more was that, unlike so many other agenda-driven revisionists, David seemed to share my freewheeling sense of intellectual adventure. He seemed, in fact, like a smarter (and much braver) version of myself.
I expected that our correspondence would continue, but it wasn't long after I pushed out the second -- and, as it turned out, final -- saddle-stitched Hoover Hog that David ran into trouble. You may know what happened. It's been documented at the margins. But in case you don't know, what happened was that the JDL -- which at the time meant Irv Rubin -- publicly threatened to kill (as in murder, or, um, exterminate) David if he didn't renounce his traitorous, Holocaust-denying ways. This should have been big news because it was well known that Rubin and his thugs didn't fuck around. But it wasn't big news. If you weren't tuned to certain dark frequencies, you probably wouldn't have heard about it at all. Anyway, what happened next was that David, understandably fearing for his life and for the safety of his family, signed what I imagine to have been a ghostwritten "recantation" in which he announced that his new friend Irv had shown him the error of his ways. After that, David slipped off the radar. I might have sent him another letter or two, but I never heard back. Nor did I expect to.
David struck me as a good guy. Smart and nebbishy and a bit cocksure, but a really decent guy with a studiously skeptical take on the world. He made it clear that he was an outspoken atheist and a liberal, and when I sent him a tentative outline of the issue in which his work was to appear, he requested a draft copy of my article, "Fetal Fallacies: A Libertarian-Atheist Argument against Legal Abortion" because he was staunchly pro-choice and wanted to write a rebuttal. He later replied with a short missive, assuring me that my argument was even crappier than he had expected and that he would take pleasure in dismantling it piece by piece. I regret that that never happened.
I don't know if David's rejoinder would have convinced me of much back then. But as it happens, I'm no longer an anti-abortion mutant (in fact, I would now describe my relevant views, for reasons that would only annoy you, as resignedly "pro-abortion"), though I have no regrets over my engagement with logical arguments that really should be taken more seriously by those who make it their business to promote abortion rights. I also do not know if David's views on the subject have since changed, but it was, in any event, a genuine surprise to learn that has spent the last several years of his life in exile putting on his best P.J. O'Rourke to promote the ranks of "Hollywood conservatives." I had heard through the grapevine that David was working in Hollywood, but I figured it was something more quotidian -- that maybe he was editing commercials or striking sets, or tending bar.
But here we have the news of David's "unmasking." It's a nutty story in some respects (turns out David's dad was the doctor who supplied Elvis with his Demerol fix), but the reporting doesn't strike me as being especially biased or unfair. The Guardian reporter even uses the term "revisionist," a rarity these days (though this usage is comically qualified: "fringe scholars known then as Holocaust revisionists, subsequently renamed denialists").
So here's the meat of it, picking up after l'affaire Rubin:
... Cole, his credibility shredded on all sides, adopted the name Stein, chosen because it was simple and short, he said. Only a few close friends knew the secret.
The recanting was fake, he said. Cole today still challenges established Holocaust scholarship, including the certainty about Nazi gas chambers. "The best guess is yes, there were gas chambers" he says. "But there is still a lot of murkiness about the camps. I haven't changed my views. But I regret I didn't have the facility with language that I have now. I was just a kid," he said this week.
As Stein, however, he shielded his views, not least during the next stage of his career odyssey: the maker of respectable, conventional Holocaust documentaries. He knew the subject, needed an income and US schools and universities had budgets to commission such projects. He said: "I gave mainstream audiences what they wanted."
At the same time, he started writing op-eds under Stein and other pseudonyms, expressing what he said was his growing fervour for a hawkish foreign policy, a strong Israel and conservative social policy. Posts on his acerbic blog were picked up by mainstream news outlets.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Cole sensed opportunity. Inspired by the writer PJ O'Rourke's brand of rollicking, liquor-fuelled conservativism, he said he launched Republican Party Animals, a networking circle for libertarians and social conservatives which promised spice – "scantily-clad women, drink, fun, loud music" – but not too much. There would be no cocaine or illegality.
"Do you like your conservative politics mixed with a healthy dose of whiskey, fine cigars and kickass rock n' roll?" its website asked. "Do you live in a city filled with morons wearing Che T-shirts as they mindlessly cling to tattered, faded 2008 'Hope and Change' posters? Then WELCOME, friend – this is the group for you!" Blog posts assailed Obama, Occupy protestors and alleged anti-semites.
It is further noted that Cole's -- ahem, Stein's -- cover was blown by a friend ("an exceptionally vindictive young lady," in David's words) in whom he had confided about his past and with whom he subsequently had a "falling out." Typical.
Of course, the article doesn't address the questions that pique my curiosity -- such as what led David to embrace the hawkish conservative line. Maybe it was the bit with the twin towers. Or maybe he just needed to pick a new fight. I'm not inclined to play at armchair psychoanalysis.
Nor is any detailed account provided of the "conventional Holocaust documentaries" that Cole produced under his assumed identity, when he felt obliged to give "mainstream audiences what they wanted." That seems significant, since Cole's most lasting contribution to Holocaust revisionism, as I've already mentioned, is itself a pretty compelling documentary -- David Cole Interviews Dr. Franciszek Piper, Director, Auschwitz State Museum -- that is nowhere mentioned in the article.
What's interesting, though, is David's present take on his youthful dalliance with a dangerous idea. I mean, given the circumstances it would have been easy enough for him to unequivocally disclaim his former views in terms sweeping and definitive. The "recantation" line was hanging like ripened fruit, after all. But I think it is to his credit that he shades it grey instead. "The best guess is yes, there were gas chambers" he tells the reporter. "But there is still a lot of murkiness about the camps. I haven't changed my views. But I regret I didn't have the facility with language that I have now. I was just a kid."
That term, "facility" -- I imagine it was carefully chosen.
David says he now feels guilty about the whole episode. In a social environment that consigns gas chamber skepticism to the lowest rungs of unforgivable transgression, I suppose that much is understandable. He deceived people, and now they're left to clean up the mess.
But what a curious mess it is.
When Nine-Banded Books published Sam Crowell's opus, The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes: And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding, I really wanted to send a copy to David. I even contacted Bradley Smith to see if he could maybe forward it, but Bradley assured me that it wasn't the best idea. He said that David had moved on and probably wouldn't take well to the gesture. Brad was probably right. Not moving on is my problem.