Thursday, November 01, 2007

Armenian Genocide Denial: An American Problem by Dimitri Anastasopolous

1 Nov. 2007
Artvoice, NY
This article correctly states that: "a resolution ostensibly designed to respond to the massive denial of genocide inside Turkey inadvertently reveals a form of genocide denial inside the United States."

"Bush has forgotten that he promised in 2000 to officially recognize the genocide if elected president."

"many of the genocide perpetrators were part of the Young Turk movement that succeeded the Ottoman Empire, including the modern Turkish state’s third president, Mahmut Celal Bayar, who served from 1950 until 1960. That fact alone explains why the Turkish government wants to kill the resolution."
The US House Foreign Relations Committee this week voted to bring a resolution (HR106) to the floor commemorating the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923. After a firestorm of criticism warning of the potential negative impact of the resolution on US-Turkish relations, many of the resolution’s co-sponsors quickly flip-flopped on the issue: They’re now set to vote against it.

The opponents of the resolution in Congress and in the news media tend to argue that, since the facts surrounding this genocide are in dispute, the Armenian genocide is a matter best resolved by historians, not politicians. Ironically, even as many in the US media advise the political elite to kill the resolution, the reasons cited for doing so tend toward a denial that the Armenian genocide ever occurred. As a result, a resolution ostensibly designed to respond to the massive denial of genocide inside Turkey inadvertently reveals a form of genocide denial inside the United States.

For the purposes of this commentary, however, let’s put aside the genocide resolution issue. It has its positives and negatives, of course, but for now I’ll let others weigh the scales.

Many opinion pieces and news editorials repeat the idea that the issue of the Armenian genocide should be left to historians, because, after all, it is a historical dispute. Of course, this is a paradoxical point. This stance ignores the fact that nationalist historians are the ones disputing the genocide in the first place. Representative John Murtha took this very approach to the resolution this week: “This happened a long time ago,” he noted, “and I don’t know whether it was a massacre or a genocide, that is beside the point.” Unsurprisingly, George Bush declared that the last thing Congress should be doing is deciding the “history of an empire [the Ottoman] that doesn’t even exist any more.”

Evidently, Bush has forgotten that he promised in 2000 to officially recognize the genocide if elected president. Moreover, Bush once again got his history wrong. The Armenian genocide resolution actually includes the post-Ottoman period up until 1923. Indeed, many of the genocide perpetrators were part of the Young Turk movement that succeeded the Ottoman Empire, including the modern Turkish state’s third president, Mahmut Celal Bayar, who served from 1950 until 1960. That fact alone explains why the Turkish government wants to kill the resolution. Turkey clearly feels that their modern state is a direct successor of the great empire. This week, one Turkish diplomat, Egemin Bagis, made a point of comparing the youth, folly and foolishness of the United States’ “mere” 200-year-old government with the fact that the Turks “have had a state for 1,000 years.” Obviously, Turks are quite proud of Ottoman accomplishments—as they should be. The Ottomans were among the most beneficent rulers of the era that spanned from 1500 to 1850.

Bush is obviously hanging by his nails in Iraq, and he’s grasping for any kind of logic that will prevent the resolution from coming to the floor. After all, he is not totally against politicians making judgments on history, even when they inflame and offend other nations. Just this week, a controversy erupted when Bush cozied up to the Dalai Lama and China took umbrage at the implied recognition of their atrocities in Tibet. Several months ago, he supported a resolution on the Holocaust at the United Nations as a response to the denials coming from the president of Iran. Bush, moreover, has never demurred from labeling the massacres in Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia and Saddam’s Iraq as genocides. Indeed, US officials often make both political and historical judgments on massacres when they refer to genocides as genocides, but only in the case of the Armenian genocide is this designation withheld. Why is that?

The answer is simple: Genocide denial in the United States occurs only when one of our allies is also in denial. It also helps that Turkey spends millions each year in an effort to deny the genocide before our Congress, in our media and at our universities. A few years ago Microsoft became embroiled in a controversy after being pressured by the Turkish government to whitewash the genocide in its Encarta Encyclopedia. There is indeed a concerted effort to “cleanse” American recognition of the genocide—not only in our Congress but in our culture as well. One wonders if this resolution would even be at issue were it not for the concerted efforts to continually deny it. In a sense, the resolution addresses the denial of history more than it commemorates those who died in the genocide.

The New York Times this week revealed that former Representatives Bob Livingston and Richard Gephardt were traipsing around the Capitol delivering campaign funds to congressmen—such as Bobby Jindal, now governor-elect of Louisiana, and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, who, after their visits, quickly dropped sponsorship of the resolution and declared their opposition to it. Both Livingston and Gephardt represent lobbying firms under contract with the Turkish government, which is paying these firms tens of millions to stay on top of the issue. The New York Times article quotes former congressman Stephen Solarz—whose firm received $165,000 this summer lobbying for Turkey under an arrangement with Livingston: “The Turks have done everything they possibly could” to dismiss HR106. Meanwhile, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, a resolution sponsor, called Turkey’s lobbying “the most intense I’ve ever seen.” Gephardt, who supported Armenian genocide recognition when he was in Congress, has produced a pamphlet that contests the genocide now that he’s a lobbyist.

There’s a lot of collateral damage in the media in the wake of official pronouncements casting some doubt on the genocide. Left-wing and right-wing organs such as The Nation, the Washington Times, the Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, etc., have all bought into the idea that there is some question about the authenticity of the genocide—a question, they go on to argue, that is best left to academics. In fact, the editor of the Washington Post openly speculated that the genocide did not occur in the fashion that the Armenian lobby claims. The truth is that it is easy to find a historian that will counter the Armenian claims. There are university press publications that do so as well. Until this week, however, few news organizations or political weeklies went so far as to actually delve into the history. In the latest issue of the National Review, the editors cite several of the more well known Armenian genocide deniers in the United States:

Only a few cranks dispute the Gulag and the Holocaust. Indeed, Holocaust denial is not denial at all; it is really a sly endorsement of murdering Jews. But historians of the first rank—Norman Stone, Gunter Lewy, Justin McCarthy and Bernard Lewis—firmly dispute that the Ottomans ordered an Armenian genocide. They point out that no orders to exterminate have ever been produced (some were incompetently forged); that Ottoman files examined after defeat found no incriminating evidence; and that investigations afterwards by British and American military officials led to the release of their Ottoman suspects.

To be sure, there are also arguments on the other side by able historians—and the sheer number of deaths is suspicious. What that means, however, is that this is a historical dispute to be settled by historians rather than by legislators who in this matter are simply ignoramuses. It is an absurdity as well as an outrage that Bernard Lewis, our leading scholar of the Ottoman world, should have been fined by a French court for violating a law that condemns and seeks to punish “denial” of the Armenian genocide. America and Europe must abandon these foolish attempts to resolve disputes in history and other disciplines by legislative fiat. The costs are too high: for Professor Lewis, one franc; for the French court, a revelation of its own Keystone Kops ridiculousness; and for America—let’s not find out.

The opening phrase in this argument is at once telling. Characterizing critics of Holocaust recognition as “Only a few cranks,” the editors immediately set the Armenian issue apart as one on which judgment must be reserved because it is in dispute. It is worth also remarking on the concerted effort here to present the Democratic sponsors of the genocide resolution as unfit to lead the country in foreign policy. Of course, the editors of the National Review firmly supported (and are still firmly in support of) the current administration’s invasion of Iraq; hardly the best judges of US foreign policy. Yet the editorial itself is a piece of amazing mendacity. The editors enlist a few fringe historians (with the exception of Bernard Lewis) who are willing to contest the genocide, and then they go on to hail such historians as scholars of the first rank. Even more suspect is the fact that these historians (including Lewis) work for, or are on the board of, institutes endowed by the Turkish government, such as the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University. In one infamous incident, Heath Lowry, who had formerly worked as a lobbyist for the Turkish government, was appointed as professor of Turkish Studies after the Turkish government had endowed a chair at Princeton University. Lowry had not held an academic position at an American university prior to that and had never published in academic journals or presses. His ties with the Turkish government were exposed when a memo ghost-written for the Turkish ambassador to the US was attached to a letter sent to Holocaust scholar Robert Jay Lifton attacking Lifton’s work on the Armenian genocide. This incident reveals some of the power plays and connections between historical scholarship, certain academics, political elites, foreign governments and the national news media.

Scott Jaschik’s article (“Genocide Deniers”) of October 16 in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the complicated web of Turkish political influence in academia. “The problem with encouraging the [historical] debate,” Jaschik writes, “is that so many experts in the field say that the debate over genocide is settled, and that credible arguments against the idea of a genocide just don’t much exist. The problem, many say, is that the evidence the Turks say doesn’t exist does exist, so people have moved on.”

Genocide scholars specifically criticize some of the historians mentioned by the National Review editorial for “ignoring or dismissing massive amounts of evidence, not only in accounts from Armenians, but from foreign diplomats who observed what was going on—evidence about the marshaling of resources and organizing of groups to attack the Armenians and kick them out of their homes.” Furthermore, historians (whose International Association of Genocide Scholars officially recognizes the genocide) argue that Turkey has ably exploited the insistence in the American media that two sides to every story must always be presented. A seemingly noble idea. Yet when the president of Iran shows up in New York claiming there are historical sources that cast the Holocaust into doubt, few take up the historical debate—with good reason.

It must be noted that Turkey has, in fact, engaged Armenia on the genocide issue. Turkey has even offered to have a team of historians look through their archives in order to decide, once and for all, whether genocide took place. A fair offer. While the Armenians aren’t keen to accept it because of their distrust of Turkish historians, they further fear that by accepting the Turks’ offer, their involvement in the investigation would actually (ironically) cement the issue in perpetual dispute.

I would propose, however, that the Armenians should trust Turkish historians such as Dr. Taner Akcam of the University of Minnesota, one of the few scholars to have undertaken research in the Turkish state archives. Or Dr. Fatma Gocek from the University of Michigan, who has written several important articles on the Armenian genocide from the perspective of a Turkish scholar of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution. Akcam’s book, A Shameful Act, describes his research in the archives. It then goes on to conclude not only that a genocide sponsored and systematically exploited by the Turkish state (such as it was at the time) was undoubtedly committed, but also that its premeditated nature was evident.

This makes the Turkish offer of a joint Turkish-Armenian commission curious, since the few historians who have seen the state’s documents seem to draw the same conclusion. Perhaps Turkey is relying on a form of intimidation through its national laws which criminalize statements claiming the Armenian genocide occurred. Akcam himself was charged with treason after declaring the massacres a genocide, and other Turks who have noted the genocide, such as the Nobel Prize novelist from Turkey, Orhan Pamuk, have also been charged under the notorious Article 301 for insulting “Turkishness.” Another Turk who fell afoul of the law was the news editor Hrant Dink, of Armenian heritage, who was gunned down by a right-wing fanatic. Dink’s son was convicted just this past week for publishing his father’s last news article citing the genocide. Is there a disincentive for a Turkish historian to go into the archives and risk being jailed? The answer is obvious. Outside Turkey, the vast majority of the academic world—with access to documents from Armenian archives, the firsthand eyewitness accounts of Western diplomats such as US Ambassador to Turkey, Robert Morgenthau, the evidence that has arisen in Akcam’s research—views the Armenian genocide as a dead issue.

If, as genocide scholars maintain, the final crime of genocide is denial, then after reading this week’s editorials in the US news media, one gets the feeling that the Armenian genocide has not yet ended.

In a Tom Toles cartoon this week, a character remarked: “Never forgetting is easier…if you don’t remember.” Ain’t that the truth?

Dimitri Anastasopoulos is Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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