by Kathleen Goodwin
The extent of my identification with my Armenian heritage was once dyeing Easter eggs a mottled maroon the traditional Armenian way (with onion skins) with my Armenian grandmother. In high school when learning about the systematic eradication of Armenians during World War I, I didn't feel any sense of personal injustice. By college, when the Kardashian franchise familiarized the American public with the existence of the tiny west Asian country, revealing I was part Armenian “like Kim Kardashian” became my go-to ice breaker when having to share an interesting fact about myself. Truly, I've only come to recognize myself as Armenian-American in the past few weeks as the media has highlighted the century-long struggle of Armenians to have world leaders acknowledge the Armenian genocide.
This past Friday, April 24, marked the centennial of the day in 1915 when approximately 250 prominent Armenian intellectuals were rounded up by Ottoman officials and deported from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Most of them were eventually killed, along with an estimated 1.5 million Armenians over the course of the next seven years. The Ottoman Turks, which had already lost land they once ruled in the Balkans, feared that the Armenian Christian minority would ally itself with Russia and hasten the destruction of their empire from within its own borders. By the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, and the nation of Turkey that emerged in the aftermath was founded by the same Ottoman officials who continued to exile and murder Armenians.
The primary grievance of Armenians today is the refusal of the Turkish government, as well as most other nations including the United States, to acknowledge that what occurred during the fall of the Ottoman Empire should be termed “genocide”. Some Armenians admit that the singular focus on semantics has sometimes reached hyperbolic proportions and keeps Armenians mired in the past, ultimately preventing them from fully thriving in the present. I will admit that I previously thought the obsession with achieving the label “genocide” was misplaced. If the Turkish government had refused to own up to its historic crimes for so long, fighting for its confession isn't worth the time of Armenians who are trying to preserve their culture and move forward with their lives. In some ways it felt like begging the world to acknowledge the genocide continued to hand power to the oppressors, instead of allowing Armenians to take back ownership of their legacy.
However, in the weeks leading up to the centennial, I've reflected that being deliberate with the way we describe historical events is one of the surest defense mechanisms against future perpetration of classism, sexism, racism, and ethnic violence. Howard Zinn's “A People's History of the United States”, first published in 1980, is one of the first accounts of U.S. history from the perspective of people usually left out of a narrative largely written by white land-owning men. Today, Zinn's book is in widespread use as part of the curriculum in U.S. history classrooms. However, the book continues to incite controversy, if not vitriol. After Zinn died in 2010, it was leaked that Mitch Daniels, then governor of Indiana, wrote an email stating:
“This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away…[“A People's History”] is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
Some may think that Daniels is entitled to his opinions on the veracity of U.S. history, but in his position as governor, this inclination to censorship should deeply offend all. One of the recipients of the email wrote back about a summer session for school teachers at Indiana University entitled “Social Movements in Modern America: Labor, Civil Rights and Feminism” which included works by Zinn in the syllabus. Daniels responded “This crap should be not accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session.” When contemporary American legislators do not think that young people need to be taught about the civil rights movement or the struggle for equality for women, it is altogether unsurprising that black men continue to be shot down by the police and that a woman earns 77 cents to a man's dollar.
The recent controversy regarding the passage of a state law in Indiana that would allow business owners to discriminate against gay people on the basis of religious freedom is similarly expected when you consider the climate of intolerance and willful ignorance that Governor Daniels appears to represent. Many of the young people in this state will likely grow up with the same bigotry as their parents if their elected leaders work to prevent them from learning a version of history where America admits to the instances where its leaders disenfranchised those who were different from themselves.
In Turkey, the government refuses to admit that many of the Ottoman officials who organized the rape, starvation, and eventual murdering of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, were the same men who established their country. According to a recent New York Times article, the textbooks that Turkish students use today “describe the Armenians as traitors, call the Armenian genocide a lie and say that the Ottoman Turks took ‘necessary measures'”. As Turkish historian Taner Akcam explains, “It's not easy for a nation to call its founding fathers murderers and thieves”. While it may not be easy, it is our duty in the U.S. to come to terms with our own history and to encourage Turkey to admit to its own.
Some justify Obama's hesitation to deem the Armenian genocide a genocide, because of the necessity of ensuring Turkey's cooperation in the war against the Islamic State. This is a cowardly excuse that threatens the integrity of the United States. If we are hesitant to acknowledge instances where minority populations were denied basic human rights by their own governments, our world is doomed to repeat the same horrific mistakes it made in the twentieth century in the twenty-first. When our leaders argue that we should deny the humanity of the murdered Armenians in pursuit of defeat of the Islamic State, we are no better than the extremist group who preaches hatred of all non-Muslims. Our children will never learn to respect their fellow human beings when those in power make it clear that some people are afforded a greater right to live freely than others.