Sunday, April 17, 2016

Democracy and Original Sin in Turkey and the USA

In his first trip abroad as president, Barack Obama brought up the Armenian genocide in an address to Turkish parliament. Sort of. Instead of actually mentioning the genocide, he noted that America “still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation,” as well as its “past treatment of Native Americans.”  Each country, he went on, must “work through” and “reckon with” the past.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Thinking back on Obama’s words today, he may have inadvertently highlighted one reason American liberals are so infuriated by Turkey’s refusal to even acknowledge the Armenian genocide: when it comes to really wrestling with historic crimes, our country sets the bar pretty damn low. When it comes to slavery or the treatment of Native Americans, more often than not, we as a nation are willing to acknowledge that bad things happened, hesitant to go much further beyond that. Frequently, we fit our historical failures into a tidy narrative of national progress. In my high school history textbook, for example, tellingly titled “Toward A More Perfect Union, ” we watched as our nation fought to overcome its sins one by one, ending slavery with the Civil War and segregation with the civil rights movement. Rather than whitewash our history, we turn it into a story of constant self-improvement. This version of history, in which our country has constantly aspired to live out the full meaning of our founding creed, can serve as a compelling call to action. But it can also become a source of self-satisfaction that prevent, say, any serious discussion of reparations. In contrast to Turkey's crude denialism, America has worked out a remarkable, hard-fought compromise between those who think we should confront our history and act accordingly and those who don't think we have anything to confront. Collectively, we never quite get to the point of honestly wrestling with the past. Rather, we get just close enough to feel good about ourselves while confidently evading any real accountability.

In discussions of Turkey’s genocide denial, many people, Turkish and American, cynically suggest the real issue is reparations. If Turkey admitted it had committed genocide, the theory goes, something, maybe international law or the US congress, would then compel it to pay compensation to the victims.  If this is really the concern, then let the US example serve as a reminder that there’s no need to worry. If anything, as we’ve discovered, apologizing for about past sins can be an excellent way to defuse the any expectation of financial reparations

Last April, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide led Americans to devote an unusual amount of attention to 20th century Turkish history. Turks, in turn, devoted an unusual amount of attention to 19th century American history, using every internet forum available to suggest that American interest in the genocide was hypocritical in light of our own country's troubled history. The difference, of course, is that in America we have long been able to talk openly about slavery, or the fate of our continent's indigenous population. In fact many of the people most vocally urging Turkish society to confront its past have also pushed Americans to do so as well. 

But with each passing year, a growing number of people in Turkey are openly discussing their country’s past. Now it appears Turkey may finally be on the verge of realizing that when it comes to wrestling with history, they’d do better to emulate American hypocrisy than condemn it. For example, any basic cost-benefit analysis would have long ago led Ankara to realize it would be cheaper to ignore non-binding congressional resolutions than pay millions of dollars to lobbyists in order to defeat them. Or Ankara could have used the language recently employed by the French president, who simply explained that his country's debt to Haiti is moral, not financial. But what prevented Turkey from taking this approach, at least up until now, was not a fear of reparations but rather national pride. Specifically, though, a kind of national pride reflecting the fact that from the late 19th century to the Cold War, condemning Turkey's barbaric behavior was a favorite excuse for imperialist land grabs. After World War One, the Armenian Genocide in particular was an oft-cited justification for the dividing Anatolia up between Western powers. In short, Turkey never had the luxury we did in America, where our geopolitical power let us confront history on our own terms, comfortable that we would only face the consequences on the rare occasions we chose too. 

Inevitably, this raises the uniquely troubling question of how the darker parts of our country’s history are related to the political circumstances that enable us to talk about them. That is, did our national crimes facilitate the wealth, power and even democratic values that give us the confidence to admit them?

In America, scholars have demonstrated the enormous role of slavery in the accumulation of private, institutional and national wealth. Similarly, in Turkey, scholars have shown how central confiscated Armenian assets were to the state’s accumulation of wealth, as well as well as the individual fortunes of many leading Turkish families. But the historiographic relationship between historic crimes and democracy is more complicated. The national conversation driven by the Black Lives Matter movement has led many to recognize the ongoing legacy of slavery in contemporary forms of discrimination and police brutality. But American historians have also presented a more profound critique by suggesting that the disenfranchisement and subjugation of a sector of society helped to create a society where others enjoyed relative freedom and equality. As Edmund Morgan, author American Slavery, American Freedom, wrote several decades ago, "To a very large degree it may be said that Americans bough their independence with slave labor." While historians since then have not always agreed, the impulse to link our country’s democratic achievements to its original sin persists.

In Turkey, however, the historiographic impulse is reversed. Liberal academics have instead argued that the Armenian Genocide, and the country’s refusal to reckon with it, help explain all that is authoritarian, violent and undemocratic about Turkey today. Some have argued, for example, that because Turkey’s industrial class owed its wealth to the state, specifically the state’s expropriation of Armenian land, they could never play the democratizing role that their class did in other countries. Other scholars have seen a more direct connection between the state’s genocidal treatment of the Armenians and its willingness to use violence against the Kurds today. For those in Turkey bravely fighting against denial, authoritarianism and state violence, this narrative offers a compelling way to understand the link between these struggles.

But there is another, potentially more disturbing possibility. By the low standard humanity has set for itself in the 20th century, the modern Turkish republic stands out for being relatively peaceful and democratic.  This isn’t to minimize the political violence that Turkey has experienced, of course. Political trials that occurred under Ataturk’s rule ended with the execution of hundreds of political opponents, while they state used deportations, massacres and even poison gas to repress Kurdish uprisings in Eastern Anatolia. More recently, extrajudicial killings and collective punishment came to define the state’s dirty war with the PKK which has now killed at least 40,000 people. But tragically, this ugly record pales in comparison  with the ongoing experience of many Middle Eastern states or the historic experience of any European state that participated in World War Two. Since 1923, Turkey has experienced less dictatorial rule and less political violence than most of its neighbors, all after the state systematically killed a million people in the first genocide of the modern era.

Even more disturbing is the possibility that genocide helped lay the groundwork for Turkey’s relative stability and democracy. It is far from clear that it did, but in many other contexts scholars have argued for the role of national homogeneity in facilitating democratic transitions. Certainly, key moments in Turkey’s own transition to democracy, were made possible by the existence of a political consensus on essential matters of foreign and domestic policy. That this consensus, and Turkey’s homogeneity more broadly, were based on mass murder doesn’t negate the possibility they were conducive for putting the country on a more positive political trajectory.

So what are we to do with this? What are we to make of the role of slavery in the creation of American democracy? Or the fact that if Turkey eventually becomes the kind of strong, confident, democratic society that can acknowledge the Armenian genocide, it could be, in part a legacy of genocide.

In his speech to the Turkish Parliament, Obama claimed “History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight.” As an American, I’m proud we have the freedom to wrestle openly with our history, and as a historian I can’t help but believe that these efforts can make our society better.  But what if our ability to confront the most tragic parts of our past is itself a product of these tragedies. This possibility is also something that we must reckon with.