In both the United States and Turkey, the current governments and the social systems they protect discriminate against whole parts of the population. Their victims may be the socially disadvantaged or distinct ethnic and religious peoples. Imagine a country where the poor and members of ethnic minorities die more often from the coronavirus than the well-to-do and those favored by the state.
A plague like Covid-19, and its attendant isolation from normal life, friends, family, and work, presents a historian time to contemplate such moments of rupture in the past. In the last years of the Ottoman Empire the government of the Young Turks, desperate to save their empire and their own hold on power, recklessly entered the World War and ruthlessly carried out deportations, massacres, and forced conversions to Islam of hundreds of thousands of its Armenian and Assyrian subjects. The very actions that Talaat and his associates took to preserve imperial rule in fact worked to destroy the empire, devastate Ottoman society, and impoverish what was left of their realm – Anatolia – the lands that would become the Republic of Turkey. People starved; lands went untilled; occupiers reigned in major cities. Into the towns and villages emptied of Christians moved Kurds and Turks. A new state emerged without many of its most talented and entrepreneurial people; the country had been driven backwards into a kind of collective underdevelopment, and it would take a series of authoritarian governments several generations to resurrect the Turkish economy and repair the social damage wrought by the last Ottoman rulers.
Plagues are not simply natural forces. Like famine and war, they are shaped and exacerbated by human action or inaction, by ambition and greed, indifference and neglect. It is the ignorance and failure of governments that make things worse than they have to be. When powerful state actors decide to imprison or exile or murder their intellectuals, their political opponents, or a designated ethnic or religious group considered alien, they impose a heavy burden, perhaps an unbearable cost, on their people’s future. When they deny the past, distort history, suppress memory, they also commit violence on their own society. Governments are tasked to educate, enlighten, protect, and promote the well-being of their people (and their different peoples), but when they favor one ethnicity or religion over another or suppress views that offend them, they deplete the resources of the nation and render it vulnerable to unpredictable dangers.
No matter how sensitive to criticism a government might be, no matter how much it might insist on its own view of history, what actually happened in the past can never be eradicated. Despite the dangers that honest historians face, and the attacks from sycophantic pseudo-intellectuals who serve government interests, they continue to illuminate the dark spots of a nation’s history in service to truth and a higher conception of patriotism. Truth not only makes one free but is a powerfully subversive, revolutionary force that causes people to question unquestioned assumptions about the way the world works. Honest history liberates us from banal common sense and forces us to look back in order to understand truthfully how we got here and where we might be going. Before we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must first find the tunnel.
I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a small university town in the middle of the United States. It is a safe, rather ordinary place, and as I take my daily one-hour walk around familiar neighborhoods, I miss the times I spent in Istanbul, Izmir, and Van – cities far more interesting and exciting to walk around. I remember the dolmuş that I would take from Beşiktaş to Taksim, the otobus to Bilgi University to teach my class on nationalism and empire. I think about the courageous people at Agos who carry on the work and legacy of Hrant Dink and imagine a better future for Turkey. And I wonder what this pandemic sweeping the world, a kind of genocide without discrimination, will produce in its wake.
Moments of rupture offer both danger and opportunity – the two characters that make up the Chinese character for crisis [危机]. The danger is that old practices and attitudes will remain, and the very policies of neglect and self-interest will fester far into the future. The opportunity presented by crisis, however, offers an opening for political and social change toward governance based on public interest and the common good. No good crisis, a crafty politician once said, should ever be wasted! The current regime in the United States is one based on logics of war and business – destroy your enemies and do what is profitable for those in power. But outside of the American political elites there are movements directed toward expanding medical care and educational possibilities, protecting the environment and the most vulnerable citizens, and increasing political participation of ordinary people. The choice of which alternative will prevail depends on individual and collective action, of people turning their isolation into a movement.
In both the United States and Turkey, the current governments and the social systems they protect discriminate against whole parts of the population. Their victims may be the socially disadvantaged or distinct ethnic and religious peoples. Imagine a country where the poor and members of ethnic minorities die more often from the coronavirus than the well-to-do and those favored by the state. Imagine a country where millions of people are unable to study in school in their mother tongue. You don’t have to imagine those countries; they exist, and I have lived in both of them.
Plagues come upon us when we least expect them and often when we are most unprepared for them. Few Armenians or Assyrians in 1915 anticipated what was about to befall them – that the government under which they lived, and for which many of their sons and husbands and brothers were at the time in Ottoman uniform fighting, was about to exterminate them. In fact, early in 1915, the first to be targeted by the government of Talaat and Enver were Armenian soldiers, demobilized, their uniforms stripped from them, turned into amele taburları, and then killed. Once the muscle of the nation was destroyed, the Ottoman government turned to the intellectuals, rounded up hundreds on April 24, most of them eventually murdered. Thus, the brain of the nation was eliminated. Only then were women, children, old people and others massively deported from cities, towns, and villages, driven through the mountains and valleys of eastern Anatolia into the deserts of Syria, where thousands more of them perished. Of the more than two million Armenians that lived in the empire in 1914 only some 50-60,000 of their descendants remain today in Turkey…. as Armenians. Deep in the east, however, there are Kurds, Arabs, and Turks, whose families tell tales of a grandmother or an uncle who was an Armenian. Under the mask of pasts denied, memories persist, and from that hidden past the possibilities of a different future exist.