Ronald G. Suny


Averting Your Eyes

Governments, like many people, find it difficult to face facts. They make up stories about the past, and they fabricate tales about enemies within the country and outside. Denialism and the creation of convenient fictions help self-interested politicians stay in power. But ultimately reality bites back and forces one to look at the facts.

Sometimes, to begin my research, I turn to Wikipedia to see what it thinks on a topic. And, so I looked up “denialism.” The introduction was revealing. “In the psychology of human behavior, denialism is a person's choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. Denialism is an essentially irrational action that withholds the validation of a historical experience or event, when a person refuses to accept an empirically verifiable reality.” To explain “the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed,” the article proposes that the “motivations and causes of denialism include religion, self-interest (economic, political, or financial), and defense mechanisms meant to protect the psyche of the denialist against mentally disturbing facts and ideas.” 

The United States is undergoing a pandemic of denialism. The virus appears to have originated in the White House, where the current occupant cannot face the unpleasant reality that he decisively lost the recent election and must on January 20, 2021, give up his office of president. Trump’s false claims have infected tens of millions of Americans; some 50 to 70 percent of those who voted for the president’s Republican Party believe that the election was stolen, that the reported numbers that gave Joseph Biden at least 6 million more votes than Trump are fraudulent. Trump’s credulous or cynical allies have tried to use the courts to reverse the results of the election – at least on the presidential level, for Republicans did well in local and state elections. That is, the same ballots that were marked for Biden at the top were marked down below for the opposition party. These were the same paper ballots! It was Trump who was rejected by the voters, not the conservative followers of Trump. 

The United States stands out among developed nations as one that prides itself on its special place in history, its legitimate leadership of other nations, its right to intervene militarily wherever on the globe it feels its interests are threatened. Yet large numbers of the citizens of this powerful state are suspicious of foreigners and immigrants, particularly Muslims, fearful of their own minorities, unwilling to acknowledge climate change or look honestly at their own history of slavery, imperialism, and systemic racial oppression. Yet even as they deny realities, Americans cling to their beliefs. Almost half of the country (46%) are convinced that the news media makes up “fake news” about Donald Trump, and they, therefore, dismiss the so-called “mainstream media” and turn to social media sources or right-wing commentators whose views conform to their own prejudices.

Trump and denialism

Living in one of the most religious countries in the world, most Americans who consider themselves Christian or Jewish or Muslim usually combine their faith with reliance on science and rationality. Yet, more than two-thirds of Americans believe in angels and devils, 45 percent in ghosts and demons, and 30 percent believe that scientists created Covid-19. One quarter of Americans believes that God decides who will win the American football championship, the Super Bowl, and prays fervently for their team. Reason itself is under attack from the Right, along with science, empirical evidence, statistics, and historical truth. The suspicions about experts, the doubt about scientists, and the credulous acceptance by many of the myths and conspiracy theories popularized by Donald Trump has contributed to the calamitous death toll from the coronavirus that Americans have suffered. Some governments are incompetent; others withhold the truth from their people; the Trump administration is both incompetent and withholds the truth. It is actively denialist.

Governments, like many people, find it difficult to face facts. They make up stories about the past, and they fabricate tales about enemies within the country and outside. Denialism and the creation of convenient fictions help self-interested politicians stay in power. But ultimately reality bites back and forces one to look at the facts. Truth, says another Wikipedia article, “is the property of being in accord with fact and reality.” Truth has for centuries been personified in European art as a nude woman emerging from a well of darkness or ignorance, holding a mirror in order that others might more easily see themselves. Yet what the mirror shows is too painful for many, and they avert their eyes. 

Turkish government and 1915

Readers of this newspaper are aware of the historical denialism of Turkish governments and their hand-picked “historians,” who deny that the massacres and deportations of Armenians in 1915-1916 constituted a genocide. Turkish citizens know how many falsehoods have been told about opponents of the government, many of them now in prison or exile. Turkey has allied with Azerbaijan and revels in the recent victory over Armenians in Karabakh. A tale is told of liberation of Azerbaijani lands and brave sacrifices of unknown numbers of young Azeri men. But Turkey denies that it sent not only drones and munitions to Azerbaijan to fight the Armenians, but also misinformed, impoverished Syrian mercenaries, later withdrawing them and refusing to pay them. Likewise, Azerbaijan claims that there were no foreigners deployed in their recovery of Karabakh. 

Armenia: New truth

Armenia suffered a disastrous defeat, the loss of much of what they had conquered a quarter century earlier. Armenians are now forced to stare nakedly into a new truth: the squandered opportunities to preserve their recovery of Karabakh, the hundreds of deaths of their defenders, and the harsh armistice imposed on them by their ostensible allies, the Russians. It is hard to deny that a democratic government in Armenia was defeated by an authoritarian government in Azerbaijan, aided by an increasingly repressive Turkey.

In the streets of Yerevan crowds of despairing people have turned on the prime minister whom they had greeted with flowers two years ago. It will take time for them to think calmly and clearly about what befell them. Armenians cannot change painful, unpalatable facts: they live in a hostile neighborhood and must find some accommodation with powerful enemies on their borders. They have to recognize that their principal supporter from the north acts in its own interest, taking its time when it suits it. Denial will not help Armenia or Turkey or the United States. Only an honest and painful analysis of past mistakes and present possibilities will offer a more hopeful future.