The Turkish Armenian Morassacre

The likelihood that Congress will consider, and maybe pass, a resolution declaring the massacres and expulsions of Armenians by Turkey between 1896 and 1923 to be a genocide and giving some vacuous counsel to the president about “understanding and sensitivity” has turned into a real mess, and with lots of good reasons.

It’s desperately important to the current Turkish regime that the Ottoman Empire, which was overthrown by the founders of the modern Turkish state, and the early leaders of the current state, are not accused of genocide. It’s especially so because while eastern Anatolia is pretty much Armenian-free now, it has lots of Kurds who want their own state (notionally carved out of northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, and maybe a bite of Iran), whose rebellions irritate the Turks enormously, and who have been on the sharp end of some pretty tough repression for a long time.

The resolution on the floor is not, however, an instrument to protect the Armenians killed and exiled by the Turks, who are are all dead. Nor the Kurds. It is simply cheap talk, a declaration of judgment (calling something by a profoundly inculpating name) by a body with neither mandate nor expertise to make judgments of this kind. The legislature of Louisiana is reputed to have voted once that pi is exactly 3-1/7; whether this is true or not, it’s an equally silly thing to do. The whole thing is impossibly tangled up with the political pressure and self-identification of Armenian-Americans, especially in California and Massachusetts, our dependence on Turkey for supply routes to forces occupying Iraq, administration-congressional jealousies and power struggles, and more.

No respectable American voice is claiming that the assertions in the resolution are incorrect, though one can pick apart the Turks’ real intentions at the time, the degree to which it reflected reasonable fears of (Christian) Armenians collaborating with the Russians in World War I, which Turkey entered on the wrong side, and more. The Turkish treatment of the Armenians was unspeakably savage and unjustified, period. Should one say everything that is true? Should any public body that has a truth put it on record? Every now and then I meet a Turkish colleague or student; does the principle of this resolution extend to private intercourse – do I have a duty to let him know, and right away, my moral position on his great-great-grandparents’ behavior?

Todd Gitlin has just published a book (that I haven’t read), addressed to liberals and counseling them not to become irrelevant to events (as his generation of ” revolutionaries” did) by protecting their personal purity of motive, and ignoring a real world that they inhabit but do not constitute. Dr. Kant, meet Dr. Bentham, in the umpteenth round of your match. In this corner, the devil beckons you to sell your principles for a little practical advantage in a good cause, or perhaps to accumulate some power to act nobly in the future. In the other, his evil twin, the devil, beckons you to condemn legions to death or worse by putting your arrogance of private conscience above the welfare of everyone else in the world. We know how to go around endlessly in this circle; at any point you really can lose your soul. We also know that anyone who thinks this kind of thing is resolved by signing up once and for all with the utilitarians or the deontologists is a college freshman or an idiot.

What the US Congress is supposed to be doing is ordaining, directing, and funding actions by the US government. That work should absolutely be informed by moral judgments, many of which are very hard to get right, and that alone makes the task challenging enough that it does not have time to preach to foreigners with no consequential intent but very consequential fact, and anyway it’s no good at it.

I suppose we could change the rules and task Congress to systematically risk relations with current regimes by telling them official hard truths about their history. The French have got off much too easy for their treatment of those poor peacable Cathars; they need to hear from the US Congress that this is officially not OK with us. The Spaniards need to be stood up and lectured about Pizzaro and the Inquisition, don’t they? And then there’s the extermination of 90% of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America: Canada and Mexico, get in here and put on your hair shirts, dammit. I suppose those last two might come across a little awkwardly, but if a deliberative body is going to go in the prophet business and condemn evil, it can’t be diverted from holy work by beams in its eye: Elmer Gantry understood this and George Babbitt, that great American, did too.

Gitlin is right; a banner of righteousness wrapped tightly around the head is a moral blindfold, and Ralph Nader and people who voted for him are not on any high ground for having given the world President W as the price of their purity. Barney Frank is right about protecting the gay rights barge from foundering on its first trip across the river under a cargo of every good cause. This resolution is a profoundly bad idea for reasons that have nothing to do with how bad the Turks were a century ago, and Nancy Pelosi needs to provide some real leadership to her Armenian-American supporters instead of enabling this self-indulgent piece of street theater.

UPDATE: Mark weighs in on this issue here.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.