By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

“Genocide” and free speech

One of my favorite Bostonians, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, finds himself — that is, has injected himself — into the midst of a controvery over genocide, history and public education.

Silverglate has filed suit in U.S. District Court over a state law that uses the word “genocide” to describe the deaths of an estimated one million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Kara Scannel of the Wall Street Journal reported on the suit in this Oct. 27 article. Shelley Murphy followed up the next day in the Boston Globe.

Today, Silverglate and a fellow lawyer, Norman Zalkind, have an op-ed piece in the Globe explaining their actions. They write:

The legislative seed curtailing debate on this historical question was planted more than six years ago. In March 1999, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a statute that required the construction of a curricular materials guide “on genocide and human rights issues” for use in public schools. The guide itself states that it should provide ”differing points of view on controversial issues.” However, when it came time to implement the law, the Department of Education, after initially including materials on both sides of the “Armenian Genocide” controversy, eliminated all materials arguing against the genocide classification.

This censorship of previously included materials occurred after the department was lobbied by a state senator and others who claimed that any thesis calling the label genocide into question was “racist” or ”hate speech.” Commissioner David Driscoll and Board of Education Chairman James E. Peyser consequently wrote on Aug. 31, 1999, that “the legislative intent of the statute was to address the Armenian genocide and not to debate whether or not this occurred.” Driscoll and Peyser thus made an inherently political decision that reversed the educational judgment of those who thought both sides worthy of being aired. Any time political interference results in censorship of educationally suitable materials, our students lose.

Although I’ve worked with Silverglate as both an editor and an occasional collaborator, he and I haven’t talked about this. And Harvey certainly knows that I wouldn’t hesitate to disagree with him. Though I would never doubt his motives, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I would therefore agree with his conclusions.

In this case, I’m not sure what to think. To my mind, the question comes down to whether there really is a legitimate historical debate over what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, a terrible crime that is routinely described as “genocide.” (For what it’s worth, the Encyclopedia Britannica — to which I can’t link because I access it via a closed database — does indeed use the “G”-word.)

If Massachusetts school officials are excluding a legitimate historical point of view in order to appease the state’s Armenian-American community, then Harvey’s got a strong case to make. If, however, denying that what happened to the Armenians was genocide is akin to denying what took place during the Holocaust, then there’s nothing good to say about teaching “the other side.” That would make as much sense as making sure that the Holocaust-education program Facing History and Ourselves included David Irving‘s Holocaust-denial books in its curriculum for the sake of “balance.”

I’m uncomfortable with Silverglate and Zalkind’s reliance on the legal definition of “genocide” in discussing this issue. They write in today’s Globe:

Though historians have documented death and deportation of large numbers of Armenians (as well as the deaths of many Turks), they disagree over whether what happened constitutes “genocide,” a term defined by international law as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.

It strikes me that the definition of “genocide” that I found in the American Heritage Dictionary (“The systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group”), which is similar to the legal definition but grounded in life rather than law, is more than sufficient. What happened during World War I was either genocide or it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t matter what international law has to say about the matter.

Silverglate and Zalkind’s next sentence goes to the heart of the matter:

While many historians argue that it was the intent of the Turks to exterminate the Armenians as a people, others counter that such intent has not been firmly established and that the events more closely resemble a civil war than a genocidal campaign.

The question, then, is whether the historians on the it-wasn’t-genocide wing of the dispute are conscientious scholars or a bunch of David Irvings.

For what it’s worth, this Wikipedia article seems balanced, even if it’s accompanied by a warning that says, “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” Here’s the lead:

The Armenian Genocide (also known as the Armenian Holocaust or the Armenian Massacre) is a term which refers to the forced mass evacuation and related deaths of hundreds of thousands or over a million Armenians, during the government of Young Turks from 1915 to 1917 in the Ottoman Empire. Several facts in connection with the genocide are a matter of ongoing dispute between parts of the international community and Turkey. Although it is generally agreed that events said to comprise the Armenian Genocide did occur, the Turkish government rejects that it was genocide, on the alleged basis that the deaths among the Armenians, were not a result of a state-sponsored plan of mass extermination, but from the result of inter-ethnic strife, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War I.

Despite this thesis, most Armenian, Western, and an increasing number of Turkish scholars believe that the massacres were a case of what is termed genocide. For example, most Western sources point to the sheer scale of the death toll. The event is also said to be the second-most studied case of genocide, and often draws comparison with the Holocaust.

Toward the end of the Wikipedia article is this intriguing section:

There is a general agreement among Western historians that the Armenian Genocide did happen. The International Association of Genocide Scholars (the major body of scholars who study genocide in North America and Europe), for instance, formally recognize the event and consider it to be undeniable. On the other hand, the academic recognition has not always been followed by government and media recognition. Many governments, including the United States, United Kingdom and, ironically, Israel do not officially use the word genocide to describe these events, due in part to their strong commercial and political ties to Turkey, though some government officials have used the term personally.

Based on this rather cursory evidence, it seems to me that if refusing to refer to what happened to the Armenians as “genocide” isn’t quite on a par with Holocaust-denial, then it nevertheless may be heading in that direction. Harvey is right in thinking of this as a free-speech issue, but it’s not solely a free-speech issue. It’s also an educational issue. For instance, scientifically literate educators refuse to teach intelligent design not because they oppose free speech, but because there’s no scientific basis for it.

Along the same lines, refusing to teach Massachusetts schoolchildren that what happened in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t genocide may be less a matter of censorship than it is of not teaching bad history.

As I suggested at the top, I’m open on this subject. I really don’t know enough about the Armenian catastrophe to be passing judgment on this. But if this was a genocide — and the weight of history strongly suggests that it was — then denying it has no place in the classroom.

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  1. Anonymous

    What’s the difference between “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”? Where is the line drawn?The word “genocide” has become the center of so much dispute, I wonder how useful it is for anything other than the Holocaust.In any case, there’s a very, very long history of ethnic strife, ethnic cleansing attempts on all sides in that region, and the treatment given to the hapless Armenians during the war didn’t come out of the blue.The history between the Armenians and the Ottomans, as well as information about the Young Turks movement and its political context, ought to be provided in some detail as a background to the horror of what ultimately was done to the Armenians– not as an excuse but just by way of understanding why the Young Turks decided they needed to wipe them out.Like most things, it’s not a simple, black-and-white story, and if it’s told as if it is, it’s one more thing that adds to the very counterproductive demonization of Muslims and not to any broader understanding.And it still seems to me that the Nazi Holocaust is historically unique, and if I had my druthers, the word “genocide” would be reserved exclusively for it.

  2. The Emerson Avenger

    Then I guess you want to redefine the meaning of the word “genocide” which means – The systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group.Genocide has existed for millennia and continues to occur. The planned Nazi attempt to systematically exterminate the Jewish race and other ethnic groups, to say nothing of homosexuals etc. is amongst the worst (or dare I say most successful?) cases of genocide in human history but there have been many others. Rwanda had its Hutu vs. Tutsi genocide just over a decade ago. What is currently occuring in Sudan looks and smells a lot like genocide. Ancient history has plenty of accounts of genocide. Most ironically some of the earliest accounts of genocide are those that are reported in the not so Holy Bible. . .

  3. Steve B

    Though the temptation exists to make this into a semantic debate, this debate lies more in the historical record. The facts remain that 30,000 Armenians disappeared within the time period described. The Turks who deny the genocide say that the Turks and Kurds were wiped out by both a rash of disease and some killing, but certainly not the number the Armenians believe were killed. Turks also blame infighting between the Turks and Kurds for some of the killing.Though the Young Turks were later replaced by the modern Turkish system – led by Kemal Ataturk – the view of the state as the central authority remained from one regime to the next. Ataturk believed in the glory of Turkey, and sought to cover up state secrets. To this day, Turkey continues to cover it up despite open recognition by many Western historians, Turkish historians and the INCREDIBLE Turkish author Orhan Pamuk (the Turksih Gunter Grass, I tell you), who is currently in trouble for saying, “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.” So, the case is somewhat complex and probably doesn’t deserve a cut-and-dry teaching in the same way the Holocaust does. Unlike David Irving, those who say the genocide did happen are under fire in Turkey, though it may not be a minority view among those who study the matter. For that reason, I think it is valuable to teach both sides in this case, if not only to illuminate the fact that governments expect to cleanse the historical record of their own ills. Teaching both sides is how objective education is done, lest we remind college professors (who are not Dan Kennedy) that sometimes let their liberal opinions run amok and alienate students in class discussion. If Harvey is working for Turks who wish to deny genocide in this case, I would definitely question his motives, but I wouldn’t say that he is wrong for doing it.Personally, though, I am more interested in whether or not the EU is going to force Turkey to admit to the genocide before they can be instated. To me, that is the only way the government will ever face down its past in a thorough manner.

  4. Artyom

    Please somebody go and read Samantha Power’s now famous Problem from Hell, wherein POwer suggests not on conjecture but documentary evidence that the etymology of the term genocide is directly linked to what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Raphael Lemkin characterized the mass murder of the Armenians as a clear case of genocide. However it is preposterous that the anonymous commentator would suggest that genocide is exclusively reserved to the experience of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust on many grounds but unfortunately the space is too limited to recount as to why. All I can do is to suggest to the said person to read Michael Berenbaum’s very useful and informative “Is the Holocaust Unique?”

  5. yessem

    Silverglate and Zalkind are in fact citing a “bunch of David Irvings” here. The Armenian Genocide is a historical fact and they are assisting in its denial. Check out RESEAUNATE.90 for more…

  6. Anonymous

    It’s the height of absurdity to debate who’s genocide is worse than the other genocide. Let’s say the Armenian “Genocide” isn’t a “Genocide.” Does saying it WAS one, make the Genocide of Jews in Europe any less historically compelling? Mr. Silverglate needs to put his wonderful intellect to better use.

  7. Bill Baar

    Peter Balakian’s book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response is an excellant study of the United State’s response and our “…the lack of political will in the West to intervene to stop the slaughter.”A friend of mine does business in Turkey and you realize how sensitive and concerned the Turkish Gov is to this history. I’m sure they’re involved in this somehow.

  8. Anonymous

    Harvey Silverglate is scum. As a grand daughter of survivors of the Armenian Genocide I am appalled that this is even considered debatable. The Turkish Govt at the beginning of the 20th century systematically planned a complete annihilation of it’s Armenian population – i don’t care what you choose to call it, it was pure and deliberate with one goal in mind to rid Turkey of any Armenians. What happened is tragic enough without having the likes of Silverglate giving credence to continued coverups by Turkish citizens who in my mind are put up to this and likely paid by present day Turkish govt. I am so glad they are applying for EU status as it looks like that’s the only liklihood of getting them to finally admit to this horrible chapter in history. I hope Harvey chokes on the money paid to him for taking this case. In my humble opinion it’s blood money.

  9. Anonymous

    A few points – firstly, those who dispute the Armenian thesis are often excellent historians like Bernard Lewis and Gilles Veinstein, unlike the crackpots who dispute the Holocaust.As one historian, Lewy, said: “A large number of Western students of Ottoman history reject the appropriateness of the genocide label for the tragic fate of the Armenian community in Ottoman Turkey. This list includes distinguished scholars such as Roderic Davison, J.C. Hurewitz, Bernard Lewis, and Andrew Mango. Ignoring this formidable array of learned opinion, most Armenians and their supporters among so-called genocide scholars assert with superb arrogance that the Armenian genocide is an incontrovertible historical fact, similar to the Jewish Holocaust, which would be denied only by lackeys of the Turkish government.”When a recognition bill was presented to congress in 1985, 69 American scholars of Ottoman history protested on the grounds of accuracy.The Wiki passage you pasted plays the usual trick of mentioning historian concensus then citing the International Association of Genocide Scholars to validate that claim – however, the International Association fo Genocide Scholars are not a historical body at all. You can confirm their credentials at their website.Using Wiki for contentious issues can be dangerous, as illustrated in the passage above. That particular article is written largely by an Armenian contributor name Fad as part of the “Wikiproject Armenia”.Another example of misleading text is attributing the UK’s lack of recognition to close commercial ties with Turkey.In fact, the British, while in occupation of Turkey, carried out a two and a half year war crimes investigation – of the same model that resulted in Nuremburg.Their findings were:”There is nothing that may be used as evidence against the Turkish detainees in Malta. There are no events that may constitute adequate proofs. The said reports do not appear to contain even circumstantial evidence that could be useful to reinforce the information held by His Majesty’s Government against the Turks.”The UK Government cites this absence of evidence when declining to recognise the Armenian thesis.In an implicit acknowledgement that no evidence of a centralised policy of extermination exists, some campaigners have simply invented evidence. For example, somebody above mention Burning Tigris by Peter Balakian – here is part of a review by the historian, Mango:”The Burning Tigris fits in with the campaign waged by Armenian nationalists to persuade Western parliaments to recognize the Armenian genocide It is not a work of historical research, but an advocate’s impassioned plea, relying at times on discredited evidence, such as the forged telegrams attributed to the Ottoman interior minister, Talat Pasha, which were produced at the trial of his assassin in Berlin Some of Balakian’s assertions would make any serious Ottoman historian’s hair stand on end.”If nothing else, one certainly has to wonder why this Armenian campaign runs away from any mention of historian conferences or judicial review – opting instead to push their case politically, through parliaments, where their case will not be put under scrutiny.Having unqualified politicians predetermine the study of history is one thing – but when lobby groups are successful in having the work of the subjects leading historians excluded from classrooms, this needs to be fought.The Holocaust is an issue of recognising the due process law – evidence was developed, examined, cross examined and verdicts were reached. The same approach does not therefore apply to issues of hisotry, even if one chooses to ignore that the case against Turks collapsed due to a lack of any evidence.Well done to those who refuse to sit idly by and watch political lobbies hijack education.

  10. Harrison

    The last entry (“11:42 Am”) was most insightful. The lesson here is, if a majority of voices is the one heard, it does not mean the truth is offered. Such voices often derive from those who are more emotional (as the Armenian granddaughter who called the civil rights attorney “scum,” above), and have more motivation to have their voices heard.Wikipedia is worthless, especially when it comes to controversial topics. (Reason: Any one from the public can contribute to Wikipedia. Whomever has the numbers and the motivation are the ones who succeed in getting their voices heard.) The Armenians and their supporters are obsessed over this matter and have formed a mafia at Wikipedia. If one contributes a thought that goes even slightly against their obsession, it is immediately removed. The books of Samantha Power (at least the first chapter on the Armenians), as Artyom recommended, and Peter Balakian, as Bill Baar recommended above, are works of blatant propaganda. For an analysis of the scholarly merit of these books, please consult, respectively: Dan’s comparison with “intelligent design” is an ironic one, because if one examines how the so-called Armenian genocide is attempted to be proven, it is little different than the faith-based teachings of Creationism. Genocide believers are often disturbingly similar to religious believers. The ones who are directly (i.e., ethnically) involved can, of course, be the worst; but well-meaning people who hear one version exclusively also fall into the same trap. People are lazy; they don’t take the trouble to investigate. It then becomes easy to pronounce outrage: WHAT! How dare a genocide is denied..!But the danger is that when one is accused of a crime, it is highly unethical to repeat the charge, without making sure the valid evidence is in place. Objective parties who investigate soon discover the Armenians were responsible for a massive ethnic cleansing campaign of their own, killing anyone who was different: Turks, Muslims, Jews, even some Greeks, and fellow Armenians who had converted to Islam. This was in keeping with their quest to establish a “Greater Armenia,” which meant clearing everyone else out. (No different than what happened in 1992 Karabakh, although the massacres by Armenians were kept to a minimum, around 1,000 people; some 800,000 Azeris became permanent refugees, when forced to flee.) The more extreme Armenians were also motivated by the belief of racial superiority and an abnormal hatred of Turks that were bred into them, through their revolutionary leaders and their missionary allies. Too many took excessive pleasure in killing for killing’s sake.We know the above is true, because their allies in WWI, particularly Russian and French officers, served as firsthand witnesses to the crimes of the Armenians; some accounts are devastating in the degree of sadism. A British officer estimated the Armenians killed 300,000-400,000 in two districts alone. (As the tides of war switched back and forth, from 1915-1920.) The Armenians and their allies most likely killed over half a million, far more than the number of Armenians who were murdered. (Of the half-million Armenians actually killed — not 1.5 million, as their propaganda often instructs us; that was the number for their total pre-war population — most had died from non-murderous reasons, also affecting the majority of the 2.5 million other Ottomans who died. Reasons such as famine and disease.)Why does the world only speak of an “Armenian genocide” when the real systematic extermination campaign was conducted BY the Armenians? These are best explained through the powers of prejudice, and the control of information.

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