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.