Friday, May 1, 2015

Clan Committment: Armenia + Ireland, 100 years on

This photo, "Remnants of an Armenian Family," reminds me of photos taken from An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, known popularly if not exactly correctly, according to many, as the Irish Famine. Change the costumes or headgear, and these five could be an evicted family from a stone cottage far northwest.

Nothing to Celebrate in ANZAC in Solidarity Net criticizes those who from colonies and dominions were encouraged to fight in useless battles for capitalism, imperialism, warlords, and false ideals. It questions the tributes to troops at Gallipoli. About 88,000 for the Ottoman and 44,000 for the British Empire died there. This slaughter and that in Armenia echo, as death returns in a region today. Small nations hunted and hated by armed fanatics, hunted for their allegiance, their clan, their religion.

James Connolly, when asked "What Should Irish People Do During the War?", after denouncing cooperation with the Crown to defend its Empire and admitting if Germany could free Ireland from Britain, that would not be rejected, finally rallied against Kaiser or King. "Should the working class of Europe rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world."

Reflecting this May Day on an Irish history full of invective against its nearest and oldest enemy, I wonder about the psychic cost of raising generations a century later on what riled and inspired our families' desperation: to rage against rulers, to take up arms, to revenge eras culminating in ravaged decades filled with famine, rape, emigration, rack-rent, landlords, conscription, death fast or slow. 

While for years much of my reading and writing focused on The Cause, I find the past few years, and after all nearing two decades since truces were called and arms decommissioned and dumped in Ireland, I'm a bit weary of a sustained diet of study of these events. How, I mulled over as I studied Judaism, can people craft careers in analyzing the records of the Shoah, or literature of the Armenian genocide? It reminds me off hand somehow of the professor of Hitler Studies in White Noise, but no parody is intended by me. Primo Levi's books are being retranslated this autumn and reissued, and the publisher has to remind the press and audience he's not only a survivor-testifier from the deathcamps. 

Watching the shows that John Walsh produces as his son was killed years ago and led him to produce America's Most Wanted as the first of many successful get-tough programs on t.v., my wife and I muse over what that career must do to one's spirit. How far do you capitalize, however well-intended, on death or harm caused to you or your family? Does that market or brand you always? Levi wrote fables like his fellow storyteller Italo Calvino; he dramatized the life of workers, he crafted stories, and he told some of his best tales set before the war, in The Periodic Table, as when he hiked with his little dog. Those moments tend to get subsumed into the great drama. Some veterans never get over the most vivid and harrowing moments of their service, and I suppose for prisoners, hostages, those freed from slavery or torment, kidnapping or disaster, the life after can never create the same energy. 

Meline Toumani, an Armenian-American writer originally from Iran, warns in the New York Times: "Armenians Shouldn't Let Genocide Define Us." She speaks of how Jews are accused of self-hatred if they take issue with the prevailing notion that one must conform to the narrative of what I borrow from the saga of the Irish as "Most Oppressed People Ever." (MOPE: I don't agree with much of that last link's writer, but it's for ease of cyber-reference for this acronym.) Historian Alvin Jackson, a more reliable source, cites colleague Paul Bew who reminds us of the dubious claim "that the most oppressed people in Europe in the 1940s were to be found in Ireland." (671; Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History.) It's almost, but not quite given the fatal lack some carry now, superfluous to say that this was a decade which few countrymen and fellow sufferers who were interned with Primo Levi survived. So, that takes us back to Toumani. Noting Kim Kardashian's support of the centennial, Toumani submits her thesis: "Watching the dubious intersection of celebrity worship and genocide commemoration, I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the less obvious things Armenians have lost since 1915: not just people and property, but a kind of existential confidence. The genocide recognition campaign itself, in the name of restoring Armenia’s losses, has been so all-consuming as to stand in the way of other kinds of development--in Armenia and in the diaspora." It should not be all Armenians, admittedly a long time away from this event, should focus on for their identity.

She argues that it's too limiting to expect members of small ethnicities and their diasporas should or must conform to a narrow range of banal exhortations to carry on or insistent dehumanization of the enemy nation or empire which committed the violence. She went to Turkey to try to learn from the other side's intransigence and denial. Therefore, in her estimation, she has been accused of "self-hatred." She defines this: "The idea is that you are embarrassed by your true nature — your ethnic nature — and so you mock it or speak out against it. The label is used not to engage in meaningful criticism, but to dismiss such criticism by chalking it up to shame. And yet the behavior labeled self-hating often reflects the opposite of shame; it reflects confidence." Comparing the plight of Armenians to that of the Jews, she continues: "The common phrase, 'Is it good for the Jews?' is implicitly present, too, for Armenians: but what does it mean to be 'good' for the Armenians, if survival means blocking out uncomfortable ideas and clinging to simplistic symbols?"

No, neither she nor I are denying horrors perpetuated. Turkey's refusal to take responsibility, Britain's collusion to worsen the potato blight's devastating impacts by pushing millions off the land and on the emigration boats if not the sides of the road to starve, or the black whirlwind of the Shoah all stand as blots on the record of what we do to each other. But how long do we stand in as "survivors"? 

Back to Ireland, similar questions can be raised. I am no great fan of the revisionists who try, as one wag put it, to tidy it all over, as if the English had a small misunderstanding with their subjects. Yet,  as the commemoration of the Easter Rising's centennial looms and politicians and pundits bicker over whether to invite the British, this drawn-out fracas, to some apart from the scrum, appears very petty.

Toumani concludes, for her small ancestral nation (one that like Ireland has clung long to an ideal of an embattled faith, a bastion of learning amid idiocy, an outpost of beauty and tradition and language apart from its brutish neighbors far greater in power, greed, and cunning): "But the question of what healing looks like beyond the use of a single word; of how children can be taught about their histories in a way that does not leave them hating the descendants of their ancestors’ killers. Of how a country can grow in meaningful ways so that there won’t be a Kardashian-size gap in its national confidence. Taking positions that don’t track with your ethnic group’s orthodoxies, or indeed living your life in a way that is not defined by clan commitment, are not signs of self-hatred but rather an indication of learning to value oneself. And this is at the heart of what it means to be not erased but fully alive."

My friends in Ireland are learning slowly how to learn a more inclusive history, as that nation itself becomes more diverse than any other time, rapidly, ever before. Some like me one generation apart from the homeland grapple with that old language, not easy to learn at home, but far more difficult pverseas, at least from my struggle. Many at home and abroad begin to drift from from clerical orthodoxies, and those who do not feel emboldened to speak out against ecclesiastical abuse. Those of us in the diaspora, passing on our heritage to our children, grapple with how much to pass on about past wrongs, and whether so much of our identity consists of commemorating ancestral pain. Clan commitment remains. But our pride does not overshadow an awareness of nuance or honesty.

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