armeniansPope Francis, recently referring to horrific slaughter of Armenians a century ago, set off a diplomatic incident with Turkey when he used the word genocide.* Considering that the Vatican lobbies the Turkish Government for better treatment of its small Christian minority, this is a brave and perhaps costly decision. The controversy holds an unexpected lesson for American conservatives.

Armenians call it Metz Yegern, or The Great Evil. In a level-headed article, an Armenian English-language daily wrote: “The killings are recognized as genocide by a number of countries around the world, but Turkey’s allies Italy and the United States have avoided using the contentious term. The United Nations defined genocide as acts intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.”

The slaughter, costing between one million and 1.5 million Armenian lives, is undeniable even to the Turks. The question is whether the word genocide—first coined in 1943 to describe the Armenian deaths—was intentional policy or another unplanned tragedy of the Great War of 1914-1918.

The Turks have long claimed that, by 1915, there was little policy at all as the Ottoman Empire broke apart, starting decades before. Even the revolutionary Young Turks—centred in the army containing the later founder of their republic, Kemal Attaturk—were split between Westernised liberals and aggressive nationalists; meanwhile, many Turkish Armenians harboured support for Russia, which was at war with Turkey, Gemany and Austro-Hungary. Amid chaos, say the Turks, army units and local Kurdish chieftains perpetrated the atrocities. Yet there were smaller but still atrocious, officially-approved murders in Constantinople, the capital.

Turkish students at Stanford University summarise the arguments in a concise letter; describing how the postwar British sent an Armenian scholar to investigate 144 senior Ottoman officials in custody, he found no evidence of orders for genocide and the accused were released. Even respected scholars on Turkey, including Bernard Lewis, they say, stop short of calling it genocide.

turks 2“The Armenian genocide today is loaded with emotion, as the generations of Armenians living today identify themselves with the stories told by the previous generations who suffered through the atrocities,” they conclude. “Yet, it is also loaded with politics, and rulings on the Armenian genocide are the playground of parliaments and state assemblies…. This was the result of inter-communal warfare that was like a fire engulfing the surrounding whole region, driven by the mistrust and suspicions between communities, and the political ambitions of the powers then.”

Who is right? I have no way to judge. But, first of all, the UN definition of genocide seems ill-formed. Killing a group “in whole or in part” runs the gamut from well-recorded Nazi policies of eliminating the world’s Jews, to me shooting the minority owner of a liquor store. It sounds as if it makes a mockery of the Shoah and its millions of grieving survivors; and it smells like a typical UN compromise, placating every oppressed group.

I also recall my Irish-American grandmother and her bitter litany of real and imagined offenses by the English, passed down through many generations even in her Victorian childhood. Thus bad things can sometimes be magnified into great atrocities, and mistakes can seem intentional. And under modern UN definitions, of course, the Irish could claim genocide if my great-great-great-grandfather died after a British official took away his last potato.

No doubt, from Constantinople to the eastern border with their Syrian provinces, Ottomans slaughtered many Armenians and left more to die of drought and brigandage. But whether it was a policy, or a widespread feeling of betrayal and unjustifiable anger, I cannot know—I read no Turkish and am no historian. More interesting to me, in some ways, are the roots of the Turkish reaction then and now.

Heading off on my first of many visits to Istanbul, an Anglo-Turkish friend warned, “You can be friends with a Turk for thirty years, and then if you make the most tenuous criticism of Turkey he will take permanent offense.” They are proud, he said, and his exaggeration contains truth. They have reason for pride—their empire, until fairly recently in historical terms, was the largest on earth, spanning from Budapest to the Sudan, from Morocco to Persia’s western border. It was even bigger if you count their pre-nationalist kinsmen throughout Central Asia. They were not only the richest empire, but tolerant too—sending their fleet to rescue Spanish Jews and Muslims expelled by Queen Isabella in 1492 and taking most to Constantinople, when pogroms were being perpetrated in Europe. Indeed, in modern-day Istanbul’s old Jewish quarter, I have heard children speaking Ladino, the medieval language of Spanish Jews. The Ottoman empire was no heaven by modern standards—while their best-beloved architect, Mimar Sinan, was an Armenian Christian, he had to convert to Islam before he got the big contracts from Suleiman the Magnificent.

But the ample reasons for Turkish pride cause equal touchiness. Their empire dissolved, and starving, impoverished Turks suffered appallingly at the hungry, bitter end. Instead of being a stupor mundi, a wonder of the world, they became a laughing-stock–seen as a nation of good hod-carriers, barbers and carpet-weavers among corpulent, corrupt officials. Given their long memories, and Sinan’s majestic mosques to rub in the decline, how it must have hurt! Indeed the bitterness has only begun to diminish with the free-market policies and eye-watering economic growth led by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. So for modern Turks, whose national hero is the 12th Century Sufi poet Jalalludin Rumi (a humanist in the wisest sense), the Armenian issue is a continuous loss of face, a daily body blow. The concept of slaughter, so common to war, is not the insult—intention is. It is as inconceivable to a modern Turk as it would be to you. So they grasp onto historical defences that may, or may not, be justifiable—I cannot know the facts, but I can see the human reactions.

Several lessons emerge for Americans in general, and for her conservatives specifically. The first involves the Sin of Pride. Flemish Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a 1500s diplomat from the Habsburg court to that of Suleiman the Magnificent, in his ever-readable memoir noted a curiosity. Recommending the slightest change in policy, or in any Turkish suggestion, was taken as offensive behaviour or having abandoned one’s senses. I showed it to an American diplomat, and he said, “It describes us perfectly.” In only a century, Turks had gone from anonymity to holding the biggest empire on earth, rather like the Americans. That bred hubris, just like the Americans. No doubt resentment as well.

Secondly, we can safely say that people grow testy when their empires collapse. I saw it, unpleasantly close up, on a rare and recent visit to American relatives. Once conservatives but now merely right-wingers, they all perceived national decline—at home and abroad, sometimes easy to articulate but often hard. “ObamaCare,” Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan were easy; while polemics and political stalemate were mysterious, for television had made them more partisan than ever before. Cultural decline was easy to perceive, but harder to prescribe blame or solutions–from a nation now celebrating sexual deviancy, as they saw it; to a marked disinterest in the past; to an almost principled abandonment of manners in media, among the young and even policemen on the beat; to a disrespect for law, and their own uncertainty whether law still deserves respect.

Their answer, for now, was to wrap one’s self in the flag–to tolerate no criticism of any failure or foible, no matter how well-meant. A favourite cousin got on the phone, gossiping to all who would listen that I was “un-American.” After saying that America’s greatest threat was her critics, my father (admittedly past his prime) offered to pay for any psychiatric treatment that could make me more “pro-American.” He called me a terrorist. My old teacher, Russell Kirk, had plenty of historical examples of cultures which turned back from the brink; and so constructive criticism is part of the rescue. But in modern Florida, I felt like de Busbecq in Ottoman Constantinople half a millennium, before.

It was nearly a century between Ottoman collapse and Turkish economic rejuvenation. Their stated hope of restoring a Turkish-led federation, among their former colonies and their Central Asian kinfolk, is probably impossible, as the welter of current Middle Eastern conflicts demonstrates. Mostly it is just a wish for respect. That too is threatened, as newly-enriched middle class Turks move to the cities, bringing with them old-fashioned Muslim attitudes, and luring politicians alongside.

Whether we date the end of the British empire from the graveyards of the Somme, or their loss of India in 1948, they have still not come to grips with it fully. This helps to explain the cycle of excitement and remorse as they troop and sail off to whatever foreign debacle an American president sends them. They know better and their polls show it, but the thrill is still visceral.

turks 3The loss of American empire, or global Pax Americana if you prefer, will be found to have many roots. Fiscal abuse and flagrant debt is only one factor in the evolving decline of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency; another is the desire of neighbour states to trade with their own resources, but it will weaken America’s power considerably. Then, paradoxically perhaps, American values on trade and enterprise have spread to America’s economic detriment—many of yesteryear’s kids have grown up and demand to be treated accordingly. America’s century-old Progressive orthodoxy has made unattractive changes at home, and much of the world fears it. So, there will be many reasons in the obituary. But, as Dr Kirk always insisted, such obits are often premature, for nations, and even whole cultures, come back to greatness.

The glorious reign of Suleiman the Magnificent was the high-water mark for the Ottomans. From there, the descent was slow but nowadays decline comes faster. Yet, as it seems to me from limited experience, much of America emulates the unthinkingly arrogant Turks of old. Maybe hubris lingers on after the body begins to fail. With his unbarbered hair and long-unclipped nails, there in a hermetically sealed penthouse, did Howard Hughes lay dying and still think that he was a master of the universe? Or did he know, but get unpleasant when his physician told him?

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