Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Waltzing Around Denial: A Response to Jirair Libaridian

In early June, a conference held in Tbilisi, Georgia, generated great controversy. The individual and organization at the heart of this conference have, for much of the past decade, been actively engaged in efforts to extend the denial of the Armenian Genocide into academia as well as in the political realm in North America.
The Armenian Weekly published a report outlining the problem as we saw it, quoting five scholars who weighed in on the issue. We also reprinted Asbarez Editor Ara Khatchatourian’s editorial on the subject, and a letter to the editor from George Aghjayan, in our opinion pages.
Almost all of the scholars from Armenia who were scheduled to speak at the conference subsequently withdrew.
Also in early June, Prof. Jirair Libaridian, who was scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at the Tbilisi conference, contacted the Weekly asking for the opportunity to respond. This month, we received and published his six-page response, which was incidentally much longer than the articles he was responding to combined.
While it is for the readers to judge whether Prof. Libaridian’s arguments adequately address the concerns previously expressed in the Weekly, several points necessitate a short editorial response:
1)  Prof. Libaridian calls the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) “an organization accused of being at the forefront of denialist efforts in American academia.” This is a rather charitable description, to put it mildly. The TCA’s denialist record, highlighted in our articles, speaks for itself. There is even a U.S. federal appeals court decision designating the TCA as engaging in genocide denial. Yet, it seems, no amount of evidence is conclusive enough for Prof. Libaridian. Ironically, this is a common strategy for genocide deniers as well, who profess to be unconvinced regardless of the amount of conclusive evidence one throws at them.  We believe that there is more than enough information available for Prof. Libaridian, or any other informed reader, to conclude whether these are “accusations” or “facts.”
2) Prof. Libaridian accuses the Weekly of a “lack of professionalism” for not consulting him before publishing the editorial, the letter to the editor, and the opinions by five scholars. Yet, we are entitled to have a position on this matter, and to express it in our pages. When Libaridian approached us with a request to respond, we welcomed it too.
3) Prof. Libaridian alleges that we did not produce “an article that informed the public of the basic facts and the essence of the controversy.” The essence of the controversy is explained clearly in our article: “The individual and organization at the heart of this conference have, for much of the past decade, been actively engaged in efforts to extend the denial of the Armenian Genocide into academia as well as in the political realm in North America.”  We believe that this is where discussion of the matter begins. Interestingly, Prof. Libaridian, in a lengthy interview published on the Groong Armenian News Network prior to the conference, neglected to even mention the Turkish Coalition of America (as if it were peripheral to the discussion). Even in his response to the Weekly, he neglected to address the track record of the TCA and its impact on the conference. If anyone is avoiding “basic facts,” it is not the Weekly.
4) Prof. Libaridian asks, “Wasn’t it possible for the editors of these newspapers to imagine that another writer could produce quotes by another five scholars or more whose opinions regarding participation in the Tbilisi conference would be the opposite of what five protagonists quoted in that article had to say?” Yes, such a scenario is, indeed, possible. It is also possible for Prof. Libaridian or any individual to produce quotes by five scholars who deny the Armenian Genocide. Or five scholars who deny the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, or global warming. There are people with all kinds of opinions everywhere.
5) “At the end, we are not talking about the factuality of the Genocide; rather we are looking at the politics of Genocide recognition,” argues Prof. Libaridian. But when the latter undermines the former, in our opinion, are we not allowed to express that opinion?
6) Prof. Libaridian asks, “Why is the assault against the participants directed against scholars of Armenian origin?” First, the Weekly made no “assault.” It offered the informed, critical remarks of five individuals for whom Libaridian professes “great respect.” Second, none of the scholars interviewed made it an issue of Armenian versus non-Armenian scholars. We believe scholars—Armenians, Turks, or others—who take part in such conferences are legitimizing denial and, worse, giving credibility to one of the most virulent denialist-funding institutions. This is our strongly held opinion. Expressing it does not constitute an assault.
7) He further asks, “Will the denialists disappear if we boycott their conferences? Is a conference best left to denialists?” No, Prof. Libaridian, they will not disappear; but, yes, we believe that denialist-funded and denialist-organized conferences are best left to denialists.  Is there any compelling evidence to suggest that the denialists will disappear if we embrace them and legitimize their conferences through participation? Moreover, how is it helpful for genocide recognition to engage with the most regressive, rabidly anti-Armenian agents of genocide denial?
8) Prof. Libaridian asks, “Are Armenians in the same situation regarding the international recognition of the Genocide as Jews are regarding that of the Holocaust?” No, we are not in the same situation. And had Holocaust scholars not had the wisdom to marginalize Holocaust deniers decades ago, they would still be arguing with fringe elements because denialists will never be satisfied with any amount of evidence presented.
9) “Can we be sure that Turkish or other scholars who share our pain but do not use the term genocide or who do not agree to reparations are less ‘dangerous’ than those who openly oppose the use of the term?” Prof. Libaridian repeats variants of this argument several times. However, there is a difference between scholars and institutions that do not use the term “genocide,” and an institution that spends millions of dollars filing lawsuits against scholars and institutions of higher learning and bullying legislatures to deny the genocide.
10)  Prof. Libaridian says, “The conference was being held with the co-sponsorship of the most important university in Georgia, a critical neighbor of Armenia, with the participation of many scholars and others from that country and elsewhere who would have heard only a denialist position had Armenian scholars not participated.” Here, it is Libaridian himself who is making the issue one of Armenian scholars vs. non-Armenian ones. Moreover, we believe that any Georgian or other scholar would have, one hopes, the common sense to ask the question, Why aren’t Armenian scholars present? The answer would be clear.
11)  “There were no limitations on what and how I could discuss and no request was made, nor could one be accepted, for prior approval of my talk,” writes Libaridian.  Of course there were no limitations. Because the entire point of the denialist is to say: “Look, we are discussing the matter! ‘Both sides’ are represented! The ‘debate’ is ongoing!” They know they cannot prove that the genocide did not take place; they also know that they do not need to. They just need to manufacture doubt.
12)  “Turkey and the Turkish world represent a complex reality. Turkey or Turks cannot be seen as good or bad.” We do not require a lecture on the complexities of Turkey from  Prof. Libaridian. The Weekly has regularly provided a forum for Turkish writers who embody this complexity, as well as a venue to discuss the changing perceptions of Turkey and Turks among Armenians. However, in this “complex” reality, we do not wish to engage with the most regressive elements, those pouring millions into denial. There are many others with whom we can engage and are engaging across the spectrum.
13) “One cannot engage in these processes expecting to achieve a desired goal by arbitrarily defining safe moral/intellectual limits for oneself, leaving out what may disturb one’s comfortable scholarly and quasi-political world.” No, not “arbitrarily.” However, there are always moral limits to be drawn as journalists, writers, and scholars. It is far from “arbitrary” to draw a line at playing into the hands of a denialist state and those who advance its policies. To those who draw the line elsewhere, we wish them luck. But we hope we have the right to express the opinion, strongly, that ours is a different path.
14)  In his reference to Prof. Hovannisian—in which he compares TCA with UCLA! –Prof. Libaridian seems to have no interest in understanding the issue at stake here. His analogy only makes sense if Prof. Hovannisian had invited Shaw to present “the Turkish side of the story” in his classes and conferences, or had agreed to represent “the Armenian point of view” in Shaw’s.
15) Finally, Prof. Libaridian asks if it “is incontestable, irrefutable, incontrovertible, that somehow they [the five scholars quoted in the Weekly article] have managed to find the ultimate truth, the ultimate value, and the ultimate morality.” This is a non-question and normative moral relativism, at best. One can ask that question about anything and everything. And in so doing, one will end up lacking an opinion, a position, a moral compass on anything.

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