Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 9, 2006

Insulting Turkishness

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

Sooner or later I expect to run into Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk on the Columbia campus, where he is a visiting scholar. (He was also here in that capacity from 1985 to 1988.) Whatever garlands bestowed upon him by my employer, I have yet to meet a single Turk who is a fan of his novels. I suspect that they resent his pronouncements on Turkish oppression of national minorities, even though they are by no means ultranationalists themselves. They probably question his use of the same Western platforms that often oppose Turkey being admitted to the European Union in the name of “civilization” and “human rights”. A double standard is obviously at work since the West has been far bloodier than Turkey over the centuries.


Orhan Pamuk

There were obvious political calculations involved in awarding the Nobel Prize to Pamuk who is seen as a bridge-builder between the West and the East. His fame did not prevent him from being put on trial in Turkey after telling a Swiss newspaper last year that 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians had been killed during World War I under the Ottoman Turks. Such statements constitute “insulting Turkishness”, which is punishable under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code as follows:

1. Public denigration of Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.

2. Public denigration of the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security structures shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.

3. In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country the punishment shall be increased by one third.

4. Expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime.

After the case generated terrible publicity for the Turkish government worldwide, the charges were dropped. Since the ruling Islamic party came to power in a challenge to the secular nationalist Kemalist establishment that had been identified historically with such laws and since it was anxious to build commercial ties to the West (its religious values are wedded to conventional neoliberalism), it had little incentive to see Pamuk behind bars.

Whatever attraction Europe once had for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), it might be rapidly evaporating under a new propaganda offensive from the West against Islam. When the Pope dredged up a 14th-century Christian emperor’s quote about the Prophet Muhammad bringing the world only “evil and inhuman” things, there was bound to be resentment across the entire Muslim world. But the Pope had already singled out the Turks as a group beforehand. He warned that admitting Turkey to the European Union would go against history:

The roots that have formed Europe, that have permitted the formation of this continent, are those of Christianity. Turkey has always represented another continent, in permanent contrast with Europe. There were the [old Ottoman Empire] wars against the Byzantine Empire, the fall of Constantinople, the Balkan wars, and the threat against Vienna and Austria. It would be an error to equate the two continents…Turkey is founded upon Islam…Thus the entry of Turkey into the EU would be anti-historical.

Recently France passed a new law that seemed inspired by Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. You can now get a year in prison and a 45,000 Euro fine for denying that Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks after the First World War. The Socialist Party was a driving force behind the proposed bill. It now joins the 2001 law that officially recognized the Armenian genocide. There are upwards of 500,000 people of Armenian descent in France organized into a powerful political lobby.

By the evidence of the new documentary “Screamers” that I saw in a press screening last night, there are moves afoot to get the American government to officially recognize the 1915 massacres as a genocide as well.

With backing by the BBC, it profiles System of a Down, a metal-grunge rock band composed entirely of young Armenian men who are very involved with this campaign. Their presence and that of survivors of the 1915 massacres give the film considerable power.


“Screamers” is practically a concert tour as we see the band playing to adoring fans around the world as they promote their new two-record set “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize”. In the song “P.L.U.C.K”, they obviously refer to their peoples’ history:

A whole race Genocide,
Taken away all of our pride,
A whole race Genocide,
Taken away, watch them all fall down.

Revolution, the only solution,
The armed response of an entire nation,
Revolution, the only solution,
We’ve taken all your shit, now it’s time for restitution.

One of the more moving moments of the film involves band member Serj Tankian visiting his 96 year old grandfather Stepan Hayapan at a nursing home. Interviews with Haypayan from a few years earlier, when he was in better health, are scattered throughout the film. He still had vivid memories of his family being driven from Efkere and left to die in a long march into the desert not that much different than the one endured by Cherokees in the 19th century. He was the sole survivor.

Unfortunately their contribution is undermined by the presence of Samantha Powers and Peter Galbraith as commentators. Director Carla Garapedian decided to make more than a movie calling attention to this historical injustice. She wanted to prove that it was the mother of all genocides and that without 1915, there never would have been a Jewish holocaust or other genocides. There are multiple references to Hitler’s dictum that “Who remembers the Armenians?” Unfortunately, there are no references to another of Hitler’s inspirations:

Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa And for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination-by starvation and uneven combat-of the ‘Red Savages’ who could not be tamed by captivity.

(John Toland, “Adolf Hitler”, p 802)

Sadly, Garapedian’s long-time association with BBC must have inured her to Anglo-American imperialism’s bloody past. She apparently sees evil everywhere in the world except in the British Empire and its Yankee offspring. She has trained her camera in the past on Taliban cruelty toward women, Russian troops killing Chechens, cannibalism (alleged) in North Korea and most recently repression of the student movement in Iran. In other words, her beat is the “axis of evil”.

In the press notes, Garapedian poses the question “Why do genocides continue in the 21st century”? Her answer: “Because those who perpetrated them the 20th century got away with it”. There is another question that never gets posed in “Screamers” and which seems far more useful in terms of avoiding genocide, namely “What are the causes of genocide?” One must certainly understand the root of genocide before one prevents them. Rather than arguing about the need to stop a Hitler before he exterminated the Jews, it is better to ask why Germany ended up with Hitler in the first place. That involves an examination of underlying social, political and economic factors that are never found in “Screamers.”

The title of the film refers to the act of screaming against genocide, something we are to understand Peter Galbraith and Samantha Powers excel at. With all due respect to Armenian suffering, this strikes me as arrant nonsense.


Peter Galbraith

As American Ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998, Galbraith was the quintessential hawk who makes frequent references to the bloody, internecine battles in Yugoslavia as another example of “genocide”. Such hyperbole undercuts the film’s effectiveness since this designation was applied solely by the NATO officials bent on war with the Serbs. In an April 9, 1999 Lars-Erik Nelson Daily News column, holocaust survivor Menachem Rosensaft dismissed comparisons between Hitler and Milosevic: “It’s total hyperbole to make a political point. It does a disservice to the memory of the Holocaust, and it also devalues the suffering of the Albanians if we suggest that to be worthy of our consideration their suffering has to be on the level of the Holocaust.”

This is not to speak of Israel’s failure to get behind the Armenian cause. If this Mideast “democracy” cannot see the connection between Hitler and the 1915 massacres, then who can? Of course, the failure to make such a connection might have more to do with the kind of power politics decried by the film than anything else. Since Turkey is the only country in the region that recognizes Israel, it has offered a quid pro quo by refusing to characterize the 1915 events as genocide.

When Galbraith turns his attention to Iraq, the disjunction between professed ideals and sordid reality is even more extreme. In recounting the deals made between the first Bush presidency and Saddam Hussein at the expense of Kurdish rights, Galbraith rues the way in which power politics once again interfered with acting against genocide. If only the Bush administration had listened to him and enacted sanctions against Iraq, then the Kurds would have been spared. One wonders if Galbraith had ever learned of the death of a half-million children as a consequence of such sanctions when they were finally imposed.

Samantha Powers runs Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where Michael Ignatieff, a fervent backer of the war in Iraq, could be found as well until he moved to Canada to jumpstart a political career. According to the press notes, Powers’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” demonstrates how “all the subsequent genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries date back to our simple inability to admit what the Turks did to the Armenians.”


Samantha Powers

In an article dealing with the prowar left, Edward Herman calls attention to all the massacres that Powers leaves out her book: Vietnam, Indonesia 1965-1966 when a half-million citizens were killed by the US-backed military, the slaughter of Guatemalan Indians backed by the U.S.-backed dictator, etc.

Powers gets particularly worked up over the genocide against the Tutsis and the one allegedly being organized in Darfur (other more neutral observers hesitate to use the word in the latter case), the only solution to which is armed intervention. In her lengthy Atlantic Monthly, September 2001 article titled “Bystanders to Genocide“, there is not a single word that addresses the underlying cause of the killings that are universally described as genocidal. “Screamers” includes grizzly footage of severed heads in Rwanda, but in keeping with Powers’s approach does not say a word about what led to the mass killing.

But From 1973 to about 1990 Rwanda was relatively peaceful. This had little to do with the Rwandan people remembering what happened to Armenians 1915 and much to do with the generally stable price of coffee and tin.

The same thing is true of Nazi Germany. Without hyperinflation and mass employment, you don’t get Hitler. And without the IMF-induced collapse of the Yugoslav economy, you don’t get the civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

From her Olympian redoubt at Harvard, it is all so easy for Samantha Powers to moralize about man’s inhumanity to man. She would be better advised to dig into the economic history that accompanies mass murder since this is the key to avoiding it in the future.

Speaking of the Ivory Tower, one should never forget that institutions like Harvard University were not exactly on the front lines when it came to confronting Nazism in the 1930s. In an article by Rafael Medoff of the The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies that appeared in the October 26 Columbia Spectator, we learn:

Harvard, for example, hosted Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., Hans Luther, in 1934. Harvard President James Conant gave a red-carpet welcome to Hitler’s foreign press chief, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstangl, when he visited the campus that year (for his 25th class reunion). The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, even urged that Hanfstangl be given an honorary degree “as a mark of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country.” The university also hosted a visit by Germany’s Boston consul-general, Baron Kurt von Tippelskirch. He took part in a ceremony honoring Harvard graduates who had died while fighting in the German army in World War I, and laid a wreath featuring the infamous Nazi swastika.

My own employer’s actions with respect to the Nazis were equally troubling.

At the invitation of the Columbia University administration, Nazi ambassador Hans Luther spoke on campus in December 1933. Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler also hosted a reception for him. When students protested, Butler insisted that Luther represented “the government of a friendly people” and therefore was “entitled to be received … with the greatest courtesy and respect.” Ambassador Luther’s speech focused on what he characterized as Hitler’s “peaceful intentions.”

Columbia also insisted on maintaining friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities.

Somehow I doubt that Harvard or Columbia will ever have to make amends for such behavior since institutions such as these are much better at telling the rest of the world how it should live than setting an example themselves.


  1. My own review of A Problem From Hell, which notes some of the problems you mention.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — November 10, 2006 @ 10:38 am

  2. Aptly written! Though am a big fan of System Of a Down!

    Comment by clash — November 10, 2006 @ 12:30 pm

  3. The Unrepentent Marxist’s strength, or weakness, is that he usually points out root causes. But in the case of Orhan Pamuk he remains as superficial as any official wire service. Pamuk is the Turk who was brought to court at home for a couple of sentences uttered to a Swiss journalist. Period. That’s little more than celebrity chat. Serious talk about a writer can only be about his books.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 10, 2006 @ 4:15 pm

  4. To be radical means to get to the root of things. Pamuk and his nobel are not phenomena in themselves they to have a root cause.

    Comment by canadianobserver — November 11, 2006 @ 10:07 am

  5. Thanks. Now I’ve got the gen. The books a man writes to make personal sense out of the world around him are mere epiphenomena. Why wrestle with them? Any tenured revolutionary, who hasn’t read them either, will give you the historical reason why the books can’t be any good: They’re not easy to put to work furthering his particular simplistic daydream.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 11, 2006 @ 11:47 am

  6. Was the review about why Pamuk was not worth reading or about the context in which the prize was given? Everyone knows the Nobels are given out with a heavy dose of consensus building in mind, no? To be sure your talents as a writer must be good but that is surely not the only criteria. I take it that you think his books are nonetheless worth reading. So just say that and drop the either or bullshit.

    Or are you trying to naturalize and thereby de-politicize genius? Talk about simplistic daydreams!

    Comment by canadianobserver — November 11, 2006 @ 10:55 pm

  7. I note from your vocabulary that, despite “phenomena” and “naturalize”, you are a down-to-earth and direct person. So listen. You can teach your parrot to say Orhan Pamuk and Nobel Prize. But you can’t then go to your parrot to learn about Orhan Pamuk.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 12, 2006 @ 7:21 am

  8. As you have it, only his writing matters why would I ask my parrot about Pamuk?

    Comment by canadianobserver — November 19, 2006 @ 7:04 am

  9. The address of the nearest bookshop where you could find Pamuk’s books. You could then read them and be in a position to talk about the author.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 19, 2006 @ 10:02 am

  10. Why would we want to talk about the author? Is it not his work that matters?

    Comment by canadianobserver — November 19, 2006 @ 9:41 pm

  11. We shouldn’t talk about the author apart from his books. That’s what the Unrepentent Marxist did in his celebrity sighting starting this exchange that has now come full circle and can be ended. You might use the time saved to catch up on your reading.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 20, 2006 @ 10:38 am

  12. I think you need remedial instruction on reading for plot and narrative in expository essays. I am sure they have good adult education where you live. Alternatively, if formal structured education is not your thing perhaps a local bookstore has a less informal reading group you could join.

    Comment by canadianobserver — November 20, 2006 @ 7:45 pm

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