And why on earth should these public bodies lecture historians as to what they should be saying? ~Norman Stone
This is a standard line that I have heard a lot of these past few days. Never have you encountered so many new passionate defenders of the independence of professional historians as in the last couple of weeks–the concern is truly touching. Very clearly, Stone has never read the text of the resolution in question, or he would know that it has absolutely nothing to do with lecturing historians.
The invocation of what we magical historians do bothers me most when someone talks about a matter “best left to historians” as another way of saying, “Let’s please stop talking about this subject publicly and leave it to those ghastly academics to worry about.” Huckabee has done it before when it comes to debating the merits of the beginnings of the Iraq war (”it’s a question for historians to decide”), and it has now become the favourite refrain of the denialist. Naturally, the denialist is not interested in proper historical research, nor does he care about interference with that research by “public bodies.” The denialist complains about “political” interference with research when official bodies recognise the blatantly obvious, but will just as readily denounce as hopelessly biased any research that comes to conclusions that he dislikes.
No one says that governments are “lecturing” historians when they commemorate the Holocaust or V-E Day or the Armistice or any other major historical event. Governments commemorate things all the time, lending a certain sanction or authority to this or that reading of history. As the Turkish government has shown, governments can use this power for distorting and corrupt ends. That does not mean that we cease all commemorations and public acknowledgements of the past, but that we strive to be scrupulous in how we remember the past. Certainly governments should not interfere with academics or dictate to them what they ought to say–that is fundamental. That’s yet another reason to draw attention to the offically sanctioned denialism of the Republic of Turkey. It is rather amazing to me how so many Westerners became so exercised over the threatened free speech rights of the people at Jyllands-Posten, but have suddenly lost all interest in free speech when it comes to Turkish academics and writers. Many Westerners were put off by the idea that Muslims should apply the standards of their religion to everyone else and demand that others abide by those standards, but when it comes to abiding by the revisionist propaganda coming from Ankara they are more sanguine.
It is not the government’s official approval or recognition, to address a concern my colleague James has raised, that adds any truth or significance to the event, and the historical reality would be the same whether or not it was ever officially acknowledged. The genocide happened, whether or not Ankara and its small army of American and other lackeys will ever accept that reality. But what we choose to commemorate and acknowledge does reflect on the kind of government one has and the kind of historical memory the citizens of a country have. Refusal to commemorate and use the proper names for things also reflects on us.
To cast the current (almost certainly now dead) resolution as a lecture to historians, as Stone does, is especially galling, since the main (indeed technically the only) intended audience of the resolution is the President, who is as much of an historian as I am a jet pilot. The resolution is entitled: “Calling upon the President to ensure the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian genocide and for other purposes.”
Were the resolution to pass, not one historian would be obliged to do anything. No historians will have been lectured by a public body. Most historians of the subject, who already acknowledge the genocide, will be unfazed by the terrible burden of a non-binding resolution. The only historians who would be troubled are those who have, for whatever reason, chosen to deny the genocidal nature of the events. In any case, they have not yet been persuaded by evidence or conscience to recognise and speak the truth–a vote by the House of Representatives will not weigh heavily on them, either.
Stone invokes Lewy, whose arguments are pretty effectively undermined here, while ignoring the work that directly contradicts that of Lewy. The Inside Higher Ed refers to a future Akcam work that will reportedly make the case even more clear. From the article:
To those like Lewy who have written books saying that there is no evidence, “I laugh at them,” Akçam said, because the documents he has already released rebut them, and the new book will do so even more. “There is no scholarly debate on this topic,” he said.