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You had to be there

On a recent trip to Armenia, I hear a lot about the 1915 Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. As a friend tells me, there is not a single Armenian family that does not have some personal history of the genocide, ancestors slaughtered, survivors emigrating to various countries. For years, I’ve been appalled both by this terrible episode and by the attitude of Turkey. Not only have successive Turkish governments refused to recognize the reality of this crime but they are furious at European countries calling the 1915 massacres a genocide. They cannot stand the word and have made it a crime for their own citizens to use it when talking about this dark page in their country’s history (even briefly throwing in jail their own Nobel Prize winner for literature, Orhan Pamuk).

I watched a debate on You Tube, with two Turks who called themselves “historians” and two American-Armenians. The Turks, arrogant and dismissive, squabbled over any assertion made by the other side, with arguments such as, “Arnold Toynbee wrote about the supposed genocide but was he there himself? No.” Or, “The New York Times made this so-called genocide front-page news, and if the NY Times does that, it becomes true, doesn’t it, even if nobody was there to witness it?” And so on. The idea apparently  being that if you haven’t seen something with your own eyes, you can’t talk or write about it, which is as stupid a point I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard many. Leaving aside the fact that there were any number of firsthand accounts about the Armenian massacres, what kind of reasoning is that?

It reminded me of a dinner party where I turned to someone and mentioned the Errol Morris documentary on McNamara, saying that I’d felt very ignorant when hearing for the first time of the fire-bombing of Japanese cities during WW II. “Did you know about this?” I asked one guest. Irate, the man spat out that of course he didn’t know as he was hardly born at the time. My mouth must have dropped open. Here is the counter argument I could have used and didn’t— regretting the fact to this day: “What you are saying, my friend, is that you only know what you have personally seen and surely this is true of everyone.”

History goes out the window, then, for how could Herodotus write about the Persian empire or Michelet about the French Revolution or Will and Ariel Durant produce their eleven-volume Story of Civilization?  And as no one today can claim to have seen dinosaurs, pterodactyls or pithecantropus erectus, prehistory never happened (which should keep creationists happy). Nor is astronomy at all scientific. From Plato to Stephen Hawking, it’s nothing but assumptions and guesswork as they never traveled through constellations or touched another star. Then, take geography. Never mind that Ptolemy or the early cartographers had a fairly precise image of the world despite limited or nonexistent travel; geographers had never seen any of the lands they described, so nothing outside their village could possibly exist.

And what happens to totally abstract concepts? Has anyone been inside the atom, fractals, prime numbers? The genocide deniers, like the Holocaust deniers, like the evolution deniers, anyone at all who says something doesn’t exist as long as they don’t see it with their own eyes, may be disciples of Berkeley who thought long and hard about the reality of things as opposed to our perception of their reality.

Still, the next time an idiot—disciple of Berkeley or not—comes up with the statement that something doesn’t exist because he/she hasn’t seen it, I hope I’m brave enough to say out loud that ignorance is no sin but being proud of it certainly is. Yes, I’m talking about you, my friend. And that also goes for the pretended ignorance of the Turks.

  1. spencer mckellip
    September 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    I like this blog as it presents an intelligent but at the same time common sense point of view that we don’t see too often nowadays.


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