April 25, 2015: The Morning After

By Karnig Kerkonian

(This article first appeared in the Association’s Newsletter, Winter 2015, Volume 26, Number 1)

Law is the business of social ordering. So it is particularly fitting, on the eve of the Genocide Centennial, for Armenian lawyers to give some thought as to the state of our present social order. This is a complicated undertaking for a number of reasons, as such consideration necessarily touches on our history, on our politics, on our pride and, of course, on our very insecurities as a people. But it is further complicated by something monumentally deeper—something not necessarily easily articulable: the inescapable reality that our nation’s historic disenfranchisement has left none of us untouched, has left none of us unscathed and has left none of us able to deny that the very blood flowing through our veins today, which we pass to our children and theirs, stained desert sand just a century ago for no justifiable reason. For lawyers trained to value reason over emotion, the challenge is clear.

The Genocide was a national trauma of unspeakable proportion; and our nation today still lives in a post-traumatic period. We cannot underestimate the impact on the psychology of our identity; on our own self-perception of who we are. We cannot pretend that the last century’s discourse of disenfranchisement has not utterly consumed, and perhaps even confused, our view of our own identity today. It is axiomatic that we are more than the Genocide— but trauma skews perspective, it blurs the horizon and it renders the future a mirage. You see, this is the purpose of Genocide itself—to erase the people, to erase the nation in the minds of the people who remain, and to erase everything else from the identity of the rest of us. It is a disgusting truth; but it is precisely what Genocide is.

Look around. Today, the Genocide may be our single most commonly shared trait of group identity, particularly outside of Armenia. Even a quick survey of those who we consider, or would consider themselves, Armenians quickly demonstrates that it is entirely possible that neither language, location, vocation, cuisine, culture, religion, nor even genetics links one Armenian to another to the extent the Genocide does. This should disturb us. It should frighten us that we are left holding more hands in our trauma than in our dances, left sharing more pride in our protests than in our literature and left embracing one another more in commemoration than in celebration. We are not historic artifacts; we are a living nation, surely with stories yet to tell and epics yet to write.

It is time to hand the evidence over to our lawyers and let them prosecute the crimes of inhumanity perpetrated on our people. And it is time for the rest of us to begin rebuilding our national consciousness, rediscovering our national identity and re-entrenching the value of that identity in our children, wherever on this earth they may sleep. It is time for us to champion our progress, not our perseverance. We must awake on April 25, 2015 with a national consciousness that rises above the Genocide, that embraces Armenians living in a Republic and an ever-growing Diaspora and that insists that we as Armenians forevermore define our identity by what we have done rather than what has been done to us.

The Republic of Armenia, in and of itself, is not the solution to defining a comprehensive national consciousness. Our nation is larger than the Republic of Armenia—we have to accept this and assume the responsibility it imposes. Of course, the Republic is of vital importance to us as Armenians, an integral element of the survival of the Armenian people, and we must do everything we can to support its development and ensure its stability. However, the Republic is neither the Armenian nation nor its savior.

I say this not to belittle the importance of an independent state, but we cannot pretend that its emergence was something different than it was. The Republic was not born as our Israel. The independence of the Republic of Armenia, as was the fall of the Soviet Union more generally, was an event which few—including the leading Western Soviet scholars at the time— came even close to predicting. The Republic was not the result of a national intellectual movement to save the Armenian nation and it was not the great white horse for ending the indignities against the Armenian people. Israel, on the other hand, was both for the Jews.

A cursory review of Theodore Herzl’s late-nineteenth century work, Judenstaat, immediately introduces the reader to a national agenda, a national plan to create a nation-state for Jews in either Palestine or Argentina for the purpose of saving the Jews from widespread and incessant persecution, particularly in Europe. Herzl’s intellectual seed sprouted nationalist sentiment among Jewish intellectuals throughout Europe and awakened a national consciousness that fueled an emerging Zionist platform. The lectures given at the various Jewish World Congresses, particularly the First Zionist Congress in 1897, only buttressed the intellectual foundation upon which the concept of a Jewish state was rooted. When the State of Israel emerged in 1948, thousands of Jews waiting aboard massive ships in coastal Mediterranean waters arrived on the new land fulfilling a political and intellectual agenda nearly a century in the making.

This type of nationalistic foundation is absent from the independence of the Republic of Armenia. The Republic gained its independence as a result of a political and economic implosion of the Soviet Union with which the rest of the Armenian nation, institutionally and particularly in the Diaspora, played at best a nominal role. As much as the demonstrations in Yerevan for unification of Karabagh with Armenia contributed to the world’s visual of the great Soviet collapse unfolding, it would not be accurate to claim that these demonstrations substantively caused the downfall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia. The refusal to see the Republic in this context is escapist rhetoric that has led the Diaspora into a near complete abandonment of any vital Armenian issue outside of the Republic and beyond the Genocide.

We must be fair to ourselves. We must place our Republic in its fair context. We cannot coax ourselves into complacency believing that the work of building a national consciousness— one that exists beyond the Genocide and beyond the Republic—is something that the Republic will do for us. Did we really need to wait for the tragic suffering of the Armenians of Aleppo, the gutting of our historic presence in Kessab and the emptying of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem to realize that Yerevan is not our only home and that the Genocide, not our only travesty? We know better; but, the truth is, shaping a national consciousness that unifies us is not only physically, but intellectually, laboring work.

National identity is a product. It is the result of certain things that are, that occur and, sometimes, that people simply want. There are cultural factors, of course: language, art, music and others. And then there are the formative historical events: wars, calamities and prominent figures, for example. But sometimes, there is a third element— forces of engineering, of structuring and of teleology—moving with a predetermined resolve to shape a national identity.

Modernist scholar of nations and nationalism, Benedict Anderson, spoke of the nation as something “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” He attributed national consciousness to, among other things, advances in communications which targeted people and martialed their interests toward a desired end. This analysis sees national consciousness as a product of a discourse that reaches, teaches and propels a people who may never meet one another toward a shared goal. National identity is not the simple byproduct of shared territory, it can be shaped through discourse and a unifying objective— particularly in this era where technological advances in communication have contributed to revolutions.

Understanding national consciousness in this context is important to us as Armenians. We have had the fortune of strong cultural forms and defining historical moments; yet the discourse of our national consciousness has not been comprehensive, progressive or teleological. In the Diaspora, it has been largely a singularly focused, retributive political agenda; in the Republic it has been a survivalist, economic one—both for good reason and both of necessity. But neither discourse has sufficiently espoused a whole of which it is only a part; neither has seriously defined the Armenian nation as existing beyond its own understanding. Without a national consciousness that rises above the passions de jure, we risk the unsharing of our national values, as what is valuable to one Armenian begins to be weighed differently by other Armenians and, ultimately, national identity diverges. This is not theory: it is happening today as Armenians weigh the role of the Genocide and the Republic in their own lives— and the conversations voice a divergence which decades ago would have been unspeakable.

Of course, to us as Americans, we think of this divergence as simply diversity within a national identity. But, you see, the American experience allows us to see divergence as diversity because the American identity is particularly defined to champion precisely this—whether in the 14th Amendment, high school textbooks teaching the civil rights movement, the very concept of the “melting pot” or, for that matter, the belief that everyone should share in the American Dream. Whether the dream has been achieved, of course, is the very beauty of the American experiment: that no matter where we are on the path, we know in principle the goals to which we are aspiring as a society. This is the benefit of a structured national identity, one reinforced through institutions and, in the American example, based on principles, the rule of law and certain concepts of social justice and equality.

The problem we face as Armenians is that divergence without structure is not diversity within the nation—it’s just plain divergence. It is separation, a parting of ways. It was easy to rally national consciousness by chanting “tebi yergir” when the idea of an actual Armenia was a pipe dream. It was easy to protest Genocide in those years when we were unschooled in international law and the law of reparations. And all of this was so massively important: we survived, we did so much to hold on to one another. But the greatest challenges to our survival as a nation may still lie ahead; dare I say that the “simpler” days are over. The challenge of defining a national consciousness that will shape, and with which we will survive, our next century together will be a sophisticated, tough and extraordinary undertaking.

With the Republic a reality, the Genocide Centennial upon us and a people strewn all over the globe, it is time for Armenian lawyers to think earnestly about our present social order and how we must structure, perhaps even govern, our nation in the years to come. We are at the threshold of something immensely precarious, yet unavoidable: to define who and what the Armenian nation is and who and what the Armenian nation will be. There is, I guess, an eerie simplicity to the whole thing: what will it mean to be an Armenian? But, mind you, it will not be a judge who will ask you the question…it will be your ten year old.

Karnig Kerkonian, of Chicago, Illinois, is a distinguished graduate magna cum laude of Harvard University who holds two law degrees—a Doctorate in Law from the University of Chicago and a post-doctoral Diploma in International Law from Cambridge University, England. Since 1999, Karnig has represented numerous U.S. companies and multinational entities in transactional matters as well as complex business litigation matters. He is well recognized for his work in international law, both public and private, and has been tapped as specialized counsel in cross-border matters as well as a leading speaker before law associations on various international legal issues.

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