When the United States House of Representatives voted to recognize the Armenian Genocide on Oct. 29, they most certainly did not intend it as a radical historiographical statement. And yet the timing of their decision unintentionally echoed one of the more provocative history-related projects in the United States recently. In August, the New York Times Magazine published a special issue called “The 1619 Project” which sought to publicize a growing body of scholarship reframing American history around the country's original sin. As the magazine explained:
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
Where nationalistic history consistently downplays the scope and impact of countries' historic crimes, the countervailing impulse driving progressive history is to foreground their centrality. With slavery, the 1619 Project takes this impulse to its natural endpoint. In this telling, slavery was not simply a crime which compromised the idealism of America’s founding. It was the foundational event itself.
In line with this impulse, articles in the 1619 Project explained how slavery shaped diverse aspects of American politics and culture, most obviously in terms of race relations, but also the country’s brutal form of capitalism, dysfunctional highway system and dangerously high diabetes rate. Where most readers were presumably already well aware of the horrific consequences of slavery for the enslaved, the 1619 Project also attempted to show how expansive and damaging the consequences remain for Americans of all races today.
Indeed, recent Turkish scholarship on the Armenian genocide has been driven by a similar impulse. For example, the very title of Uğur Ümit Üngör’s masterful The Making of Modern Turkey (accompanied by a cover photo of a ruined Armenian church) suggests a parallel re-centering of Turkish history around violence and displacement. Liberal commentators have also sought to highlight the contemporary political consequences of the genocide, drawing a causal link to Turkey’s enduring Kurdish conflict and to the struggles of Turkish democracy.
And yet in discussing the legacies of historical crimes, both in Turkey and America, it sometimes seems as if our desire for a certain kind of morally satisfying narrative has blinded us to other, potentially more troubling, historical outcomes. That is to say, many people appear deeply committed to the idea that for nations, like people, crime doesn’t pay. With a faith that can feel more theological than historiographical, we want to believe that the perpetrators of historical sins ultimately suffer some sort of political punishment, especially when they refuse to acknowledge them or repent. The alternative – that countries founded on slavery and genocide might actually end up not just stronger and richer but more stable and democratic as a result – feels like a perverse affront to our sense of justice.
This search for some sort of moral reckoning is compelling. But it can also lead to forced arguments and its own moral missteps. There is something strange about seeing historians try to deny the concrete benefits of violent and exploitative policies that were carried out specifically to benefit their perpetrators.
Take the case of the U.S. Highway System. One historian in the 1619 Project points out how racism at times led highway planners to choose less direct routes, creating added congestion on American roads today. But at the same time, the piece acknowledges that highway planners also routinely bulldozed Black neighborhoods when they stood in the way of new highways. Left unstated is the fact that the racist political system which enabled this form of dispossession undoubtedly made for a faster, straighter, shorter road network. Without racism, in other words, commutes might be even longer.
A more dramatic example comes in how the 1619 Project treats the relationship between slavery and modern capitalism. Lenin famously argued that the exploitation of non-white workers in European colonies spared European workers from the full brutality of capitalism. Building on recent (and highly contested) historical research, the 1619 Project reverses the argument, suggesting, among other issues, that modern-day white collar workers continue to suffer from abusive management techniques perfected by slave drivers. Somehow the discussion of victimhood has shifted from people worked to death or forced from their homes to modern Americans stuck in traffic jams or unhappy at their jobs.
In Turkey’s case, arguments that make genocide an explanation for the country’s modern pathologies risk producing a similar inversion on an even broader scale. During the past century, Turkey has been, for all of its problems, more peaceful and more democratic than almost all of its neighbors in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Against this backdrop, foregrounding genocide as a defining aspect of the making of modern Turkey also raises the uncomfortable possibility that it did not actually have any negative consequences for anyone but the actual victims.