It is said that the history of war is written by the victor. But history written by governments, or by pressure groups, is notoriously unreliable. This is where scholars come in handy.
It was with this in mind – not to mention that I’m currently litigating a case involving the censorship, from Massachusetts state curricular materials, of any dissident views on whether the Ottoman Turks committed a Genocide on their Armenian population during and after World War One – that I attended a lecture at Harvard on March 13th by Guenter Lewy, professor emeritus of political science at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He lectured to a standing-room-only audience at the John F. Kennedy School, making a plea for the warring political camps – those insisting that the world accept the “genocide” label for the tragic deaths suffered by the Armenian population in that conflict, and those insisting that the tragedy did not rise to the level of genocide as international law defines the term – to allow scholars, rather than politicians and pressure groups, to resolve the dispute.
In a world where, it seems, fundamentalism of all sorts has taken over, and where various fanatical political, religious, and ideological groups are all convinced that theirs is the only acceptable point of view (“denial of the Armenian Genocide” is being made a crime in various countries in Europe, advocating the position that it was a genocide can land one in the criminal dock in Turkey for the crime of “insulting Turkishness,” and in this country, Armenian-Americans are pressuring Congress to adopt their position, while those of Turkish ancestry want Congress to keep its nose out of it – as if the Congress is qualified to make such a judgment one way or the other.), Prof. Lewy’s plea seemed as quaint as it was urgent. The author of the recently published scholarly examination, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide Prof. Lewy must have expected that he would be free, in giving a lecture at Harvard, from the warring ideological camps where the sides appear intent on resolving the question by political and power plays as well as by intimidation. Instead, Prof. Lewy was continually harangued by members of the audience more concerned with thrashing the guest lecturer than asking a legitimate question.
The Q&A at Harvard likely would have unnerved a less confident scholar than Prof. Lewy. Many of the audience’s “questions” accused him of aiding and abetting genocide by refusing to accept the label preferred by certain pressures groups and governments. As audience members arose to tell how their relatives were murdered by the Ottoman Turks, Prof. Lewy calmly asserted that many died on both sides but that the “genocide” label must be the result of scholarly research, not pressure groups. Harvard must have had other experiences with this hot-button emotional topic, since a uniformed Harvard University Police officer stood at all times just a few feet from the lecturer, with a pistol visibly strapped into its holster. If governments should not write history, neither should mobs, I suppose. The “free marketplace of ideas” so often spoken of in free speech and academic freedom court opinions needs to be taken more seriously in some quarters.