History 101: Everyone’s a Poor Loser

My mother used the phrase “starving Armenians” as an all-purpose signifier of people who were miserable and suffering. She was born in 1915, the year of the first major-league genocide of the 20th Century and had clearly imbibed the phrase as a very young girl when relief efforts following World War I tried to address the plight of the surviving Armenians.

A long historical article, “A Century of Silence,” by Raffi Khatchadourian (New Yorker, Jan. 5), focuses on his family’s experience but widens the lens to discuss the origins of the crime and the persistent denial by the Turks that it ever happened. They were helped to muddy the waters by the fact that they used Kurdish bullyboys as the tools to execute the slaughter.

Khatchadourian quotes an Armenian priest at the time telling Kurds that just as sure as the Turks were eating the Armenians for breakfast they would eat their Kurdish stooges for lunch. And that’s exactly what happened. Once ethnic cleansing begins, it is not easy to draw a line indicating where to stop, particularly in regions where various ethnicities and religions have lived side by side and intermingled for centuries. Soon no one is pure enough to survive.

The source of the genocide, as is so often the case, was not strength but weakness. By the time of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire had long been falling to pieces from a glorious and arrogant height and had come to be derided as the sick man of Europe. Such a decline is never easy to take. It’s degrading, humiliating, shaming and produces anger and a search for someone to blame other than oneself. Scapegoats are rarely hard to find.

After the Civil War, the American South took out its frustration on the freed slaves – meet the new victim, same as the old victim – but also on Yankee carpetbaggers and outsiders of any sort. It became more insular, resistant to change and committed to a revisionist history that denied the truth about slavery, the origins of the war and the causes of the defeat. One hundred fifty years later, remnants of these attitudes still stunt and distort perceptions in the region.

Khatchadourian quotes another fellow who found himself and his people on the losing side of large historical forces, “broken, defenseless, exposed to the kicks of all the world.” That’s Hitler, embodying Germany’s mindset after World War I. He persuaded his countrymen to kick back. We all know how that turned out.

Much of the chaos, violence and craziness in the Muslim world seems to stem from a similar feeling of a lost golden age, an unjust decline from great heights and a feeling of having been left behind by history. The famous historian of Islamic history, Bernard Lewis, titled his book on the messy result, “What Went Wrong.?”

As usual the response to these feelings of failure has been to look around for others to blame—Jews, infidels, the decadent West, modernity. And the winners of the historical lottery often make themselves easy to villainize either by flaunting their wealth and power and throwing their weight around or by patronizing the others as childlike, feeble and in need of tutelage.

It is probably wise to keep this in mind if you’re riding high, but how you behave with magnanimity and humility while still deploring and opposing cruelty, folly, and lashing out is not easy to figure out. Clinical psychologists would probably be better at it than statesmen.

Vladimir Putin reminds many of Hitler and for good reason. He clearly feels Russia is on the losing end of history, once great, now diminished and exposed to the kicks of all the world. And, of course, no thought of how Russia might have contributed to its own sorrows is permitted. The fault isn’t in 300 years of turning away from historical trends, of entrusting incompetent despots, Imperial and communist, with power.

No, the blame must be assigned to enemies within, turncoats, or to outsiders, the other – capitalists, Jews again, ethnic minorities. Them, not us. North Korea, same story. If it wasn’t for her plotting enemies, she would bestride the earth like a colossus.

The question for us is how to deal with these festering, dispirited, furious places? Punishing them with sanctions that wreck their economies merely entrenches the despots and alienates the people, reinforcing the victimization narrative. Making nice and trying to export what we hold dear – free markets, self-determination, equality under the law – only appears to be an attempt to act superior or to engage in cultural colonization.

It’s no surprise the world’s a mess, but it would be sensible of us to keep in mind how our good intentions look to bad actors and to realize that their burning sense of having been unfairly dissed by historical forces beyond their control is what makes them so pathological. Expecting people to be good sports about being on the losing side of history is absurd. And when our turn comes, we are likely to be really bad sports.

In fact, we have been — repeatedly. In every economic downturn, we demonize immigrants that we earlier welcomed, welfare queens and the hated minority of the moment. When geopolitics doesn’t go our way we respond with attacks on the enemy within, red scares, fellow traveler pogroms, blacklists, McCarthyism, jingoism. We blame pointy-headed intellectuals, eggheads, peaceniks, dirty hippies.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was blazoned with the advice” “Know thyself.” It isn’t easy, but the alternative is pretty ugly. The fault is usually with ourselves not our stars, but blaming the stars is easier and feels better.

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