“Feeling” History: The Challenge of Finding Myself in the Bigger Picture

It’s recently dawned upon me that I have trouble connecting to the past, to history. I can’t see myself as part of that larger story, as just a momentary phase amidst a much longer continuity of time.

I feel like World War II was fought amongst the belligerents of Earth-1, and I occupy Earth-2, observing from a safe distance. The fact that GI’s came back to a newly-built suburbia in the Valley where I was born and raised isn’t something I really feel. I know it, but I can’t feel it.

In trying to transcend this disconnect, I’ve found some solace in nearby “relics.” A short hike from my house is a decommissioned Cold War era observation tower that was once part of the U.S. Army’s Project Nike anti-aircraft missile defense system. It’s a real, tangible place I can actually visit and experience in much the same way it was 60 years ago. If you live in a dense coastal area of California, you can visit one too.

The Nike site is among just a handful of things that help me contextualize my lifetime within the greater historical timeline, and it’s still imperfect at best.

My Armenian ancestry is another rare history-linking component of my psychology. The Armenian Genocide of 1915 set about a series of events that led my grandparents to move around the Middle East until finally the family relocated to the U.S., where I was eventually born. In other words, I am only here in the U.S. because of these massive historical upheavals (and I’m still leaving out a lot of details, like the Egyptian nationalization of transportation contracts in the 60s–long story). Understanding this does provide some context and continuity.

But having been raised in the Armenian community, these facts have been repeatedly pounded into my head. I’m not sure if they’d still have the same sort of lucidity had I not been part of the community. For example, does the average white American feel connected to the larger human story by focusing on Jamestown?

Thinking about this a little deeper, this historical disconnect may be a psychological defense mechanism designed to shield our psyches from literally “feeling” or carrying the weight of such long stretches of time. In each of our own lifetimes, the human mind has a remarkable capacity to forget certain things purposefully. Perhaps the same concept applies across generations of humans?

Armenia Foreign Policy Thought Experiment Pt. 2: California and the Claim to Historic Lands

On this day in 1848, Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially ceding present-day California (and many other Western states) to the United States. Exactly seventy-one years later, in 1919, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the Turkish National Movement that stopped the Allied Powers from partitioning the Ottoman Empire after World War I (the day that Armenia effectively lost all claims to its historical Western provinces).

That these two moments are coincident is a historical irony, for there is a great parallel in the narrative of California and that of Armenia.

As a Californian who’s cognizant of his own state’s history, I can truly understand the sentiment of Turks living in “Eastern Turkey.” One would assume that living in either of these regions implies a sort of burden or guilt of living in someone else’s dispossessed homeland, but that is entirely untrue and unrealistic.

My own personal experience as a Californian sheds light on how Turks living in “Eastern Turkey” do not care for the fact that it used to be Western Armenia. However, a deeper examination of the history of my U.S. state and the region I call home is a useful tool in predicting and carving out an international diplomatic settlement between two clashing nations, one I hope many of my fellow Californian-Armenians can believe in.

A proud Californian, I’ve always accepted my state land to be part of the United States, but that wasn’t always so. Sure, we Americans have been settled here for a long time (over a century and a half), and we view this place as distinctly “ours.” However, just because we’ve been here so long and it feels like it’s ours, doesn’t really objectively make it ours, even though it legally is ours.

Whose land did this used to be? Indeed, the indigenous peoples of North America, the Native Americans, were the first human beings to call this land home. These peoples’ lands were then conquered by the Mexicans, who were themselves a hybrid of Native Central Americans and European Spaniards. They replaced the indigenous Native Americans of California, and became known as the “Californios.” Fifty years later, on this day in 1848, the United States, the country on the eastern part of the continent, in turn came to displace them.

What happened to the “original” indigenous peoples? Were they afforded anything for repeated displacement? Were they assisted in any meaningful way? Nearly a century after the U.S. established total dominion over California, some paltry land was ceded to these peoples, in addition to legal and civil rights initiatives to “even the score a bit.” These achievements, particularly the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968,  absolutely pale in comparison to the fact that we own all the land, and we, as “Americans,” do what we please with it.

Now let us think about the Armenian claim to Western Armenian lands. In four years, by 2015, they will have been in Turkish hands for over a century. The people who inhabit those lands, “Eastern Turks,” genuinely feel that it’s theirs, just like Californians feel that Los Angeles or San Francisco are truly and utterly theirs. Turks living in Van or Erzurum would surely think:

“Who the hell are these Armenians? We don’t know, we don’t remember, and we don’t care. This is our land.”

This isn’t too dissimilar to a present-day Californian saying:

“Some Native American wants to live in my house? Wants to cultivate and productively use my landWho do these people think they are?

Since such a direct “international score-settlement” would be ludicrous after the U.S. has productively used the land of California for over a hundred and fifty years, legal and civic initiatives are invoked to provide redress to displaced peoples.

Realistically, this should be the path both sides seek in reconciliation. Although the U.S. example was not exactly the most equitable one, it is a framework that reasonable people can agree to for policy decisions. These efforts should therefore include:

  • the transfer of some lands, most likely lands that are barren and deserted, with minimal productive use and virtually no human habitation (such as the Indian Reservations of the U.S.)
  • a few legal, civic, and political concessions within Turkey
  • the full opening of borders and resumption of trade and economic activities

This would not mean a wholesale return of Western Armenian lands to Armenians nor an immediate end to a long history of discrimination and violence towards ethnic Armenians living in Turkey. But this would certainly be a slow start to normalization among peoples in a civilized and diplomatic manner that can set the tone for future generations to respect and build upon. As a Californian-Armenian raised under my state’s civic heritage, I could only hope so.

Armenia Foreign Policy Thought Experiment: Energy Exports

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Armenia became fully economically self-sufficient. We somehow managed to:

  • build a state-of-the-art nuclear reactor (with extremely high output and similar level of safety/security)
  • become a net-energy exporter
  • reinvest all energy export profits into service industries (independent of natural resources, or lack thereof)
  • witness a blossoming of sectors like finance, information technology, legal, etc…
  • progressively enhance our education system to train this new economy’s future leaders

In a word: we’d give our social capital steroids with these profits, all without relying on border expansion, delicate international diplomacy, and intermittent peace attempts with our neighbors.

The question then becomes: would we still want our western Armenian lands back? Under what auspices? For what reason other than, “They were unjustly stolen? Would those justifications still hold any weight?

I understand I’m playing devil’s advocate here in a sense. Developing our economy should lie independent of correcting past international crimes. This we can all agree on.

But in thinking about the opportunity cost of the time and resources both the country and the diaspora spend on “retribution,” maybe we could redirect these efforts to something with a little higher payoff? Maybe something that could yield “retribution” in the long-term. The problem is one of convincing millions of people that the short-term should be de-prioritized in lieu of the long-term view.

As most political economy literature teaches us, this rarely ever happens. But I’m still going to think about this nuclear reactor!