BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
On May 28th, Independence day (the OG one, of course, not the September 21 re-independence of 1991), I finished Houri Berberian’s latest book “Roving Revolutionaries” (well worth reading if you can make the time). Some of the issues she describes in the book that occupied our national leadership’s collective mind at the turn of the previous century are also timely today, and little discussed. Inspired by the day and the book, I thought a quick look at three concepts relevant to our new, Yerevan centered, state-building effort would be worthwhile.
Let’s first dispense with the negative one of the concepts, that which no one should want guiding or informing how our state institutions evolve and solidify, chauvinism. In English, this term is relatively little heard in recent times, and perhaps most often only in the phrase “male chauvinism”. Chauvinism is an attitude of superiority held by a person about the group s/he belongs to relative to some other group. Unfortunately, we see it among our compatriots more often than I care to admit. The sense that Armenians are better than (fill in a group) must go. It can only breed the same mentality in response, leading inevitably to conflict. It must be whittled out of our national consciousness. It should be enough that chauvinism is the same diseased mindset which led to the Young Turks organizing the Genocide. Happily, Paruyr Sevak’s oft-recited poem’s first, second, and final lines say it all and must serve as our beacon in this respect:
“Մենք քիչ ենք‚ սակայն մեզ հայ են ասում։
Մենք մեզ ո՛չ ոքից չենք գերադասում…
Կա՛նք: Պիտի լինե՛նք: Ու դեռ – շատանա՜նք:”
“We are few, but are called Armenians.
We don’t consider ourselves superior to anyone…
We exist. We shall continue. And we will grow.”
The next concept I want to address is nationalism. This one is fraught with negative connotations in today’s world, thanks to a number of historical and ideological phenomena. It is very unfortunate that such is the case. The Nazis and their Holocaust, the wars fought in Europe over the past two-three centuries, the ongoing conflicts in other parts of the world have led to a stigmatization of a very noble idea. Please see the accompanying table with definitions of the concept from the same dictionary’s editions of 1940, 1973, and currently online. Stunning, isn’t it how the term has gone from something describing a collective awareness or policy bent to something negative, to the point where the definition has effectively equated to chauvinism.
It gets worse. Have you heard “white nationalism” and “Islamic nationalism”? Ridiculous terms! Since when have “whites” constituted a “nation”? Armenians, Cherokees, French, Japanese, and Zulus are nations. But whites? Equally, since when has it been rational to equate adherents of a religion to a nation? Islam has its notion of a community, “umma”, not nation. It’s fashionable now to attach “nationalism” to any human grouping’s name when someone wants to vilify it. Enough! Remember, nationalism helped break up the chokehold of empires and grotesque emperors over human beings. Nationalism helped democracy take hold in many places. People, humans, have a basic need to belong. It’s one of the major avenues by which we manifest our caring for others. The most natural group to associate with once we get past family/clan is the nation. Sure, anything taken to an extreme is bad. But nationalism is not inherently bad, any more than faith/belief systems or commitment to some cause (environment, human freedoms, etc.). I urge all those who denigrate the is noble and natural sentiment to stop their misguided crusade. Nationalism is what will help us rebuild Armenian statehood.
Finally, socialism. This very word rankles and terrifies many people. It has been abused by those who allegedly implemented it. Think Soviet Union, which, when it became a dictatorship, by definition forever removed itself from the universe of socialism. Socialism cannot exist in the absence of democracy. Conversely, democracy cannot long endure in the absence of socialism. Democracy addresses people’s political liberation/freedom, while socialism sees to their economic and social liberation/freedom. The term socialism has equally been abused by those who feel threatened by its egalitarianism and the hope it inspires among the largest number of people who use its guiding precepts to struggle against the tyranny of big money, corporatism, or “the 1%” – a recently fashionable term. And, they have been quite successful after decades of propaganda. Socialism is a dirty word for many people.
Here’s the rub. Many of the societal, legal, benefits we enjoy are the product of socialist thought, advocacy, and struggle. Here are some examples, from the U.S. experience since that is the setting with which I am most familiar. The 8-hour-workday/40-hour-workweek, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, holidays, farmer support programs, universal public education, the right to unionize, and more. You probably can’t even imagine life where workers would not be allowed to take bathroom breaks, be locked inside factories, and even burn to death as happened to 146 people on March 25, 1911 in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City and a century later in the Tazreen textile factory (Dhaka, Bangladesh) on November 25, 2012. Even the environmental and consumer protections we take for granted in most western countries rise from the same ideological source. But if we continue on the route selected since the Reagan administration, all of the public goods we take for granted will be whittled away to nothing. That’s why some of these universally popular programs have been the targets of the political right wing… Didn’t you ever wonder why U.S. public schools have been underfunded for the past four decades or so?
This is why socialist precepts must guide the policies implemented by our twin Armenian republics and why we must all support such development in our homeland.