“Well I know this…and anybody who has tried to live knows this… What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you… I’m describing me.”
In 1963, the novelist James Baldwin gave one of the most honest and insightful interviews about American racism. I return to it often because it’s also about something more. It’s about human dignity and the artist’s (lack of) place in American society. When he talks about the word “nigger,” there’s an implication that he’s including anyone who is marginalized, trivialized, and bullied by a culture that is, in the end, acting out its own insecurities and ignorance. America, built on mass extermination and materialism, can do nothing but project its endless need for conformity and subservience because it’s like a big-boned child who has no self-awareness other than knowing it’s stronger than the other kids in the playground. No wonder Baldwin exiled himself to France in 1948 and remained outside the U.S. for most of his life.
Over 60 years later, what should be non-issues as basic as abortion and gay rights often trump endemic problems like homelessness, child poverty, and massive student debt. And the first half-black president is savagely vilified and insulted like no other president in modern U.S. history. 2014 is the new 1948, but with better window dressing, a few advancements to save face, lots of internet porn, and a much, much dumber electorate and Congress. As for the rest of us, we’re mostly ineffectual. And deep down, we all know it. That fact alone–our awareness that we are pretty helpless these days–says it all. Hell, you can go to any bar and overhear sarcastic conversations about how screwed we all are.
Baldwin, like many other artists at the time, was prophetic in getting the hell out of Dodge. And now, I’m getting off this ride too. The amped up 21st-century level of American hypocrisy, hyper individualism, and self-delusion has just really been messing with my mind and soul. It doesn’t mean I won’t be back. Boston is home. But America’s been treating me kind of weird for over two decades now, as though we suddenly don’t know each other. I’m heart-broken. So it’s time we stopped seeing each other for a while.
As a first-generation American born to a lower middle class Armenian family, the ideals of American democracy actually mean something to me because I come from people whose lives have been a long nightmare of forced migration and trauma. It’s usually immigrants who truly believe in American principles of fairness and justice because they have often suffered through the opposite. My family left the bones of their ancestors on the killing fields of Turkey after the Armenian Genocide and stumbled in shock and pain from country to country, eventually escaping from the Soviet Union and moving to the tumult of Boston in the 1960’s. From one system that very obviously didn’t work to another that only works on the surface, while quietly chewing your sense of self until you’re a well-trained workbot who exists to produce, consume, and be consumed.
My grandparents took one bus after another in Boston winters just to go to awful jobs that barely paid enough. My cousins worked 7 days a week so they could own a small, successful business, only to be kicked out 30 years later by criminally high rents without a second thought. My father was a big-hearted, tough mechanic and factory worker at an adhesive plant who often took the late shift just to make a few more bucks an hour. My mother, who was poised to become an established writer in Soviet Armenia, worked for years as a reporter in Washington, D.C. and then as a librarian at the Watertown Public Library. She did okay, overall. But now her meager pension is barely enough. My father? He did what many blue-collar men do. He slumped over one day and died when I was 18. It was as if he suddenly thought, “What the hell have I been doing, and why?”
We’re not supposed to ask each other or ourselves such things. Because to ask serious questions is to illicit complex and difficult answers. Such irritation takes away valuable time from productivity, entertainment, and the constant lure of a success that’s never enough. And any thoughtful and challenging form of dissent gets you pegged as an elitist, Communist, idealist, or even worse, a politically correct bore—all empty, rhetorical labels. Critical thinking detracts from shut-up-blend-in-have-fun-buy-crap-and-be-grateful-for-whatever-crumbs-you-get.
My family, like so many American families, did not work themselves to the bone so that their children would have to bow their heads in gratitude for temp jobs and drown in student debt. They didn’t make a better life for us so that we’d have to grovel and explain ourselves for being artists and intellectuals. The system doesn’t owe us anything? Fine. We don’t owe the system anything either–at least not to a system that mistreats and cons its citizens into going against their own interests. As a bi-cultural writer and musician who loves the States, I’m no longer willing to play along with its deafening cognitive dissonance.
I’m super flawed, but I’m a better person than corporate America wants me to be. And so are you.
It is what it is. A huge swath of the population seems hypnotized by this tautology. I suppose it was what it was during slavery, too. It was what it was when there were no child labor laws and no minimum wage. It was what it was when women couldn’t vote. It was what it was if you were a Jew in Germany, an Armenian in Turkey, and a Tutsi in Rwanda. And I guess it is what it is now when so many Americans are being steamrolled by blatant inequality, corporate malfeasance, and a flaccid government. All while still dying and killing in two wars, one of which was clearly based on lies. It is what is means absolutely nothing other than I can’t really risk my own comfort. Sorry.
Successful people tend to become amnesiacs regarding their own contexts and back stories. They conveniently forget either that their success was simply handed down from wealthy parents, or that they thrived partly due to hard work but mostly due to luck, timing, and help from others, including the government they so often denigrate. It’s too complicated and annoying to think about all the intangible and often random factors that are involved in success. Better to convince yourself that you’re simply more deserving than others; otherwise how would you sleep at night?
The current form of American capitalism–whose more sane and ethical version actually worked pretty well and peaked in the late 1950’s and early 60’s–is often nothing but a mechanism for daily mental and spiritual violence against anyone who is not already wealthy, which is pretty much all of us. No wonder many recent studies claim that approximately 70 percent of doctor visits are for stress-related issues. In the richest, most bountiful country on earth? I’m sorry, boys and girls, it can’t be that almost all of us are in need of happy pills. We are not all somehow weak, lazy, and crazy. The system itself has become unhinged, not us. We’re just collateral damage.
You’d think I would have visited Armenia before. After all, I’ve been lucky to have traveled widely and lived in other countries. And I was raised so bi-culturally that many of my Armenian friends who are immigrants often forget I was born in Cambridge, Mass., and most of my American friends are surprised when they overhear me answer my phone in Armenian. But for some reason I felt no pull to visit. On the contrary, I felt repelled. Perhaps I saw my family’s and other Armenians’ dysfunctions as a red flag and assumed the source must be this mythologized country they never stop talking about. Just as I loathe the jingoistic faux patriotism in America, I equally loathe such sentiments regarding Armenia or any other country.
But at the same time that I realized my America had never really been mine, I began to sense that perhaps Armenia had been patiently waiting all along. I noticed that, as Baldwin points out, whatever I thought about Armenia was really about my own hang-ups. However clumsily I described it to myself, I was actually describing my own insecurities—messed up, faltering, hopeless, bleak, too focused on the past. Over time, as I worked hard to untangle the nests cluttering my mind, Armenia began to reveal itself simply for what it is: a possibility.
A tiny, landlocked country in the Caucasus, present-day Armenia has stunning landscapes dotted by pagan sites and dozens of ancient monasteries and churches. It was the first Christian nation and an important part of the Silk Road. Now it’s a former Soviet Republic with a mostly stable government, minus the one shooting in the parliament and various corrupt officials. For sure, it has its issues. Actually, that’s kind of the point. Armenia is just another kind-of-messed-up country trying to do its best, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It doesn’t claim to be the arbiter of global justice, human rights, and equal opportunity.
And I’m moving there in four weeks.
I know there is no perfect place. And I know that America is as wonderful as it is problematic. And I know I’ll miss it. It’s home, and it’s full of so many kind, good people. But that is what’s maddening. The hapless middle class is being systematically dismantled by a government that really only serves Wall Street, corporations, and lobbyists. We get angry. We sign petitions. Sometimes we gather in parks and yell things. We post articles to Facebook and Twitter from Starbucks. Then we go about our business. That’s just not who I want to be anymore.
This is not to say Armenia is some kind of paradise or answer. It sure as hell isn’t. But at least for now, there’s an actual bohemian community there that thrives, small as it might be. Remember bohemians? I don’t mean rich people who like slumming it. I mean people who are just naturally unconventional, somehow not desperate to conform, and who live outside the spirit-crushing daily grind. It’s not some romantic notion of Joyce in Paris or Rimbaud in Africa, and it’s not the played out, contrived white kids in Brooklyn. It’s just people who struggle, but struggle artfully, with verve, and refuse as much as possible to become debris in the flood of globalization. People who live Baldwin’s words: “I am not the victim here. I know one thing from another. I know that I was born, am gonna suffer, and gonna die. And the only way that you can get through life is to know the worst things about it. I know that a person is more important than anything else. Anything else.”
So, just as my anti-fascist grandfather left the refugee camps of Syria after the Armenian Genocide and went to the muddy, wolf-infested streets of Yerevan with hopes of a Soviet Armenian ideal, I’m headed to the cafe-lined, paradoxical streets of modern Yerevan. My grandfather was duped by Stalin. Then he was duped by Uncle Sam. If I’m going to be duped, I’d rather be duped with my dignity intact, working on my art in a small, modest country most people have never heard of, but whose intensely dynamic and brilliant cultural history long precedes Europe, Turkey, and my America.
I say my because you never forget your first love, as much as she might forget you.
It was what it was. Now it’s time for it to be something else.
A very inspiring and beautiful article. I hope you enjoy your stay in Armenia and you don’t just hang-out in Yerevan Cafés and forget the real Armenia… the countryside!
Come and visit us on top of our mountain in Yeghegnadzor. Ask for the Kanadatsis. I would love to see how you fit and what we can do.
Bravo Arto Vaun, very-very well stated observations about America and Armenia.
You better teach those Undergrad AUA kids a thing or two about life. Some of them are really quality and others need to unlearn some the newer bad cultural traits of materialism and centuries old honor.
Don’t get too upset about the continued centralized power of Serzh. It’s very upsetting but either fight and not let it cut too deep into your heart or enjoy the life outside politics of cultural advancement. The politics has gotten deep within me at times but it naturally accumulates after various events.
Yerevan’s a nice city and really interesting. Make sure you leave the city as often as possible especially when working and be careful with your money, its not as cheap as you think. And make those kids think about hate and racism and national interest (contradicting but not when seen through an objective lens)
Best Wishes Arto!!
Any more complaints about the US, Arto? My God.
As for your statement that “gay rights” should be a “non-issue”, I guess you never heard of dissent and free speech. Who are you to decide what people think should be an issue? Most people disagree with you. You have a problem with that?
I think he means that gay rights are non-issues because after all the international conventions and horrors we’ve had limiting and categorizing humans (and citizens) now emphasizing on to their behavior in the bedroom is a violation of human rights and is discriminatory. I think Armenians who have faced Ottoman second-class repression, Kemalism in Turkey and Soviet anti-nationalism should understand that discrimination is wrong (the ARF and Hnchakians socialist tradition has waned away unfortunately). He is also saying that child poverty is a much more important issue and a bigger danger to society than a small fraction of the population that has much less impact on society than what poverty leaves behind. I live in Armenia and LGBT people here are not anywhere near a big deal compared to what poverty and corruption leave behind which hinder a healthy societies’s growth and go against my “national” values and constitution.
Of course, for any thinking person, there is a problem with that. Dissent is never acceptable when you are talking about taking rights that you enjoy away from others. Armenians should know better but alas, many have not learned from their background. Good luck, Arto, and I hope you find what you are seeking. If you do not, there’s always a warm return awaiting you from some of us.
Bravo Arto. I say this is a tour de force piece, one with which so many of us deeply associate. Through your journey, I hope you point at least some of us to something of an Armenian response to Camus’s Sisyphus– if the absurd is to be addressed, Armenia is a good place for it. Please keep us posted. And all our best.
Arto Vaun – I like your article very much. I am an aged German living in Yerevan since 4 years. I am regularly coming here since 25 years. So I can assure you that the first comment on your article given by Antoine Terjanian is very right.
Don´t misjudge Armenia by looking at Yerevan. You´ll get a totally wrong impression. Try to go to that “Canadian” mountain at Yeghegnadzor. I`d like to come there too and meet you then.
Good luck in Hayastan !
@ WR from Germany in Yerevan.
Thank you for your comment and for choosing Armenia for 25 years (you beat me :).
I would love it if you joined Arto and visited us on top of our mountain. Our phone is 0281-24837. We’ll be there april 2 to May 27, and then Sept 2 to Nov 17.
Thank you Arto for the beautiful article. Thanks for the objectivity!
Thank you Arto for the objectivity and your beautiful article!
Thank you Arto for the objectivity & the beautiful article.
Wish you well, success and happiness in Armenia. Hopefully you will mature and be more objective and balanced. Your are entitled to your opinions, but when you say ” they conveniently forget either that thei success was simply handed down from wealthy parents, or that they thrived partly due to hard work but most due to luck, timing and help from others” you are being disrespectful and insulting because that statement is totally inaccurate and sounds envious,and is immature.
I know a lot of Americans from various ethnic backgrounds, including a
a large number of Armenian-Americans, either born here, or immigrated, who have been successful in their businesses or careers without having wealthy parents or luck of any kind, but simply real dedicated hard work.
I wish you had known some of them and had been mentored by them.
Arto: I was nodding my head vigorously, uttering, “I could have written these exact words!”, at several points while reading your piece, up to where you reveal your decision to move to Armenia. It struck me the same way as did the end of the film, Grandmother’s Tattoos, where Suzanne Khardalian, the filmmaker, intimates that the resolution of generations of trauma are to be sought in an apricot orchard in Armenia. I find myself wondering whether “going to Armenia”, metaphorically or physically, is a solution or a foreclosure.
I love what you expressed words that I had in my mind and I couldn’t fine the letters to describe on plain paper , I loved 1st impression of my visit and cleared my doubts of Armenia and since I have been dissolved to my Australian Armenians that not only they express their insecurity by negative insurgency in any dialog about Armenia ,I have teeth grindley focused of what I had in my eye witnessed in Armenia and I liked it so much that after all my failours to fit in western society is a despair to run away . Do not misunderstand as I was a reach and had very successful life but all I had was money and reputation and that was all ! no dignity and growing possibility that becoming one of “them” eating me inside ,so I will leave to pour my heart to the land that knows me in my blood and not by my money.
Good life and I hope we meet someday in Armenia
Arto, your article is well written, and I don’t only refer to its literary quality, but also, and even more, to the fact that you here are opening your heart and sharing many of your highly personal thoughts and feelings with all. It is in some sense risky, and it takes courage to express strong opinions on political, economic and cultural issues, as you have done here. And you are making an important decision and move in your life. Many persons would go on doing a similar thing without a strong and emotional statement like you are doing. But you obviously feel need to express yourself in this way, you’ve got a talent for it, and you have, of course, full right to do so, and it is admirable. Great!
I have lived in Armenia the first half of my life (I am over 50). The other half I am living in different places, mainly in Europe, and have visited Armenia many times (more than 15). I think your analysis of USA is very good, and I understand you very well. I think your ideas about the Republic of Armenia are a mix of much romanticism and a heavy dose of naivety about the rotten realities. So what? Happiness and suffering, fascination and disappointment, you will experience all these in depth, close-up, and you will feel more alive. It does not matter at all if people will think you succeeded or failed, as most of them think in completely other terms than what really matters.
Whatever you will do, is your success. Don’t worry too much. Don’t be afraid at all. Absolutely never regret for what you are doing, no matter what will happen and how long you will stay in Armenia. Not only because regretting will be pointless, but because your new experience will enrich your life, it will make you bigger as a person, stronger and wiser. Ignore people’s moralist, judgmental and negative comments, for they will try to bring your spirit down. This is your life. Enjoy.
Arto, after reading your beautifully written and well versed article , I remembered you as a teenager visiting us with your cousin Silva .
I am happy for your accomplishments and wish you happiness in Armenia . I hope you inject hope and joy to your students
At AUA . They need that . Before doing so you NEED to change your attitude towards life in general . Energize your imagination thinking
Positively . I felt sorry for you , your fear of success and successful people is overwhelminglly saddening to me .
Be free of fear and envy . Your Dad was a happy man unlike your description of him . He always had a Big smile and was hopeful for your future . I hope you remember that . With maturity and responsibility you will realize that having love and peace will motivate you to hard work and that in turn will bring you joy in life . After all what remains when you are dying is how much you were loved and how much you will be missed . That is the reflection of a truly mature and successful man .
Good luck !
Very well said! I just hope the dysfunctional Armenia is not worse than the dysfunctional US, which is, as you accurately described, now the bastion of ultra-capitalism and unlimited greed. Just remember that while you might miss creature comforts like flush toilets, you will have sweet flavorful apricots, fresh pomegranates and dried mulberries by the bucketful. Everything is life is a tradeoff, and I will be happy to learn more about how yours goes as time moves on. Please do send in updates and let us all know! Pari janabahr!
Somebody tell this author the difference between “illicit” and “elicit.” “Beautifully written”? It’s a rant. And the best you can do is run away?
Thank you for this Arto. A tour de force essay, with which so many of us associate. I hope you point the way for us– take on the Armenian Sisyphus. Armenia is likely a good place to start to confront that sense of the absurd. Please keep us posted. And all our best–
Dear Arto Vaun,
Old American adage, as we say in the United States of America,”Don’t let door hit you in the ass”
I hope and pray you bought a one-way ticket.
Non-conformity in Armenia? Seriously? If that’s what you’re hoping for, you’re in a for a surprise.
Arto, maybe when you go to Armenia, since you seem to be so in favor of gay rights, you can get legislation passed to legalize same sex marriage. This is exactly what Armenia, with a low birth rate and high immigration rate, needs, huh – men marrying men? This will advance freedom so much, huh?
Any other way you wish to change traditional Armenian culture? Do away with the Armenian church and its superstitions, decrepit old churches, and become officially atheist? Throw out those old-fashioned folk tales? Introduce young Armenian children to gay literature such as the American book “King and King”? Maybe you can get the Soros Foundation and modern, hip, EU-affiliated (and all pro-Turkish) organizations to come into Armenia and introduce more modern ways, huh? Yes, let’s move on from our old ways into the Brave New World.
I don’t think Arto is out to change Armenian culture; he seems to have been commenting on US culture and politics.
I have heard Hayastantsiner comment about how westerners brought homosexuality to Armenia. Not true; what the west incited was a failure to buy into the self-shaming that has been a part of homosexual life for so many for so many centuries(?) Human sexuality is a complex trait, and has been for millennia and at least nearly around the world.
As a gay non-Armenian, I will, if you wish, remember that I am not welcome in Armenia, simply because I’m gay. If that is not what you wish, please inform me. (I’m not looking for sex with Armenian guys. Interested in Armenia because I’m interested in ancient near eastern cultures and churches.)
Brilliantly written piece. Every culture is dysfunctional is its own way. I hope Armenia is open and welcoming.
Thank you for your eloquent and sincere writing. So many points of identification here as third generation, so many critical issues.