Addressing the Elephant (and the Donkey) in the Room

A few weeks ago, I received on my desk a handwritten letter from one of our longtime readers. Penned in gorgeous scrawl, it is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing note I’ve received during my tenure as editor of the Armenian Weekly. But despite its agreeable penmanship, the contents of the letter were concerning.

The aforementioned letter, submitted by reader Roger Talanian and dated March 13, 2019. The letter criticizes the decision to publish an article in the March 2nd issue of the Weekly about the Green New Deal.

On March 2, we re-published an article about discussions over an ambitious and wildly controversial new proposal called the “Green New Deal,” opposed by major political figures on both the left and right. The letter disapproved of the editorial decision to include this article in our newspaper. The concerns were twofold: first, its author felt the article we selected did not pertain to ‘Armenian affairs’; and second, that its contents reflect a leftist position. These are two complaints I receive often on my desk. I hope that responding to them now will start a conversation with readers.

The tradition of including articles from the international press, grabbing pieces from non-Armenian journals and publications, is not one I created; it’s one I resuscitated. The topics from this section vary from week to week. One week, it might be an article about climate change. Another week, it might be a piece about denialism. Another week, it might be a diatribe on automation in the workforce, or on the challenge of preserving a foreign language; all issues which affect and interest regular people, Armenian or not. We publish a wide range of articles in this section, not necessarily because we agree with their contents, but because we think it will affect our readers one way or another. The purpose is to showcase pieces that may not otherwise not be featured in Armenian press, exposing readers to some idea, concept or current event that allows us to break away momentarily from our bubble and consider how what is happening in a larger arena may affect us on a local or community level.

I often think about how the newspaper issues that we send to print today will invariably form part of a rich and precious historical archive, consulted by scholars and historians. These academics will refer to our archives in the hopes of better understanding the Armenian experience in America. What do we want these academics to know about us? What messages do we want to send to the future? How do we want to be portrayed? I’ll be honest, I don’t have a simple answer, nor am I certain that I’m the best person for the job. But I—and every editor before and after me—am tasked with answering it.

It goes without saying that conveying the state of our community organizations and members is central to our mission. Thus, as I see it, the goings-on of our immediate community and ARF views and activities should have a strong presence in our pages—and they do, though there could be more. Furthermore, having a well-balanced sampling of news and commentary on what’s happening in Armenia is also important (and how we curate that news says a lot about who we are as a community). But outside of those two consistent elements, there is a lot of wiggle room. We occasionally get articles revealing the roots of someone’s family history, or historical reports or pieces of fiction, but these contributions are sporadic and do not document our living moment, which is what these historians and researchers of the future will surely want to know more about.

So how can we best describe this moment? I am of the opinion that doing so necessarily involves referencing the important issues of our broader political moment, which includes controversies over the environment and global economics (even if they do not reference Armenian issues directly). In the case of climate change or changes to American economic policy, the importance of such news to readers—Armenian or not—feels fairly obvious to me.

But I can also see how some readers, unprepared for this deviation from the rest of our print which deals directly with “Armenian affairs,” might be caught off guard. To those readers, issues like the Green New Deal have zero relevance to the Armenian community, and as such, are better left omitted. Only news which makes a direct reference to Armenians around the world deserves real estate in our press.

By this logic, the report that former editor Nanore Barsoumian wrote on the search for the Boston Marathon bombers, which took place right in our backyard in Watertown, should never have been written. It didn’t reference Armenians at all. By this logic, the horrific shooting of Muslims in New Zealand is not enough for our community organizations to make statements about it. By this logic, the fact that there was Armenian script found on the New Zealand shooter’s rifle is the only newsworthy aspect of this story. By this logic, had the script been German, this news would be entirely irrelevant.

By this logic, our report… on the search for the Boston Marathon bombers, which took place right in our backyard in Watertown, should never have been written. It didn’t reference Armenians at all.

I see things somewhat differently. We are one of countless ethnic groups upon whose backs this country was built. And I am of the opinion that if we were to omit contemporary “American affairs” from our news cycle, it would not do justice to the legacy of those who struggled to forge a home for themselves here. Furthermore, to deny the relevance of broader American affairs to our community is to deny the reality of our situation. The “host country”—if we can still call it that at this point—for any Diaspora is not an afterthought; it is a privilege and an opportunity for development.

And speaking strictly from a news perspective, if we do not take our newspapers seriously enough to believe our editors have the right to include commentary on the goings-on of the country in which their paper is being published, then we resign them to a very dark fate. Can we expect journalists writing for our press to thrive under such stifling restrictions?

To the second criticism, about the leftist content of the article in question, it’s worth mentioning here that the Armenian Weekly is a publication of a political party that is a member of the organization Socialist International. Despite this, there seems to be a consensus among a certain demographic in the community that Armenian issues are not only not American issues, but they should also remain politically ambivalent to them (i.e. neither left nor right). This stance reflects a larger phenomenon that has been breeding quietly over the last several decades, which takes its roots in McCarthyism and the Cold War.

… to deny the relevance of broader American affairs to our community is to deny the reality of our situation.

Put very simply, Diasporans in America, whose ties to a Soviet Armenian Republic could be seen as a liability, were not unscathed by the communist witch hunt in the second half of the twentieth century. In response, the ARF began to emphasize the more nationalist elements of its mission statement over the socialist ones. When pressed, the party would make clear distinctions between Soviet communism and ARF socialism. Decades of varied messaging have contributed to the current situation in Armenian press, which is siloed—not to the left or the right, as most American newspapers, but into a politically ambiguous vacuum of its own design. I view this as a major weak spot which should be addressed.

It is worth looking deeper into the community’s careful silence on matters of U.S. politics. When does it happen, and why? Perhaps it is a habit we’ve always had, a survival mechanism, a way of sticking together. It is understandable that in certain environments, it is difficult to be partisan. For example, lobbying groups like the ANCA, who pursue Armenian issues in Congress, do not benefit from being associated with Democrats or Republicans.

But in our publications, it is a fairly recent phenomenon that is perhaps more indicative of the diminishing resources than it is of genuine intention. After all, it’s not like Armenian press has never “taken sides” in American politics. Is it coincidence, for example, that advertisements for certain presidential candidates were run in the Weekly in accordance with the political inclinations of the editor at the time? Today’s readers of the Weekly condemn an opinion article about an economic policy as “Democratic Party propaganda,” but what would those readers have to say about the days when literal propaganda—paid ads for presidential candidates—appeared in our pages? My resignation would certainly be called for, were I to take such bold liberties in this day and age.

In the October 25, 1980 issue of the Armenian Weekly, a paid presidential campaign ad for Ronald Reagan. The page to the right of the ad forms the first page of the next issue, which was a special issue celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a nationalist, socialist political party. This issue was published during the tenure of former Weekly editor James Tashjian, a devoted member of the ARF, and a well-known conservative views on American issues.

But political campaigns aside, we have much to gain from tapping into issues that so many of our readers have come to label as ‘non-Armenian.’ By likening the Armenian situation to the people of Haiti, for example, the ANCA was recently able to leverage a bill in Congress, which would forgive Armenia’s US debt in exchange for re-forestry efforts. Similarly broadening our scope on issues like genocide recognition and denialism, and empathizing with the plight of other colonized peoples, as columnist Raffi Elliott did recently in his piece on the plight of the Uyghur community in China, tends to help us rather than hurt us. Thus, readers critical of the editorial board’s stance on President Trump might consider that our criticism often manifests when the president expresses unwillingness to empathize in these areas.

My final point is this: somewhere along the way, the politics of the country we live in became an elephant in the room—or a donkey, depending on which side of the aisle you fall—around which we now go to staggering lengths to tiptoe. As one generation of penmanship and deftly handwritten letter-writers gives way to a generation several degrees removed by keyboards and iPhones, brushing these issues under the proverbial Armenian rug will have worrying consequences in the years to come.

 

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2019 (Vol. 85, No. 12) issue of the Armenian Weekly. 

 

Editor’s Note (04/03/2019): In the first version of this article, the caption underneath the image of the Ronald Reagan ad mistakenly identified the first manifesto of the ARF as “published side-by-side” the ad. In reality, the ARF manifesto forms the first page of a new issue, which is celebrating the ARF’s 90th anniversary. The caption has been corrected to reflect this. 

Karine Vann

Karine Vann

Podcast Producer
Karine Vann is a former editor of the Armenian Weekly and host of the paper's monthly podcast. She is a musician who transitioned into journalism while living in the Caucasus for several years. Her bylines have appeared in Smithsonian.com, The New Food Economy, and a number of other publications. She can be reached at karine@armenianweekly.com.
Karine Vann

@karinevann

Journalist. Former editor @ArmenianWeekly. Writing in @SmithsonianMag. Half my weeks @ Drumlin Farm.
#zerowaste is a trendy hashtag, but that must be all it is, because it's not doing jack shit to stop the US from in… https://t.co/sLnrOp89My - 1 day ago

3 Comments

  1. A very thoughtful and articulate analysis/response by Karine Vann.
    However, I do agree with some of the concerns expressed by Roger Talanian.
    Editors, columnists and contributors should have freedom to express their views/opinions. The Editor in chief’s responsibility is to find the right balance and be fair to the Elephant and the Donkey.
    I do not wish to personalize any of my remarks or criticism.
    But the stark reality is that our main contributors have not yet overcome the shock that Trump was elected President. Their articles are identical to what appears in the liberal press and carbon copies of the pronouncements, positions and announcements of the Democratic party. Some of the columns are insulting and disrespectful.
    We have to admit that Trump has achieved some successes and credit should be given when it is due.
    Armenian-Americans are Armenian first. As Americans they have the absolute right to be A Democrat, a Republican, an Independent or whatever other party or affiliation they wish to be. The reality is that many Armenian-Americans are Republicans for various and different factors and considerations. Admittedly I am a Republican.
    If the AW editorial board is anti-Trump and leans Democratic, it is fine with me; but it should provide the space at least occasionally for the other side.
    Finally, the ANCA will not be successful in achieving any of its objectives if it becomes partisan. That is why they exert a lot of effort to insure that the Armenian-American caucus has members of both parties.
    Just an opinion.

    Vart Adjemian

  2. Ms. Vann raises many important points in her response to the reader about having “non-Armenian” issues printed in the Armenian Weekly. We as a people who are citizens of the USA are part of the over all society in America & we are effected by issues that are created by governmental decisions & laws at the local, state & federal levels. Being an Armenian-American does not permit us to have a protective screen around us when issues such as climate change, election laws,denial of human right, etc to “protective us” from the effects of these policies.
    We can no longer continue with the mindset of the generation that survived the Genocide and lived in isolation from other ethnic/racial groups in the “host counties” that gave us a place to rebuild out individual and collective lives.
    Also, our community needs to remember, as Ms. Vann points out in her response, the Armenian Weekly is the official publication of the ARF of Eastern Region, USA and the ARF since its founding days is based on a Socialist political/economic ideology, which unfortunately for too many years the ARF has kept on a low key.
    We can not continue to live in the “Armenian Ghetto” mindset that we did for many decades where we did not engage with the rest of the world. We must become part of the world and be actively engaged engaged to help move forward our people’s needs and also the needs of the human race at the same time

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