Avoiding a New Type of Division

Banksy’s “Healthy Heart” (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

We live in a very fragmented world today. Here in America, our country is walled off into partisan political camps. Washington seems paralyzed by the division. This is not intended to be a biased comment. It’s been like this for some time regardless of administration. I am deeply saddened that we no longer engage in healthy debate. Instead, we close our ears and defer to labeling and rhetorical attacks. Diversity of thought, which is a hallmark of our democracy, has become an excuse to ignore each other. Anger and hatred have been our response to different perspectives. We seem to have forgotten the old Armenian adage, “There is a reason why God gave us twice as many ears than mouths.”

Listening has been redefined as a pause to gather your next verbal assault. Honestly, I have always valued my independent affiliation. I align myself with the issues; I’m not blinded by a political affiliation. I advocate for some issues that are traditionally called “conservative,” and I also support some issues considered “liberal.” I think labels can be dangerous. I simply call it American.

The one ingredient missing in the 2019 recipe is respect. There was a time when we could “respectfully” debate or “respectfully” disagree. It seems like that is in the past, at least for now. Always an optimist, I find many who feel the same way, but we seem to be outsiders when it comes to making a difference. Today, we seem to relish the conflict, the senseless schisms and lack of progress. At times we all get drawn into these partisan “debates” which conclude with nothing constructive; instead, they damage relationships and create unhealthy environments. As Americans, we should all be concerned with this new reality. Most of us escape this onslaught by staying in our own world of family and work, occasionally emerging to “test the water.” Of course this enables the playground that Washington has become to continue more of the same. Opposition becomes a constant, and collaboration takes a back seat.

I am an Armenian-American. I’ve noticed we have a difficult time understanding which one is the adjective and which one is the noun sometimes. I guess from a behavior standpoint when we advocate Armenian issues, it has become the noun and the rest of the time it’s an adjective. But I love both and I am equally concerned about the future. As such, we pride ourselves on the advantages of our “dual identity.” For most of us, our education, our profession and where we live define how we express our American identity. Our family, religious and cultural lives are connected to our ethnicity. It has clear advantages in broadening our experiences in life. We often try to describe them as separate and distinct, but we all know that they intersect and blend.

As Armenians in America, we proudly live a hyphenated life. It is the essence of America, just like Polish-Americans, Jamaican-Americans or Chinese-Americans. It does of course come with complications. As Americans, it can be awkward to discuss Armenia’s relationship with Russia and Iran given the current east/west geo-political alignments. As Americans, there has always been an adversarial relationship with Russia for generations and since 1979 with Iran. Yet, we all understand the survival politics for Armenia given its geography and history. If we engage in thoughtful debate, eventually each side of the “hyphen” will emerge. Differences are inevitable. These are usually harmless academic exercises. My concern is not with our dual identity because, thankfully, the freedom in this country affords us great opportunities for expression. This is a blessing we should never take for granted (although we do at times). I am more distracted by the intra-communal conflict within the Armenian community as it relates to American politics and how it impacts our “oneness.”

I have observed with increasing frequency an intersection of Armenian issues with the political divide in America. Currently, there are many examples that have generated some explosive and potentially harmful dialogue within the Armenian community. The Syrian policy of the current administration, the relationship with Turkey’s Erdogan and the seemingly endless Genocide “recognition” journey are a few prime examples. The issues, in and of themselves, are all quite valid. The challenge becomes how to prevent our differences as Americans from impacting our relationships as Armenians.  What I find enlightening are the differences that emerge in us based on our American, not Armenian, perspectives on issues that are expressed in our Armenian community. It confirms that we are unable to completely separate our hyphenated lives, at least in the political domain.

There was a time when it really didn’t matter. There have always been conservative, liberal and moderate Armenian-Americans. Different perspectives are healthy if we all have the intent to make the country better. When I was in college, I remember the debates over Vietnam with my uncles over Thanksgiving dinner. Some of them were, let’s say, “spirited.” Despite our differences on the issues, I loved and respected my uncles and would never cross the line to a broken relationship. We would argue public policy, values and economics, but enjoyed the discourse. Today, all I see are walls. It is very difficult to talk through walls. These are not the kind on the southern border of this country, but the type that are invisible, but difficult to penetrate in our minds. Debate and discourse have been replaced by labels and unidirectional rants.

Within the Armenian community, it is logical to assume that we are a political microcosm of the American landscape. After all, we are Americans, and our lives are deeply impacted by domestic activities. Armenians’ issues in the post-independent Armenia era have enjoyed unprecedented unity among our community. We all honor the Armenian tricolor. We do our best to support Armenia and Artsakh. And when it comes to Turkey, our traditional unity has strengthened even further. It wasn’t always like this as members of our senior generations will verify. But thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of our sovereign Armenian state, a new era of harmony has emerged. The problem I am describing is visible only when you peel the onion back a layer or two and examine the relations of individual and smaller groups.

The political divide in America is spilling over into the Armenian American community. Let me offer a few examples to illustrate my point. Recently the President of the United States made a decision to withdraw American troops from the flashpoint of the Turkish/Kurdish conflict in Syria. He was heavily criticized for the decision and its timing. There is no doubt that the timing of the Armenian Genocide Resolution coming to the House floor was connected to the administration’s decision and the political fallout. Add Erdogan’s visit shortly thereafter, and you have political theater as its best. I will not doubt the sincerity of many of those who advocated for this resolution in the House, but clearly some were motivated by the political opportunity to express disgust with the Syrian policy. Hence, the Armenian Genocide became caught up in American and international geopolitics. Trump wanted to keep a campaign promise. The democrats used the timing to oppose this move, and Erdogan was given a stage to expose his lies. The good news is that our issues are becoming important enough to politicians to actually be played. This is what politicians do. If we want their support, we should expect this type of political bargaining. What I found disappointing and unfortunate was the Armenians arguing on these issues through the lenses of their political views. Mixing the two can be harmful to the Armenian community. A few weeks later, the issue is out of the headlines and will pass as another short term issue inside the Beltway drama. Politicians move on; we need to keep in mind that the winds of self-interest change.

Another example is Rep. Schiff, who is a long-time supporter of Armenian issues and currently a controversial leader in the impeachment process. I hear Armenians saying they won’t support anything on Armenian issues he articulated because of their view of him as an American. We need to be smarter than this. If we wish to remain an irrelevant outside political group, which only acts on perfection, then we can wear all our emotions on our sleeves. The game we are in can be dirty and alignments can change. How do you think it was for the Armenian delegation of 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference? Self-interest rules. Success is dependent on the intersection of each party’s interests. If you don’t support Rep. Schiff, then don’t vote for him (most can’t anyway outside his district), but don’t trash the Armenian issues with it. If you don’t support the President, same goes, but maintain civility to defend our issues. This is a marathon that will extend far beyond the current administration and even the current players. We need to stay as one. Any cracks in our armor should be repaired and prevented. Let’s keep our long-term perspective. Diverse views on American politics should not prevent unity on Armenian issues.

Many of you may not see any of this as a problem. It may be too subtle at this point, which is exactly why we need self-awareness now. The Armenian community in America can set an example, as Americans, of a return to debate with civility, diversity with respect and unity of support. When I see the type of relational divide I see today, I think of those holiday discussions with my uncles. We were clearly in different places, but our mutual respect kept our relationship intact while issues come and go. We have that same opportunity as Armenian-Americans.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Stepan for delivering a crystal clear perspective to light. What’s on stage in today’s political theater calls on every Armenian citizen of the United States of America, and the world, to unite as Armenians.

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