Ignorance of truth, selective view of history and national interest seem to have more influence on the public perception of the 1915 events rather than the views of qualified professionals due to the way U.S. has manipulated the matter to its own advantage
Turkey might be portrayed as a raging bull in the context of the Armenian issue, but a closer look would show that in the field of public opinion regarding the issue, it has been more like a sitting duck. It has to suffer through widely disseminated misrepresentations of Ottoman history, accusations of genocide, calls of denial and depictions of reactionary anger without being able to do much about it.
The U.S. government's ability to frame the agenda by affecting public opinion domestically and internationally without being seen as doing so, is known as soft power. As defined by American political scientist Joseph Nye, soft power is only effective when the information that reaches the public is not thought to be controlled by the government. Otherwise, it will be considered propaganda and thereby rendered ineffective.
Concerning its control of the genocide discourse, the U.S. government began this process by nurturing the Armenian national narrative at Harvard University in the 1950s and then at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1960s before cultivating a field of genocide study that features the Armenian tragedy as the prototypical case of genocide in the 20th century. "Prototypical," so as to make the accusations against an American-perpetrated genocide in Vietnam forgotten, and "20th century," so as to make the history of Anglo-American colonialist massacres in the 19th century more forgettable. Since then, not only have particular cases of massacres against natives been suppressed, but it has been found that accusations of genocide against Turkey presents Washington and Brussels with political leverage that affects Turkey's decision-making in a way that is favorable to the West.
There had to be academic literature that describes the Armenian tragedy as genocide to lend credibility to this anti-Turkish propaganda. After the U.S. made a substantial investment in the Holocaust's memorial and education in the late 1970s, it could utilize the consensus on the Holocaust to cultivate a seemingly credible scholarship of genocide. Decades later, there are now centers of Holocaust and genocide studies placed across the U.S. and in many Western countries. As a result, the word "genocide," while used in different contexts, is now mainly associated with the Armenian case.
To create even further distance from any visible U.S.-government control, the more effective genocide accusations now appear in popular forms. They appear in mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, where writers can claim that "scholars agree" it was genocide, under headlines that themselves present the genocide label as a given. A recent development, special to this month of April being 100 years removed from the events of 1915, is the influence that public figures are having on public opinion on this issue.
It begs the question of what to do when public figures affect public opinion on history more than historians. This being a political issue of mass mobilization, public opinion has no interest in the detailed historical analysis by Ottoman historians who sit in library dungeons. This being a political issue aimed at Turkey, it seems that the Turkish government is forced to react to the influence of world-known public figures without being able to generate influence to match it.
The effectiveness of Kim Kardashian's visit to Armenia just two weeks ahead of April 24 was not about her intentions or thoughts regarding the Armenian tragedy, but about the ability through her visit to frame the agenda. The many news items about her visit presented a platform for controlling the popularly-consumed information on this issue, not only to promote the association of genocide with 1915, but also to give the semblance of distance between these public opinion maneuvers and the U.S. government. This is mainly done by referring to the U.S. government in these articles as if it is resisting the wave of public opinion on the issue.
In other words, the U.S. government is using its own influence on the media to lead the public into thinking that there is a consensus on the label of genocide, and that the only reason why President Barack Obama avoids the term, is because of Turkish political pressure. This is how the American threat of using the term "genocide" against Turkey is sustained. It would be foolish of anyone to think that the U.S. government does not set out to control public opinion as long as it can get away with it. The American coverage of the Kardashian visit was not spontaneous, but rather looked to maximize its public figure effect on public opinion.
Furthermore, when considering the framed agenda, it is no accident that Pope Francis was acting more like a public figure and less like a religious leader when he spoke on the issue. By describing the events of 1915 as "the first genocide of the 20th century," he showed less sensitivity to Christian-Muslim relations, and more commitment to a political dictation. Why else would he highlight the Armenian case and fail to address similar relocations and massacres where Muslims were victims?
Raphael Lemkin, the man known for coining the term "genocide" in 1944 while employed by the U.S. government, later listed the Armenian case as number 39 on a list of 40 other cases that he called genocide in modern times. Why then would this one case be on the lips of Pope Francis? Did he choose to emphasize the 20th century so as to erase from memory the many massacres in history that were committed in the name of Christianity or by colonizers of Christian faith?
This same structuring of genocide history through a focus on the 20th century has been followed by many in American-based discourse, most notably Samantha Power in her 2002 work, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." In this book, she begins her genocide narrative with a chapter titled "Race Murder," aimed at showing Turkish perpetrators as the prototypical mass-murderers of the 20th century. The convenience with which she absolves the U.S. from responsibility in known cases of massacres throughout the century cannot be ignored by careful readers of her book. However, what cannot be ignored by Turks in particular is that she legitimizes WWI propaganda in order to label Turks as race murderers.
Currently the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Power is a public figure thanks to the success of this book. In view of the fact that she is now enjoying the status of being a public figure, undoing her vilification of Turks could go a long way in correcting public perceptions on the Armenian issue. If the Turkish government were to demand a public apology from Power, then the ill effect of public figures could be turned around. The apology would be for unabashedly using a biased selection of questionable sources to cast a terrible shadow on the Turkish nation, especially having a negative effect on the lives of Turks in Western societies.
Through her influential bestseller, Power has had more effect on public perceptions of Ottoman history in the West than skilled Ottoman historians have. She did this without any credentials in the field of Ottoman history and with an utter reliance on the information provided by a web of Anglo-American wartime propaganda. To this day she has not shown any remorse for disgracing and implicating an entire people just so that she could frame an agenda. It is high time for her overdue apology.
*PhD condidate in Political Science at the University of Utah