Bernard Lewis and The Spectre of Comparisons

Bernard Lewis enjoys a status unparalleled by most historians and it's one that puts him in a unique position of power and influence. Dick Cheney has made no secret of the esteem in which he holds Lewis, and one can … Read More

By / November 9, 2007

Bernard Lewis enjoys a status unparalleled by most historians and it's one that puts him in a unique position of power and influence. Dick Cheney has made no secret of the esteem in which he holds Lewis, and one can be certain that the Vice President isn't alone in thinking that Lewis is the go-to guy for information about the Middle East. While it might be tempting to make the assumption that Cheney's vote of confidence is reason enough to doubt Lewis, taking the lazy 'if-the-Bush-administration -says-white-I'll-say-black' route is always a bad idea . There are reasons to fear Lewis' influence that run far deeper. One of them comes to light in the video below, where he can be seen denying the Armenian genocide outright. Most worthy of attention here are the precise terms in which the questioner poses his question. At no point does he ask whether Mr. Lewis believes the Armenian genocide was at all similar to the Holocaust. He merely asks whether Lewis has revised his position, namely that the mass murder of a million Armenians was a brutal by-product of war, not genocide. Lewis responds, fairly enough, by saying that it is a question of definitions. So a little about those, then… I was fortunate enough to have studied briefly with philosopher Richard Bernstein on the subject of Evil in the 20th Century. This was in part an investigation into the atrocities of the last hundred years, but also into the rhetoric and definitions of evil, into resistance to evil, and into how language can be either complicit in or a resistance to evil. Offered as an example of resistance was Raphael Lemkin's one-person crusade to imagine a word that might describe the particular atrocity of systematic human extermination on the basis of particular categories. In some sense, Lemkin's invention of the word 'genocide' gave us a way to speak the unspeakable and thus to specify what we mean when we say 'never again.' And while some intellectuals have taken offense at such gestures, it's hard to argue against the notion that the collective will understands itself and its intentions much better through speech than through reverent silence. Reverent silence is one thing, but irreverent silence or purposive rejection of this very valuable definition effectively participates in the reverse of resistance to evil. When you do so from a place of influence like Lewis', your culpability increases proportionately. His rhetorical underhandedness stems from a premise he himself conveniently inserts–one that, as mentioned before, is never offered by his interlocutor. The focus of his answer becomes the comparison to the Holocaust, a comparison he feels is inaccurate. The atrocity that took place in WWII, however, is beyond compare, which means that by Lewis' definition, that is the only thing we could possibly call genocide. The lexical weapon is thus confined to a singular past historical event, rendering it useless to the present, future, or to anything that came before that event. Scholars like Lewis would do well to assimilate one of the keystone lessons of postcolonialism–that some comparisons can sometimes be useful, but others can prevent one from grasping the specificity of a situation–from seeing it on its own terms. Lewis opts for the worst use of comparison. The French Revolution is not the American is not the Russian, and so on, but the notion of revolution as we understand it applies to all three. Likewise with the Armenian genocide and the genocide of Jews during the second World War. One is not the other, granted (does Lewis think this comes as a shock?) But the need to understand them and speak about them plainly as events worthy of moral outrage on many of the same grounds is vital.

A concrete case in point: when Representative Ed Whitfield takes the podium to oppose H.R. 106 on the grounds that damaged relations with Turkey will compromise the War on Terror, he has one of the world's most revered historians of the Middle East backing him up. But in reality, our leaders have no right to call the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan a campaign against a genocidal regime and ideology while simultaneously refusing to recognize the very event that prompted Mr. Lemkin's interest in the topic. Whitfield and his ilk should be far more concerned about how their disingenuous treatment of such an important concept serves to make the public rightly skeptical about the fight against genocidal terror. If that fight is to be a principled one, one must take the principle first, unequivocally, and let all else follow. Selective applications based on tendentious arguments from over-esteemed scholars won't do.

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