Prior to moving to Istanbul last summer, I had never spent any significant time outside of the United States. I was born in Ohio and had never been to Europe, let alone Asia. I suspected that upon moving here I would be exposed to new ideas and perspectives that would teach me not only about Turkey, but about the rest of the world, including the United States. I was right; I have been. But I did not expect that among the sources of my reflection would be Kim Kardashian and TMZ, as was the case this past week.
On Tuesday there was a headline in the English language daily newspaper Turkish Daily News (a paper associated with the secularist opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP) that grabbed me, “TV celebrity Kardashian lashes out at Turkish Cosmo cover”. Kim Kardashian, daughter of the late Los Angeles attorney and prominent Armenian-American Robert Kardashian and buxom reality television personality, was outraged that she currently appears on the cover of the Turkish edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine. She is upset because she is of Armenian descent, and because of the Turkish state’s position concerning the genocide of Armenians living in Anatolia during the Great War; that position being that “the events of 1915” did not constitute genocide. Kim is a recent high-profile voice of Pan-Armenia, although she has not been to the homeland nor does she speak a word of Armenian. But these are two points that cannot be held against her–perhaps she is modeling her own brand of internationalism on that of Marcus Garvey, champion of Pan-Africa, whose feet never touched African soil.
In any event, it remains unclear whether Kim was upset because her picture simply appeared on the cover of a Turkish magazine, or whether because it appeared on an April edition of a Turkish magazine. It is no small point. April is a symbolic month for Armenians around the world because the genocide is considered to have begun with the arrest and forced relocations of several hundred Armenians living in Istanbul on April 24, 1915. According to Turkish Daily News, it was a little bit of both. They cited one of her online statements: “I had no idea that Turkey was planning to run my story on their cover this month, considering that Genocide Remembrance Day is this month…Cosmopolitan neglected to tell [my] representation that the Turkish publication would be using the picture. To make matters worse, the edition coincides with April 24, the date on which Armenians commemorate the genocide.”
Either way, Kim’s outrage struck me as odd given the fact that her reality television program, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, which depicts the life and times of the clan in their native habitat of Calabasas Hills, currently airs in syndication every night of the week, including during this month of April, on international version of E! Entertainment Television, which is part of the basic cable package of Digiturk, the largest cable / satellite television provider in Turkey. And so do two spinoff programs, “Kourtney and Kim Take New York” and “Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami”–the latter features Kim’s two sisters as they struggle to find their way in hardscrabble South Beach (cough…not that I watch). In fact, although the Kardashians are not exactly household names in Turkey, they are most certainly recognizable here as a result of these nightly programs. Also, when Khloe arrived in Istanbul last July with her husband Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2010 FIBA World Basketball Championships, their public appearances made the celebrity papers, which have modeled themselves after the American paparazzi tabloids. I would venture to guess that prior to this week most Turkish people familiar with the Kardashians did not realize that Kim identifies herself with the Armenian diaspora. And more importantly, they wouldn’t have cared.
There has been a larger outrage concerning the magazine cover, which has emanated from Los Angeles, arguably the center of power of the Armenian-American lobby. The paparazzi website TMZ, although not part of the fabric of everyday life in Istanbul is familiar enough to many people here, is coordinating the anger. The site devoted several “stories” to the issue, including releasing a statement from Aram Hamparian, director of the Armenian National Committee of America, who denounced Cosmo for “trying to turn a profit in Turkey by callously featuring a cover photo of a descendant of Armenian genocide survivors in its April issue.” TMZ ran another item that quoted the celebrity attorney and Armenian-American, Mark Geragos. TMZ printed the following: “Geragos–a friend of Kim K’s–tells TMZ…Turkey seems to be on a campaign to co-opt L.A. Icons…the Turks used Kobe Bryant’s image to promote Turkish Airlines, and now Kim… the Kim K cover is a combination of taking advantage of a celebrity and rubbing salt in the wounds of a people who are the victims of genocide…Anyone who has synapses firing would never do such a thing.” (I wonder if Geragos thinks E! is also “taking advantage” of Kim in light of the syndication of her three television shows…and I wonder too how much money Kim and her family generate from the Turkish market…)
By “the Turks using Kobe’s image”, Geragos is referring to the lucrative two-year endorsement deal Bryant signed with Turkish Airlines in February of this year. Despite Geragos’ Californacentric convictions, I am unconvinced that “the Turks” are targeting the Armenian-American community of Los Angeles through the backdoor via an advertising deal with Kobe, especially considering that Turkish Airlines is well known for its recent high profile deals with top athletes and teams around the world. To name but a few: they presently sponsor two of the top football (soccer) clubs in Europe, FC Barcelona and Manchester United, in addition to the European Basketball League (Euroleague) and Dutch tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
Harvey Levin, the TMZ patriarch, devoted part of his daily webcast commentary, which featured the wisdom of two of his paparazzi underlings, to an interesting if not unsettling discussion of Kim’s Cosmo cover and contemporary Turkish society. Their discussion displayed not only an ignorance of Turkey, but also had a strong anti-Turkish, dare I say racist, vibe. According to Levin and his dreadlocked sidekick, “Kim Kardashian has been put in a horrible position for an Armenian-American…Not only do the Turks not acknowledge the Armenian genocide, but it is a crime in Turkey to even talk about an Armenian genocide…So she does a shoot for international Cosmo, and they distribute these pictures to the various Cosmo properties internationally, one of which is Turkish Cosmo–which she wouldn’t know…and lo and behold it ends up on the cover of Turkish Cosmo–and who knew there was a Turkish Cosmo?”
Considering that the worldview of the TMZ staffers appears to be coterminous with West Hollywood, it is not surprising they didn’t realize there is a Turkish edition of Cosmo. Well, there is (and, for their reference, according to Wikipedia anyway, there are currently 63 different international editions of it published around the world). Furthermore, and not that I would know, but I don’t believe the Turkish edition of Cosmo can select its own cover. Perhaps I am wrong, but it would seem that decision would be made by some sort of editor deep inside the Hearst Empire in New York City. Regardless, even if the Turkish edition could select its own cover, would Kardashian, Levin, Geragos, and Hamparian have preferred that the Turkish edition not put Kim on their cover during the month recognizing the Armenian genocide because she is Armenian-American? Imagine the following statement: “In light of this month’s commemoration of the genocide of Armenians in Anatolia during World War I, we at Turkish Cosmo have decided to feature a Turkish model on our cover rather than Kim Kardashian, who is the most recognizable celebrity of the Armenian diaspora.”
Perhaps his years as analyst for The People’s Court has softened his keen understanding of legal issues around the world, but Levin’s statement that “it is a crime in Turkey to even talk about an Armenian genocide” is not correct. But yes, as every student of history and every observer of contemporary politics surely knows, the subject remains divisive and controversial in Turkey. In his book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, the Turkish historian Taner Akçam discusses the relationship between the founding of the Turkish Republic and the issue of genocide. “As in every other nation-state, the Turks glorified their founding fathers…In general, Turkish society is disinclined to consider its past. In the prevailing culture, not only the Armenian genocide but much of Turkey’s recent history is consigned to silence, the Kurdish question and the role of the military being two examples.” Indeed, it can be dangerous to evoke genocide. But “talking about an Armenian genocide” is not illegal in Turkey. Levin, I believe, has in mind Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which is also quite controversial. It is an unnervingly broad law that is enforced selectively and which criminalizes the act of insulting the Turkish government or the Turkish nation (before it was reworded a few years ago, the law referred to denigrating “Turkishness”). This law has been used to prosecute several high profile intellectuals, activists, and politicians, including Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. Charges were brought against Pamuk for his remarks to a Swiss magazine, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here [in Turkey], and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” The charges were eventually dropped, although he was ordered last month to pay 6,000 Turkish Liras (about $4,000) in fines.
The most well-known martyr of the Armenian issue in Turkey is the journalist Hrant Dink. Dink was, of course, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who spoke openly about not only the genocide, but about broader issues of freedom and democracy in Turkey. He was shot and killed outside of his office in Istanbul on January 19, 2007. Although the suspect in the case was (at the time) a 17-yeard old kid, there are obvious connections to the shadowy forces of ultra-nationalism, most egregiously in light of the chilling photographs that surfaced of the boy smiling and posing with Turkish police while he was in their custody shortly after the assassination. Dink was also critical of the Armenian diaspora, particularly in the United States, because of the energy and resources spent trying to convince the United States government to recognize the genocide (absurd, not only to my mind but to many others’, in light of the fact that U.S. has never recognized its own genocide of the Native Americans) and simultaneously failing to engage the Armenians in Armenia and Turkey and more meaningful actions. When hundreds of thousands of people living in Turkey poured into Istanbul’s Taksim Square after news of Dink’s assassination, they created a slogan of solidarity: “We are all Armenians.” They did not call for the United States government to recognize the genocide of 1915. They did not protest celebrities of Armenian descent appearing on fashion magazine covers.
In The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Norman Finkelstein has argued that the memorializing of genocide is deeply rooted in the relative power of various special interest and lobby groups, and that these often are intertwined with international power relations between nation-states. It is worth noting that the Anti-Defamation League long refused to recognize the Armenian genocide, and even fired its New England regional director Andrew H. Tarsy in 2007 over the issue. The Jewish lobby in the United States refused to accept the Armenian genocide for several reasons. Not only is one of the central tenants of the “Holocaust Industry” that the Nazi genocide of the Jews during the Second World War remains a singular historical event that is by definition incomparable, but more importantly, that Turkey was a geo-political ally of Israel. In light of the perception that Turkey is gradually abandoning “the West”, including its long-standing alliance with Israel–a trend that remains, for now, more perception than reality–perhaps we might expect more anti-Turkish rhetoric from new sources, including various lobby groups like the ADL, which recently reversed its long-held position on the Armenian genocide. Perhaps Turkey should pass legislation recognizing the Native American genocide in the United States.
The celebrity-industrial complex does not have an ounce of credibility when it shouts “genocide” from atop the Hollywood Hills. Harvey Levin, if you should ever read this, stay focused on the antics of Charlie Sheen and investigating whether Lindsay Lohan has violated her probation. You are not helping anyone in Turkey, least of all the Armenians. And to Kim Kardashian, if I may paraphrase Bill Hicks, leave the self-righteous humanitarianism to those of us motivated by more than a fevered ego. The stakes are far too important.
JEFF HOWISON teaches sociology and history at Yeditepe University in Istanbul. He can be contacted at Jeffrey.Howison@gmail.com.