“Armenians and Progressive Politics” conference held in New York

NEW YORK, NY — Scholars, writers, and activists from around the world gathered to exchange ideas at the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s third annual “Armenians and Progressive Politics” (APP) conference on May 30-31 in New York City. The meeting is designed to offer a forum for progressive activists and thinkers who tie Armenian issues to a broader political field. This year’s assembly featured a plenary session on “The New Imperialism” with noted progressive intellectuals Tariq Ali, David Barsamian, and Neil Smith, who discussed the politics of empire and globalization, and how these might affect dispossessed peoples and fledgling nation-states such as Armenia.

The conference attracted a diverse cross-section of the Armenian community, as well as progressive non-Armenian activists, who approached their topics in an open environment of criticism, reflection, and debate. Panels included a spirited discussion of gender roles in the Armenian Diaspora; a self-critical examination of the progressive track record of Armenian organizations; an informed debate on the lessons and prospects of coalition building between Armenians, Jews and human rights activists, drawing on the recent Anti-Defamation League controversy; a critical, searching approach to foreign assistance issues, identifying ways such aid might help or hinder Armenia’s progress; a student panel designed to introduce new voices with an emphasis on activism; and an exciting and contentious exchange on the lessons learned from the recent unrest following Armenia’s presidential elections. The meeting closed with a plenary session on “Coalition-Building Among Dispossessed Peoples,” featuring incisive remarks by scholar-activists Nubar Hovsepian, Tariq Ali, and David Barsamian.

“Overall, we are quite pleased with the direction of this conference,” stated APP committee chair Antranig Kasbarian. “We hope to continue and expand our effort to build new discussions, agendas, and ultimately activism aimed at re-energizing and redefining Armenian issues from a progressive standpoint.”

“Armenians and Progressive Politics” continues with a second conference on June 6-7 in Los Angeles.

“Armenians and Progressive Politics” meets in New York

The Armenian Reporter | June 7, 2008

by Florence Avakian

NEW YORK – A two day symposium titled “Armenians and Progressive Politics” took place from May 30 to 31, in New York. Organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun (ARF) Eastern U.S., and co-sponsored by the Armenian National Committee (ANC) branches of New York and New Jersey, as well as the Nation Institute (of The Nation magazine), and the CUNY Center for Place, Culture and Politics, it drew an impressive panel of international scholars, writers, activists, and interested audience members.

The opening session on Friday evening, May 30, focused on “The New Imperialism,” with speakers Tariq Ali , David Barsamian , and Neil Smith , who discussed how globalization and the current concept of “empire” impacts on new nations and peoples who have been deprived of home and country. Because of the timing of the conference, which took place when most college students had already completed their studies and gone home, attendance at the lecture was approximately 150 people – mostly activists.

Saturday, May 31, was filled with six major panels – two taking place simultaneously throughout the day, and a closing plenary session. “Changing Gender Roles in the Diaspora” was tackled by writer and Queens College instructor Nancy Agabian , who argued that since Armenia’s independence the public role of women has regressed. Discussants included dramatist Nora Armani , and magazine technology specialist Lola Koundakjian , with Doug Geogerian as moderator. [The present correspondent, Florence Avakian , also spoke on the panel about her positive and negative experiences at the United Nations, as well as with international, American, and Armenian media. – Editor]

Armineh Arakelian , an international lawyer and political scientist specializing in human rights; Antranig Kasbarian , a former editor of the Armenian Weekly; and Pedro Mouratian , a member of the Presidential Board of the Permanent Human Rights Assembly in Argentina, delved into the subject of a “Global Armenian Progressive Agenda.” The discussant was Nubar Hovsepian , associate professor of Political Science and International Studies at Chapman University, with Levon Chorbajian as moderator.

Arakelian pointed out that the first concerns should entail “social justice, inclusion, human rights, the central role of the state and its regulatory role, equality of opportunity, social cohesion, fair distribution of wealth, sustainable peace, security and development, and ecological and environmental sustainability.” Kasbarian suggested that, due to what he termed many decades of “immunity to progressive ideas” by Armenian political groups, concepts such as “democracy, prosperity, stability, the Armenian Cause” should relate more to “material day-to-day conditions, and to the genuine historical tasks of the day.”

The panel titled “The ADL and the Armenian Genocide: Pursuing Common Goals Through Grassroots Activism” was tackled by Sevag Arzoumanian , a physicist and a Boston-area activist who led the efforts against the ADL’s anti-Genocide stance; Laura Boghosian , a writer and former editor of the Armenian Weekly ; as well as Joey Kurtzman , president of Jewcy Media , who launched an online petition calling on the Anti-Defamation League to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide; and Jack Nusan Porter , writer, sociologist and former vice-president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. The moderator was Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian .

Arzoumanian and Boghosian spoke of their work in creating a successful coalition with progressive, human rights advocates and Jews to campaign against Genocide denial, and the pursuit of common goals including genocide recognition and prevention. Kurtzman discussed how the ADL’s actions threaten the morality of the next generation of Jews. Porter addressed Armenian-Jewish relations, the influence of Israel and the Jewish community, and the European view concerning the ADL-Abe Foxman issue.

The topic “Foreign Assistance to Armenia: Toward Prosperity or Dependency,” included panelists Levon Chorbajian , Sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Karen Hakobyan , a human rights advocate from Armenia; and Markar Melkonian , teacher, writer, and veteran solidarity worker, with discussant Elizabeth Chouldjian , ANCA’s communications director.

The moderator was Lisa Khachaturian . Chorbajian made an unexpected comparison of assistance programs to Jamaica and Armenia; in the latter, he argued that “neo-liberalism was carried out by the newly minted Armenian elite to such a degree” that even the usaid (a major source of development aid to Armenia) indicated it had “gone too far.” He also noted some wider impacts of foreign aid on Armenian farmers and workers. Hakobyan spoke of the “high level of corruption that has affected Armenia in all sectors, has seriously disrupted the country’s development, and has hindered the effectiveness and efficiency of foreign aid institutions.”

Focusing on students and “New Work of an Activist Bent” were Celina Agaian , a graduate student at CUNY Hunter College majoring in socio-cultural anthropology; Lori Janbazian , finishing a Masters degree in Political Science; and Zohrab Sarkissian , graduate from the American University of Beirut and McGill University. Sossi Essajanian was the moderator.

Agaian stressed that Armenians should not concentrate their collective identity on victimhood, as they have before non-Armenians, but rather on the positive aspects of their rich culture. Janbazian centered her discussion on the work done by students and youth organizations in Canada with the goal of political social change. And Sarkissian discussed the many issues relative to language, culture, and identity.

The final panel asked the question, “Unrest in Armenia: New Seeds of Democracy or Destabilizing Acts?” Panelists included Armineh Arakelian , a human rights activist who spoke on a previous panel; John Hughes , a veteran journalist and former resident of Armenia who created a journalism training project, ArmeniaNow.com ; and Simon Maghakyan , born in Armenia and a graduate of the University of Colorado. Kim Hekimian- Arzoumanian was the moderator. Arakelian gave voice to what she perceived as various negatives in Armenia, including weak political and civil institutions, a powerless citizenry, an unregulated market economy, and autocratic government and elites.

All three panelists were highly critical of the violence following Armenia’s latest presidential elections. But during the question-and answer session, an attendee asked whether those in the Diaspora, living in centuries-old democratic countries, have the right to comment on a small 16-year-old nation that has gone from dictatorship to an open society virtually overnight.

The symposium concluded with a panel titled, “Coalition Building Among Dispossessed Peoples,” with British-Pakistani historian, novelist, and political commentator Tariq Ali; Alternative Radio founder and director David Barsamian; and Professor Nubar Hovsepian – all three of whom had appeared elsewhere at the gathering.

Hovsepian pointed out that it is only recently that Armenian political parties have looked to other dispossessed peoples. Calling himself “an Armenian from Cairo,” he told how as a youngster he was derided with calls of “immigrant go home.” Married to a Palestinian, he called nationalism “real as well as something to be struggled against. We must place the particular in the universal if we are to have justice. We have to create networks with those suffering with injustice. We must free ourselves of language such as ‘the Other,’ which is a negative. If identity is concentrated on one tragedy, it diminishes the importance of the future.”

Ali noted that “nationalism based on ethnicity or religion doesn’t work,” and referred to the U.S. as “an imperial state, which suits them completely if people are divided.” He commented that Armenians and Turks “have a very linked history, but tragically Turks do not know anything about Armenian history.”

Barsamian complained that the American media and educational system “bolster the ‘United States of Amnesia.’ We Armenians, who were known as ‘the Other,’ continue to see other groups as ‘the Others.'”

Choking up, Barsamian described how on a recent trip to Diarbekir, Turkey, the Kurdish mayor apologized to him for what his people had done to the Armenians during the Genocide. “I found it liberating. We must reach out to kindred spirits. It is too narrow to be known just as survivors of the Genocide. A nation of exclusivity breeds narrowness. We must embrace each other as brothers.”

Attendee Kevork Esayan , commenting on the two-day event, called it “extremely well organized, with well informed speakers, and panels involved topics of great interest.”

The May 30-31 conference was a sequel to several similar events which ran last year under the title, “Armenians and the Left.” Another edition of the “Armenians and Progressive Politics” symposium has been scheduled for June 6-7, in Los Angeles, Calif. Information on that event is available at the website www.armenianprogressive.com .