Idealism vs. pragmatism in genocide prevention

By | August 22, 2007

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has set off a firestorm by refusing to endorse House Resolution 106, which calls upon the Federal government to recognize the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.

The ADL’s position is consistent with their longstanding policy not to get involved in the debate. They don’t deny that the genocide took place; indeed, there are passing references to it on their Web site as a fact of history. What they have declined to do is to enter into the debate over Turkey’s stubborn refusal to come to grips with its own history.

This story recently broke into the media when the ADL’s New England region broke ranks with the national organization and called for a change in policy, leading to the abrupt firing of the regional director, Andrew H. Tarsy.

Tarsy has been quoted describing the ADL’s policy as “morally indefensible.” A Boston Globe editorial opined, “One shouldn’t play geopolitics with genocide.” A Web search yields not a single author supporting the ADL.

In fact, the issue is not so simple. As paradoxical as it may seem, the ADL is right not to get involved, and the pundits and politicians are right to condemn them for it.

Two kinds of people fight to improve the world – idealists and pragmatists. Idealists deal in moral certainties. They know what is right and what is wrong, and it’s their job to make sure we know it too. Idealists are the moral compass of a civilized society.

Pragmatists are the sailors who steer by that compass. A sailor knows you can’t always sail on a straight bearing. You have to read the winds, tacking and jibing in a zigzag course which brings you, slowly but surely, to your final destination.

To an idealist, compromise is the worst possible outcome; to a pragmatist, it may be the only one.

The crime of genocide is unspeakably horrific. All civilized peoples have an absolute moral obligation to prevent genocide. One of the pillars upon which the anti-genocide movement is built is the principle that universal recognition and condemnation of past genocides is an essential element of genocide prevention.

As important as this imperative may be, it is idealistic, not pragmatic. Pragmatism is the recognition that Turkey’s position as a moderate country is supported by its strong ties with the United States and Israel, and that damaging those ties would drive Turkey toward dangerous extremism. Pragmatism is the recognition that the imperative to condemn genocide which took place nearly a century ago is less absolute than the imperative to prevent the formation of another extremist state in the world today. Pragmatism is the recognition that the Jews and other minorities now living precariously in Turkey are in the best position to judge whether their safety would be compromised by House Resolution 106.

Pragmatism is also the recognition that, as the ADL has eloquently explained, “legislative efforts outside of Turkey are counterproductive to the goal of having Turkey itself come to grips with its past.” Post-Holocaust Germany reconciled with its past crimes through introspection, not through external pressure. Post-apartheid South Africa reconciled with the help of its heroic, homegrown leaders, not through leadership imposed upon them.

Moral people gravitate toward idealism, because the black and white of moral absolutes is easier to deal with than the grey areas of ambiguity and compromise. In a perfect world, there would be no need to temper idealism with pragmatism, but in that world, there would also be no injustice for the idealists to oppose. Alas, in the world we live in, there are both injustice and the undeniable need to be pragmatic.

The call of the idealists for Turkey to own up to its past is essential, and it will no doubt one day bear fruit. The ADL’s choice to consider Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide pragmatically is just as essential, and will no doubt bear fruit sooner than the call of the idealists. There is, indeed, geopolitics in genocide; for the ADL not to recognize that would be, to borrow Tarsy’s words, morally indefensible.

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