Cenk Uygur, founder of The Young Turks (TYT) , gets a lot of flack for giving his organization a name that triggers pain for many, especially those in the Armenian-American community.
Unfamiliar with what I’m talking about? TYT has become a network with bonafide progressive street cred, garnering more than one billion (billion with a b) YouTube views since its inception. But back in the early 1900s, The Young Turks was the name of the group that perpetrated the Armenian Genocide – slaughtering approximately 1.5 million Armenians and forcing deportations throughout both the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, the Republic of Turkey. The forced deportation of the survivors of that holocaust lasted from 1915-1923. The Young Turks of a century ago decimated a population that, even today, has not fully healed.
For several reasons, I chose to write on this topic today – the topic being the use of words many consider offensive, insulting, dehumanizing, or painful because of their association to a racial, ethnic or religious group’s intergenerational trauma.
First, the impetus for this article is a piece, published in the LA Progressive, by Maria Armoudian entitled, “Young Turks and Dead Armenians.” In it Dr. Armoudian, who is of Armenian decent, says that we should “not rub salt into our collective wounds by touting or elevating the names of murderous regimes like ‘The Young Turks.’”
As an African-American who is the direct descendant of enslaved Americans whose forced labor built this country – a country that still honors and holds in high esteem the men who enslaved my ancestors – I understand Maria’s proposition. I understand the power of words.
The LA Progressive joined a host of other publications in banning the use of the I-word. Race Forward launched the “Drop the I-Word” campaign to eliminate the use of the word “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrants because its use is dehumanizing, politically loaded, and technically inaccurate. Their paper, “Historical Background and Legal Implications of the Term “illegal”, offers a more complete explanation.
We applauded The Guardian for incorporating a rule in its journalistic stylebook that bans the use of the term “black-on-black crime”. Understanding that generally speaking, perpetrators of most crimes irrespective of their race, usually commit crime within their own communities- The Guardian and other publications including the LA Progressive believe that using the term “black-on-black crime” serves to further stigmatize the black community. Even though the vast majority of all crimes committed against white people are by other white people, who among us has heard it described as “white-on-white” crime? The same is true of crimes committed within the Latino, Asian American, or Native American communities.
We agree with over 100 professional organizations that have published resolutions or adopted policies around the use of Native American names or symbols by non-native sports teams. We believe that this practice is a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping that promotes misunderstanding and prejudice, which contributes to other problems faced by Native Americans.
But on the issue of Cenk Uygur’s TYT Network, there is another layer that makes this issue more complex. Cenk was born in Istanbul, Turkey. He is in fact a young Turk. While some might argue that he isn’t so young anymore, by his own admission, his decision to name TYT had nothing to do with the term’s historical context. He says the term was defined in the dictionary as, “young progressives looking to overthrow an established system”. So that definition coupled with his own ethnicity drove his decision.
In a meeting in San Diego with the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party, Cenk was forced to address this issue when several members of the Armenian Caucus stood in protest to a the keynote speech he had been invited to give that year. Members of the Armenian Caucus came into the packed room and stood with their backs facing him as he was about to speak.
I was there. As a member of the board of the Progressive Caucus at the time, you can see me seated on the panel to Cenk’s left. The meeting was tense and could have gone either way. But Cenk was able to diffuse the situation by starting off his talk by directly addressing the TYT issue. You can hear his talk in the video to the right.
I’m speculating here but it’s likely Cenk Uygur wasn’t as socially aware or as politically astute in 2002 when TYT was launched. The name has bitten him more than a few times. But, on the other hand, the negative reactions he’s received seem to serve as a sort of fuel that drives his desire to reach out to the Armenian community to form a bridge of understanding. The conflict that arose in the ballroom at the San Diego Convention Center on that day certainly provided lots of progressives with a lesson they hadn’t anticipated learning.
But as the publisher of the LA Progressive, I stand by Maria Armoudian’s right to express her desire that her people’s wounds should not have salt rubbed in them by touting or elevating the names of murderous regimes like “The Young Turks.”
As of this writing, Turkey continues to deny the Armenian Genocide. Only 29 countries of 193 countries officially recognize it. The United States is not among them, although 45 of the 50 states do acknowledge the mass annihilation.
And so, we get to why these positions are important to groups who have been abused, marginalized, discriminated against, ostracized, or otherwise treated like sh*t by the dominant group. It is because the words used today serve to protect or to further inflict harm. Frankly, I’ve often wondered if slaveholders or those who committed the thousands of lynchings were taken to trial and convicted of crimes against humanity — if the confederate flag was given the same treatment at the Nazi flag — would we be where we are today with the New Jim Crow or the killing of unarmed black men and women.
Words and actions taken after state-sanctioned atrocities help to set the stage for the future of the dispossessed and marginalized. In the case of the Jews, their full-scale “Never Again” campaign has served them well. They are right, we should never underestimate the human capacity to inflict untold horrors on other human beings. Being reminded is good for us all. Being reminded is an important tool in reducing the risk of history repeating itself.
Should Cenk change the name of TYT? I don’t know that I can answer that question. But I will say that it’s important that we keep the conversation going. That we keep reminding each other and never allow callousness to settle in on issues as critical as this.
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Publisher, LA Progressive