When Pope Francis and Kim Kardashian agree with each other, you know something is up.
Well, that’s what happened this week: The pontiff doubled down on his statement that the Ottoman Turks’ 1915 massacres of 1.5 million Armenians was a genocide—calling it the “first genocide of the 20th century”—and Kim and Khloe Kardashian, together with Kim’s husband Kanye West, visited a memorial to the massacre in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. They all then met with Armenia’s prime minister.
Will 2015, the centenary of the massacres, be the year when the Armenian Genocide finally becomes openly acknowledged by the world? It is telling that Pope Francis, who often acts like the conscience of the West, and Kardashian, who often acts like its libido, both cast a bright light on this dark period of history.
Interestingly, shortly after their visit to Yerevan, Kimye made their way to Jerusalem, where they had their daughter, North, baptized at a 12th-century Armenian church. As such, the high-profile pilgrimage—political and religious at once—would be a kind of “coming out” for the whole Kardashian clan.
The Kardashians have never hidden their Armenian ancestry, of course. It’s right there in their distinctive last name. But they’ve not exactly been Armenian activists either, and this is the daughters’ first-ever trip to Armenia.
In fairness, the Kardashians are not exactly immigrants: Their father was a third-generation American. But they are uniquely 21st-century American celebrities: Their mother may have married a white star athlete, but Kim married an outspoken hip-hop artist. The Kardashians themselves are white, but as one sociologist has remarked about American Jews, they are “off white.” As with other ethnic groups who choose to pass as white or not, the question is how “Other” they want to present themselves.
To be sure, the crowds that mobbed the Kardashians in Armenia and Jerusalem seemed more interested in celebrity-spotting than in calling attention to genocide and the nuances of multiculturalism.
But who cares? Celebrity culture being what it is, it’s possible that Kim and Khloe’s visit to Yerevan made more people aware of the Armenian Genocide than any single act in the century since it took place.
Interestingly, the Kardashians are not the only Armenian celebrities to recently take up the cause. Actor and writer Eric Bogosian—a beloved New York monologist best known to the wider public from roles in Law and Order and Under Siege 2—has just published a new, nonfiction account of a plot to exact revenge against those responsible for the genocide. Obviously, Bogosian has nowhere near the star wattage of a single Kardashian, but the attention is striking nonetheless.
Add to these celebrity efforts the remarkable long-form New Yorker piece by Raffi Khatchadourian, which, at 14,000 words, is somewhere between an article and novella.
It’s possible that this unprecedented level of attention will increase in the coming days. The official day for recognizing the genocide’s hundredth anniversary is April 24. The United States has long tried to have it both ways, reassuring Turkey while making ambiguous public comments about the massacres. But with Samantha Power—who wrote a 2002 book on the subject—now a U.N. ambassador and trusted confidante of a lame-duck president, perhaps the Obama administration will join the chorus.
There is little dispute, among non-Turkish scholars anyway, that what Armenians call Medz Yeghern—the Great Crime—was what we would today call a genocide, replete with incitements from officials that Christians do not belong in Turkey, mass roundups and executions, even concentration camps.
As Khatchadourian observed in his article, our knowledge of the exact details remains hindered by Turkey’s refusal to open its archives to scholars. There had been anti-Christian violence before, but in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the First World War, heavy losses on the Russian Front, and the ascendancy of the Young Turks and their “Turkish” identity politics, the stars aligned. On April 24, 1915, 200 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and killed.
The gruesome mechanisms of genocide followed in short order: deportations, camps, executions. Astonishingly, thousands of Armenians were literally sent down the Tigris River on rafts. Others were expelled to Syria. Others were massacred. In a book quoted by Khatchadourian, one survivor wrote, “The same sight met our view on every side; a man lying, his breast pierced by a bullet; a woman torn open by lead; a child sleeping his last sleep beside his mother; a girl in the flower of her age, in a posture which told its own story. Such was our journey until we arrived at a canal, called Kara Pounâr, near Diyarbakir, and here we found a change in the method of murder and savagery. We saw here bodies burned to ashes.”
Will attention from the Pope and the Kardashians bring these century-old atrocities to light?
For its part, Turkey has hewed closely to its decades-old script, denouncing the pope’s statement as “far from historic and legal truths.” Unlike in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, in Turkey, Genocide denial is official policy. Prime Minister Recip Erdogan has acknowledged that Armenians suffered, but only “just like every other citizen of the Ottoman empire.” He has denied that Turkey has any responsibility to apologize.
Turkey can argue with the Pope, but it may have more trouble arguing with the leading stars of reality television. If the Kardashians are serious about making the memory of the Armenian Genocide part of their “brand,” they could become the most powerful spokespeople in the world for an under-remembered tragedy in which a million of their people were murdered.