Carson On California: California’s apathy for Armenia reflects a national shortcoming

What is happening in the Caucasus?

It’s a question that I hope most Californians with an internet connection and a shred of empathy have asked themselves over the past several weeks. Our state is home to a vibrant community of over 200,000 Armenian Americans, by far the largest of any other state. As a result, for a significant portion of Californians, especially Angelenos, the sheer size of the community means that its members are frequently classmates, neighbors and pillars of local communities. In light of the destruction and violence presumably facing their extended families abroad, it stands to reason that the conflict in the Caucasus should be at the top of Californians’ political radar. 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. 

For months now, my social media feed has been virtually flooded with various forms of activism. If you’re a 20-something in Los Angeles, you probably know what I’m talking about — endless resource guides, petitions and informational graphics. For the most part, the trend feels like a welcome and positive development. While keeping concerns regarding performatism in mind, it feels safe to say that the more people learning and speaking out against injustice, the better. 

However, when it comes to the conflict in Caucasus and the spectre of ethnic-cleansing against Armenians that comes with it, social media appears notably muted on the subject. Whereas for months, everyone and their dog felt compelled to signal their position on a whole range of complex issues (from democratic-socialism to the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang), now, as a community fights for its existence, what was once a downpour of goodwill and activism is now a barren desert of willful disinterest. 

Twitter and Instagram are not and should not be California’s official barometer for public concern. Still, the platforms can provide useful insights into the ebbs and flows of popular attitudes and opinions. As previously mentioned, so far these insights suggest that Californians aren’t necessarily antagonistic toward any of the relevant parties involved in the Caucasus — they just don’t really care or know what’s happening in the first place. 

What is most concerning, however, is that this apathy is unsurprising. It is not just emblematic of a Californian shortcoming but of a deeply concerning national shortcoming: Americans’ apathy for foreign policy. 

The United States has been the single most influential and impactful actor in the realm of foreign affairs for over seven decades. In the aftermath of World War II, it was the United States that built the postwar international order. The United States has written the world’s rulebook since then and it’s been their decisions that have shaped the fate of countless nations since then, for better and for worse.

In light of U.S. power and the democratic processes that underpin American power, one would imagine that its citizenry would be adequately informed and cognizant of international developments, given the responsibility it holds. After all, we elect the leaders that have waged cold wars, hot wars and trade wars and we will continue to do so. 

Despite this responsibility, a dangerous amount of ignorance permeates the U.S. electorate. In a 2017 Pew Research Study, only 60% of Americans knew that Britain was leaving the European Union and less than half of Americans could name the U.S. Secretary of State. 

Democracies can only function effectively if their citizenry is informed and clearly, the U.S. citizenry isn’t holding up its end of the bargain. 

There is an argument to be made for rational ignorance here. Given the abundance of more pressing, everyday challenges, especially in the midst of a pandemic, it makes sense why Americans wouldn’t take their time to learn about what is happening in a far-flung region of the world. However, there is a threshold at which rational ignorance becomes dangerous ignorance and in the case of the conflict in the Caucasus, dangerous ignorance could mean the difference between a neighbor’s family living or dying. 

At the end of the day, this column is supposed to be California-centric, so I’ll close with this. 

California leads. We lead on the national stage, with Californians serving as both House Minority leader and Speaker of the House. We lead in setting the policy agenda for the rest of the country. California was the first state to approve a $15 minimum wage and the state’s environmental policies are the most ambitious in the country. However, we do not lead in foreign policy interest. Data collected over the course of the past 16 years reveals that when it comes to Google searches within the topic of “Foreign Policy,” California is outpaced by 19 other U.S. States and U.S. territories. The same data also reveals that we have led the nation in searches for “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” over the same period of time. 

California ascending past the likes of Washington D.C. in foreign policy interest will not end the violence in the Caucusus. Neither will an influx of social media activism. In reality, it would be inappropriate of me to even suggest I know the solution to the threat Armenia faces. However, U.S. leadership has the power to both inflame and ameliorate the conflict, and if we expect our nation to do the latter, it will require a fundamental shift and improvement in the way Americans understand their place and influence in the world. As with many other aspects of U.S. life, hopefully California will be leaders on this front as well.

Stuart Carson is a senior writing about California politics. He is also one of the deputy diversity & inclusion directors for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Carson On California”, runs ever other Monday.