Definitions & Deflations

Book review by Lucine Kasbarian, NJ USA, 15 May 2024

Definitions & Deflations:
A Personal Dictionary
of Terms Commonly Misconstrued
in the Armenian-American Community
of the 1970s and early 1980s
By Jack Antreassian
Published by Ashod Press, 1984, New York

There’s an old wisecrack called “The Six Phases of a Project,” which originated and caught on in the American information technology sector in the 1970s:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search for the Guilty
  5. Punishment of the Innocent
  6. Praise and Honors for the Non-Participants

One can call Definitions & Deflations a delineation of the above.

Full of love for the Armenian people and their ethos, the late author, cultural maverick and Armenian community functionary Jack Antreassian nevertheless possessed a dispirited stance in his Definitions & Deflations, bore out from years of community service witnessing some of the best and worst attributes of the human condition.

In Definitions & Deflations, and like The Devil’s Dictionary produced before his time, Antreassian created his own dictionary definitions of common words that any community activist – Armenian or otherwise – would recognize. After assigning a cynical definition to each word or phrase (annual report; executive director; political parties) the author describes – without naming names, neither demonstrating self-pity nor vindictiveness – true happenings witnessed at his career posts and in the halls of power.

Following are some of the definitions and deflations (of ego) according to Antreassian:

Annual Report: A new form of fiction, created for themselves by large groups of people; with invariably happy endings, patent self-deception and braggadocio.

Chauvinism: Glorifying in the achievements of others on the shabby basis that one happens to belong to the same national grouping.

Delegate: A device to convey the appearance of public participation in organizational and church policy without risking public intrusion.

Election: (Some) people’s choice; blind man’s bluff; passing the buck; unnatural selection.

Executive Director: Formerly a public servant of stature, recently more nearly a server of the self, using the public as a vehicle for that service.

Leaders: Elected by, but not accountable to members, who remain forever innocent of any knowledge of their qualifications.

Newspapers: Diverting publications through which political parties and persons impose their narrow views of the community on the community, their relation to reality being altogether coincidental.

Political parties: Political movements that don’t have any idea where they are going, but continue to move because there is nothing else for them to do.

Volunteer: Unpaid tenders to the needs of others; often selfless, sometimes selfish, occasionally objects to abuse and exploitation.

A sampling of the topics in Definitions & Deflations include: cultural stagnation and loss of indigenous language; disrespect for unpaid experts toiling for the collective; feuds and rivalries; lifetime tenures, nepotism and the abuse of power; imperious, narcissistic leadership and intolerance for justified criticism; partisanship masquerading as journalism; self-censorship and lack of transparency; and the silencing of dissent and targeted destruction of competing ideas.

Antreassian then outlines circumstances he would have preferred to have seen as could only be described by a freethinker who couldn’t be bought by promises of status, sycophancy or financial gain. As a jaded optimist, the author’s purpose in writing Definitions & Deflations was not to sling mud but to awaken the masses and welcome fresh thinking.

The author was well equipped to pen such a volume. He was the editor of a large Armenian community newspaper as well as a valued Armenian literary quarterly. He was a prolific translator (Yervant Odian’s Comrade Panchoonie, Hagop Baronian’s Perils of Politeness) and was himself an author (Confessions of Kitchoonie). All the aforementioned works were scathing, satirical indictments of Armenians caught up in vanity, arrogance, appearances and ineptitude.  Antreassian had a front-row seat to such tendencies and excelled at describing them.

If this review reminds readers of a previous Keghart article about Ambrose Bierce, they’d be right. Antreassian was the Armenian version of that celebrated literary figure and critic though far less curmudgeonly

In his lifetime, Antreassian launched the Armenian literary imprints, Ararat Press and Ashod Press, initiated the Anahid Literary Award and was instrumental in facilitating NYC’s One World Festival. He was also a high-ranking public servant for the Armenian church and charitable organizations. After toiling in the trenches his entire adult life, this soldier of the Armenian nation earned a right to comment on the byzantine management techniques in place at cultural, political, ecclesiastical and benevolent institutions of the Diaspora. Unsparing in his razor-sharp observations and not limiting his piercing gaze to any particular partisan group, Antreassian raised issues that are not unique to the Armenian-American community either. Toxic leadership is just as de rigueur in non-Armenian groups, political parties or parishes whether in First World nations or developing countries. Even so, Antreassian believed Armenians were capable of rising above such behavior. No matter the critique, evident is Antreassian’s desire to see his people harness and weave tested traditions with modern innovation to address the needs of a community deserving of great leadership while enduring a challenging existence in exile.

Definitions & Deflations begins with an introduction hypothetically written after Antreassian’s death from a purgatory of malcontents looking down upon earth and the Armenian community. He warns all that if Armenians remain on their collision course, “the divisions and animosities will drive Armenians closer to the extinction they so dread.”  He was well aware that highly patriotic and proficient individuals retreated from Armenian community service. Some blame volunteerism as the culprit for having gone out of vogue.  However, Antreassian also knew that a brain drain had taken place and continues to occur in response to the undemocratic and high-handed postures of some of our organizations.

Why review a book from 40 years ago? Armenians are on the brink of losing the last sliver of their patrimony on indigenous soil. We cannot afford to duplicate the oligarchic worldviews gripping Armenia and the Diaspora by sustaining them. This book is cautionary and inspiring. Can a whole infrastructure be reconfigured and is there time? Or, in the words of Antreassian’s detractors, is that “just the way the world is?”

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Lucine Kasbarian is a journalist, book publicist and political cartoonist.

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