Rot – Part 22

April 2nd, 2009

If Greeks loved their children, would they—just to describe a few things I’ve seen with my own eyes—let them ride, helmetless, on motorbikes sandwiched between baba and mama, on roads designed for mules in the countryside, or, in a city, flying along in the wrong direction on a one-way street? Would they put their children on their laps as they’re driving their cars (passing those motorbikes with sandwiched children on them on single-lane roads)? Would they give their 11-year-olds their own motorbikes to drive, up and down mountains, in towns, in front of police officers, who apparently see nothing out of the ordinary (let alone illegal) in 11-year-olds riding around on μηχανάκια? And would they let these same 11-year-olds and 10-year-olds and nine-year-olds and even six-year-olds play until well past the most liberal definition of a child’s bedtime, often eleven o’clock at night, sometimes even midnight? (Yesterday morning, I saw a woman—a mother, I assumed—with a baby that couldn’t have been older than six months getting into the back of a chauffeur-driven Mercedes SUV with an older woman, probably the child’s grandmother. As the younger woman was settling in—and the tinted windows were going up, presumably so the air conditioning could be turned on, even though it was beautifully balmy—I couldn’t help but notice that there was no baby seat attached to the backseat, and that she was simply holding the baby in her arms. I felt sorry for the child. Although s/he’d probably survive the car ride, s/he’d undoubtedly never survive her/his parents.)

And, I wonder, if Greeks really loved their children, would they give them puppies as Christmas gifts that end up as abandoned dogs in the parks or on the side of urban highways by the following Easter because little Takês or Litsa can’t be bothered to care for the animal, which, if not doomed to life as a stray becomes the exclusive ward of the Filipino maid or houseboy? (I’ve come to the conclusion that if it weren’t for Filipinos, the Greek bourgeoisie could hardly manage to wipe its collective ass.) Would they teach their children that the environment is, at best, an abstraction and, in reality, an impediment to “development”—invariably one’s own “upgrading” or “expansion” of inherited property? What’s the point to a beach, after all, without any discos or bars on it? Besides, while burning forests might be a (temporarily) sad sight, they quickly regenerate themselves with sprouting μεζονέτες.

Two Sundays ago—March 22, World Water Day—my friend, Giôrgos, asked me if I knew who the top two per-capita “consumers” (that is, by definition, wasters) of water in the world were. When it comes to the egotistical and grotesque dissipation of the planet’s resources, we all learned a long time ago that nobody beats the US (although, of course, it’s much easier for us Americans to scapegoat the Chinese and Indians). So, I responded with an assured “United States” for most profligate nation. That’s easy, Giôrgos shot back, but who’s number two? I knew where this was going. Greece? I answered, tentatively. That’s right, Giôrgos affirmed. And, while I believed him, I couldn’t believe it, that fact—yet another indication of the country’s blithe corruption by every measure of civic consciousness.

According to the Dutch NGO, Water Footprint Network, the per-capita American consumption of water is 2,483 cubic meters per year; Greece’s is 2,389. The world average is 1,243, virtually half the amount of water consumed by Greeks. Following are some other national data, as standards of comparison.

In Greece’s own neighborhood, Albania consumes 1,228 cubic meters; Bulgaria, 1,395; Turkey, 1,615; and Romania, 1,734. (It is noteworthy, however, that Cyprus—that is, the Greek part of Cyprus—is also one of the top ten worst offenders in the world, wasting 2,208 cubic meters per year per person. Is there a Greek gene programmed for social idiocy and destruction?) If we take the major countries of western Europe, the Netherlands consumes 1,223 cubic meters per capita (less than the global average); the UK, 1,245 (just a pinch more, but an indication that, on the environment at least, there is no Anglo-Saxon unity with the US); Germany, 1,545; and France, a relatively high 1,875. But even France’s consumption—which is obviously affected by the most celebrated and sought-after agricultural production in the world—is 27 percent below that of Greece. Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, each Dane consumes 1,440 cubic meters per year; each Norwegian, 1,467; each Swede, 1,621; and each Finn, 1727.

Oh, and what about those wastrels, China and India, who have the temerity to try and catch up with the West and provide their citizens with the same standards of living that New Yorkers, Londoners, and Parisians take for granted, and, in so doing, are allegedly causing massive environmental damage that the oh-so-environmentally-pure-and-conscientious West is trying to ameliorate? India’s per-capita, per-annum consumption of water is 980 cubic meters—roughly two and a half times below American and Greek consumption—while China’s evil, communistic exploitation of nature amounts to 702 cubic meters of water per year for every Chinese: almost three and a half times less American-Greek consumption. (Even the most economically developed nation in Asia, Japan, consumes about seven percent less than the global average, at 1,153 cubic meters per capita.) As Gandhi famously retorted when asked what he thought of Western civilization: good idea.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 21

March 29th, 2009

…[I]n practice, there is very little human contact between deputies of different nationalities [in the European parliament]. In the evenings, everyone goes out to dinner with their fellow countrymen—Germans with Germans, Italians with Italians; it is very rare to see people of different nationalities dining together….Everyone reads their own national newspaper: the Italians come along with La Repubblica, the Spanish with El País, the British with the Guardian, the French with Le Monde….

Curiously, though, this national clustering is much less noticeable among the UK deputies—instead there is a rigid division along party lines. Conservatives and Labourites rarely have coffee together, as if they were two completely separate species, whereas Italian Christian Democrats, Communists and Socialists, who are much more distinct ideologically, all eat together, play cards afterwards, and are on first-name terms. These are to some extent matters of “national character,” but there is also the question of different political cultures—different ways of speaking and of approaching a subject. Sometimes this ends in disaster, and the discussion breaks down because the translators are unable to continue; it’s not a technical problem of rendering Italian into English or German into Spanish, but one of cultural translation. Even discussing North Sea fishing stocks, for example, an Italian will pose the matter as a dialectic between fish, coast and sea, silencing the translators, while an English MEP will be incapable of understanding a non-empirical speech. I have always hoped that a linguist would study the mode of expression of deputies to the European Parliament, because it would be a fantastic laboratory. There is much more homogeneity among deputies from the same country than among members of the same political party—it counts far more whether one is British or Irish than a Socialist or a Liberal. The hold of national structures is far stronger than any other affiliation.
Luciana Castellina, member of the European parliament, 1979-1999, from “European?,” interview with the New Left Review, January-February 2009

One of the more inane taboos of the postmodernist academy is the ban on the concept of national distinction(s), or, to use the politically correct accusation, “essentialism.” (The term reeks of witchcraft and grand inquisitors. How can any self-respecting rationalist not oppose it?) Partially a self-evident and genuinely scientific response after the Second World War to the imperialist/social Darwinist/fascist pseudoscience that culminated in Nazi notions of the master race(s), it has become in the contemporary Western university another sign of the madness of academic crowds, as professors of “cultural studies” mindlessly throw the cultural baby out with the ideological bathwater (fortunately, E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams are no longer alive to see what the epigones have wrought). As Luciana Castellina—a brilliant foe of conservatism in all its guises (including on the left) throughout the entire postwar period—points out in the excerpt above, it’s not a matter of nature over nurture, but of nurture in and of itself. We drink our cultural exceptionalism with our mother’s milk. (Castellina’s shrewd remark about Anglo-Saxon ideological cleavages trumping even national ones shows just how rigid, almost cruel, Anglo-American notions of “community” are, and how radically opposed they remain to European notions of solidarity and society.) No one in her or his right mind believes anything other than that every human being on the face of the planet is biologically identical (within the obvious genetic variance inherent in this identity); but only someone clearly out of her or his mind can possibly believe that this biological unity constitutes the sum of individual identity.

Before I interrupted myself for Greece’s national holiday, I was talking about the fascism of everyday life, the daily oppression that, in Athens at least, weighs down on you like a drenched and smelly coat. I’m a bit luckier than most of this city’s residents since, living in Kolônaki, I’m at least surrounded by the illusion of Europe. But it’s a shallow trick, immediately exposed at the first step I take outside my door, turning to see a motorcycle headed straight for me, on the sidewalk.

In my post of March 24, I talked about children, and how they’re hostages to their parents’ ego(tism)s. In Greece, you see this clearly, just as you also see how “national structures,” to echo Castellina, are passed on generationally. One of the hoariest myths of Greek (and, more broadly, Mediterranean) society is how “tightly knit” families are, and how the family unit is the essential element of Greek life. But that is only true if we define the family, and its purpose, in the same way the Mafia does.

If family is fundamentally perceived as clan—the word Greeks use to denote the extended kinship unit is not family (οικογένεια) but σόι—as the irreducible unit of self-aggrandizement and, so, by definition, self-defense, as the tribal fortress protecting the individual against society, as the subversion of society, then, yes, Greeks are exceedingly (that is, pathologically) “family”-bound, in the most literally Hobbesian way (every family against every other family). Dynasty, after all, is a Greek word. And it sums up precisely how Greeks actually look upon the family’s purpose.

Which is none other than as the central medium of self-enrichment and road to power (economic, social, political, or a combination of all three). Living in Kolônaki, of course, I get a particularly jaded (which is to say accurate) view of Greek society, and its social dynamics. Vasilis Vasilikos famously observed that, in Greece, the sociopolitical rupture is not between left or right, rich or poor, North or South, male or female, or even straight or gay, but between the anonymous and the eponymous. In Greece, one’s name is one’s salvation, which is also why, in only apparent (democratic) paradox, it is still a fact of existential survival in this country that “είσαι ό,τι δηλώσεις”—you are whatever you declare yourself to be—as Yannis Tsarouchis put it in a legendary remark that has since become the national motto.

This sense of family as simultaneously retreat and invasion, defense and aggression, citadel and Trojan Horse, is seen most clearly in Greeks’ attitudes to their children. Another cliché regarding the Greek family is how much Greeks “love” their children, as if the French or Chinese or Bolivians or Nigerians don’t, or just don’t “όπως εμείς οι Έλληνες” (“the way we Greeks do”). My own experience with seeing how they are raised has convinced me that, in fact, nobody hates their children as much as Greeks do.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 20

March 25th, 2009

Today is March 25th, Greece’s Independence Day, its national holiday. Liturgically, it commemorates the beginning of the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman empire. In fact, it represents both the initial catalyst to and the continual reference-point of a fabricated modern historiography, a seemingly endless fraud whose only purpose is the preservation—indeed, sanctification—of a mendacious national ideology whose claims are as pathetic as they are specious.

First things first. Every country invents tradition, imagines its national community, and continually manufactures (majoritarian) consent. Every country invents history, in other words, rather than simply “recording” it. (How does one “record” a human—which is to say a subjective—construction such as “freedom” or “justice” or, even more nebulous, “patriotism” or “identity.”) After all, everyone knows what the phrase, “official history,” means and why it is, almost by definition, a victors’ history. Still, all of us also know that history is never written, but, rather, repeatedly rewritten, and that, in any case, embellishment—magnification, prettification—or sometimes even diminishment (invariably of mass crimes and systemic violence) makes for infinitely more persuasive propaganda than utter and complete invention.

The first words on the Declaration of Independence, for example, read: “In Congress, July 4, 1776….” So, it is a fair assumption that this fundamental document of a nation’s self-creation is pretty much linked to that date.

Moving across the Atlantic, we know for a fact that, on July 14, 1789, the Bastille was stormed by an angry (very soon to become revolutionary) multitude of Parisians (probably less than a thousand men and women) that liberated its seven prisoners—four forgers, two inmates incarcerated as “lunatics,” and a “deviant” aristocrat (but not the Marquis de Sade, who, it turns out, had been transferred to the asylum at Charenton on, coincidentally enough, July 4)—murdered its governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, cut off his head (which was then stuck on a pike, to be paraded through the streets of Paris), and, before evening had fallen, taken control of this medieval emblem of arbitrary royal power. Indeed, we have so much detailed knowledge about what transpired on that day in Paris that it’s almost as if it happened a week ago. Historians have been able to reconstruct a virtual hour-by-hour account: 10:30, the citizens of Paris meet outside the Hôtel de Ville and dispatch a delegation to De Launay; 11:30, a second delegation is sent to the Bastille; 13:30, De Launay orders his troops (82 invalides and 32 grenadiers from the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment) to open fire on the crowd that is now massed in the prison’s outer courtyard; 14:00, a third delegation is sent to the Bastille; 15:00, the attackers are reinforced by mutinous troops; 15:30, a detachment of 61 soldiers commanded by Pierre Hulin, a former sergeant of the Swiss guards, arrives with five cannons; 17:00, De Launay orders a ceasefire; 17:30, les vainqueurs de la Bastille free the fortress. Besides De Launay, 99 people died in the fighting, 98 of them vainqueurs, roughly 600 of whose names have come down to us.

So, yes, we know a great deal about July 14, 1789 (as well as, I might add, July 11, 12, 13, and 15, not to mention the days and years that followed). Under the circumstances, again, it’s understandable that this day was chosen by the French as their national holiday.

And now we come to Greece. March 25 memorializes the onset of the Greek war of independence; specifically, it celebrates what is presented as the foundational act of nationhood. On that day, as every Greek “knows,” Palaiôn Patrôn Germanos—that is, Germanos, bishop of Old Patras—blessed the “λάβαρο(α),” or banner(s) (or flag[s], depending on the version) of the Greek revolution at the Monastery of Agia Lavra in the Peloponnese, to the shouts of “Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος,” (“Freedom or Death”), before the insurgents went off to begin their national liberation struggle.

Unfortunately, none of the above ever happened. Not the event in general, nor any of its constituent elements. Palaiôn Patrôn Germanos was not at Agia Lavra on March 25, 1821 (the monastery was apparently closed to outsiders that day); he did not bless a gathering of Greek insurgents there; and the war of independence, in any case, had started a month earlier when Alexandros Ypsêlantês, head of the Filikê Etaireia, landed in the Danubian Principalities and issued, on February 24, his now famous call for a general Greek uprising against the Ottomans, the “Fight for Faith and the Fatherland” (“Μάχου υπέρ πίστεως και πατρίδος”). It is not at all coincidental that Ypsêlantês’s call is, first, a fight for faith and only secondarily a call to struggle for (actually, for creation of) the fatherland. Just as it is not coincidental that, centuries before March 25 was manufactured by the Greeks as their “national” holiday, they—and most Christians throughout the world—were celebrating it as one of their most important religious ones.

March 25 is, of course, the Feast of the Annunciation. My use of the term, “liturgical,” in the first paragraph was, therefore, quite literal. The symbolism, and symmetric absurdity, is almost too transparent to be true: just as it is (presumably) revealed to Mary that she will bear the Son of God on that day, it was revealed to the Greeks on the same day that they would give birth to their freedom. (In Greece, by the way, we wish pregnant women, “Καλή λευτεριά,” or “Happy Liberation.”) What is painfully sad is that this fabrication, this nonexistent “history,” continues to be taught to Greek schoolchildren, and that most Greek adults also undoubtedly believe it to be true.

The truth about the Greek war of independence is that, among other things, it was plagued by two civil wars and various massacres by the Greeks (that of Tripolitsa perpetrated by Theodôros Kolokotrônês being the most infamous), including the wholesale destruction of several Jewish communities throughout the areas of conflict. Moreover, in the end, Ibrahim Pasha’s ruthless campaign in the Morea after his landing at Methônê had essentially defeated the rebels by 1827. Which is why the Great Powers, seeing that the Greeks could no longer be counted on to further European interests regarding the “Eastern Question,” finally decided to take matters into their own hands. It was the Battle of Navarino, which decimated Ibrahim’s fleet and, so, his warmaking capacities, that allowed the Great Powers to—there’s no other way to put it—bestow freedom upon the Greeks.

So, what happens to a nation that so shamelessly invents its history? How does it contend with the present, and future, given such a fundamentally fraudulent and, above all, deluded relationship to its past? Does it learn from its (self-)deceptions? Does it redefine itself according to history rather than in opposition to it? And does it perceive the future as prospect or fear, as an unbending road of insistent self-justification or as a turn, a redirection, into a different, transformative geography? The question, ultimately, is not whether those who ignore their history are condemned to repeat it, but whether those who fabricate it are doomed to suffer the consequences of their forgery.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 19

March 24th, 2009

The word, “fascism,” had been roiling my brain for a few days before reading Perry Anderson’s essay, since I’d been thinking that, although I’ll be turning 60 next year, it’s only recently, living in Greece, that I’ve realized—by which I mean, felt in my bones—that fascism is not so much political disorder as existential regress and, so, psychological flight. Wilhelm Reich was right about one thing: fascism is more self-repression than political oppression—or, rather, the former leads to the latter. Which explains why, as Robert Paxton wrote several years ago in The Anatomy of Fascism, it exists at a primary level “within all democratic counties—not excluding the United States” (as in the Kulturkampfen of the last several decades fought with delirious abandon by the Christian right).

Still, by all appearances, political fascism is much less of a threat to the world in this first decade of the twenty-first century than what used to be called—way back when, in the Sixties—the fascism of everyday life, which, while as notoriously difficult to define as its broader, sociopolitical namesake, is very like obscenity: we know it when we see it. Television “news,” for example (whether Fox or MSNBC, the method of intellectual coercion is the same, designed to obliterate any notion of independent judgment): where’s Howard Beale now that we really need him? Or cell phones: has a more Orwellian technology of existential servitude ever been invented? Or, just to open it up a bit, what is now called “social networking” (to distinguish it, I suppose, from what was once social exchange and intercourse): texting, Twittering (linguistic vivisection) YouTubing (self-celebrity as social purpose), and, of course, Facebooking. An article in the New York Times recently (March 7), appropriately titled “When Everyone’s A Friend, Is Anything Private?,” reported that the average number of “friends” for Facebook’s 175 million members is today 120 (up from 100 a mere three months earlier). One hundred and twenty friends?

Even given Facebook’s gross misdefinition of the word, how can one even conceptualize the notion of 120 friends? I have a hard time coming up with a dozen, assuming the word has any meaning or coherence whatsoever. Actually, if I apply strict rules (not to mention my own sense of reality and myself), I get down to a handful—including my wife. The primary definition of “friend” in the American Heritage Dictionary is “A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts [my emphasis].” The fourth edition adds a “word history”: “A friend is a lover, literally. The relationship between Latin amîcus ‘friend’ and amô ‘I love’ is clear, as is the relationship between Greek philos ‘friend’ and phileô ‘I love.’ In English, though, we have to go back a millennium before we see the verb related to friend. At that time, frêond, the Old English word for ‘friend,’ was simply the present participle of the verb frêon, ‘to love.’ The Germanic root behind this verb is frî-, which meant ‘to like, love, be friendly to….’” I would only add that the modern Greek φιλώ, to kiss, comes from the same root—φιλέω—as φίλος, or friend.

Modernity is clearly redefining the concept of human intimacy and, what amounts to the same thing, exchange. Of course, every age does the same, reconsidering and altering the relation(ship)s between individual and collective. The problem with today’s descent into Facebookery is that human relations are no longer seen as a balance of obligations and reciprocities between individual and collective, but as a consolidation of private and public. Indeed, what is happening to us—another consequence of the degradation of social life by the Friedmanite depredations of Thatcher and Reagan and their acolytes, Blair and Clinton—is the privatization of public life.

My wife has been in New York for two months now. On the subway one day, she heard the following explanation of the world delivered by a mother to a child, who was laying down and thus taking up more than one seat. The child had to limit itself to its own place, the mother said, because “We have to share our space.”

Putting aside the sheer touchy-feely-ness of this abdication of parental nous (and authority), the notion that a subway could ever possibly be construed as an object of magnanimous “sharing” (and, therefore, of prior appropriation) is, of course, a triumph of ego over society (not to mention reality). My parents, my wife’s parents, the parents of anyone over a certain age would have told us “to sit straight” (before we’d ever managed to stretch out in the first place) as we were in a public conveyance. “You’re not at home,” is what most parents would have added in definitive clarification as to why this kind of behavior was not only boorish, but—this is the real point—subversive of the very notion of human coexistence. There would have been no (parentally complicitous) “we”, certainly no “our,” and the idea of “sharing”—that is, effectively seizing—something that did not (actually, could not) belong to you, at least not until you’d become a taxpaying citizen with civic purchase on the administration of public property, would have been either incomprehensible or, quite literally, fascist.

It’s one thing, however, when children impulsively violate the rules of social comity—they’re children, after all, and can only be socialized by elders. The problem is when the elders themselves smash the rules and grind underfoot the very meaning of community and collective existence. In that sense, New York is child’s play compared to Athens.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 18

March 6th, 2009

Where the state has led, society has followed. The years since 1993 have, in one area of life after another, been the most calamitous since the fall of Fascism….

…When the Second Republic started, Italy still enjoyed the second-highest GDP per capita of the big EU states, measured in purchasing power parity, after Germany—a standard of living in real terms above that of France or Britain. Today it has fallen below an EU average now weighed down by the relative poverty of the East European states, and is close to being overtaken by Greece.
Perry Anderson, “An Entire Order Converted to What It Was Intended to End,” London Review of Books, February 26

To call this blog desultory would be too kind by half. I apologize to the reader (if there are any left after the way I’ve abused both their patience and tolerance), but life isn’t a straight line. Or a headline. Most journalists tend to get almost everything wrong most of the time because they think of the events they cover mostly as headlines, and of “causality” as a straight link from A to B to C. It’s only much later, after historians have been able to disentangle the heretofore invisible webs surrounding the erstwhile straight lines that we realize that what we thought was A was, in fact, L, and B was F, and C was Q, and the actual A, B, and C of any given event had long ago disappeared under the weight of years of journalistic disconnection, which is to say historical erasure.

I began this blog as a way to work out (for myself, more than anyone, as it turns out) what I thought of the riots that occurred last December. Almost as soon as I began typing my thoughts onto the screen, however, I realized that the contemporaneous description of events—journalism, in other words—suffers from its own observer effect. What you, the reader, get is definitely what the journalist sees, but what the journalist sees is hardly ever what is actually happening.

Because you never really know what you’re looking at until it’s over. It’s like that split second when you’ve averted a head-on collision, or a brick from a construction site that’s fallen an inch from your face (I’ve experienced both). It’s only after the moment has passed that you break out in a cold sweat, having realized the mortal danger you’ve just managed to survive by a fateful snap of a finger. The reason reporting is so difficult is because it’s so hard to determine what, exactly, to report on, what the “angle” is, to use the apposite jargon of what were once called newspapermen. It really is all a matter of angle(s). Where are you standing? What do you see? What don’t you see? How do you see it? From up top, or on street level. From a helicopter, or in the very midst of a crowd, mob, or police unit? Are you “embedded” or a “free lancer”? And with whom are you embedded? And for whom are you wielding that lance?

So, even though I began this blog with the best of intentions, I’ve realized pretty quickly where the road paved with those intentions leads. I’ve repeatedly had to take a time out, to catch my perceptual/hermeneutic/analytical breath, and go back and run everything through my mind yet again, just one more time, one endlessly last time that’s never final and invariably leads to the need for another mental break. More important, I’ve realized, yet again, that the only credible, only trustworthy “reporters” are historians because only they can see/determine/excavate the fact that A was indeed L, B was F, and C…well, C may or may not be Q because we’re still looking for it, trying to figure out if it ever existed. This is all to say, at the risk of inordinate triteness, that the only way to make any real sense of the present is to retrieve its links to the past. It’s also my way of apologizing for a blog whose contents might seem increasingly arcane and whose schedule is decidedly fluid, not to say random.

**********

The worst problem about living in Greece is that you continually think you’re losing your mind. My wife and I had the same problem with the States under Bush. I assume that Russia since the fall of Gorbachev is much the same. I think that should become the effective definition of a “failed state”: a place in which normality is tantamount to mental disorder. Reading Perry Anderson on Italy—another failed state, it seems—a few days ago, I was struck by the shock of recognition. Indeed, when I came to his conclusion, toward the end of his essay, that the last 15 years in Italy have been “the most calamitous since the fall of Fascism,” it was as if I was staring at my own thoughts transmitted back to me in some kind of weird transference.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 17

February 13th, 2009

If justice was done in the Trial of the Six, it was a vindictive and malignant justice. Which is why, decades afterward, its memory would add to the toxicity of a political culture already poisoned by the division among royalists, Venizelists, and, from the Thirties on, the left. The trial constituted the century’s foundational ideological “blood crime,” which the right would seek to avenge (and which it did, unhappily, a thousand times over), legally or illegally, constitutionally or paraconstitutionally, until the monarchy was finally ended (by overwhelming popular vote) in 1974. The current republic is, in fact, the third and only successful attempt in modern Greek history to create a genuinely democratic constitution. As such, it is directly related to (in many ways, the long-sought ideological offspring of) the republic that was the ultimate constitutional outcome of the anti-royalist revolt of September 1922. This doomed Second Republic, proclaimed in March 1924—16 months after the execution of the “six”—would be overturned 11 years later, remaining unvindicated until 1975.

Yet, the far-right deputy, Adônis Geôrgiadês, praised Nikolaos Plastêras for the courage, despite its fundamental “error,” of his convictions in executing six men who are still considered political “martyrs” (or, at the very least, innocent victims of an odious partisan conspiracy) by a vast majority on the right (and not just the reactionary right). Is it possible that historical “reconciliation” has advanced much farther in Greece than anybody cares to admit? Hardly. There is something else, hidden in plain sight, in this revisionism by the right of what was until now its version not only of Greece’s history, but of its own role in the political developments of the previous century.

The acronym of Geôrgiadês’s party is LAOS. The word, “λαός,” of course, means “people” in Greek. The acronym itself stands for Λαϊκός Ορθόδοξος Συναγερμός, Popular Orthodox Rally. The name says it all: LAOS is a populist right-wing party whose reactionary foundation is based precisely on an opportunistic reactivity to unfolding circumstances. Since LAOS entered parliament in the last elections a year and a half ago, it has trimmed its ideological sails. Beginning as a motley assortment of elements from various far-right groupuscules (most infamously, the fascist Χρυσή Αυγή, or Golden Dawn), specifically designed to sabotage the political project of mainstream conservatives by peeling off voters on New Democracy’s most extreme right flank, it has now become a parliamentary (and, thus, “serious”) party, validated by its very presence in the national assembly. As such, it is now after much bigger fish to fry, in both major parties. Seeking to develop from radical sect into broad (or, at least, broader) church, it has quickly become unusually ecumenical. Characteristically, a month before the 2007 elections, it stage-managed the announcement of a former PASOK deputy that he was joining LAOS because, according to him, PASOK’s “patriotic” wing had been purged under George Papandreou’s leadership, which, furthermore, was “submissive” (ενδοτική) and “in retreat” (υποχωρητική) on the “εθνικά θέματα” (national issues).

The εθνικά θέματα: that notorious Greek political Molotov cocktail. What crimes—not to mention less tragic idiocies—have not been committed in its name? Just in my lifetime, we have Cyprus, Macedonia, and relations with Turkey or (before 1989) Albania. In the post-junta period, however, it’s been the ostensibly “left-wing” PASOK that, to its disrepute and the country’s ill luck, has been the most nationalist of the (electorally or ideologically) significant parties in the country, its ”panhellenism” invariably trumping, and marginalizing, its “socialism.” Andreas Papandreou came to power riding a wave of legitimate popular anger over decades of wounded and humiliated national sovereignty; in office, he (masterfully, if obviously) elaborated a demagogic, self-serving esthetic of rhetorical nationalism that masked utterly conventional—in fact, conventionally compromised—politics. It held him in good stead electorally, but (predictably) ruined any possibility of genuine social or political reform. (That might that have been its ultimate purpose given that Andreas was the cynical, demagogic son of a cynical, demagogic father, on whose political knee he undoubtedly absorbed the secrets and lessons of a political life rich in deceit and self-promotion.)

This irreducible link between nationalism, right-wing extremism, and left-wing opportunism (albeit almost always of the soft and squishy center-left) explains, regrettably, much of the history of Greece during the last hundred years. It certainly clarifies the newfound admiration on the part of the right, including the far right, for Plastêras, pointing, as it does, to the embrace that never dared speak its name in the Greek politics of the first three quarters of the twentieth century: namely, the union of fascism and liberalism in support of the “nation.”

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 16

February 9th, 2009

For somebody like me, who came of age politically as part of the New—that is, anti-Soviet—Left, the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent (incomplete) opening of the Soviet archives, have forced me into my own (voluntary) reeducation. Any number of histories of the Cold War, and of its most prominent (mostly unwilling) agents (from Nikita Khrushchev and Ho Chi Minh to Patrice Lumumba and Imre Nagy), written in the last couple of decades, have made increasingly clear, to me at least, the degree to which, outside its own borders, the United States, and not the Soviet Union, created an imperium of global havoc, social reaction, political vassalage, and, in nation after nation, surrender of both popular and national sovereignty. Americans, of course—even (especially?) the most liberal Americans—will never accept this. (Just as liberal “Wilsonians” tied themselves up in ideological knots to justify George Bush’s decision to bring “God’s freedom”—or was it divine retribution?—to the Iraqis.) Barack Obama, in his inaugural address, regurgitated the Cold War bromide of America “fac[ing] down…communism,” the latter always paired with fascism in a particularly peculiar conjunction (and political kinship network) that conveniently overlooks the elephantine fact that it was the United States that propped up most (all?) of the fascist regimes in the postwar era. But imperialism without intellectual dishonesty would just be rape. A little manifest destiny here, a little white man’s burden there, and suddenly you’ve got Hawaii and Puerto Rico (not to mention millions of dead Indians). Add in a ton of “facing down communism,” and now you’ve got Iran, Guatemala, and Greece.

Which leads me back, this week, to Nikolaos Plastêras and Spyros Chalvatzês. For me, for most people, I think, it’s still difficult to hear the phrase, “representative of the communist party,” and not wince. The assumption is that what is about to follow is studied prevarication laced with paranoia (a perfect description, on the other hand, of the moral universe in the White House until just last month). In the event, having heard Dêmêtrês Sioufas (the speaker of parliament), Panos Panagiôtopoulos (New Democracy’s official representative), and Evangelos Venizelos (PASOK’s representative) not only deifying Plastêras in Greece’s national legislature last week, but, more to the point, eliding, avoiding, obfuscating, cherry-picking, and generally refusing to contend with the salient facts of what was a supremely—indeed, exemplarily—public life, lived within the lifetime of men and women still alive today, and certainly contemporaneous to the lives of everyone’s parents or grandparents, I was more than mildly surprised when Chalvatzês, the “representative of the communist party,” was the only one who, if not exactly speaking the unvarnished truth, at least gave the most complete picture of what was a deeply complex and contradictory human being (who isn’t?) living during a profoundly tragic—literally fratricidal—era.

His remarks, as I said in my last post, did not go down well. In fact, he stopped in the middle of them to confront Adônis Geôrgiadês, a LAOS deputy who, apparently (the cameras did not pick it up), had been openly disparaging Chalvatzês’s remarks. The past, once again, proved neither dead nor past, crystallizing how history has a half-life way beyond our self-interested ability to contain it. It was as if Plastêras was still alive and in that chamber, still capable of provoking extreme reactions—and still, characteristically, dividing Greeks as he himself insisted that he was only trying to unite them.

When Geôrgiadês took the podium, as LAOS’s official speaker, he embarked upon what I can only describe by the Greek word, παραλήρημα, that is, a rant. This was more than delirium, though; what struck me most was the sheer schizophrenia of the historical “reconstruction.” His voice pitched somewhere between a scream and a last gasp, Geôrgiadês “defended” Plastêras on every count (with defenders like these…), but especially in regard to his “errors”—most tellingly, the infamous “Δίκη των Εξ” (Trial of the Six), whose verdicts confirmed in blood the εθνικό διχασμό (national division) that would effectively last, in one form or another, until the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship more than fifty years, and two generations, later.

The “Trial of the Six” (there were actually eight defendants) was a military tribunal, in fact. The details are irrelevant here; the critical point is that the accused were all members of the royalist governments and military leadership that had succeeded Venizelos following the latter’s loss in the 1920 elections. The six men who were ultimately executed, for high treason, were three former prime ministers, a foreign minister, a minister of war, and, most emblematically, Geôrgios Chatzanestês, the former commander-in-chief of the Greek forces in Asia Minor.

This is not the place to debate the judicial transgressions or political consequences of this show trial. I will say only two things. While the “Trial of the Six” was not a kangaroo court, it cannot objectively be described as anything other than a drumhead proceeding: it began on November 13 (by the Julian calendar) and the six men faced the firing squad on November 28. On the other hand, turning the other cheek is easy when it’s not your cheek. In 1922, Greece’s military losses in Asia Minor amounted to over 24,000 dead, almost 49,000 wounded, and, incredibly, more than 18,000 missing in action, in a population that, after the First Balkan War, had reached about 4.36 million (compare that to American losses in the Vietnam war of roughly 58,000 dead, 300,000 wounded, and 2,000 MIAs, from a population in 1975 of just over 212 million). In addition, of course, hundreds of thousands of Asia Minor Greeks had been murdered in the prior decade, and 1.5 million would ultimately be uprooted from their ancestral homes, most of them ending up as refugees in Greece.

Under the circumstances, only a fool or a fanatic would fail to understand the existential and societal demand for revenge—actually, justice—that animated, indeed possessed, the vast majority of Greeks throughout the world at the time. It’s impossible to reconstitute such an extreme historical moment with any kind of moral certitude, not because we don’t know what happened—we do, completely—but because we will never be able to imagine how it felt. Americans talk about September 11, 2001, as if it were some tectonic historical shift. But imagine living through the months and years before and after September 24, 1922 (September 11 on the Gregorian calendar, as it turns out), when Plastêras and his comrades proclaimed the “revolution” (in fact, a coup) that led directly to the Trial of the Six.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 15

February 4th, 2009

Once again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the keyboard this morning. I’d initially planned to continue yesterday’s post, and, in fact, to lead into what will be my last posts on this blog. But, before getting down to work, I turned on the TV, as I do most mornings, to see if CNN was back on (we’d lost it a few days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, which my wife and I then watched on Al Jazeera). It wasn’t, so I went to Vouli TV (my favorite channel in Greece, it’s the barebones Greek version of C-Span), just to check for any unusual programming later in the day. As it turned out, I caught the beginning of a special session of the Greek parliament called by its speaker, Dêmêtrês Sioufas, to commemorate Nikolaos Plastêras. What made this coincidence truly eerie was that I had sent an e-mail last night to my partner in New York, Stelios, in which I had written that Obama was (unfortunately) beginning to remind me more and more of…Nikolaos Plastêras.

Some explanation is needed here. There is, obviously, little similarity—biographically, none whatsoever—between Barack Obama and the legendary “Μαύρο Καβαλάρη” (Black Horseman), the name Plastêras was first given by the troops under his command during the First Balkan War. (He was to be known by other names as well. One of the few Greek commanders who consistently distinguished himself during the Asia Minor Disaster, Kemal’s soldiers called him “Kara Biber,” Black Pepper, and his 5/42 Regiment of euzones, “Şeytan Asker,” Satan’s Army. The 5/42 went into battle singing, “Είμαστε λιοντάρια, του Πλαστήρα παλληκάρια,” We’re lions, Plastêras’s braves). In other words, above all else, Plastêras was a soldier, an extraordinarily—and universally recognized, by devotees and enemies alike, including Mustafa Kemal—courageous and generous warrior. He was especially beloved by the troops he commanded; he was, to echo the cliché, a soldier’s soldier.

So what does Barack Obama have to do with a man like this? I’ll get to that in my next post. At the moment, I want to return to that special parliamentary session. I tuned in as Sioufas was addressing the gathering. As Sioufas is one of the more liberal deputies of New Democracy (and, like Plastêras, a Karditsiôtês), it is unsurprising that he took the initiative to honor Plastêras in the name of the same parliamentary body that, when the latter was alive, often conspired against him (as Plastêras himself several times conspired against the self-same body). Nevertheless, what was most striking about the event was hearing speaker after speaker from New Democracy and, even more incredibly, LAOS (Λαϊκός Ορθόδοξος Συναγερμός, Popular Orthodox Rally, the extreme-right-wing party) praising—indeed, more often than not, especially in the case of the LAOS deputies, glorifying and exalting—a man who, when he died, was considered by most rightists (and, very much to the point at the time, their Anglo-American allies) as the very embodiment of Kerenskyite appeasement of the left and its most useful idiot.

It was breathtaking to watch, in ways liberating (Evangelos Venizelos, PASOK’s official speaker during the session, pointed out how fundamentally Greece had changed in the half-century since Plastêras’s death), in ways mind-boggling. After all, I’m old enough to remember, as a child of Greek immigrants growing up in the States, conversations at our dinner table in which my parents’ friends—not to mention my mother—blamed Plastêras for every ill (invariably of the left) that had befallen Greece since 1923. (My father was an inveterate, indeed incurable, Venizelist; and, having fought both in the Albanian campaign and the Civil War, he was, so to speak, a “natural” Plastirist, out of sentiment if nothing else.)

And then, in the midst of this commemorative, rhetorical, and trans-partisan concord (and historical revisionism), the other shoe dropped. Spyros Chalvatzês, deputy of the KKE, strode to the podium to address the parliament on behalf of the communist party. He was blunt, to say the least. Despite his unquestionable personal courage and equally indisputable integrity—after he died, his “estate” famously came to a couple of hundred drachmas and a few dollars found in his pockets; he had no bank accounts, no real property of any kind, having died as profoundly penniless as, the son of landless peasants, he’d been born—Plastêras had always served the “class” interests of the powers that were, Chalvatzês said. Yes, he took personal responsibility for the trial and execution of “the Six” (the royalist politicians found “guilty” of the Asia Minor Disaster), but he couldn’t bring himself to consider an equally harsh—or at least balanced—judgment of the other party of the ruling class, the Venizelists (not to mention Venizelos himself) who had initiated the Asia Minor fiasco. Moreover, Chalvatzês continued, in 1945, it was Plastêras who signed the Varkiza agreements that effectively led to the (second round of the) Greek Civil War; finally, Chalvatzês concluded, more in sorrow, it seemed, than in anger, it was under Plastêras’s last premiership, in 1952, that Nikos Belogiannês and his three comrades were executed despite the global campaign to save the “Man with the Carnation” immortalized in Pablo Picasso’s drawing.

Chalvatzês’s conspicuous lack of tact (let alone inhibition) seemed to constitute more than just the (strategic) return of the politically (and historically) repressed. To many of the deputies present, who openly lost their composure, he had provocatively resurrected what is arguably the most notorious, and certainly the most contentious, political slogan in postwar Greek history: Τι Παπάγος, τι Πλαστήρας.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 14

February 3rd, 2009

Well, it’s been a while—only about three weeks, actually, but even Greece lives at (on) Internet speed, so, true to neo-Hellenic form, the revolution was not only televised (prime time, all the time), but heavily sponsored (by political parties and detergent-makers alike), split into marketing packages (depending on the demographic, as they say in the boardroom, human interest in the morning, political theory late at night), and is now already in (anarcho-)syndication, with repeats available, to compensate for an occasionally slow news cycle, anywhere from NET’s Ta Akra to MEGA’s Anatropê to ALTER’s Zoungla to Vouli TV. Πού ’σαι, Debord, να δεις τα παιδιά σου.

Which is all to say, it’s over. More precisely, we’re now in the middle of (and, again, glued to our TV sets watching) the gripping—and, of course, occasionally violent (let’s face it, if it bleeds, it leads)—nightly episodes of the new spinoff from the previous, hugely popular docudrama: from Youth at the Barricades, we now come home every night to Farmers’ Blockade. A media executive’s got to do what a media executive’s got to do. Ratings wait for no man, woman, or child. A little Les Miz here, a little Grapes of Wrath there. Whatever works.

Both “politics” and “theater” are, of course, Greek words. In fact, the Greeks invented the very concept of theater as political (that is, civic) ritual (and melodrama). Actually, long before Milton Friedman, the Greeks conceived of the (literal) notion of “the marketplace of ideas.” We all know what αγορά means. The verb αγορεύω means to speak in a public forum; hence, the famous question asked of ancient Athenians at their municipal assembly: τις αγορεύει βούλεται, or, Who wants to speak?

The problem is that modern Greeks, or—to use the more acidic (and accurate) Greek self-description—νεοέλληνες, have transformed melodrama into soap opera: The Suppliants is one thing; Desperate Housewives, quite another. Or, put in the current context, demanding the (late) refund of your (already government-subsidized) VAT on gas consumption used to produce your (EU-subsidized, CAP-administered) industrially farmed, ecologically unsustainable crops might be a lot of things, but it’s not Kileler. Then again, this sort of “agrarian revolt” matches, image for image and sound bite for sound bite, the “student uprising” of last December in which a Christmas tree played the emblematic role of the Bastille as the object of “the people’s vengeance.” The spectacular society, indeed.

So, what is to be done? Um, how about…nothing? Social thinkers ranging from Mike Davis to John Gray to James Lovelock have been warning us for years that our—that is, the human race’s—problem is systemic and analytical, or, more precisely, epistemological. (Gray, and probably Lovelock, would say that it is innate; that it inheres in the very psychobiological nature of the human beast.) Our perception of what we think we know, our notion(s) of “knowledge,” our ideologies of social purpose (“free markets,” “progress,” GDP, the Obama cult and other manifestations of secular messianism), our transparently mystical faith in technology, which is to say human capacity, to undo and redo our social world(s), our planet, our biological presence in any manner, shape, or form we so desire: these are the reasons we are, quite literally, exterminating ourselves as we “grow” exponentially, but without any morally (or even intellectually) coherent rationale—until, naturally, we slam into the wall of market collapse, of incomprehensible breakdown (which is, not at all coincidentally, as systemic as our inability to understand it), of social disaster and economic chaos, of no growth, no future, nowhere, no how, no way. We are all Icelanders now.

Which is why this is not a Greek problem, or an American problem, or a French or Chinese or Bolivian or South African problem. But culture can be, often is, destiny. At least, the Americans have Barack Obama. And the French have Sarkozy, and the Chinese Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao (never has enlightened despotism looked so good), while the Bolivians are trying to reconstitute themselves as a nation and a society (if the US—that is, from here on in, Barack Obama—lets them), and, in South Africa, the oldest revolutionary party in the world (older even than, when it was still around, the Soviet communist party), the African National Congress, has split in two. In Greece, however, plus ça change…is the unchanging order of the day. Just about 35 years ago, at the dawn of this definitive iteration of Greek democracy, political power was contested by a Karamanlês and a Papandreou; today, a Karamanlês and a Papandreou continue to contest—except that, in both cases, the successors are such diminished (in truth, degraded) heirs to their predecessors that they, unfortunately, genuinely appear to be, not so much the latter’s descendants as their simulacra.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 13

January 14th, 2009

Even when I was young, I never understood the privileging of youth. Turning eighteen in 1968, one of the more asinine slogans I had to contend with was the one about not trusting anyone over 30. The French are so much better at this sort of thing. “Sous les pavés, la plage!” says it all without rancor, let alone bigotry regarding color, gender, age, or place of national origin.

In the event, my closest friend was more than 20 years older, and I certainly trusted him more than I did SDS. Yet, all of us at the time were in awe of the heroic generation of the Thirties, which had come of (its) age in Spain. What did it mean, then, not to trust anybody over 30? If you were fighting fascism during the Siege of Madrid, you had to be roughly 50 (or over) during the siege of Low Library (talk about history as farce). What, exactly, was the point?

Perverted Romanticism, of course: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very Heaven!” and all that. Of course, that assumes the ability to distinguish a real dawn from a false one. “Youth rebellion” might mean many things, but it rarely signifies anything even remotely revolutionary, or even societally atypical. (Wordsworth’s own youthful revolutionary enthusiasms would give way, in later life, to a defense of “softened feudalism.”)

Greek youth has been more or less protesting continually since the Polytechnic uprising against the junta in 1973, with each passing year piling on the disrespect to the memory of that genuine revolt. It’s been 35 years, and the “γενιά του Πολυτεχνείου” is now not only in power in Greece, but deeply entrenched in every cranny of public life and every part of society. Yet, the “rebellion” continues. I am reminded of another slogan from May ’68: Travailleur: Tu as 25 ans mais ton syndicat est de l’autre siècle (Worker: You are 25 years old, but your union is from the last century).

Greece’s protestors might be 25 (or 15), but their goals are self-consciously those of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Fighting a losing battle against Thatcherism (decades before we all got the chance to live through the earth-shattering wonders of truly free markets), the European left reinvented itself as the enabler of a new agenda of corporate entrenchment of what was once called labor aristocracy (now mainly composed of public-sector unions) fighting to freeze its benefits at indecent—and socially disruptive and divisive—levels of self-interest and -aggrandizement. By the late Seventies, European social democracy had permanently turned its back on its entire history of social solidarity (and political purpose and social cohesion) to pursue its new function as a management theory of group entitlement. Γενιά του Πολυτεχνείου, meet the γενιά των 700 ευρώ.

Greek college graduates complain that many (some? a lot? are there any actual data?) make only the minimum wage of €700 a month. At yesterday’s exchange rate ($1.32374 to €1), €700 equal approximately $926.60. The current federal minimum wage in the United States is $6.55/hour. If we multiply that by 35 hours (a full week’s work) and again by four weeks (for the month), the final sum is $917 for a young American on minimum wage. Not much difference—except that an American must provide for his/her own health insurance, which, of course, a Greek does not because of universal state provision. (The American might have insurance provided by his employer, but minimum-wage jobs in the US are not famous for their health benefits.) Putting aside the issue of the actual cash benefit of that provision to a working person (personally, I’d say at least $5,000 per annum, very conservatively speaking), the fact is that it’s nice to know (to say the least) that, though you’re working for minimum wage, you don’t have to worry about your health.

In Greece’s social culture, moreover, there’s not a young man or woman who is not subsidized by parents to often extreme (and, for any non-Greek, unseemly) degrees. (The laundry bag dropped off at Mom’s house is not so much urban legend as fading custom.) Greece also has one of the highest home-ownership rates, not only in the EU, but in the developed world as a whole, at over 83% (Eurostat, 2003), as opposed to, for example, about 68% (US Census Bureau) in the US before the subprime mortgage crisis. That explains why so many young people live at (their parents’) home. Actually, it’s unusual not to before one is married. More to the point, it’s considered “normal” for (indeed morally incumbent upon) parents to buy housing for their offspring once they’re married (a case of the extreme subsidization I mentioned above).

Most important of all, Greek youth has an opportunity now that no previous generation ever had: the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union. But it refuses to take advantage of it. Indeed, according to the European Commission in 2001 (Employment in Europe), Greece had the lowest rate of internal labor mobility of any nation in the EU 15 (only 15.7% of workers were at jobs less than two years). As for external mobility, a study by the European Central Bank in 2006 (Cross-Border Labour Mobility Within An Enlarged EU) indicated that, for the first ten years following Greek accession, only 10,000 people moved to other EU nations in search of work each year. That’s in a labor force of roughly 4.2 million! In other words, less than a quarter of one percent of the employable population chose to take a chance on Paris or Barcelona or London or Milan or Berlin or anywhere but near their respective παρέα. Home is just too sweet.

And comfortable. Because the fact is that a young couple can live in Greece on €700 each. Fourteen hundred euros covers basic expenses. Again, if we add to that visible income the invisible but very material family solidarity that is a given in Greece (and can’t be ignored), I think Greek youth are in no worse, and perhaps considerably better, shape than their peers in most other Western societies. And, despite their own incredible claims to the opposite, they are profoundly more privileged and economically secure than their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents ever were. But they want people to believe the contrary, which is why they’ve indulged in their own ideological reinvention. That’s all that theatrically self-pitying self-description, γενιά των 700 ευρώ, means in the end.

(To be continued)