…[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)