Rot – Part 15

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)

2 Responses to “Rot – Part 15”

  1. Blake More says:

    Well, I certainly do hope this entry gets continued and completed. I find that reading this blog has been good for my soul … and has done no measurable harm to my mind. It has, in fact, sent me back to the section of my shelves where I keep books I have promised to return to and either examine more closely or finish. All the talk about anarchism in the press, on the Internet and in this blog (in connection with the December riots in Greece) led me to reread Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. I hope no one will mind if I cite one of his paragraphs:

    The side of Rousseau’s thought that arouses nostaligia for nature came to the United States early on, in the life and writings of Thoreau. Recently, joined to many other movements, it came to full flower and found a wide public. Anarchism in one form or another is an expression of this longing, which arises as soon a politics and laws are understood to be repressions, perhaps necessary, but nonetheless repressions of our inclinations rather than perfections of them or modes of satisfying them.

    But I still do not understand why something like anarchism should be so “big” in a place like Greece (?) Could it be that the Greek soul needs and seeks out a strongman to lead the country, keeping in mind that that is in fact an oriental tendency and could be operating at some psycho-spiritual level even while the political system is a liberal democracy informed by Enlightenment principles. This is all very confusing.

    Blake More

  2. Peter Pappas says:

    You can blame Rousseau for many things, Blake, but linking him to anarchism, while a commonplace, is a pretty flagrant misconstruction of what he actually wrote. Suffice it to say that pace Bloom, Rousseau actually believed that human beings in the “state of nature” were, literally, beasts, and, as such, could not be judged “morally,” since no beast—dog, elephant, kangaroo—can be judged by the moral design, and sanctions, of human (constructs of) “justice” (let alone “civilization”). Indeed, contrary to the cliché of the “noble savage,” a phrase Rousseau famously never used (hermeneutic dissonance is common in the history of radical thought, leading Marx, for example, to his equally famous “Moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste”), Rousseau thought that, given that “man is born free but everywhere is in chains,” the social contract perpetuating (and justifying) those chains had to be radically amended. The fundamental point, in other words, was that an individual man had no choice but to enter into a social contract for the sake of his survival—a very Hobbesian pragmatism, by the way. (Although for Hobbes, human beings surrender their freedom in order to guarantee their individual security, while, for Rousseau, they surrender their egotism—their amour-propre, he said—to secure their freedom.) Which also explains why education was so important to Rousseau’s vision of human society.

    Regarding the Greek “soul,” I have no idea what that is. I don’t believe in national “souls,” in any case, only in (better or worse) functioning institutions, which, then, might or might not help in creating that notoriously artificial, vague, and malleable process called national “identity.” As for how “big” anarchism is in Greece, I wouldn’t believe everything I read or hear in the media. I’m no expert on the subject—actually, I don’t know anything about it—but my personal smell test tells me that if there were more than a thousand full-time anarchists (is “full-time anarchist” an oxymoron?) in the country, I’d be shocked. Indeed, given its penchant for libertarianism, posse comitatus laws and legends, home-schooling, and back-to-the-landism (Montana for the right, Vermont for the left), I’d venture to say that there are a lot more spiritual heirs to Bakunin in the US than there are in Greece.