Rot – Part 16

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)

One Response to “Rot – Part 16”

  1. Blake More says:

    In one of my recent and increasingly frequent lapses into lexical slovenliness I used the infelicitous term “Greek soul.” Had I been more careful to honor linguistic precision, I would surely have written something like “collective consciousness” or even “collective unconscious.” When I use such terms as these I immediately think of a characteristic of the Greek mind or soul or consciousness or even spirit (?) that has fascinated me ever since I got into an argument with a Greek exchange student in graduate school many years ago. What fascinated me about him was not so much the matter of his argument as its form. Enjoying the experience of seeing the difference between the formal and the material in full flower, I was a lot more interested in the thrust of what he said (the way he presented his viewpoint) rather than in what he actually said. For want of a more accurate determination, I came up with a designation whose need of refinement I readily acknowledge: I decided on the spot that the major difference between him and me was a question of “attitude toward truth” or, maybe, toward what it means really to have a grasp of reality. Now I have no more capacity than the next fellow to decide what truth really is, and I am surely not the first or last to ask what we might be referring to when we use the term truth. There seem to be plenty of definitions knocking around out there to choose from: e.g., correspondence (between what is in the mind and what is outside of it), coherence (each element of an idea seems to fit with the other parts), revelation (a datum shows itself to be real simply because it is necessary for the whole to be intelligible). And so on.

    So the main difference between my fellow student and me (well, apart from his being a good guy and gorgeous) lay in our differing methods for grasping reality. Or at least that was my tentative formulation. For him cognition meant taking a look to see what there is and once you discover that, you have truth. You have grasped reality. Or at least you have what appears to be the best available grasp of reality. And that in turn means you have certainty. It may be worth pointing out, as an aside, that cognitive and especially religious certainty has been associated with some historical persons, ideas and enterprises that have not won universal approbation for their intelligence or morality.

    Unlike my fellow student of yesteryear, for me getting a proper grasp of reality has a lot to do with asking questions. Right from the day we are born, almost, we start asking questions. We don’t ask them out loud right away, but we are curious about this new and not always satisfying environment into which we have been born. The questions we ask become increasingly complex and varied as life progresses, and some “fortunate” people get to a point where they stop asking questions. Some get tired of learning, others get bored. Some think they don’t need to do any more asking. Still others go on asking questions about reality till the day they die and they eventually are able to distinguish between the wrong questions and the right ones.

    Those who ask only the right questions, even though they know that truth is always somewhere around the next corner and even if they entertain no sense of certainty, probably enjoy a firmer grasp of reality and are closer to truth than those who feel no need to ask any questions (right or wrong) because they are certain of possessing the truth already.

    I wonder where educated modern Greeks, sons and daughters of Byzantine civilization and culture, would fit into this scheme of things (as I remind myself that what I have presented here is, after all, just a “scheme,” unproved and untried – by this time I should have got it whipped into a nice cognitive theory, but alas, no). Perhaps modern Greeks hold on to the notion that they are in possession of something called the truth and they will allow others, including their children, to share in it. That’s why they have schools. Perhaps they tend to discourage, in themselves and others and in their young, all the procedures involved in critical thinking, creative analysis, investigation, research or anything else that might lead to notions incompatible with their beliefs (they do not distinguish between beliefs and knowledge.) Why bother with critical, rational thinking if you are searching for truth and trying to understand how the universe works? Just approach those of us who have the truth and we will give it to you. Truth is something to be bestowed and not something to be forged or attained. You don’t need the freedom of questioning the status quo because it should not be questioned. My fellow student from way back then definitely believed thusly. Whaddaya mean this kind of outlook can lead to prejudice, racism or homophobia or a bunch of other dispositions and attitudes that make progress difficult and retrogression likely?

    If I should eventually be persuaded that contemporary educated Greeks are effectively not asking the right questions and therefore have a flawed grasp of reality, I would not be basing my view on a single grad student. On my many trips to Greece I make it a point, always, to sustain conversations with Greeks. When these conversations are in Greek, my friends are kind and gentle with me. They are all good guys and girls. But when the talk gets beyond the stage of “This mousaka is delicious,” or “It’s going to rain tomorrow,” they agree with almost nothing of what I say.

    They cannot accept, for example, the notion of raising the theoretical level of the discussion because one of us has just introduced a piece of data that simply does not fit into the theoretical framework in which we have been operating. So the new information doesn’t get accommodated. It just gets rejected or forgotten. Anything in the name of peace.

    On the other hand, it may be that modern educated Greeks believe, as I do, that grasping reality is actually a matter of asking the right questions. They know that what we consider true today easily could and probably will change tomorrow.

    (Will continue later, if anyone is interested)