From Melbourne to Greece, for justice, for peace," came the faint, puerile, unenthusiastic cry of the small gathering. "Let Greece breathe," "Ellas, Ellas, Eleutheria," and even, bizarrely enough, "Ellas, Ellas, Makedonia," were some of the chants with which the barely audible organisers of the "Melbourne Stands with Greece" Rally, on the steps of State Parliament last Saturday, tried vainly for the most part, to inspire the miniscule crowd, whose paucity of numbers made the annual Justice for Cyprus march appear like a veritable "λαοθάλασσα."
Despite having been assured on social media that the demonstration had an apolitical character and was designed merely to express Melbournians' support for the Greek people during this most difficult of times, many in the crowd were surprised and disturbed to perceive placards, one of them in particular inscribed in ungrammatical Greek, bearing the word OXI, (one proclaimed self-indulgently "Death Not Austerity), looming behind the organisers, making it clear that this was indeed a partisan demonstration. There were no placards bearing the word NAI and the only apolitical placard seemed to be one that was borne by a bored young lady, reading: "Greek beauty, not in crisis." This inspired me no end and I wanted to ask her how she defined beauty and in particular in which way she identified with the placard she bore with so much dedication. In my opinion this was an elegant statement about the eternal nature of the Greek aesthetic. After all there is much bittersweet beauty to be found within tragedy.
There were a number of things that I found fascinating while perambulating the demonstration. The first was how unlike any other demonstration of a Greek nature I have ever attended in Australia, this was. For the attendees truly formed a microcosmic cross-section of a newly emerging Greek-Australian society. Mingling among the few first generation Greek-Australians who braved the cold in order, as they said, to perform their patriotic duty in support of Greece, there were, in the large part second generation, English-speaking Greek -Australians of all political persuasions, some of whom were there also, like their fore-fathers, merely to support the motherland while the radicalised majority wished to make a political point and of course a goodly proportion of new arrivals from Greece, the female of their species in particular bearing instead of placards, cigarettes, thus giving the rally the feel of an Athenian student protest, but without the violence. Interspersed among them were non-Greek members of the Socialist Left, handing out pamphlets, purveying badges and attempting to engage the Greeks in political debate.
As the organisers interminable speeches were barely audible, the attendees had ample time to discuss the situation in Greece amongst themselves. They did so in an emphatic, though peaceful fashion, probably because most held similar convictions and it struck me as odd that a good many of them did not exactly comprehend the nature of the imminent referendum and its consequences for the Greek people. Specifically, not a few vociferous supporters of an OXI vote, firmly believed that a NO vote to the referendum on accepting the conditions for Greece's bailout, would result in Greece's automatic exclusion from the Eurozone and indeed from the European Union altogether. They naively seemed to believe that the Greek people were being called upon to decide whether to remain "in Europe" or not and to their view, a Greece extricated from the clutches of the Europeans was the first step on the road to greatness.
Glancing past the mournful lady holding a small icon of Jesus, who as she explained, was the only true means of bailout from all the trials and tribulations of the world, and the gentleman with the intense round eyes who confided in me that Greece's financial catastrophe had all been prophesied by the Athonite monks and this is the reason why Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens was murdered by the European-financed freemasons, I chanced upon an incensed, cigarette wielding lady arguing vociferously with a bearded gentleman with a Dutch accent. He was attempting to advance the opinion that despite his rhetoric, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was far from being a radical and was definitely not a socialist. In his view, Tsipras', engagement with the capitalists was tantamount to acceptance of and adherence to the capitalist system and he was merely deluding all true socialists with his antics. This the angry lady could not abide. "Tsipras is goooooooood!" she shrilled, taking deep puffs of her cigarette. "He is making a difference. He is standing up to the Europeans." When the Dutch socialist ventured to suggest that Tsipras, who has never held a job outside of politics and has led a life of privilege, seems to have not made much headway with the Europeans but instead is using the Greek people as a shield against his own failures, the enraged lady resorted to the tried and true argument-clinching tactics of the neo-hellene: "What would you know? Are you Greek? Have you lived there? I have. If you haven't lived there, you have no right to an opinion."
One non-Greek lady who attended in order to express solidarity with those affected in Greece by the humanitarian crisis that has been brought about by Greece's financial woes asked me why it took an Englishman to organize the crowd-funding endeavour in order to raise money for the beleaguered Greeks and why the diasporan Greeks were not following suit. According to her, if the five hundred or so attendees, at the rally, instead of making speeches and waving flags, each donated one hundred dollars, the resulting $50,000 could feed several indigent families for a considerable period of time. Multiply that by the number of Greek-Australians in Melbourne and a considerable amount could be raised by way of charity relief. Before I had a chance to respond diplomatically, a member of the first generation interjected: "This is because every time we send money to Greece it goes missing. You can't trust them." Responding to her quizzical gaze, I advised her that the culture of impersonal funding is largely alien to Greek-Australians, who prefer to assist on a person-to person basis, yet I cannot help feeling that I was being less than forthright and that our community efforts should centre upon humanitarian relief (which requires effort), rather than politics, the prerequisite for which is hot air. Her observation, that the gathering appeared to be more of an outlet for the release of national pride than an effective protest tool, cut close to the bone.
"Do we really belong to Europe? They hate us and denigrate us every opportunity they get!" a new arrival from Greece exclaimed to me. My reflection upon this is that assuredly the Greeks are not entirely European as western Europeans understand the term. And the fact Greeks call Europeans as such, to emphasise a point of difference between them speaks volumes. Proof of this is that time and time throughout the Greek people's history as an independent people (before 1453) they refused to slavishly follow the West but rather engaged in a dialogue with it, borrowed, compared and gave to its civilization in return. The Greek people are also not Eastern, as is evidenced by its historical fascination with the East but also the feeling since the time of the Persians, that the Greeks are somehow distinct from those forms of civilization. To my mind, the Greeks are something else, a third way, neither western or eastern, the point from which east and west depart and at which east and west meet. At the end of the day, the Greek referendum was not about identity, an issue which is yet to be resolved since the time of Herodotus, it was not about whether Greece should turn its back on the European Union but rather, simply, whether a particular measure should be employed to drag Greece back from the brink of social and economic catastrophe. This is what the term crisis means - a crossroads at which a sound judgment must be made.
Given that our presence here in Australia is owed largely to our ancestors or ourselves performing a physical bailout from any one of Greece's prior crises, I would argue that any abrogation to ourselves of the role of arbiter of Greece's historical or political direction is misconceived. Our role, must and should be restricted to assuring the Greek people that whatever the consequences of their momentous decision at the recent referendum, we stand by them, afford them dignity and respect while demanding that the world does the same and affirming that we are willing to dig deep, in order to allay their suffering.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 July 2015