Monday, March 29, 2004


From the people that brought you Thessaloniki Talkfest 2003, welcome to Sydney Talkfest 2004! It is both heartening and ironic that the Greek Consular authorities decided to convene a forum in Sydney recently to discover why youth do not play an active role in the “Greek community.” For this comes at a time when youth participation has reached such a level that it would be almost impossible to resuscitate it. Talk about bad timing. It seems to be more like a forensic examination than a fact finding mission. It is interesting that such a forum was not convened years ago, when there was some youth participation within the community and the findings could have been used to determine a future course of action. The paltry act of convening a talkfest, a quick and easy method of ‘feel-good’ marketing to show that yes we really do care, is too little too late. Still, they have to be applauded, as at least their heart is in the right place.
The Greek Consulates’ lament at the imminent demise of Greek regional organizations, due to lack of youth, is even more poignant and uplifting, considering that they have not really been active in promoting youth participation in the past. In the eighties and nineties, these organizations received little or no guidance from the Consulates, save when they attempted to sabotage or create dissent within certain organizations that ideologically were ‘undesirable.’ Sadly, this state of affairs continues to the present day. Save for the case of one consul-general who during his brief sojourn, for better or for worse managed to rally the Greek community around the Consulate, the vast majority of the accomplishments of the Australian Greek community have been guided by the Church, and individual endeavours. The absence of the Consulates’ assistance from these has been stark.
Talkfests though, are rather fun and provide one with the opportunity to vent their spleen in a way only a writer of a diatribe could manage. I went to one in 1999, where Dimitri Dollis acted out a plausible caricature of Jerry Springer, passing around a microphone and obtaining responses from a bunch of youth who were involved in the organised community as to why they were so involved and what needed to be done to move others to do so. It was an interesting session, there was some healthy debate and motions were moved and carried. The delegates left feeling optimistic that the resolutions would be published and all would implement them. They also were grateful to the organizers of the said talkfest. Five years down the track, we still await their publication, while most of the delegates no longer are involved in their respective communities.
Top-heavy forums, packed full of elitist neo-Greeks, who serve only to preen their Hellenism before others self-righteously, assist no one. They are not representative of the vast corpus of Greeks out there who are not involved in the organised community. It is short sighted to suggest that young Greeks consciously make the choice not to get involved. Rather, it is the case, that fewer and fewer youth are exposed to the Greek community per se. The focus needs to be on making sure that these persons will not be left out of the loop as it were. Instead, we are continuously employing the services of ‘youth leaders’ of the Greek community who fit a certain stereotype: educated, with good jobs and dynamic – perfect to take home to one’s mother. This is not to say that these people’s commentary and opinions will not provide a valuable insight. It does however mean, that those who do not fit into the ‘desirable’ stereotype, remain without a voice as their so-called representatives are out of touch with them. This in turn ensures the perpetuation of the same ‘token youth’ and the exclusion of all others.
Problems within the organised Greek community do exist. Youth who do at some stage experience their inner workings are often left disappointed and isolated, not only because of the propensity for internecine power squabbles that characterise us as a race, but because regional organizations generally have little vision other than remembering events in the home village fifty years ago, cooking, and drinking beer. In their current states, these organizations do not seem to offer much to the youth. Other organizations that cater for ‘interests’ rather than for regions are afflicted with similar problems. They are closed, insular and hinder rather than encourage the active role of often outspoken and idealistic youth, while at the same time paying lip service to them.
Talkfest 2004 should have examined an interesting aspect of youth attitudes to the community. Sadly, most youth actually look down upon the first generation and their activities. This type of stuff is for the ‘wogs.’ In the eighties and nineties most youth took the conscious decision to reject their identity by not attending ‘wog’ functions and refusing to speak Greek. In many cases, this has been engendered by those very ‘professionals’ that the Consulates seek to promote as ‘ideal’ Greeks. Not a few of these from the first generation have made their money by providing services to their compatriots. Sadly, many of these also engendered a dislike of their compatriots in their children as uncultivated and uncouth. I remember a prominent first generation Greek businessman telling me that Greeks were pigs and that they smelled. His son shared his opinion. This passive resistance and hatred of ‘wog’ things can be found in almost every Greek family. It is unpleasant, and we don’t like to talk about it. Sadly, we loathe that part of ourselves that links us to our ancestry and determines our identity. How then can we carry on as an identifiable community? What are those other interests that we can have in common if we reject our ‘regional’ identities?
The answer is not much. Networking is an oft-used word that is thrown around when talking of identity these days. What is generally meant by this is that we should retain our sense of community so we can refer work to each other and so we can marry within our community, thus ensuring its survival. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these two ideals. They do promote a sense of cohesion. However, they do fail to provide an ideological basis for our continued existence as an organised community with a common identity.
Another thing that Talkfest 2004 does not seem to have picked up on is that they automatically assume that youth would flock to an organization that would cater to their needs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Greek organizations have been alienating their youth for years and yet few are the youth who have banded together to form an organization to suit them, save for the Romiosyni Association, whose interest lies in the history of Byzantium. Those youth who do get involved in Greek organizations become like ‘oldies’ they criticize, and are prone to the same Byzantine skullduggery, plots, gossip and schemes as their ancestors. At any rate the state of youth organizations that are run by youth is poor. Most of these are ‘letterhead’ organizations that are kept alive so that their aging presidents can still gain invites to free cocktail parties and free trips to Greece. This is a root cause of malaise that needs to be addressed. It is the conduct of the youth themselves rather than that of the ‘seniors’ that is cause for concern. We are ‘big boys’ now. We should be able to look after ourselves. Unfortunately, we don’t want to and we seek to blame our parents for our own shortcomings. Sadly, they are allowing us to get away with this.
Finally, as the very fabric of the previously unanimously accepted conception of ‘community’ unravels before our very eyes, perhaps it becomes necessary to re-consider what definition we shall have to re-apply to the word community. The world in general is a very different place to that in which our forefathers settled in Australia. Society is in many ways, much more insular and individualistic and the demands of paid employment take out an even more sizeable chunk in people’s spare time, time that once could be applied to the attendance and organisation of community events. How do we define our community in an era of globalism and what is our place in it? Is the very word community fast becoming redundant when applied to a people of diverse interests who are not as homogenous a they would like to think that they are? Are other units, such as family units the sole repository and hope of Hellenism and should they be studied and aided further?
Ultimately, the struthocamilism that this diatribist constantly rails at reigns supreme. It is no longer enough to try to identify the problem. We have known for years that our institutions are diminishing. All the talking in the world will not save us from this. Now is the time for the youth to emerge and act. If they truly espouse the ‘ideals’ of ‘Hellenism’ some vestiges of the old identity shall remain, albeit in an altered form. If not, then it will not be through lack of talking. The Consulates could take a stand here in assisting in a campaign to enlighten and bring the youth in closer contact with the mother culture, or at least play a more prominent part in their daily lives, something which would be unprecedented. If the traditional disheartening visit to the Consulate however, is anything to go by their level of cultural sensitivity, this will be a long day in coming. I can’t shake of the suspicion that as a people obsessed with their past and living half in it, we will not be able to shake off the spectre of abandoning our face saving facades and our empty brotherhood buildings and adapt to meet the challenge of the times. Let’s be Pythagoreans and think outside the square and isosceles triangles we live in. In the meantime we await the published findings of Talkfest 2004. In particular, we will relish the advice provided as to how to bring Hellenism to the small trader, the tradesperson and the unemployed among us. And we hold our breath, in anticipation of outcomes.
first published in NKEE on 29 March 2004