IN SEARCH OF AN IDENTITY
At the time Cavafy was writing, such an approach, was an anathema to the Establishment. Small nations with illustrious pasts often try to aggrandize them in an attempt to gain legitimacy. In this respect, Greece was particularly unfortunate in that western scholars such as Gibbon and Fallmerayer had already 'picked out' the 'good bits' of Greek history for them. The Neoclassical Revival that took place in the western world at the least looked passionately back to the ancient world for inspiration, and at the most, denigrated everything else anteceding it as a corruption. There were few westerners, such as Lord Byron, who were willing to accept the Greeks on face value.
The Greek State, back when where nationalism was still an infant concept, attempted to create an identity by sifting out all 'foreign' additions and making people feel bad about the way they were as opposed to the way they supposedly were in Pericles’ Golden Age. Thus, for generations of Greek schoolchildren, the ancient Greeks, ie. the Athenians, the Spartans, and very little else, assumed 'godlike' status, so much so that the rest of our past was seen as an aberration, something to be ashamed of or to be clumsily explained away.
The dividends of such a policy are seen today in the attitudes of our first generation. After a lifetime of hard work establishing themselves in this country and enjoying a well-earned rest, many are turning to the age-old question that has plagued Greece for time immemorial - What does it mean to be Greek?
That the question is not new is evidenced by the fact that it taxed the minds of the Elanodikai at Olympia who were forced to determine whether Alexander I of Macedon and indeed the Macedonians in general were Greek. That two and half thousand years later, the same question is unresolved, speaks volumes for the flimsiness of any ‘concrete' sense of identity.
The prevalence of commentary in our community media adoring ancient Greece, while at the same time denigrating Christianity as 'foreign' and 'Jewish' (since when is something foreign or Jewish necessarily bad?) continues a debate that had its origins in the anti-Christian writing of Porphyry in the 3rd century. Societies dedicated to 'reviving' our ancient glory by purging us of 2,000 years of Christianity enjoy unprecedented popularity as work-weary members of our community rediscover past glories and are delighted for it. Many of these activities are quaint and delightful in the way they celebrate knowledge newly acquired. When however, self-appointed spokespersons of the ancient world decide that Greek civilization comprises only of all that occurred prior to the closing of the Olympic Games by the Roman Emperor Theodosius, thus discarding a further 1,500 years of our history as foreign and corrupted, problems emerge.
The anti-Christian agenda of many of these spokespersons is virulent to the extent where it is often offensive to the sensitivities of believers and if directed at other religions, could land them into a seething cauldron of trouble. I was shocked to listen to an ex-academic read extremely bad poetry recently on a community radio station that advocated the burning of priests. Another radio presenter commented that the Byzantine float in the Athens opening ceremony was 'offensive because Christianity has nothing to do with Hellenism'. Surely when the vast majority of Greek-Australians are nominally Christian, a level of maturity and discretion is required if anyone is to enter the identity debate. Sadly, we seem to be stuck in a Civil War mentality of polarization where a person possessed of an opinion opposite to one's own can be publicly mocked and ridiculed. In some cases, this can even reach defamatory proportions, where youth are publicly mocked in the print media for their religious or other affiliations by self-righteous spokespersons. It also speaks volumes for our ability as a community to validly conduct any sort of debate on any contentious issue whatsoever. Interestingly enough, it is a fact that many of these spokespersons' children are decidedly absent from participating in the Greek community and are oblivious to the views their progenitors would impose upon the rest of the world.
At the end of the day, our self-appointed purveyors of identity are potentially doing more harm than good. If the first-generation laments that second and third generation Greek-Australians reject their 'identity' then they themselves have provided the riposte: What identity should we be assuming when you, the first-generation with a direct experience of Greece cannot define this identity?
Fortunately or unfortunately, the greater body of the second and third generation does not access our community Greek-language media and are thus largely oblivious to the debate that is raging above their heads. Surely at this stage, where assimilation and distance from our mother culture are the threats to our community that we should be addressing, it is inappropriate to engage in pointless and endless insult-hurling vis a vis our identity. Whether we bury our heads in the sand or in the stinking quagmire of the irrelevant argument of the aspiring intellectual, the truth is that we have other priorities: the nurturing of our youth in a community that has of late turned in on itself and become decidedly nasty, exclusive and totally anti-communal.
Of vital importance to us is that the identity issue be buried once and for all. For all their shortcomings and appeal, all stages of our history, whether ancient, medieval or modern are equally as Greek and ought to be recognized as such. History is not about picking the good events to fit an image. Instead, an image is created out of the collective of all events and experiences and is used to interpret the way we are, not to mould it. And nothing exists in a vacuum. Civilizations borrow and share with one another in order to develop, just like people do.
The constructivist world of creating and imposing identities upon people to fit a demented fuhrer's vision belongs to the time of Stalin and Hitler and has no place in our community. Let us leave the bitter and angry old men to ridicule youth for their attachment to the Church in their isolation and unbiasedly embrace our entire identity and use it as a worthy compass to guide our path into the future.