Monday, October 18, 2004


Fallmerayer, if he were alive, would undoubtedly be turning in his grave, his theory, published over one hundred years ago, that the modern Greeks were not descended of the ancient Greeks, having been conclusively confounded.
For all Greeks, myth, in its various forms and manifestations has been of intrinsic significance. From the outset, myth was used to forge a common identity between disparate tribes, forming the concept of Hellene that we know today. One particularly enduring myth, that has either been bolted down wholesale, or masticated and regurgitated in an altered but essentially consubstantial form is that of Athenian Democracy. The myth, in short, unfolds itself thus: ‘The Athenians cultivated all-inclusive participation in the city’s affairs, believing that the people were the best arbiter of what was necessary for good government. This is supposedly the reason why Athens was able to defeat the invading Persians. Freemen fought to defend a free system from tyranny.’ The dichotomy between freedom and tyranny has dominated Greek thought from Herodotus onwards, ever since.
The truth however, is far from the myth. In reality, a few influential families, such as the Alkmaeonidai vied with each other to control Athenian public life. Average plebeians knew or were made to understand that save from supporting these few influential families, they were to take no other part in the running of the city’s affairs. Interestingly enough, the main architects, of both Athens’ victory and greatness, Aristeides, Miltiades and Themistocles also fell victim to another feature of Athenian democracy: ostracism, the exiling of ‘unpopular’ or ‘undesirable’ citizens, in the first institutionalized form of the tall-poppy syndrome, their only crime being, that they were too successful.
Here in the Antipodes, though millennia of years and kilometers separate us from hallowed Athenian antiquity, it appears that the myth-making paradox is extant within us, permitting us to draw upon it unconsciously, especially when dealing with affairs of our ‘polis,’ that is the Greek community that resides within our city walls. We are both myth-makers and ostracisers and practise these arts with singular dexterity.
One of our most recently hatched myths, is that of succession planning. The first is as follows: ‘The first generation is old and tired and its community organizations reflect this. They desperately need the second generation to immerse itself in community affairs so as to ensure the perpetuation of the Original Vision. What a pity it is, that the second generation is not interested in community affairs. We desperately need them and will welcome them with open arms.’
Reams and reams of community newsprint have denuded the rainforests of the world in setting out this myth. Yet it is just a myth. Just like their forebears, today’s Alkmaeonidai have no intentions of letting their underlings share their ‘power,’ as the following example will illustrate. I take you gentle reader, to one of the few Greek organisations where genuine efforts have been made to adhere to the letter of the myth and not to mask its founders’ own shortcomings and vested interests. The said organisation, in the space of a few years, not only managed to offer its key administrative positions to the second and third generation but in the meantime to develop from the usual parochial dance and barbeque club, to a significant cultural entity.
Over the years, and despite the best efforts of the youthful committee, it became apparent that the first generation was slowly drifting away from the said organisation’s activities. No one knew the reason why and everyone was too wrapt up in courting youth participation, re-establishing a sense of community and promoting aspects of their unique regional culture to the Australian mainstream. The Alkmaeonidai sat in obscurity, and fumed in silence.
That is, until the day of the Annual General Meeting, that most direct descendant of the Athenian ‘democratic’ boule. It appears that the youthful committee committed hubris to a vast degree. For they attempted to do that which Bias of Priene suggested to the Ionian assembly when Darius the Persian demanded their obeisance thousands of years ago; the relocation of the Ionians from Asia Minor to Sardinia out of harm’s way, or in this particular situation, the relocation of the organisation to more centrally located, more economically viable premises. The result was a mixture of the screaming of the souls of the damned in the worst recesses of Tartarus, coupled with the crooning of a demented Athenian eunuch. The meeting hall was deluged with a torrent of elderly Alkmaeonidai, some of whom had not set foot in the organisation for years. Their venerable faces twisted with rage at their descendants’ presumption and their eyes gleaming in anticipation, it did not take long for the sacks of Aeolus to burst open, and a storm of bile to break loose.
The hapless youthful committee, whose only crime was to believe that civilised debate was possible among Greeks was subjected to torrents of abuse by their elders, those who they had been brought up to respect: “You young people don’t know what you are doing,” “Resign!,” “You stupid little cow, go and find yourself a husband.” The grey and ailing of the Alkmaeonidai, were rejuvenated by their peers’ display of rage. Casting aside walking stick and compensation claims for industrial injury, they ranted, raved, stamped their feet and jumped up and down, even engaging in fisticuffs with the parents and grandparents of the abused youth. A particularly bright moment in the history of the Greeks and democracy was achieved when one older gentleman grabbed the microphone and yelled at one of the youthful committee members, while pointing to his questionably still-extant member: “Just come down here you little tart and I’ll give it to you.”
As a result of this and subsequent variations on the same discordant theme, the youth have slowly drifted away from the organisation. Gone is the fervour and desire to improve and expand, given that it is ignored, even discounted by the Alkmaeonidai. And why? Because the Alkmaeonidai have made it abundantly clear that they will not tolerate being ‘ruled’ by their descendants. As one such ‘powerbroker’ remarked to me: “We don’t mind the youth in the committee as long as they do all the work and know who is the boss.” It appears that the helot slaves of Sparta are the desired Alkmaeonidan model. More apocalyptic are the words of another Alkmaeonid, vociferous in his opposition to the youthful committee: “I’ve got no problem with the issue at hand. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly. But why should they get all the glory. We built this place and we control it, not a bunch of kids.” There are many other examples of idealistic ephebes being censured, abused, intrigued against and finally ostracised from the organisations they wished to serve, for being too bright, too idealistic and stepping on some Alkmaeonid’s toes. They are a sad proof that myth-making is one thing, and the hypocrisy of reality, as perfected by today’s Alkmaeonidai, is another.
Just as the candle burns brightest before it snuffs itself out, are we witnessing the waxen reaction of a dissaffected flame, lamenting its imminent demise and seeking to burn everything it purported to illuminate? Or like Chronos before them, are the Alkmaeonidai so obsessed with keeping their own ‘power’ (the only reason for their sense of self-esteem) from their own Zeus-children, that they are prepared to eat them whole, lest they ‘dethrone’ them?
Most probably, though historical precedent leans towards the genetic explanation advanced previously. We are Greeks. This is what Greeks do. The behaviour of the first generation at the above general meeting and others is more akin not to the Athenian boule but the communist ‘people’s assemblies’ during the Civil War where people implicated their neighbours in ‘crimes against the people’ and had them killed to settle old scores. It appears that for some, this war has not ended and the enemy has taken on a new form. Inevitably, the Themistocleis, Miltiadai and Aristeidai among the second generation should take on their task and do it without hope of reward, for sooner or later, the Alkmaeonidai will have them ostracised.
Thankfully or not, the vast chasm which separated the Alkmaeonidai whose main aim was to establish themselves and perpetuate their identity from the second generation who was largely brought up solely to obtain an education and have an enhanced earning capacity is so abysmal that the latter have no idea of the great poisoning of the already brittle root-system of our community arbour. One day though, when the legacy of the Alkmaeonidai will be a bunch of cold, marble tombstones inscribed in an alphabet that is no longer intelligible, Fallmerayer will not be the only one, who shall turn in his grave.

published in NKEE on 18 October 2004