Monday, August 01, 2005


When I reached the age of eighteen, having cursorily consumed various Greek history texts and delved somewhat (at least as much as the perspicacity of an eighteen year old permits) into the writings of our compatriot sages, I arrived at the following conclusion: That there is a marked difference between the Semitic and the Greek worlds. While the Semitic mindset deal in absolutes: "Though shalt not kill" or "The Lord your God is One," the Greek mindset is more subtle and flexible. It inquires, speculates and questions, the writings of the greatest philosophers attesting to this.
It was only much later, when I began to delve into Greek community affairs, scrutinized the Greek-language section of this august publication at length and had the opportunity to observe the Hellene, in all of its various manifestations at length that I discovered that I, like most of my compatriots, was in fact suffering from a bi-polar disorder of identity, one which, I hasten to add, manages to enmesh me still, within its insidious, tentacle-like grip.
The ancient Greek historians set a precedent for absolutist self-identification that has haunted us ever since. For us, there always has been and most likely always will be a 'them' and an 'us,' whether thid be racial or ideological. The main aim of Herodotus' history was to explain why it came about that there is a 'them' and an 'us' and why this polarization into Greeks and those whose language to the untuned Hellenic ear sounds like an urgent request for direction to the latest liquor outlet, (hence 'bar-bar') necessarily erupted into conflict, in the form of the Persian Wars. Thucydides, arguably a greater literary talent, took great pains to geographically delimit the boundaries of 'them' and 'us' to the extent that by leaving out certain northern regions, he along with Demosthenes years later, has provided tools to a new batch of 'them' on our northern borders to 'prove' that 'us' or at least a large part of 'us' is actually 'them.' At any rate, if any historical event proves the Greek consciousness' tendency or rather delight in bi-polarity, his would invariably have to be the Peloponnesian Wars, where 'them' and 'us' changed sides with dizzying frequency. Ostracism, where 'them' are forcibly removed from 'us' because, well, we don't like 'them', as practiced in democratic Athens is another case in point.
In fact, it took an immense visionary, in the form of Alexander the Great to attempt to dissolve this conception of the Hellenic world, though again through bi-polar means. Essentially, what Alexander the Great did, was to attempt to dissolve the distinction between 'them' and 'us' by making them all 'his.' This sadly did not work, and it is interesting that while his generals accused him of behaving like 'them' during his life, later apologists for his saunter across Asia generally view him in the context of bring the gifts of 'our' 'civilisation' to 'them.' Except for the Syriacs, and especially Bar Hebraeus in his 'History of the World', we still have not received a thank you from the Semitic recipients of our great 'gifts'.
Proving that Greek bi-polar disorder is genetic rather than environmental is the singular fact that an empire more ridden with bi-polarity than the Byzantine cannot be found. The distinction between 'them' and 'us' here could fluctuate day by day, encompassing Goths, Gepids, Vandals, Saracens, Alans, Huns, Franks, Bulgarians and Turks from without the borders as 'them' and depending on the persuasion of the ruling faction at the time, Nestorians, Sabellians, Monophysites, Chalcedonians, Macedonianists, Paulicians, Iconoclasts, Iconodules or really just anyone that got in the way, within the borders of its God-protected domain as 'them' as well. It is an interesting that the polarization between 'them' and 'us' could even be applied posthumously. In one of the earliest examples of historic revisionism, the erstwhile 'orthodox' (ie. of 'us') Theodore of Mopsouestia and Theodoret of Cyrus were deemed to be heretical Nestorians (ie. 'them') hundreds of years after their death while in the case of the Chalcedonians and Monophysites, both of whom call themselves orthodox, it is downright confusing for the layperson to determine the identity of 'them' and 'us' with any hope of clarity. Similarly, imagine the plight of the poor Byzantine Greek of 1204, trying to determine who 'them' and 'us' actually is, when all of the Despot of Epirus, the Emperor of Trapezus, the Emperor of Nicaea and the Frankish Emperor of Constantinople claimed the sole overlordship of the Roman Empire.
The concept of 'them' and 'us' was rendered more simply but was all prevalent in Ottoman Greece. 'Them' for many years were the Muslims and 'us' the downtrodden Christians. Towards the turn of the twentieth century however, 'them' could be renascent nationalist Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians, atheists, intellectuals, freedom fighters, demoticists or purists.
Free Greece on the other hand, has a whole period of its history named 'National Polarisation' being the division of that country into monarchist and nationalist zones by Venizelos durig the first world war, proving how intrinsic bi-polarity is to the fabric of Modern Greek society. As for the latter half of the century, including the Civil War, which played itself out in various forms right up until the restoration of democracy in 1975 and some would argue is still extant within first generation migrants in Australia today, the conclusion that no Greek thought can exist without being extracted and expunged through the sieve of bi-polarity, seems as absolute as the concept itself. In the Civil War, 'them' being one's brother, cousin or friend could be denounced, tortured and murdered because he did not share the same ideology as 'us.' Of course all of 'them' were traitors and all of 'us' were patriots.
It should be proud that we here in the Antipodes (yet another semantically bi-polar word) lovingly retain this historical attribute. The first 'them' and 'us' was the distinction between Greeks and Australians and we asserted the superiority of our culture, at least to ourselves, in private, with Herodotean fervour. The next 'them' and 'us' came in the form of one's regional background. The battle of good against evil them commenced as organizations sharing the same regional background split up like amoeba and multiplied exponentially into a myriad of like minded clones, distinguished only by the appellation of 'them' and of course 'us.' Couple this with the 'then' and 'us' bi-polarities of Communist v fascist, Labor v liberal, Greek Communities v Church, Greek traditions v Assimilation, President v would-be president and one can easily perceive the state of polarized paranoia in which our community festers.
In our community, everything has a label and everything or everyone is either an enemy or a friend. When meeting someone involved in community affairs for the first time, the usual questions that are asked (always behind their backs) are as follows: 'What is his agenda? Is he one of 'us'? Is he pro-Church, anti-Church, Communist, northern or southern Greek, and will he tow the line?' In our community, petty civil wars are played out daily and denunciations similar in form to those that were all the rage during the Civil War, are the order of the day. In our community, he who shares not the same persuasion as myself, is my enemy. For example, recently I was interviewed by a Greek Community station about my trip to Jerusalem. At the conclusion of that interview, an elderly gentleman who has never met me, telephoned the interviewer and advised him that it is dangerous to expose his listeners to the sound of my voice as apparently, I am a freemason. The almost Byzantine web of intrigue that surrounds most active members of the community and indeed those who take part in community debates from time to time is so complex as to use the words of Gorky's grandmother, as a piece of lace crocheted by a blind woman. But then again, what would a communist, atheist, ultra-Orthodox, fascist freemason know?
Paranoia and the desire to classify people as 'them' or 'us' is at least a palliative. In being so obsessed in how the various invisible 'powers' of light and darkness fight each other, undermine each other and divide their minions into 'them' or 'us' we are able to maintain the illusion that our community is so vital as to have so many active, if not polarized interests and organizations. In reality, as always, most of these poles and differences are illusory, constructed only to feed the egos and delusions of power by an insignificant though highly malevolent few. The same goes not only for internal politics but debates about ideas as well. Though we are essentially one community, we seem to strive towards dividing it further. As geographical origins slowly become irrelevant as their memory fades, the old form of Herodotean division is enjoying a likely renaissance- that of the syncretic picking and choosing the elements which comprise one's own individual conception of Hellenism and using these to castigate, ridicule and exclude 'them' who do not share these. The irony of our people still striving to define themselves by excluding others some two and a half thousand years after the demise of Herodotus should not be lost on us.
In Rabbinical scholarship, the word pilpul has been coined to describe scholarly debate about trivial and useless issues that are of no benefit to anyone. If any one community can aspire to the appellation of pilpulist, is surely is ours. Let the pilpulists beware however in their quest for scholarly excellence in the trivial and their thirst to prove to be the most Hellenic, that the final bi-polarisation of our community results solely in the plastification of 'them' - a mass of assimilated and neglected ex-Greeks and the final demise of the ubiquitous 'us.'

First published in NKEE on 1 August 2005