Monday, July 10, 2006


I happen to harbour a rather vague Orwellian false-memory from the eighties, involving listening to older relatives arguing strenuously that, among others, Dennis Lillee was a Greek from Northern Epirus called Dionysis Lillis and even more paradoxically, that Daryl Sommers was in fact a Greek, whose baptismal name was Paraskevas. There seems to be a deeply entrenched fascination within our souls, for singling out eponymous persons and proudly proclaiming that they are Greek, or at least of Greek origin regardless of their proximity to Greek culture, most notable recent additions to the pantheon of the Greek race being Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Aniston. That this tendency can verge upon the ridiculous is evidenced by one the debates that smoulder from time to time in the letters section of the Greek parent of this publication, as to whether the deity himself, Jesus Christ, was Greek. That this diatribist is not immune from such tendencies can amply be evidenced by the publication over the years, of Diatribes relating to the Greek origin of such diverse personages as Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ioan Heraclid, King of Rumania and just last week, French poet Andre Chenier.
Interestingly enough and in contrast to Diatribe's own admission criteria, which are two: that the said Greek has to be relatively unknown – (hence Theodore and an upcoming Diatribe on Petros Philargis of Crete, who unbeknownst to almost all of us, was a Roman Pope,) or at least violently villainous – (hence the charlatan Ioan Heraclid,) those singled out for inclusion into the fraternal bonds of Hellenism by the hoi polloi are done so by reference to a single criteria - how famous, as opposed to notorious they are and how easily their fame can rebound to the greater glory of that ideological construct we all commune in with such mystical reverence.
That this tendency exists, is of grave concern to those who subscribe to the theory that all our ethnic characteristics are retained in an unbroken chain from the depths of hallowed antiquity, for this is definitely a case where the exception shatters the rule. Ancient Greek culture was predicated upon a dualistic conception of the world, where the concept of "others" was not only excluded but rejected altogether. None of your modern day syncretic miscegenation here. In fact the ancients were so xenophobic that they struggled to find common bonds with each other, let alone the rest of humanity and we have Demosthenes to thank for the misappellation of our northern tribes, that has caused us so much grief in recent times.
If anyone therefore is to blame for our namedropping and sorely misguided attempts to gain status through forced association, it would have to be the Romans who not only appropriated our gods and made them their own, but also applied the same philosophy to the Olympic Games, architecture and almost every single other aspect of Greek culture. While the Babylonians and Egyptians could conceivably have the same complaint of us, they are, at least in the ancient Greek conception, Semitic barbarians of pernicious value and thus, their testimony is of miniscule intrinsic worth. That this is so, can easily be proven by the exploits of that arch-syncretist, Alexander the Great, who not only had the temerity to compel the forcible adulteration of our glorious race through genetic experiments of a kind not seen again until the times of Mendel but who also traipsed across Bactria, haphazardly recognizing inhabitants as Greeks without a thorough investigation, appointment of a committee to oversee the investigators, appointment of a sub-committee to ensure the integrity of the committee and finally, the election of an εφορευτική επιτροπή to make sure no one feels so left out of the process that they become bitter and ask nasty questions at the next annual general meeting.
Invariably, any attempts to 'claim' persons for our own must stem from an incredible lack of self-esteem. Despite a pedigree that if laid end to end would circle the girdle of the earth thrice-fold, we still feel insecure about who we are and our own worth as a people. Consequently, we seek consolation and self-justification by pointing to those who have "made it" in a discourse that is probably not our own, under conditions we are not privy to and possibly, without material reference to our culture, as if their achievements reflect upon our diverse people in any way whatsoever. It is therefore important to us that Alec Issigonis invented the Mini Minor, as this shows to the outside world but more importantly to ourselves that Greeks can be inventive and good businessmen. It is important that Spiro Agnew was vice-president of the United States as this shows that Greeks can escalate the upper echelons of power. All this makes us feel like we are somebody and is tantamount to the Greek boasts of a half a century ago: «είμαι κόρη γιατρού,» or among the first generation of the Antipodes, «ο πατέρας μου έβγαλε το σχολαρχείο.» French philosopher Jean-Bernard Klus' maxim: "the Greek recognises Klus' left shoulder as his father," certainly rings true, though is probably apocryphal.
It is noteworthy to mention that knowing that Melina Kanakaredes is a successful Greek actress in the US is infinitely more valuable than knowing that Kalomoira Sarantis is a "successful" well, media "thing" from the US, in Greece. In other words, what we attach value to is the fact that our protégés can make it in a discourse not of our own making, regardless of whether this means that they must abandon, hide, or relegate to the sidelines, the Greek aspect to their identity, if it at all exists. What this further underlies, is a tacit acceptance that the exoteric discourse, though foreign, is of greater value than our own, yet again another manifestation of our incredibly low self-esteem. As long as this deep-seated conviction exists, our assimilation is to kismet what predestination is to Calvinism.
We can see this conception of our own discourse at play here in the Antipodes. Those who are lauded in our print and radio media are those with the ability to make it 'big' in the wider Australian community. There is nothing wrong with this and on one level, this is merely an example of the pride the couch grass of Hellenism feels in being able to survive its recent transplantation and creep its tendrils through all facets of society. Our politicians, actors, media personalities and businessmen have not had success poured onto them from the Cornucopia of Amaltheia. They have had to battle prejudice as well as healthy competition and no one should be able to diminish their achievements. However, it says much for our community and people in general that while we are able to laud the efforts of those who ultimately serve the mainstream culture, we seem to experience inordinate difficulty in recognizing the efforts of those within our community who strive for its own good, rather than that of others, relegating our so-called community, at least conceptually, into oblivion.
It is a sad state of affairs indeed if an Australian "well done," is worth more than a Greek one. Yet this is exactly the situation we find ourselves in. In our obsession with symbols and facades, we seem terribly eager to pay homage to idols of image and the outward trappings of success in the vain belief that one man’s achievements will magically be reflected on his community, which is too loose and impotent to have engendered that success anyway. Rather than inflating our self-worth and injecting it into the veins of our community as a palliative for its terminal decline by publishing self-righteous lists of the top 20 rich Greek businessmen, why not concentrate on highlighting the valiant efforts of those who have striven or strive to have our community retain some sense of cohesion and continuity? Why not loudly laud obscure Greek-school teachers, dance teachers, volunteers, musicians, artists and countless others who give of themselves and their time under the illusion, delusion or vision, call it what you will, that what they are doing is of some importance to the retention of Greek culture here in the Antipodes?
There are many unsung heroes within our discourse. Their punishment, obscurity, is ill fitting to their only crime, which was to seek to remain within their own dialectic instead of transcending it in search of personal benefit. While in our daily lives we all out of necessity transcend the dialectic and act as intermediaries for the onslaught of benign monoculturalism, our self worth should be measured in our community, not solely by how much we achieve for ourselves or our temporal masters but most importantly, by how closely we have adhered to it and what we have done to its benefit.
That being said, let us alleviate our self-castigation by accepting that no nation is immune to bandwagon tendencies. Heavily American-accented Mel Gibson is thought of as Australian and so was Yelena Dokic before she started losing matches and before the populace at large met her father. Both Assyrians and Armenians squabble over the ethnic identity of Andre Agassi and the jury is still out on Yusuf Islam, hitherto known as Cat Stevens, also known as Stephen Georgiou. Nonetheless, would it not be refreshing to engage in such topics as: “Twenty most unfortunate and unsuccessful Greeks - How can we help them?” Or is failure a word mutually exclusive to our discourse? Plotting the graph of our sojourn in this country, this would decidedly not be so. Diatribe this week leaves you with the sensational news that at least according to the "Greek-Americans" entry in the ubiquitous Wikipedia, Jodie Hart, adult film actress who has appeared in such quality films as Larry's Angels, and The Da Vinci Load, and who describes herself as easygoing, fun, and a bit of a dork, is of partial Greek descent. As Wikpedia states: "she was planning on visiting Greece this summer as she is half Greek and into history." What a nation. Now we can finally trace the origin of the Greek adage: «Γ...ω τη φυλή μας, γ...ω …..»

First published in NKEE on 10 July 2006