Monday, December 22, 2008


"There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again." Farenheit 451.

When the Colonels usurped power in Greece and subverted the 'democratic' system in 1967, they used as their emblem, the phoenix rising from the ashes, as if to symbolise the regenesis of the nation from the smouldering embers of Communism and internecine strife. The phoenix had hitherto been featured in the flags of Alexandros Ypsilantis and of many other captains during the Greek Revolution, symbolizing Greece's rebirth, and was chosen by Ioannis Kapodistrias as the first Coat of Arms of the Greek State, between 1828-1832. In addition, the first modern Greek currency bore the name of phoenix. Despite being replaced by a royal Coat of Arms, it remained a popular symbol, and was used again in the 1930s by the Second Hellenic Republic.
As a symbol expressing Hellenism, the phoenix perished in the both ashes of the Athens Polytechnic, during the student uprising against the Junta in 1974 and of course, the ashes of Cyprus, after the Junta's inept subversion of democracy on that island was used as a pretext for invasion. The Polytechnic uprising, which though revealing of the Junta's moral bankruptcy, did nothing to actively remove it and was in fact, suppressed.
Phoenix is an ancient Greek word for red. which also associates it with the Sun. The ancient Greeks believed that the phoenix lived in a cool well in Arabia and that it traveled to Heliopolis, the city of the Sun to die and be reborn. Its song was so beautiful that the Sun god would stop on his chariot to listen to its chant. Red is also the colour of revolution and of fire, a motif expertly explored in Ray Bradbury's seminal Farenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper catches fire,) where the pattern of an over complacent and abusive society's destruction yielding a fresh new start was compared to the Phoenix's mythological pattern of consumption by flame, then resurrection out of ashes. As such, the red flag, symbolizing the burning down of the old order in order that the new be reborn, was flown over the Paris Commune of 1871, at a rally in Chicago on May Day 1886, which resulted in the execution of some of the Haymarket Eight and of course, featured strongly in that most tempestuous conflagration of the old imperial order: the Russian Revolution.
In many ways, the students that barricaded themselves in the Athens Polytechnic in 1974, saw themselves as ideological successors to those red flag waving students that participated in the Paris May 1968 riots. They fervently believed in tearing down the old order of conservative morality (religion, patriotism, respect for authority)and replacing it with the liberal morality (equality, human rights) that dominates European (if not necessarily Greek) society today. Of course many of these idealistic youth were later to join the ranks of those self-interested, born-to -rule conservatives that they affected to despise. Others, alienated by a struggle that seemed to bear no fruit other than a feelgood adrenalin rush resigned themselves to conformity and others still, namely the 17 November and other fringe groups, maintained their anger and their rage against the state, as ideological descendants of the first Greek anarchists, Diogenes the Cynic and Zeno of Kition, while also espousing the violent doctrines of Nechaev and Chernyshevsky.
The anniversary of the Polytechnic "Uprising" (Defiance or Resistance would be better words to describe it), is always marked by violence and vandalism. The final suppression of US instigated fascism in Greece had as its unfortunate result, the creation of a hysterical political climate where violence and vandalism had to be tolerated and law and order compromised, lest governments be considered fascist and oppressive. Thus, the sight of well-fed, middle class youths marauding down the streets of Athens smashing or burning everything in their path instead of being in school, while claiming to demand "better education," or "rights," or "social justice" is farcical. Despite their vociferously expressed political sentiments, few if any of these scions of the petite bourgeoisie have ever volunteered to do charity work, assist people with disabilities or investigate the problems of Greek agriculturalists or groups that are victims of discrimination, such as gypsies. Theirs is a social activism based on fear and frustration: that they will not be able to live up to their parents' aspirations and secure for themselves, the piece of the pie that they feel that their social class entitles them to. While lamenting the corruption of a system that operates on who one knows and who one can bribe in order to navigate the labyrinthine and tortuous corridors of state bureaucracy, they are the ones who perpetuate it, since, despite their attestations, they are willing to feed it and adhere to its tenets, in order to secure their own personal gain, in the form of a future.
As such, the conflagration that has recently engulfed Greece, as a result against the irresponsible (though the coroner has found, probably accidental) killing of a teenage boy, in which hordes of vandals have rampaged down the streets of Greece's cities, willfully destroying private property, including some historic neo-classical buildings in Athens, cannot be seen as a form of social protest. The fact that Greek police have not been able to quell the violence and that as a rule, Greek police have for years maintained modus vivendi with the violent fringe, tolerating behaviour that in most western countries would be considered criminal, belies any assertion that Greek police are particularly brutal or repressive. As events have shown, apart from the odd harassment and beating of defenceless asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants, Greek police are largely inept and/or incompetent in the maintenance of public order.
This is because the mythology surrounding the Polytechnic protests has introduced a harmful anarchic element to Greek society: resistance to all forms of authority. It is one thing to pride ourselves on our supposedly innate love of freedom and refusal to be cowed or suppressed by force - of which the Polytechnic protests was the last large manifestation . It is quite another to interpret the heightened, almost hysterical sense of Greek individualism as a license to flout all laws or regulations that have been put in place as a result of the democratic process, ie. the will of the people. Returning from Greece, we are invariably both attracted and repelled by the arbitrary way in which Greeks refuse to wear seat-belts, pay fines, sit in orderly queues or engage in ingenious «κομπίνες» in order to negotiate their way around the obstacles of life. This immature disrespect for the law, which stems from the highest echelons, who also find ways to flout the laws they themselves are supposedly elected to uphold but who in reality, are seen as keys by their constituents, for their circumvention, upon payment of the requisite price. In this way, the police are seen as enemies, for their task is to enforce that which is most abhorrent to modern Greeks - conformity with the law. As a result, the Greek state itself, is rendered unviable.
Another unfortunate legacy of the Polytechnic protest is the illogical manner by which student life is overly politicised. In Greece, junior school students elect class presidents on political party lines. Using the Paris 1968 riots where lecturers led their students out of class in protest, and the Polytechnic protests as precedents, Greek school students, often incited by their teachers, go on strike for the most ridiculous of reasons. The «κατάληψη,» that sorry rite of passage whereby public schools are occupied by indolent students, thus disrupting their education have earned the odium of the entire western world, while it masquerades as political activism. I remember speaking to a student "leader" of a «κατάληψη» in Samos, some years ago. The reason for his occupation of his school (just before exam time)? The fact that his school did not have heaters. "Did you try writing a letter or wearing a jumper," I asked. His response was this: "I'm not going to pander to the fascist system. That would be undemocratic." Rubbish. While it is trite that situations like this could be avoided if the Greek government properly applied funds for the maintenance and development of schools, the rubbish strewn and heavily graffitied walls of Greek university campuses, with political and anarchist symbols, speaks of a sub-culture not of informed protest but of mindless and futile 'wrecking,' to use the Soviet terminology. Students must be made to understand that while they are free to have an opinion and to express it, the facilities provided for them out of the taxes of citizens, are to be utilised for them to acquire knowledge and not to waste their youth by destroying public property. The teaching of basic respect for all members of the community and the realisation that their elders and their peers in employment do not travail in order to support their own self-assumed Clockwork Orange lifestyle is a condition precedent to the emergence of Greece as a cohesive, modern society.
In a society that is more liberal than it has ever been and the distribution of wealth has remained more or less unchanged, the spate of violence that has plagued Greece as a result of the police killing must not be justified as legitimate social protest, especially given the incidence of widespread looting of private property and small businesses. Greece neither oppresses its citizens, nor denies them rights. If anything, there are more avenues for protest and civil disturbance in that country than in most developed democracies of the world.
Greeks around the world have taken issue at the manner in which the riots have been reported by foreign news agencies. One particular quip, that the riots are occurring in "Athens, supposedly the home of democracy," should sting, nut not because it is entirely unwarranted. For too long democracy in Modern Greece has meant rule by the elite, supported by their cronies, while potential dissenters are permitted or rather directed to blow of steam and/or influence and manipulate political events by periodic and contained bouts of violence. This time, the violence has gotten out of hand and exposed Greek society for what it is: a dysfunctional conglomeration of infantile egoists and politically immature citizens.
Greek citizens did not obtain their liberty or rights through wanton acts of violence at the slightest of pretexts. The Greek revolution was underlain by an ideology of liberal enlightenment developed by profound thinkers and underwritten by powerful financiers. It was a co-operative effort of all sections of society aimed at re-building a viable, cohesive state in accordance with western values. Modern Greece is a member of NATO and the European Union. As such, it purports to espouse the values guiding these entities and aspires to take its place among the great nations of the world. Yet it cannot hold itself out to be a proponent of the rule of law and democracy when it allows its citizens to run amok and cause harm to each other. For this reason, and in the face of the howls and curses of the ashen lunatic fringe, the perpetrators of these disgusting crimes against Greek citizens must be brought to account and be punished. A properly functioning democracy has no need of a violent steam valve. In that way, citizens will all be made to feel responsible towards each other and can set upon the task of making themselves and the State more accountable. Abigail van Buren may have quipped that: "People who fight with fire usually end up with ashes," but I prefer this, by Miguel Cervantes, if only the Greeks could take a good, long, hard look at themselves: "The phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies and still defying fortune's spite, revive from the ashes and rise." It is time we reject ashes for good, and embrace the regenerative qualities of our immortal bird.


First published in NKEE on 22 December 2008