VAIN VISION OF VICTORY?
When I penned this paragraph last year in a Diatribe, it caused quite a deal of discomfort among sections of the first generation of our community. The venerable educator and academic Christos Fifis, in an interview on 3ZZZ, asked me whether the paragraph could not be considered to be an insult to the first generation of migrants. My response was that I was referring to the Greek community as a whole. Why was he equating the words “Greek community,” with the first generation? What did this equation reveal about the first generation’s understanding of the composition of that community? In order to dispel any misunderstanding, I went on to explain that I had the highest regard for the achievements of the first generation and that I felt that there was no way that the second generation, (which lacks drive, cohesion and dedication vis a vis its role within the Greek community – which, I would think, comprises of ALL Greek generations), could ever supersede or even match these. Nonetheless, various first generation members of the community continued to be extremely hurt by my comments and they voiced their bitter disappointment to me. I have, and continue to apologise for the injury caused to their sensitivities. In stating that adequate structures do not exist within our community to assist those of its second generation members who are promoting the “cause” of Hellenism alone, I did not mean to accuse the first generation.
Notwithstanding the orifice-ridden method in which I chose to describe our predicament, one would not be blamed for thinking these days that we truly are facing a Götterdämmerung of Wagnerian proportions. The creators of our particular virtual world , no longer hearty and hale and weary of seeking glory on the battle field, quite often now just go through the motions, awaiting their entry into the bliss of Walhalla. Some of these old, battle-hardened and crusty warriors, are still so entrenched upon their mission to seek glory, that they forget where the battle actually is situated and swing their broadswords violently this way and that, causing injury to their own comrades. And where, one asks, are the younger warriors who should be standing by, ready to pick up discarded shields and hone rusty swords? More often than not, for reasons too numerous to mention, they have turned their backs on Asgard and are content to while away the hours in Midgard, until such time as Ragnarök is come, and the Jotun are released upon them in all their fury. And it is for this reason that our old warriors are so apprehensive. When they depart, who will be left behind to safeguard their legacy?
We will, that is if we want to be and we must be, if our community will have any hope of surviving into the future as a cohesive whole. The past decade has seen the loss of Modern Greek language teaching units from almost all of the tertiary institutions in this state, with the recent demise of EKEME seeming to be the tombstone upon the grave of Greek language education here. At that time I wrote: “It should not come as a surprise that those members of the community who strove and fought for the erection of lofty educational institutions are now unwilling or not in a position to display the same energy in striving to arrest their terminal decline. At the time that most of these institutions were founded, these members of the community were in the 30-40 year old demographic. Thirty or so years later, why should they be called upon to defend their foundations? Should not their successors in the demographic of activism take that role upon themselves? Apparently not. In a community where the reception of Hellenism, in most of its facets, is a passive, rather than an active process, comprising of snippets of information being interpreted, utilised by its primary partakes and passed down to latter generations, this demographic group, in its vast majority either has not the requisite knowledge of the significance of these foundations, or the passion, let alone the time and the expertise, to see them continue. Like everything else about Hellenism in this country, these are matters that are perceived to concern only the first generation... Thus, what is remarkable in the aftermath of EKEME's demise then, is not the existence of ineffective incredulity and gloating, but rather the manifestation of an entire adult demographic that is in its majority a) professionally trained or tertiary educated b) integrated within Australian society c) excelling in all spheres of life's total indifference to what could well likely be a landmark event in the history of our community."
From the depths of impotent despair however, comes hope and renewal. In Kostis Palamasian fashion: “And not being able to find a step lower to descend, you will find, oh joy, your original, great wings,” a group of second and third generation Greek students at Monash university have resolved that they themselves are able to determine their cultural future and that they have a responsibility towards their community and themselves to ensure that their compatriots have the option of studying Modern Greek at Monash University.
A prime mover in the whole affair is Simon Angelopoulos, member of the Monash University Hellenic Students Society, active NUGAS member and committed Hellene. “I could not have done it without the other members of the Society,” he explains. “We got together and decided that no one was going to do anything about Modern Greek at Monash. We needed to form a grass-roots campaign in order to get Greek reinstated. If you consider the demographic of the Monash campuses and the high proportion of Greek students, it seemed ridiculous that Modern Greek was no longer being offered. We felt we had to do something.”
Unlike many tail-chasing Greek endeavours that are doomed to failure because their primary motivation is to be seen to be doing something rather than addressing the needs of the target demographic, the committed Monash students prepared their groundwork very carefully. Quoth Simon: “I had a list prepared of members and other people that may be interested. Working down the lost, over the course of the next few months, I called people, letting them know that we were working towards reinstating Modern Greek as a subject at Monash. Most people reacted positively. However most stated that they had studied Modern Greek right up until Year 12 and did not see the need to embark upon tertiary studies that would conflict with and/or deprive them of the time to study the subjects intrinsic to their vocation. Slowly, we developed a critical mass of interested people and after many months, we were ready to approach the University.”
Unlike many community endeavours which focus upon quick results and even more rapid kudos, it took two and a half or so years of painstaking work for these committed students to convince the Monash authorities that enough interest existed for the revival of Modern Greek. Simon and the members of his committee should understandably be most proud of the results of their labour. Granted, the number of students undertaking the subject is but a class (twenty or so), but they have shown that when it is committed and dedicated to a task, the second generation too is capable of remarkable achievements. They have single-handedly arrested a terminal decline. They stand, not only as an example to the first generation, as to their potential, properly-handled, but more importantly, to the latter generations. Simon and the MUHSS’s achievement should empower and embolden the second generation to fight to secure those things pertinent to their sense of their identity that they will require for the future. As the old adage goes: “Do it yourself, because nobody else will do it yourself.” The tentative reinstatement of Modern Greek at Monash is a historic moment in our community. It marks the emancipation (albeit decades delayed) of the second generation of Greek-Australians. Now that we have proven that we are just as genuine arbiters of our own identity, it is incumbent upon us to think strategically and act responsibly and collectively in order to maintain and preserve a community structure relevant and tailored to our needs. For there is little utility in foisting this heavy burden upon a previous generation that has already done so much. It is up to us now, to step into their shoes. Unlike them, our task will be two-fold – not only to create a community that can embrace our children, whose cultural needs will be much different to our own, but also to preserve and maintain the legacy of those who came before us and created us, amidst the void.
When I asked Simon whether he was not merely engaged upon the Sisyphian task of rolling a boulder uphill only to have it crash back down to the bottom upon his reaching the summit, he replied: “Look, each group needs to look after itself. We saw an opportunity to restore Modern Greek and we would have been derelict in our duty towards our members and our peers if we did not exploit it. After all, we are a Hellenic society. That is what we are supposed to be doing. It’s not just about social nights and clubs.” Hear, hear.
Simon Angelopoulos is at pains to point out that nothing could have been achieved without the initiative and hard work of the indefatigable, thinking Greek’s goddess and academic, Dr Evangelia Ananoustou-Laoutidou, of the Monash Classical Studies Program, whose name has graced the pages of Diatribe before. She was able to harness the students’ energy, guide it and point it at the target at hand with devastating effect, which is kind of like the way she writes prose, even (impossibly!) ensuring the collaboration of the Greek government, through the Melbourne Consulate. Just other day, I sent her a copy of my latest book. Her response, encapsulates in so many ways, the zeitgeist of our times:
“Many thanks for sending your book, Apteros Nike. I hope the title does not allude to any hidden messages re the Monash efforts to introduce Modern Greek! We live vain lives anyway, so why not entertain ourselves with another vain vision of victory? A vvv in short???” Ah, you are as wise as you are resplendent, oh Solominic one. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” the old Judaic king once sighed. But once in a while, is it not good to rest our posteriors well and truly on our laurels and breathe in the smell of victory. Until next week then: Study Modern Greek!