COUP DE GRÊCE
How dare they degrade the coup from its exhalted status as a Hellenic art form to that of bland, blunt, barbarous bluster and buffoonery? In days gone by, coups had style, grace and finesse. Take the tyrant Peisistratus of Athens as a prototype. Bent on making Athens safe for tyrranocracy, he staged an attempt on his own life, and in the chaos that followed, he persuaded the Athenian Assembly to issue him bodyguards. Bodyguards in tow, he then ingeniously managed to capture and hold the Acropolis. With this in his possession, and the collusion of the turncoat Megacles and his party, he declared himself tyrant.
Peisistratus was ousted from political office and exiled twice during his reign. The first coup took place in 555 BC after the two original Athenian factions vying for power, the Pedieis and the Paralioi, which were normally at odds with each other, joined forces and removed him. Sounds familiar? The wily Peisistratus was exiled for between 3-6 years, during which time, the power sharing agreement between the factions fell apart. Peisistratos returned to Athens and rode into the city in a golden chariot accompanied by a tall woman playing the role of Athena. Many returned to his side, believing that he had the favour of the goddess and he went on to rule Athens benevolently, though oligarchically, and to bequeath his position to his sons – this being the dream of every president of a Greek club here in Australia.
Coups also abounded in Byzantine times. The Emperor Zeno was deposed by his mother in law Verina and her brother Basiliscus, Phocas removed Maurice, only to be removed in turn by Heraclius and Constans II was assassinated in his bathtub by concerned Constantinopolitans who feared that he was about to move the capital of the Empire to Syracuse. Justinian II had his nose cut off and was exiled to the Crimea. He returned, replete with 24 carat gold prosthetic nose, staged a counter coup and proceeded to brutalise the Byzantines until his removal by the Armenian Philipicus, who was deposed in turn by Anastasius II who was deposed in turn by Theodosius III. Constantine VI was deposed and blinded by his mother Irene, who in turn was deposed by Nicephorus I. His son Stavrakios was deposed by Michael I who was in turn deposed by Leo V the Armenian, who in turn was stabbed by a group of conspirators in Agia Sophia, who then elevated Michael II the Stammerer onto the throne. His daughter in law Theodora was deposed by her son Michael III who was assassinated by Basil the Macedonian, who was actually Armenian. His Armenian dynasty, being not Greek, was tight and cohesive, until it became Hellenised enough to allow the deposition of Romanos Lekapenos by his sons and the assassination of Nicephorus Phokas by his wife’s lover, Ioannis Tsimiskes. Indded, reams of diatribes could be consumed in detailing the sorry and sordid Byzantine palace coups. In fairness to our ancestors though, it is worthwhile to point out that the abovementioned coups took place over a period of some five hundred years, whereas in most South and Central American countries, such machinations would not even half fill the chapter in their histories entitled: “Twentieth Century and Current Affairs.”
Even our Church is prone to coups, with wily and ambitious early prelates using doctrinal disputes in order to muscle out their enemies from key positions. Even saints such as St John Chrysostom suffered deposition and exile, while stacked and rigged “Oecumenical Councils” such as the infamous Robber Synod of Ephesus attempted to arbitrarily pervert doctrine and have like minded hierarchs seize control of the Church. During the Ottoman era, when Church positions could and were bought and sold as commodities, Ethnomartyr Gregory V, patriarch of Constantinople, acceded to that position and was deposed three times. The latest example of a church coup was the deposition of Patriarch Irineos of Jerusalem, and considering that during Easter 2005, I was in the sanctuary of the Chruch of the Resurrection, listening to the hierarchs of the Jerusalem Patriarchate list his many misdemeanours, for good reason too.
When we do coups here in Australia, we don’t nearly do them in spectacular enough fashion anymore. One coup I found particularly fascinating was that visited upon the Lefcadian Brotherhood. A faction believing that it was entitled to do so, entered the Brotherhood building, occupied it and proceeded to form its own committee. I acted for the deposed committee, which after due consideration of various paranoid fantasies and the institution of legal proceedings, was considered by the Federal Court of Australia to have been the rightful committee and was duly reinstated. Three elements were pertinent to this coup, once it reached the Courts. The first, and most amusing, was the Dennis Denuto moment of the defendants, who, when the judge made an adverse finding against them, began to celebrate, thinking that they had won. As their legal advisor wryly pointed out to me later, it is immaterial who wins, for invariably, we will be able, through the internecine strife of our compatriots to send our children to private schools. The second was listening to the terrifyingly erudite Judge Finklestein making pointed obiter dicta about the organised Greek community’s propensity towards subversion of constitutions and rules. Revolutionaries and Counter-Revolutionaries alike are not strangers to Australian courts. The third and most predictable outcome of the coup was this: Having failed in their attempt to gain legitimacy as a rightful committee through the courts, the defendants went off and formed their own little rival entity, a Formosa if you will, to mainland China.
A coup by a faction of the so-called “Hellenic Church GOX Inc,” involving the locking out of an Old Calendarist committee from its Church by a faction that believed that the committee was not nearly Old Calendarist enough and that it should adhere to the third of the three Old Calendarist synods in Greece purporting to be the only true Orthodox Church again saw me in court. The Magistrate again dimly noted the propensity that “Greeks have for trouble with their clubs and religion,” and permitted the “darker forces of Old Calendarism” to prevail. As far as coups go, this one was a crusade that was successful and just last year, when I found myself in the Supreme Court attempting to thwart a coup staged by some Serbian parishioners who bundled their bishop and priest out of their parish, the august judge was anguished enough to list the number of Orthodox jurisdictional coups he has had to arbitrate over the past years, I finally understood the crux of Obolensky’s thesis that Byzantium truly was a commonwealth that exported Greek culture (including coup-staging) throughout the Slavonic East.
Our most recent coup, involving the removal of several Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria members from their executive positions on the board, and their replacement by those of a rival faction comes in the aftermath of a previous coup in which the faction supporting current President Bill Papastergiadis, removed long serving former President George Fountas from his position and set about an agenda of reform and renewal. It is worthwhile to note that the first coup was executed in the aftermath of hotly contested elections whose holding inhibited the organisation of the 2008 Antipodes Festival. Now those aggrieved by the coup want to have elections to seek a mandate by the members for governance. Sounds confusing?
A rough guide to the latest bout of factionalism that has permeated the GOCMV is as follows. George Fountas, spiritual if not temporal leader of the latest successful coup-perpetrators, known as “Foundists” or «φουντικοί» by their detractors, seeking to homophonously link them to the fascist «χουντικοί», always wears a tie. Bill Papastergiadis on the other hand is seldom seen with a tie and it is by this that ye shall know where allegiances lie. Granted, there are a plethora of other ideological differences between the factions, including issues of virility such as the GOCMV’s ability to achieve and sustain an erection of a Tower at its current headquarters but these ought not to vex us here.
That an entity of a thousand or so members is so politicised that it gives names to ‘factions’ and ‘tickets’ which operate in a manner reminiscent of political parties on small and ever diminishing Pacific Islands is dumb-founding. There is Κοινοτική Πρόοδος, Κοινοτική Ανανέωση, and Κοινοτική Συνεργασία – all separate tickets, promoting separate policies, some linked in to the agendas of other entities. The politicking, back-stabbing and rumour-mongering that comes as a corollary to such factionalisation ensures that a good deal more time than should be necessary is spent in shoring up one’s position and protecting one’s back, rather than focusing on the real problems facing the entity and the Greek community as a whole.
The GOCMV’s current political climate is both unsavoury and unhealthy. It inhibits broad-based participation from a representative sample of the Greek community. This in itself comes as a consequence of the stasis in the demographic of the membership, a large portion of which represents needs, ideologies and world-views out of step with the demands of the modern world. It is no wonder then that the GOCMV, notwithstanding its perception of itself as chief representative of the collective of Greek communities in Melbourne, has become just a larger tessera in the fragmented and increasingly unravelling mosaic of our paroikia, just as powerless, despite its large resource base, to address the most pressing issue we face today: the perpetuation of our distinct identity throughout the generations. That is not to say that individuals or groups within the GOCMV cannot appreciate looming challenges; rather, the fractious culture of the organisation seems to inhibit focus upon these, let alone facilitate the development of a plan of action.
Another aspect of the problem is that the GOCMV’s aspirations and activities are so broad in scope that they defy definition. Is the GOCMV a religious organisation? Is the propagation of the Orthodox faith of intrinsic importance to it? If so, then what is it doing to further the Orthodox faith in Australia? If not, is there any relevance to it purporting to act as a property manager for the various church buildings it has historically acquired, in the light of sundry community religious needs being met more than adequately by more appropriate entities? Again, is the focus of the GOCMV educational? If so, is it adequately laying the groundwork so as to ensure that the Greek language will be adequately taught beyond the present generations? Should or does the GOCMV focus adequately upon welfare issues such as charity, aged care, or gender equality? Should it or does it adequately advocate causes specific and important to its members and the Greek community at large, within the mainstream and how does it ensure the smooth integration of that community within the broader context of Australian society?
If the GOCMV is to maintain its relevance, three things need to take place. Firstly, it must resolve its crisis of identity. It must choose to focus upon areas that are not catered for or covered by other, more specialist entities and divest itself of spheres of activity that are an historical aberration. Secondly, it is imperative that it obtains for itself a more broader-based membership. It is only when members of the second and third generation who are vocal about their needs and the perceived needs of their children embrace the organisation, that fundamental, as opposed to superficial change will take place. Thirdly, all factions must realise that none of them can solely or adequately address the multifarious problems the GOCMV will face into the future. The manner in which they temporarily appeared to patch up their differences in order to organise the Antipodes Festival this year should serve as a telling paradigm.
Diatribe leaves you now with the happy news that since the GOCMV is so sexy, chock full of intrigue and coups, yours truly is running for Tyrant under my very own faction: Κοινοτική Κάβλα, the mouthpiece of all those fetishists who find GOCMV politics inordinately erotic. GOCMV maidens who wish to ride my golden chariot to glory need not apply. I can only drive in reverse. Until next week then, make love, not coups.