Saturday, May 04, 2013
There are certain toponyms that are deeply etched within the psyche of the Modern Greek. These toponyms, dredged up from the dank and dark depths of a reconstructed history and national consciousness are oft cited as lexical encapsulations of the diachronic character of the Greek.
Take Marathon for instance. Its hallowed plain serves as mute testimony to the stalwart courage of the Greeks who steadfastly refused to be cowed by the numerical superiority of the Persian invader and scored a mighty victory. Of course, the conduct of the Macedonians, who collaborated with the Persians rather than resist them, is conveniently glossed over when using the Marathon paradigm as determinative of a “Greek” identity.
Salamis, is another of those toponyms that early on, were used to define the “Greek.” For it was there that Themistocles trapped and destroyed the Persian fleet, through his capacity to think outside the square and challenge conventional ways of doing things. If Marathon equals Greek bravery, then Salamis equals ingenuity. Of course, the heavy presence of Greek allies in the Persian fleet, such as Queen Artemisia, is of limited use for the purposes of this paradigm.
Thermopylae as a toponym, is hugely symbolic of a supposed endemic Hellenic trait of extreme patriotism and devotion to duty regardless of the cost. It was the example of Thermopylae that Greek soldiers fighting the Italian invaders in the mountains of Northern Epirus were exhorted to emulate. What is of course glossed over, is that the Spartan sacrifice was of no strategic or useful purpose, a retreat and conservation of Greek resources being of more value against the Persians, and appears to have been a needless sacrifice of three hundred lives more for show than anything else. Furthermore, somehow, the nefarious role of the perfidious Greek Ephialtes, the disaffected traitor who led the Persians across unknown terrain in order to outmanoeuvre the Greeks, was detached from the stereotype of kenotic, self-sacrificing Greek who is ready to die for his ideals and his country.
Yet Ephialtes and Thermopylae would linger long in the consciousness of the Greek people, so much so that by the time we get to modern Greece (for some reason, great battles or events taking place in Hellenistic or Byzantine times don’t seem to have found themselves a place in the Modern Greek narrative. No one for example has derived any cultural from the Alexandrian battles of Granicus, or Arbela, nor from those of Actium, Pelusium, Pharsalos or Pydna, when Greece was subjugated to the Romans for the final time. The Mithridatic Wars, being wars of liberation against the Romans by a renascent Pontian genius-king rate barely a mention though they are just as heroic, ingenious and ultimately tragic as the poignant battles of the Persian Wars. Similarly, the major battles of Byzantium, such as those against the Persians, or the battle of Yarmuk against the Arabs, Manzikert against the Turks, which witnessed the thousand year old struggle of Romaic Hellenism for survival and culminating in the tragic, Thermopylaean resistance and ultimate sacrifice of the defenders of Constantinople and its emperor in 1453, are more notable by their absence in the modern Greek narrative, as if these one thousand years of Greek history had little effect on the Greek psyche and the modern Greek nation merely picked up where the ancients had left off) a dualistic view of history becomes propagated, where the most heroic and superhuman activities of the Greek people, who are equal to their ancestors in ingenuity and valour, are laid waste by unscrupulous traitors, who are constantly lurking in the background. Thus, the mountain fastness of Souli, which defied the autocratic Ali Pasha was destroyed, not via attrition or a Muslim superiority but rather via the perfidy of the unspeakable traitor, Pilios Gousis. Had it not been for him, and the other many traitors secretly working to undermine the Marathonian achievements of our race, such as the disgusting individual who leaked to the Ottomans the plans of the Greek defenders of Mesolongi to escape from that town during the Revolution, imagine what a great nation we would be.
The inference within the toponymic connotations in clear: Virtues are Greek. Vices cannot be included within our constructed stereotype so in order to distance them from us, we label them as un-Greek. Take for example the latest toponym which has lent itself to an aspect of the modern Greek character: Manolada. This denotes the village where Bangladeshi migrant workers, who were working for a pittance at a strawberry farm and had not been paid for six months, finally summed up the courage to take their employers, descendants of the heroic fighters of Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylae, Souli and Mesolongi, to task. Instead of having their wage claims negotiated, or at least some discussion ensuing, the hapless migrant workers were ordered to get back to work, and when they did not, one of their supervisors shot them.
Greek politicians and media commentators have been very quick to condemn this racist violence but have also been inordinately hasty in their attempt to dismiss or distance the rest of society from this tragic phenomenon. According to them, the assault upon the exploited workers was an “aberration” and an uncharacteristically “non-Greek” act. It would also appear that the two workers who were dragged in the streets of Manolada tied to a motorbike as a punishment for complaining about not being paid recently, were also victims of a non-Greek act. Furthermore, the two Greek men who were arrested last year for beating a thirty-year-old Egyptian immigrant, jamming his head in the window of a car door and dragging him for around one kilometre were also engaged in non-Greek acts that by no means reflect Greek society as a whole.
Yet it is arguably the way that a society deals with its members at a time of crisis that ultimately reflects itself more than its imagined or idealised virtues ever will. It is the modern Greek people who gave the racist Xrysi Avgi party seven percent of the vote. It is the modern Greek people who tolerate the discriminatory antics of the members of this party, who rampage around the streets of the country, deliberately going out of their way to humiliate and intimidate foreigners living in Greece and are bent upon excluding them from the national paradigm. As one Greek national put it, “….instead of showing interest about our fellow human beings that are being treated like animals right next to us, we debate whether the Nazi salute is German, Roman or Ancient Greek.”
Labelling disturbing social phenomena as “non-Greek,” is but the latent, obverse form of the racism that currently blights modern Greek society as it undergoes one of its periodic disintegrations. Not only does it serve to permit Greece to gloss over the seriousness of such heinous acts, it also permits Greek society to continue to delude itself into thinking that all the poisons that have lurked in the mud of its complacency all this time and have finally hatched out, are not endemic to its identity and can thus be shrugged off as an aberration, thus absolving us of any responsibility to take the requisite steps to address racism.
History has proven time and time again that victimising and vilifying marginal groups at a time of disaffection is something that no nation is immune from. True dignity and courage worthy of Marathon and Thermopylae lie not in assertions of cultural superiority, chest pounding and the rattling of shields and spears but in how a nation pulls itself together and embraces all of its people, regardless of creed or colour, in times of extreme crisis. It remains to be seen whether Manolada will, in years to come, be the toponym that best describes how divorced from reality our sense of self actually came to be. My guess is that it will, like most of our shortcomings, be swept away with the detritus of other ‘non-Greek,’ to come back to haunt us time and time again, whenever events cause social dust to be stirred….
First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 May 2013