Monday, May 12, 2008


What, you may be wondering, is the latest controversy to hit the august Greek community? Is it the proposition of a bold, radical plan to arrest the terminal decline in Greek language education? Not a chance. What about the institution of an integrative model that would ensure the full participation and enfranchisement of the younger generations within the life and workings of our community? Fat chance! How about the re-establishment of a Greek presence on Lonsdale Street. Close but no cigar.
No, distinguished ploughers of the furrows of this weedy Diatribe, the question on the tips of everyone’s lips is predictably not how to retard the increasing fragmentation into post-modern irrelevancy of the institutions that purport to give us our identity, nor how to come up with any constructive new idea that would provide impetus to the furtherance of the so-called multi-cultural fabric of our society but rather, whether or not Neos Kosmos stalwart Babis Stavropoulos accepted money from the outgoing committee of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria in order to ensure a favourable write up of their activities during the recent, agonizingly protracted power wrangle that has, after court cases and coups, brought about a coveted regime change in that hallowed institution.
The case against Babis is ridiculously poor. If anyone knows Babis, they would know that of all people in this world, he is one who displays a complete disregard for the cheque book. Not for him is the daily trip down to the Caulfield branch that a little old Greek lady who lives near my workplace makes, in order to check how much interest has accrued in her account since the day before. Nay, Babis is one of those devil may care types, willing to cross the Antarctic in nothing more than a red scarf tied around his neck and a leather loin cloth, perched upon a bio-fuel guzzling scooter, chasing the next pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. When he finds it, as he invariably always does, he donates it to the emperor penguins, to the chagrin of the Adelie penguins, for there is no accounting for taste. I remember running into him one day at Stalactites restaurant. Recently returned from fighting the double headed Patagonian Pizzle-fish, he had returned to Australia only to find his refrigerator devoid of burnt offerings and having not had any sustenance for two days, he followed the smell of his hunger down to the temple of the Greek-Australian culinary god, Gyros. In short, Babis, intrepid explorer and uncompromising ideologue is the kind of guy I would have liked to have been, had I been able to grow chest hair and a beard ever so slightly more substantial than that of the Dowager Chinese Empress Ci Xi. But that’s another story.
Rumours of Babi’s alleged money for favours scandal must have been rampant within the community for Neos Kosmos to weigh into the issue a few weeks ago and produce conclusive proof, that this Diatribist, who would sell his soul for a plate of mouth-watering katsiki, accompanied by a side of oven roasted onions excepted, Neos Kosmos writers are possessed of journalistic ethics and cannot be bought. And it is the wide broadcast of this pernicious and utterly false rumour that begs the question: Why are we, as a community, so willing to believe the utter worst about people? As a corollary, why is it that upon being presented with gossip bytes that have the potential to defame and besmirch someone’s character, we recklessly assist in the dissemination of these, while exhibiting total disregard as to the hurtful consequences that this may have on the victim of slander.
Sometimes these rumours can be quite farcical and all of them contain elements of conspiracy. For instance, during a brief stint of mine on 3XY Radio a few years ago, presenting a literary program, not a week would go by when some elderly gentleman or another would ring the station and not recognising my voice, confide in me their suspicion that I was alternatively a communist, fascist, freemason, or in the pay of the Jewish lobby and should be removed. And they were just my uncles.
Why so much paranoia? Why must there always be deep, dark, nefarious purposes lurking behind every one of our communal acts? Is it because those who would readily believe such rumours and spread them do so because they themselves would act in the suspected manner, given the opportunity? Or does the reason lie deeper within our psyche?
I would venture that it does. In the paranoid nature of our psyche, precedents abound. Ever since Prometheus stole fire from Heaven, Greeks have not trusted one another. In the popular consciousness, there has always been or seem to have been an Ephialtes willing to show the Persians the back-path to Thermopylae, to the extent where the spectre of this semi-historic event was raised thousands of years later to explain the inexplicable surrender of Fort Rupel to the Bulgarians by the Greek government at the beginning of the First World War. Ancient Greeks ended up considering such patriotic luminary figures as Thucydides and Pausanias as traitors, much as their antecedent Kolokotronis was charged with treason and sentenced to death in 1834. These men were too pure, too godlike, for the fatal flaw-seeking Greeks. Their perfection was hubris and they had to be cut down to size, no matter the cost.
The Greek Civil War has also left lasting traumas upon the Greek psyche. A generation of Greeks grew up not knowing whether their associates were friends or foes and not being able to trust the people closest to them. They also learned that a person that did not share their opinions was an enemy, to whom the usual social mores no longer applied. That generation is still with us, in the form of our parents and grandparents. For too many of them, the Civil War does not seem to be over yet. Beneath every shadow, behind every good deed lurks a sinister conspiracy and no one is to be trusted. This would account for the poisonous histories of every single Greek organization ever to have been founded in Australia. Go to any Annual General Meeting of a Greek Organisation and chances are that you will not see the committee being quizzed on why they have done nothing to ensure youth participation or their continued relevance further than the organization of barbeques and an annual dinner dance. Invariably, the ensuing interrogation, which lasts for several hours, concerns itself with more prosaic matters, such as getting the treasurer to justify how many stamps they have purchased, why potatoes at a certain dinner dance were recorded as costing so much per kilo when it is common knowledge that had they traveled to Pakenham they could have secured them for next to nothing, as the last treasurer did. Then there is the enquiry into the cost of the replacement glasses for those that have been smashed and grumblings about the incompetence of the organizations accountant, who is surely skimming off the top or at best, assisting the president to do so.
For to the highly individualized Greek, selfless public service is incomprehensible. There has to be another underlying factor that would compel one to expend their free time and endure the abuse of others. Often, this is attributed to a thirst for glory, but at most times, to material self-enrichment. I remember telling my aunt in Greece that I have the privilege to write in Neos Kosmos. «Πληρώνεσαι;» she asked me. When I advise her in the negative, she was at first incredulous, only to then, upon regaining her composure, express the opinion that I was a bigger fool than she first had thought.
The presumption of self-enrichment is a damaging one. No community can find itself in a good state of health if it is presumed that those who drive it or serve it are doing so for their own individual ends. Sadly, though rarely, the presumption may prove a correct one and there have been instances of gross financial mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. More often the agenda driving people to serve in community organizations is a desire for personal fulfillment coupled by a need for respect. It is these people who often prove the most destructive, in that they are unable to separate their own personal egos from the future of the organization they purport to serve, driving it into oblivion. On most occasions though, the people who attempt to assist in the governance of organizations are normal, everyday people with all the virtues and failings of everyone else. Yet is says much for the way we view public life that their achievements are rarely extolled and their mistakes, however small, are invariably maligned and blown out of proportion.
When we are seized with the presumption of self-enrichment about someone, or quite simply when we may not agree with their activities or ideas, politeness and courtesy are thrown out the window. It becomes acceptable to defame their character in ways that would be unthinkable to rational, civilized human beings. I remember attending a general meeting of the GOCMV at the Prahran Church Hall where people just screamed and swore at each other for hours. I remember voting for a resolution that I felt was correct in the circumstances. As soon as my name was read out supporting the resolution, I was set upon by people who I had known and valued all my life, and subjected to a tirade of abuse. At that moment, I was no longer a friend. I was not even a human. Because I had chosen a path not to their liking, I no longer had any integrity, and was a traitor. In this instance, as the self has already been annihilated and as a result, the bond of friendship between people has been sundered. Consequently, there is license to treat others in the most heinous way possible, in impunity. Of course we would never dream of treating an ‘Australian’ in this way. After all there would be consequences.
Such ridiculous behaviour and mistrust is symptomatic of a broader immaturity among the first generation. There are reasons for this as well. This is a generation that very early on in the piece, most often in its youth, separated themselves from their families and had to fend for themselves, without parental supervision. In many respects, including how they treat each other in public, they haven’t really ever grown up. The opposing argument to that of course, would invite one to turn on the television to a Greek current affairs program and see journalists and politicians alike spit venom at each other. Maybe it is just a cultural thing after all.
At the end of the day and as sickening as it may sound, there are people out there who want Neos Kosmos to be involved in corrupt and underhand dealings. They want a newspaper that has associated itself with the most socially progressive and revolutionary changes within the history of the Greek community in Melbourne to be mire in the quagmire of smut and will take smug satisfaction in any tarnish that may take hold. To this aim, Babis’ tireless work, his excellent articles and his integrity are easy sacrifices. In our paranoid parallel universe, Neos Kosmos’ categorical proof (as if any was required) of Babis’ innocence merely serves as further fodder for the rumourmongers. (“Of course Neos Kosmos would protest his innocence. They must all be in it together.”)
Yes we are all in it together, employed in one of the most significant tasks of all - recording the hearts and minds of the people around us. For in days to come, when our tongue is no longer spoken and we no longer tread in any recognizable form upon this earth, it is to Babis’ articles that the historian will turn, to breathe life into a long forgotten world. And who then, will remember irrelevant slander of the money hungry, buried six feet under the ground?


First published in NKEE on 12 May 2008