Monday, September 15, 2008


"Whatever, in fact, is modern in our life we owe to the Greeks. Whatever is an anachronism is due to mediaevalism."
Oscar Wilde

If, one day, while navigating the wastelands of the Bactria, you are accosted by a scimitar-wielding Hephthalite Hun, claiming that humanity owes everything to the Hephthalites and not just the fact that their brutality caused the massive migration of peoples across central Asia, you'd be best advised to agree. Similarly, when lassoed by a burly Tocharian while enduring the endless dunes of the Turfan desert basin, maintaining that the world owes it all to the Tocharians, you might want to consider acceding to his point of view. Of course, you wouldn't really take their words to heart. After all, would not the testimony of a pro-Hun Hun render itself prone to accusations of bias? Now if a Tocharian were to argue that we are eternally indebted to the Hephthalite Huns, or if a Hephthalite Hun was to posit that we are obliged to the Tocharians for sundry matters then we would be more inclined to give consideration to their viewpoint.
Imagine now that you are going for a job interview and your only referees are your mother and your uncle Onoufrio. The chances of you obtaining said job are, all other things being equal, decidedly less than those of someone who is able to come highly recommended by persons without their own family, simply because the recommendation of someone who supposedly deals with you on your own merits is considered less biased than that of someone that is bonded to you involuntarily, by ties of blood. Similarly, had it not been commonly perceived that Kyle Sandilands was deliberately playing his girlfriend Tamara Jaber's songs over the radiowaves (a matter over which the said Sandilands has won a defamation lawsuit), questions would never have been raised over the ability of Jaber to make it on her own in the hallucinogenic rainbow quagmire that is the Australian music industry.
Traditionally, it does not appear that Greeks are possessed of a tradition of independent and unbiased refereeing. While the Romans may have believed that "laus in proprio ore sordescit," (praise in one's own mouth is offensive), in our particular case, the old adage: «αν δεν παινέψεις το σπίτι σου, θα πέσει να σε πλακώσει,» seems to be the order of the day. This literally means "if you do not praise your house, it will collapse and flatten you" and is to be read as the dire punishment to be inflicted upon those who would not look after their relatives or, more widely their "people." In same cases, this did occur. The fifth century BC Spartan general Pausanias, suspected of Persian sympathies, sought refuge in the temple of the goddess of the Golden House. The Spartan ephors proceeded to wall up the doors and windows of the house, causing Pausanias to starve to death. Another proof is the recurrence of the same names in Greek political life. So far, there have been three Karamanlides in Greek parliament, two Venizeloi, excluding their nephew Mitsotakis, who is founding a political dynasty of his own, with two of his children also in parliament, and of course, a multitude of Papandreoi among others. We tend to like to look after our own and praise them with great praise, probably as a psychological vestige of the primordial worship of the hearth goddess Hestia, which saw the communal living space transformed into a place of religious significance. A more contemporary example is evidenced in the behaviour of many elderly Greek-Australians. According to their testimony, they have no money and are on a pension (even those who have control of three investment properties in Malvern). Their children however, invariably have excellent, dream jobs and are rolling in wads and wads of cash, in various denominations.
It is for this reason that the outcome of the recent charity debate: "That Melbourne owes it all to the Greeks," in which the team for the negative conceded that truly indeed our fair city "owes it all" to the Greeks, is unsatisfactory. For the team for the affirmative, entrusted with the task of convincing the audience of the nebulous proposition that Melbourne owes it all to the Greeks, was in fact comprised of persons of Greek descent, namely, Andrew Demetriou, George Donikian and Helen Kapalos and axiomatically, could hardly have been expected to argue otherwise, without being lynched by their compatriots. Conversely, had it been the Anglo-Saxon Australians that had decided to jump on the Greek band wagon and direct the bit in the horse's mouth of praise with the bridle of acknowledging our contribution to the City of Melbourne, then their espousal of our cause would have carried greater weight, just as, in accordance with Ottoman-era jurisprudence, the testimony in a Christian case of a Muslim was worth the testimonies of two Christians. As it has transpired however, no one was willing to do so and thus, the victory of the august affirmative team is a hollow one. One suspects that the negative side 'let us win' and the fearsome Red Symon's assertion that his team had no chance of winning because "Neos Kosmos" had influenced public opinion merely reinforces our original contention, which is that the City of Melbourne is in thrall to our own concerted effort to praise our own house, lest it fall upon all Melburnian's heads and crush them. After all, Red Symons' spouse is a proud Cypriot. This then truly is a case where if not praising your house, then refraining from denigrating it is a sound idea, lest it or the wrath of your aggrieved loved ones flatten you.
It was Mark Twain who quipped that "We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess, than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess." Indeed, our apparent pathological need to be the constant recipients of praise is mystifying and can probably be explained by the fact that we have been in some way "spoiled" by the adulation heaped upon our illustrious ancestors. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg for example, posited that: "The Greeks possessed a knowledge of human nature we seem hardly able to attain to without passing through the strengthening hibernation of a new barbarism." In turn, James Monroe, fifth president of the United States addressed Congress as follows: "The mention of Greece fills the mind with the most exalted sentiments and arouses in our bosoms the best feelings of which our nature is capable." As one who purports to play the violin, Helen Keller's conviction that: "If it is true that the violin is the most perfect of musical instruments, then Greek is the violin of human thought," renders me in the throes of ecstasy, regardless of the fact that my own violin-playing compares unfavourably to that of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame. Considering the strata of praise that has accreted within our psyche over the centuries since the 're-discovery' of our ancient past, it would not be far off the mark to venture that we have come to expect adulation as our birthright and inheritance, along with the Parthenon, democracy, philosophy, and everything else that the West finds good in our ancestors.
Despite the batholiths of adulation spewing forth from the consciousness of the Western world every so often, as a people we still feel insecure. This is because such praise as exists, is invariably directed towards our ancestors and we cannot shake off the paranoid feeling that it is vicarious. For after all, ever since Winston Churchill's statement that: "Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks," we latter-day Greeks have received little in the way of praise and much in the way of derogation. Jacqueline Kennedy, who was married to perhaps the most powerful modern Greek of them all, Onassis, has left us with the very telling symbol of the iconodulic way in which others are supposed to view us: "You are about to have your first experience with a Greek lunch. I will kill you if you pretend to like it." It is small wonder then, that we will seek out or orchestrate any opportunity to have such praise as is deemed lacking, lavished upon us, even by ourselves, despite Socrates' injunction: "Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults." Instead, I think it is Arnold Glasgow who carries the day, when he observes that: "Praise does wonders for our sense of hearing."
Melbourne of course, does not owe it all to the Greeks. For starters, it owes its very existence to the perfidy of one John Batman, who duped the eight elders of the Wurunjeri people into signing treaty documents, whereby, for a purchase price of blankets, knives, scissors and flour, flannel jackets, red shirts and a yearly tribute of similar items, he obtained about 400 km² around Corio Bay, and about 2,000 km² around the Yarra River.
However many elements about the nature of life in Melbourne are attributable to Greek endeavours. Extended trading hours derive directly from campaigns launched by Greek businessman Alfred Kouris. Most of these elements however, were instituted or introduced after activism involving many other ethnic groups. Indeed, one of the wonderful things about Greek community activism in Melbourne, especially until the mid-eighties, was the way in which it was able to harness the goodwill and progressive spirit of other, similarly orientated groups in order to bring about change. Greeks have played a vital role in the institution of multiculturalism, with associations such as the Democritus League campaigning for equal opportunities for migrants in employment and education and for social justice. Members of our community such as George Zangalis have been instrumental in compelling government to espouse the course of publicly funded ethnic broadcasting and language learning. Along with other ethnic groups, our championing of European football has seen it enjoy a large mainstream following, albeit in an ethnically cleansed and sanitised form. Greek organisations such as those of the Cretans have devoted vast energies in raising money for causes from which all may benefit, namely the Royal Children's Hospital Appeal. The many churches, clubhouses and other edifices that dot the Melbourne landscape designed, constructed or owned by Greeks, most notably Federation Square and the Eureka building, the National Day March, the Antipodes Festival and of course the annual blessing of the waters at the "Fota" comprise perhaps, the most tangible proof that we have indelibly altered the face of Melbourne since the arrival of the first Greeks upon its shores.
And why not? To us, Melbourne is the second Alexandria. Though we did not have the privilege of founding this city, we have adopted it as our own and have made lasting contributions to it, as well as to Greek culture, to the extent that we, and our cousins in Greece can view it as much as a Greek city, as an Australian one - a tremendous and at the same time paradoxically anachronistic Hellenistic feat. In all seriousness, it is delightful that we are able to participate in a mock debate that celebrates our contribution to our home city while slyly, though good-naturedly poking fun at some of our foibles, all for charity. After all, was it not Catherine the Great who explained: "I praise loudly and blame softly?"
Melbourne does not owe it all to the Greeks. But Melbourne without the Greeks would not be Melbourne after all. So let us sit back, relax and ingest our fix of praise for a while, considering this snippet, gleaned from the responses section of an internet page debating whether or not South Melbourne "Hellas," should condescend to join the nefarious A-League:
"Maybe the Greeks have taken over the city of Melbourne and they concreted over all the bloody grass."

First published in NKEE on 15 September 2008