Monday, September 08, 2008


"The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them, bounties, donations and benefits." Plutarch.

Today, o gentle reader, the diatribist stands, or rather grovels in contrition upon the printed page, ashamed and corrected, both for his presumption and his naïveté - traits that have led to the downfall and humiliation of many a man, including Lord Chelmsford whose display of the same traits led to the massacre by the Zulus of the British army at Isandhlwana, and Romanos Diogenes, whose misguided handling of the battle of Manzikert on 26 August 1071, led to the occupation of Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks.
Last year, moved by scenes of the arcadian landscape of the Peloponnese consumed in flame, I decided to lend a hand with the various fundraising appeals that were being organised. After a brief stint on ABC Radio with the omnipresent George Donikian and the effervescent Angela Pippos, I was profoundly moved, though unsurprised, at the volume of calls by ordinary Australians, pledging their monetary support and expressing their concern for the plight of the hapless fire victims. To me, this once more underlined the deep humanitarian lode running among the soul-stratum of Australian society. It also made me marvel at how, through our presence in this country, suddenly, an ostensibly unrelated people on the other side of the globe, can be viewed as kin.
Imbued and glowing with this fervent sense of peace, goodwill and solidarity to all mankind, my soaring spirits crashed with a resounding and downright messy splat upon the wet-concrete pavement of optimism when I next manned the telephones at the 3XY Radio Hellas Radiathon. For after taking a few pledges down, I received the following call from an elderly gentleman who snapped at me with an iron tongue resounding on a palette of granite:
Caller: "I just want to tell you that you are a moron and a stooge."
I: "Thank you. Can I enquire as to the basis of your opinion?"
Caller: "Because you are an idiot and you and everyone else there are in league with all the thieves who take money from poor pensioners like me and give it to the Greek government so that they can fight elections."
I: "Yes but this is the fire appeal. It has nothing to do with politics. And anyway, if you don't want to give any money, that's fine. No one is forcing you."
Caller: "You are all liars and cheats. You are all agents of the Greek government. How much are you getting paid to launder money for Nea Dimokratia?"
I am relatively used to crackpot callers, having presented various radio programmes over the years, wherein diverse people have rung up asking me to confirm rumours about the personal lives of other presenters, or where they can purchase the best feta cheese. I am also used to people disputing the wisdom of fundraisers, and remember still the bizarre argument of a woman whose call I took during the 1997 Easter Appeal for the Greeks of Northern Epirus. Her contention was that an appeal was not necessary because having been deprived of all luxuries for so many years, the Northern Epirots would not know how to apply the money raised.
This time however, I completely lost my composure. I sallied forth down the mouthpiece, firing volley after volley of expressions of righteous indignation. Through gritted teeth, I tersely informed the gentleman that Greece was smouldering in the throes of a national catastrophe and that it was narrow minded people like him who, in casting malicious, cynical and unjustified aspersions in a time of crisis instead of doing all that he could to alleviate his situation, personified everything that was wrong with the Greek people. I equated him with the Lacedaemonians who refused to accompany the rest of the Greeks in their punitive expeditions against the Persians and as a result, fell by the historical wayside of irrelevance. Having understood the word Lacedaemonian as an expletive, the old gentleman uttered a few choice, easily intelligible expletives of his own, referring to farm animals and promptly hung up the telephone.
My indignation increased over the next few hours, as I fielded questions such as: "How do you know that the money will reach its destination? How do you know whether the money will be applied to those who need it? How do we know that we won't have another Kalamata on our hands?" This last question was however pertinent. For the Kalamata 1986 earthquake alone accounts for the vast majority of scepticism and suspicion within our community vis a vis the raising of money for Helladic purposes. In the aftermath of that devastating disaster, the Greek community in Australia raised a considerable sum of money, only to learn to its consternation, that most of it was either misapplied, or never reached its destination. Suspicion then, is a lasting, and somewhat justifiable consequence of misdemeanour, though I tried to allay the callers' fears by arguing that the Balkan baroque Greece of 1986 was far removed from today's slick, ultra-Euro Greece of 2007. And in truth, I almost bought my own argument.
The flaw in it of course, is its disregard for historical precedent and a certain predilection we have historically displayed for misapplication. Much has been made in previous diatribes of the most famous case of fund misallocation. Pericles, the leading citizen of Athens, transferred the treasury of the Delian League, an association of city-states that had banded together in a mutual defence pact against Persia and thus, the precursor of NATO, to Athens. Having thus usurped the treasury, he cracked open its kernel and extracted the ensuing stream of golden goodness, which he then applied to the beautification of his city. Out of this act of embezzlement, humanity received the Acropolis and the manifestation of architectural perfection, the Parthenon but though this does not remove the stigma of cheating, it immensely lessens the severity of the act.
Pericles' shadow looms long. Recently, it was revealed in Greek Parliament, to immense consternation, that the three million dollars generously donated by the Australian government to the fire relief effort last year have been applied not to the victims of that devastating holocaust but to the building of a town hall in Zaharo. To add insult to injury, the law-abiding counsellors of this fairyland, have chosen to build their sugar-coated play-house on illegally zoned land. Three elements can therefore be distinguished from the Pericles precedent. Firstly, though Pericles definitely did steal the cookies from the cookie he, he also ensured that he had first obtained all requisite planning and building permits. Secondly, Pericles used his misallocated funds in order to construct an enduring masterpiece, to the eternal glory of a truly remarkable city, not some shoddy concrete edifice somewhere out in the sticks, that serves to obscure the slothful slitherings of Greek municipal gastropods. Thirdly, Pericles stole his own people's money and not that of other nations. Thus, he kept it and the ensuing scandal, within the family.
What has transpired, if it truly is as it has been reported, is not just a public relations disaster. It is a disgrace, an insult to the fraternal feelings of a generous country, but most of all, a gross insult to the Greeks of Australia. As a community, we labour long and hard in order to retain Greece's good name amidst the often hostile and biased attitudes of the mainstream media and the populace at large. We are at the forefront of the propagation of Greece's policy and stance on various issues of national importance, even in the face of occasional inept, inconsequential and irrelevant diplomats. To the Australian community at large, we are the face of Greece and it is in large a part because of the skill in which we have interwoven ourselves within the multicultural warp and weft of the Australian societal tapestry over decades, that the Australian government responded so generously and so quickly to the plight of our motherland. How are we supposed to explain the behaviour of our compatriots now? How are we to prevail upon the generosity of our government to the benefit of the motherland in the future, without being laughed at?
We justifiably feel embarrassed and betrayed. Had Greece and/or its various labyrinthine sub-bureaus misapplied our own funds, we would have been indignant but not that surprised, because sadly we have all come to stereotype such corruption as endemic within the Greek system. It is a stereotype well deserved. To misapply the relief funds of a foreign nation, offered in a humanitarian spirit of compassion and goodwill is however, highly disrespectful, both to the donor, who is being hoodwinked and lied to, and to the intended recipients of their largesse, many of whom a year after the crisis, still find themselves without homes. Most of all, it is blatant and cannot be excused.
It is too much to request that proper checks and balances are put in place so that monies flowing down the bureaucratic funnel reach their intended destination. Clearly Greece has a long way to go in this regard. It is not too much to ask however, for the Greek government to be mindful that one can only cry wolf so many times before those hearing those cries, question their sincerity and withhold valuable assistance.
In bitter moments like these, one cannot help but bring to mind the various clichés about Greece being a mother that mistreats her children. In this case she has not only taken food out of the mouths of her needy children but also humiliated those of her children who have provided it to her in the first place. The picture accompanying this diatribe, is entitled Grateful Greece. A virginal, humble looking maiden extends her arms in gratitude to offer benediction upon her well deserving children and their foreign friends, who gaze at her adoringly as they view the stockpile of arms and money at the centre of the work. This allegory symbolizes Greece’s gratitude to those who fought for her and funded the 1821 Revolution. It is worth noting in this regard that the majority of the aforementioned funds in question, came from Greeks living Abroad.
What would the modern day allegory of an ungrateful Greece resemble, I wonder? A garrulous, platinum blonde, cigarette puffing harridan, ensconced in pants one size too small, with a slight overhang of elephant-hide creased belly, sipping a frappe, eagerly discussing the opportunities for a new “kombina” as her neglected children abandon her one by one? We pray not. Yet while the first and second generations are ideologically and emotionally bound to Greece and will endure much for her sake, there is no guarantee that this stoic fervour will be passed down the generations. Greece should realise that the unconditional love of her children is, along with everything else these days in this climatically changed world, a finite resource, to be used and not abused. An apology must be immediately issued to the Australian government, coupled by an undertaking that its generous gift shall be remitted immediately to those in need.
As for the embezzling bureaucrats of Zaharo, this Parthian shot, from Henry Morgan: “A thief is a person who helps himself because he can’t help himself.” Until next week, give that they may take.


First published in NKEE on 8 September 2008