Monday, December 21, 2009


“The night has been unruly: where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, lamentings heard I’ the air, strange screams of death, And prophesying with accents terrible, Of dire combustion and confused events…” Macbeth

The portents of ill omen have been many in this most troubled and vexed of years. Supreme of all such infernal signs of disquiet has been the recent bizarre robbing of the grave of the late president of Cyprus and noted opponent of the fractious Annan Plan, Tassos Papadopoulos. Body-snatching was quite the thing in Victorian times, inspiring such artists of the macabre as Edgar Alan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and most likely, resulting in various advances in mankind’s knowledge of anatomy. Nonetheless, the august president has been deceased for some time and his body would presumably be in such a state of decomposition, that it would not be useful for anatomical purposes. A nihilistic metaphor perhaps for the direction the solution to the Cyprus issue is taking? Contrariwise, the Orthodox tradition holds that the bodies of saints are incorruptible. Were the pious grave robbers so inspired by the saintliness of the deceased’s tireless ascetic struggle for Hellenism that they sort to purloin his holy relics in order to advance his canonisation and their own proximity to the divine? After all, have not the Irish recently claimed that parts of the body of St Nicholas are buried at Jerpoint in Kilkenny? Or are they indeed going one step further and purporting that when the national guardsmen who loved him came to pray at his tomb, they found the tombstone rolled away and the body missing? Is this then a lame metaphor for the resurrection of Cyprus?
Probably not. It appears that the desecrators of the president’s grave were motivated out of malice and stupidity, attacking an important historical figure at precisely the moment when he cannot defend himself. It is sickening to be compelled to recognise that we are capable of such heinous, disgusting actions.
Yet the theft and most probably destruction of the corpse of a man who all his life fought for what he believed to be the good of his people and country heralds the emergence of a society that appears to have misplaced its moral compass. Having overlooked or discarded tradition for the sake of economic prosperity, and having lost that too in turn, the Greek people, much like the Romans of the Middle Ages, who would exhume dead popes and condotteri in order to subject them to ridicule, are turning upon their dead leaders, exhuming them in order to insult them, or in the case of the recent spate of unjustified violence in Greece, turning their vehemence and venom upon society in General.
In 1892, a poster was published, featuring Greece’s prominently nosed prime minister Trikoupis at the helm of a sinking ship. The accompanying caption read: “Trikoupis, looking for a loan.” For upon assuming high office for the fifth time, Trikoupis was compelled to deal with the vast amount of debt incurred by Greece as a result of its aborted military preparations as the result of the union effected between Bulgaria and eastern Rumelia. At that time, the Great Powers blockaded Piraeus, forcing the Greeks to abandon their claims. Trikoupis believed that he could raise the value of Greek paper currency to par in a short time, in order to service the debt. However, he was not given the opportunity to impelement his currency reform as he lost the election. Assuming power for the sixth time, Trikoupis had to deal with a national treasury that had been depleted by overspending and systemic corruption, caused primarily by political campaigns in which parties promised massive spending programs. Trikoupis stood before parliament and made the most famous statement of his career: "Regretfully, we are bankrupt" ("Δυστυχώς επτωχεύσαμε"). The servicing of foreign loans was suspended, and all non-essential spending was cut. Trikoupis tried to make terms with the creditors of his nation, but failed in this also. The taxation measures he proposed aroused great hostility, and in January, 1895 he resigned. At the general election, four months later, he and his Modernist Party were defeated by a population used to bread and circuses.
Trikoupis’ situation is eerily reminiscent of the present. Analysts consider Greece to be on the verge of bankruptcy and Greece could conceivably exit the Euro and bring back their drachma if the crisis hits an acute state where the Greek government loses the ability to refinance debt at affordable interest rates. The European Commission projects Greece's 2009 budget deficit at almost 13% of gross domestic product, versus an EU average of just under 7%. Greek government debt, currently about 112% of GDP, probably will balloon to 130% before stabilizing. All of a sudden, our European partners are questioning our “European” credentials. "This raises question marks over the long-term viability of the euro's current membership," Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform, observed. "On current trends, we'll end up with economic stagnation and mounting political tensions in the euro zone, and, at worst, fiscal crises and a loss of political support for continued membership."
A high trust high social capital is integral to a healthy state and this is not somoething that Greece enjoys. Instead, as one analyst bluntly put it, “Greece has low trust and high contempt for government. One in four workers in Greece work for a government that most do not like.” The underground economy, estimated at 30 percent of gross domestic product, is integral for the preservation of a “European” standard of living in a country that has European prices but salaries below the European average. I was incensed to read this interesting snippet in an analysis of the woes of the Greek economy: “As he sat in a cafe with friends in the chic Kolonaki area on a recent afternoon, Antonis, 33, who disclosed only his first name, proudly announced that he refused to pay taxes. “Why should I pay?” he asked with a grin. “I don’t care about my government; I don’t care about my country,” he added. He conceded, however, that he did care about soccer and women.”
This is not how we were brought up. We were brought up to believe that Greece was a small, poor but valiant country that had suffered much but whose mission was to be of benefit to the world. At Greek school, at dances and all other functions, we were taught that we were all shareholders in that greatness and that we all had the responsibility to drive the progress of our corporate state. Whether true or not, it is a wonderful social charter to have. Sadly, what we seem to have created in its stead, is an insular, resentful, dysfunctional, divided Balkan appanage that having sucked and grown fat from the milk of its European wet-nurses, refuses to grow up and fend for itself. The violence that erupts at the slightest pretext in Greece is indicative of a people who hate their state and ultimately themselves for the predicament they find themselves in, trapped in “Tinakanoumestan,” a land where progress is a dream for the disconnected and the train of destiny has derailed itself.
Whether or not Yiorgos Papandreou will in the months to come mount the podium in Parliament and declare “Regretfully we are bankrupt,” is immaterial. His projected budjet cuts and reining in of spending may technically satisfy European fiscal requirements and cuase howls of protest and more violence by the irresponsible, immature Left but will not cut at the cause of Greece’s malaise. Somewhee, somehow, the Greek people need to be made to believe in themselves again. Europe can assist in this through responsible economic planning and a commitment to making all its members economically as well as socially viable. Greece’s greatest strength is its history and traditional aspirations – unity, cohesion and progress, too often because it so sorely lacked these essential ingredients to its viability. Post-modernism and crass westernisation have rendered these at best quaint and at worst, much maligned. Yet in those elements that form the substratum of the Greek identity can be found the seeds of regeneration. We, even here in the diaspora need to learn to trust each other, love each other and be responsible for one another and we can draw these lessons from a tradition that sees us as the illuminators of the world, or at least, our dark little corner of it. Let us replace our corpses in their graves, honour them, and concentrate our efforts upon the living. That is as good an end of year’s resolution as any, lest we lament like Macbeth: “Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant, There 's nothing serious in mortality: All is but toys: renown and grace is dead; The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees Is left this vault to brag of.”


First published in NKEE on 21 December 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009


Quite frankly, if anyone is to blame, it is not the mindless godless minions of the European Union who in their inexorable quest to impose uniformity upon the diverse nations labouring under their sway, threaten to reduce the multicultural mosaic of the continent to blandness. No, in truth, blame must be laid squarely upon the porphyry-clad feet of the august Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian. For it was he, who sometime between 726-730, ordered the removal of an image of Christ prominently placed over the Chalke Gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and its replacement with a cross. Writings suggest that at least part of the reason for the removal may have been military reversals against the Muslims and the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, which Leo possibly viewed as evidence of the wrath of God brought on by over-the-top image veneration in the Church. The Emperor is said to have described mere image veneration as "a craft of idolatry,” and apparently forbade the veneration of religious images in a 730 edict, which did not apply to other forms of art, including the image of the emperor, or religious symbols such as the cross. He saw no need to consult the Church, and he appears to have been surprised by the depth of the popular opposition he encountered.
This opposition enmeshed the Empire in throes of controversy. People, including clerics and royalty were variously persecuted and mutilated for their support of, or opposition to icons. The upshot to the whole controversy was a brilliant exposition of the place of icons on the Orthodox Church penned by St John of Damascus, a noted iconodule, in which icons are instrumental in depicting the Incarnation, and finally, the official restoration of icons in 843. So important is this event, that it is celebrated even today, in the annual Sunday of Orthodoxy, where the congregation joins the priest in a procession around the church, holding their icons triumphantly.
Vestiges of the iconoclastic controversy still remain. In the church of St Irene in Constantinople, for instance, once can see in the apse, how the surviving cross was mosaiced over an icon of the Panayia. This notwithstanding, icons are all-pervasive in Greece. They appear everywhere from street-corner shrines, to car dashboards, key-rings and court-rooms, shops and classrooms. As such, they form an inextricable part of our culture. The various legends that periodically arise about the miraculous properties of certain icons, the public consternation that is evidenced when particularly beloved icons are stolen or damaged and the mass veneration still afforded to such icons as those of the Panayia in Tinos, or Panagia Soumela attest to their continued intrinsic importance to the Modern Greek people.
It is for this reason, that the recent ban on crucifixes in classrooms in Italy, as a result of a November 3 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the presence of crucifixes in a classroom in Italy violated a child's right to freedom of religion has so jarred both the Greek Church, and the people of Greece generally. The European Court of Human Rights found that the compulsory display of crucifixes violated parents' rights to educate their children as they saw fit and restricted the right of children to believe or not to believe. To a society that holds its religious symbols also as national ones, the prospect of the removal of these from the apparatus of the State seems a most frightening one.
Experts fear that the decision by the ECHR could result in the removal of all public displays of Christian symbols in public buildings throughout the member countries of the European Union under provisions of the newly-passed Lisbon Treaty. The Italian ruling effectively incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into European law. Given the inter-relationship of the ECHR, the Lisbon Treaty and the European Convention on Human Rights, “unless the European Court of Human Rights overrules itself on appeal, Italy, and indeed the rest of Europe, has a serious problem.” If an appeal by Italy to the ECHR fails, Italy’s only resort would be an unlikely separation from the EU as a whole. As it stands now, Italy must report back to the court as to its efforts to remove the offending religious imagery from its public classrooms, courts, and other public venues. In Greek parliament recently, a member of the government, responding to a question by a member of the LAOS party, speculated that, given the Italian ruling, should it be pressed to do so, the government would be compelled to remove icons from classrooms.
This is because the Lisbon Treaty’s Declaration says clearly that the EU would have primacy over the laws of member states: “The Conference recalls that, in accordance with well settled case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Treaties and the law adopted by the Union on the basis of the Treaties have primacy over the law of Member States, under the conditions laid down by the said case law.”
What is even more deeply disquieting is the fact that the demand for the removal of icons from classrooms seems not to come from any widely-held grass roots conviction that there is no place for religious articles such as icons in schools. Indeed, the vast majority of Greeks view the presence of such items as natural. Instead, pressure is imposed by extrinsic bodies, such as human rights groups like Helsinki Monitor, which has demanded that Greek courts remove icons of Jesus Christ from above the judge's bench and that the gospel no longer be used for swearing oaths in the witness box. Helsinki Monitor is also urging labour unions to challenge the presence of religious symbols in Greek schools.
As a conduit between east and west, our historical relationship with both cardinal directions has been a vexed one. Perennially under siege from the east, it was the west’s cultural imperialism, in the form of ecclesiastical expansionism, culminating in the Fourth Crusade, that is widely held to have cost the Greek people their freedom and, removed them for a considerable period of time, from the path of progress. Historical expressions such as “Better the Sultan’s turban and the Papal mitre,” indicate that as a people, we have deep-seated misgivings about the “West” and its benefits to Greece, despite our status as pensioners, I mean, members of the European Union. Unilateral and culturally insensitive applications of laws that offend the religious sensitivities of the vast majority of citizens of a nation threaten to damage the credibility and cohesiveness of the European Union. The ability of a few bureaucrats or jurists in Brussels to apply a broad-brushstroke approach to matters going to the heart of people’s identities, and in the process, disregarding thousands of years of history ought to be challenged and circumscribed.
Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, as well as many Italian politicians are correct in stating that the court is ignoring the role of Christianity in forming Europe's identity. Bishop Nikolaos echoed the views of the majority of Greeks when he opined that without the religious icons young people will not have any worthy symbols to inspire and protect them. This is not quaint. I still have a small pocket icon of the Three Hierarchs that I took into each of my exams. My grandmother gave it to my father when he was at school and then to me. I in turn, have passed it on to my sister, whispering the secret of its operation: “Praying to the Three Hierarchs doesn’t help if you haven’t studied.” I also have a small icon of St Nikolaos, patron saint of travellers that my grandmother enjoined me to carry with me whenever I go overseas. Many of the people of my generation have had similar experiences. At Greek school, all my classrooms sported an icon above the blackboard, and a map of Greece, as does the classroom in which I now teach. Not all of us may subscribe to the doctrines or teachings of Christianity. The presence of icons in our daily lives may appear quaint, but it most cases, they have been instituted by people who love us and have sought to protect us in some way. Their religious importance aside, they represent warmth and continuity and are important to our public as well as private identity.
Greece is at this stage, far from being a secular culture akin to France, Germany or England. Religion, or at least the rituals of it, if not the doctrine, still forms an inextricable and significant part of the Modern Greek identity. In seeking to impose a uniform approach to matters of equal opportunity and rights, without regard to the unique socio-historical context of each country, the European Union threatens to destroy the diversity of culture that makes Europe unique in the first instance.
It is axiomatic that Modern Greece is increasingly becoming a culturally diverse country and that the rights of its minorities should be respected and protected. Forcing children to venerate icons would impinge upon those rights. However, the mere presence of icons in classrooms, reflecting the culture and religion of the majority of the Greek population and its importance to Modern Greeks does not.
At the end of the day, Europe seems still to be labouring under the Jacobinism of the French Revolution that saw traditional beliefs replaced with the State-imposed cult of Supreme Reason. The Greek people will not take this latest attempt at iconoclasm lightly. It will cause them once more, to question their position within Europe and within their own emerging East-Western identity. The process will not be without pain.


First published in NKEE on 14 December 2009