Sunday, October 16, 2011


"The Greeks - dirty and impoverished descendants of a bunch of la-de-da fruit salads who invented democracy and then forgot how to use it while walking around dressed up like girls." PJ O'Rourke.
It is a singular fact that one of the most common generalisations made of the Greek people is that in matters of honesty and veracity, they are particularly lacking. For the observation that the truth does not lie within the Greek, we have the Trojans to thank, for it is they who first had the temerity to warn the world that they should be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, and this after they had spirited away Menelaus' not so unwilling wife. Furthermore, Odysseus, one of the main protagonists of Homer's saga is described as «πολυμήχανος,» which can variously be defined as ingenious, crafty, tricky or shifty, proving that there is a fine line between genius and amorality. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that traditionally, «πολυμηχανία» is a quality that has generally been prized among the Greeks, who have generally had to rely on their wits rather than their brawn to survive. Even today, the cunning plan, the "kombina," involving a Byzantine level of intrigue and dissimulation is well appreciated when it bears results, and widely derided it if fails. There is even a noun to describe those who would indulge in such activities as eg. misrepresenting one's financial position in order to obtain a benefit. They are known as kombinadoroi.
The self-imposed stereotype is not restricted to males. According to the misogynistic ancient Greeks or at least Hesiod, women are by their very nature deceitful, as Hermes endowed Pandora, the very first woman, with "a shameful mind and deceitful nature," as well as instilling in her "lies and crafty words." It deserves mention in passing, that the Homeric hymn invokes the said Hermes as being of "many shifts, «πολύτροπος,» blandly cunning, a robber, and a thief at the gates." It is also a little known fact that the Greeks counted Apate, is one of their lesser goddesses. The daughter of Nyx, she was the goddess of lies and deceit and was assisted in her tasks by the Pseudologoi, malevolent spirits of lies and falsehood, born to Eris, the goddess of strife.
If the Greek gods are by their nature dishonest, then why would the Greeks not follow suit? Epimenides the Cretan is said to have cast aspersions upon his whole tribe, when in 600BC he reputedly said that: "All Cretans are liars." So shocking was this statement held to be, and given that he himself was of the race, his statement is an amusing paradox, that it turns up some six centuries later, in the most unlikely of places, the Bible, where in the Epistle to Titus, where the Apostle Paul writes of the Cretans that "they are always liars, as one of their own has said." Herodotus too is widely held to have been the "Father of Lies," though this is decidedly unfair. As if to drive the point home further, the hallowed freedom fighters who saw the Greek nation reborn were largely drawn from the ranks of the kleftes, who were, you guessed it, thieves and brigands.
Given the above background, it would come as no surprise that our neighbours have come to embrace the stereotype we have created for ourselves with perhaps more fervour than allows for comfort. A well known Albanian proverb warns: "After shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers." The Russians on the other hand, maintain that "Greeks tell the truth but once a year," with the exact date unspecified, while the Bulgarians, who are in closer proximity admiringly observe that: "One Greek can outwit ten Jews." The Romanians on the hand, are slightly more apprehensive, warning against "a Gypsy who has become a Turk and a peasant who has become a Greek." While the Dutch may state that: "A Greek will survive where an ass will starve", the Italians gravely opine that: "Whoever trusts a Greek lacks brains." The last work in the gross generalisation stakes goes to the Greeks themselves who analyse their place and esteem among their neighbours as follows: "A Russian may be cheated only by a Gypsy, a Gypsy by a Jew, a Jew by a Greek and a Greek by the Devil." Of course Greeks return the compliment, engaging in the coining of similar stereotypes for their nreighbours. This light haearted phenomenon is not so much evidence of hostility, than of a harsh and unstable environment, in which those who cannot think on their feet are soon left behind.
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan is in different company whoever, when he wrote in the infamous article that has the heads of the Greek community shaking in disbelief, that "the national sport of Greece is cheating. Cheating across every tier of society." This sentiment of course, is one that has been echoed by countless of Greeks since the foundation of the Greek state and anyone who has lived in Greece or had the misfortune to tangle with its bureaucracy would find themselves sympathising with it. However, when it comes from Paul Sheehan or other English-speaking journalists, it is offensive, not because it is a statement of fact but rather, because it appears, to a Greek-Australian audience to reinforce a prejudice against the Greek-speaking people as dishonest, effete and morally questionable that has been around since Roman times. In short, it reeks of Orientalism.
Orientalism, a term coined by the thinker Edward Said, postulates that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all "Eastern" societies" as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to "Western" societies. This discourse establishes "the East" as antithetical to the "West." The idea of an "Orient" is a crucial aspect of attempts to define "the West". Thus, histories of the Persian Wars would contrast the monarchical government of the Persians with the democratic tradition of Athens, as a way to make a more general comparison between the Greeks and the Persians and between "the West" and "the East" but make no mention of the other Greek city states, most of which were not ruled democratically. According to Said, this assumption of the right to define, is merely a western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.
While classical Greek civilization, as defined and interpreted by Western scholars is generally held to be the basis of Western civilization, in the popular consciousness at least, modern Greeks are not and quite possibly never have been held to be part of that West. From the time of Cato the Elder, right through to the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches, the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders and beyond, the same slurs, the same derogatory generalizations have been made of the Greeks, generalizations that have also been made of other ethnicities in the Middle East: we are effeminate, lazy and untrustworthy. William of Tyre for example, described the Byzantine Greeks as: "a brood of vipers, like a serpent in the bosom or mouse in the wardrobe evilly requite their guests." Furthermore, because the Greek religion is Eastern, right up until the end of the nineteenth century, Greeks have been termed infidels, placing them instead of the West, (where we like to think we are,) in the 'barbarous' East. As the Reverend George Croly preached during the Crimean War (a war that was provoked by Russia's insistence upon being considered the protector of the persecuted Christians of the Ottoman Empire and not allowing the Western powers to encroach upon or assume control of Greek Orthodox shrines in the Holy Land), to widespread acclaim: "The Greeks have so little maintained the Christian character that they have done more to injure Christianity that ever the Turks have been able to effect." Another lay preacher, attempting to whip up enthusiasm for the Crimean War among the British public went even further: "As to the Greek Christians, they were a besotted, dancing, fiddling, race." This then, is where we have stood in the West's eyes, for centuries.
Unfortunately, the West, having arbitrarily defined for itself what it means to be a Greek, while Greece was under the Ottomans, soon came to realise, as they came in increasing numbers to visit classical sites in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, that the inhabitants of the region were of a diverse backgrounds and cultures and were not the narrowly and erroneously defined "Classical Greeks" of two thousand years previously. Nor did they have much in common with the Westerners, who were the sole inheritors of the Classical Greek tradition. For this reason, many came to despise the Modern Greeks, first as unworthy descendants of great ancestors and then, as interlopers who could not possibly be Greek, given their eastern propensities.
At the foremost of those who would deny the Greeks their ancestry on the basis that they didn't fit with Western preconceptions of what Greeks should be was the German historian Jakob Fallmerayer, who considered, in a revealing passage that defined the stereotype, that: "The race of Modern Greeks has been wiped out in Europe. Physical beauty, intellectual brilliance, innate harmony and simplicity, art, competition, city, village, the splendour of column and temple - indeed, even the name has disappeared from the surface of the Greek continent.Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece." Going even further, he maintained that the Greek War of Independence was a: "purely Shqiptarian Albanian, not a Hellenic Revolution."
Fallmerayer saw the fact that Modern Greeks had more in common with other regional populations as an indication of the "Slavic" nations to overwhelm the "Latin and the "German." He further argued that the Great Powers who had supported the Greek Revolution had been led by a classical intoxication to misjudge the character of the modern Greek state. His world vision fit in nicely and neatly with that delineated by Edward Said in his Orientalist paradigm, where Greeks were definitely on the side of darkness:
"For nearly eighteen aeons, all history has been the result of the struggle between two basic elements, split apart by a divine power from the very beginning: a flexible life-process on the one side and a formless, undeveloped stasis on the other. The symbol of the former is eternal Rome, with the entire Occident lying behind her; the symbol of the latter is Constantinople, with the ossified Orient. That [Constantinople] might be one of the two world-factors, or if one prefers, the shadow of the shining image of European humanity, and therefore that the constitution of the earth might not admit philosophical reconstruction without its assent, is the great scholarly heresy of our time."
By the time of the Crimean War, the British tabloids and the French Catholic Ultramontane press were able to whip up popular enthusiasm for the War by treating it as a Crusade against the Greeks and their religious practices, which were degenerate and even more 'uncivilized' that Islam (another instance of double headed orientalism). Fast forward now to 1920 and we have British military attache to the Greek occupation headquarters in Smyrna describing Greek High Commissioner Aristidis Stergiadis as being: "perhaps as honest as a person of his race could possibly be." The anti-Greek prejudice then forms a familiar course: impugn their race, their character and characteristics, thus dehumanising them and rendering them legitimate targets for abuse. How else can one explain this extraordinary comment by John Carne: "Few things can be less tempting or less dangerous than a Greek woman of the age of thirty," or the remarkable assertion by an Australian judge a few years ago that Greeks particularly enjoy anal sex?
It is not difficult then to take the conceptual leap and agree that: (a) While we may think that Greek civilization forms the basis of the West, Westerners define that civilization as something mutually exclusive to that of Modern Greeks; (b) As a result, Westerners do not consider Greeks as legitimately belonging to the West; (c) Westerners typically do not hold Greeks in as high esteem as Westerners as they are really Easterners; (d) As Greeks are not counted among their number, it becomes easier for Westerners to denigrate them.
Such an analysis may appear to be far-fetched or extreme, yet in the common English-language discourse, Greeks are generally considered slightingly and the prevalence of media material considered to be "anti-Greek," in English language publications around the world and locally merely reinforces the existence of such a prejudice. It could therefore be said that in writing his strongly worded article, accusing Greeks of being thieves, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan is merely unwittingly reflecting an orientalist prejudice against Greeks that has been developed by the West over two thousand years, which makes it easier for him to make such hurtful comments and where, if he were in the same situation writing about another ethnic group held in greater esteem, he would have been given pause for thought.
At the end of the day, the reason for the shock and horror in the Greek-Australian community at such an aggressively worded article as that of Sheehans is that as an ethnic community permitted to operate within the bounds of the broader Australian community, our compatriots goodwill and esteem is important. Not only does it make us feel good and accepted by the establishment, it also is vital for interethnic harmony, that name calling and generalising about races does not occur. As the recent VCAT debacle with regard to racial slurs against Greeks by a local FYROMIAN rag prove, not much protection is currently conferred to ethnic minorities that are subject to such abuse, which then have the possibility of taking on other, more sinister proportions.
That being said, it is sincerely doubted that the Greeks of Greece, who have to deal with dire economic circumstances, regional instability and have been called every form of abuse invented by man for the past two millenia, would really have a care for what an obscure journalist at the other end of the world thinks of them or their management of their country. They are just as thieving cheating, lying and effeminate (interestingly, Amy Wihtehouse's first kiss was with a Greek boy who is now gay,) as anyone else in the world and long may they continue to be so for they are benign and harmless and understand fully that: «Ο ψεύτης κι ο κλέφτης τον πρώτο χρόνο χαίρονται.» We leave you, gentle reader, having surreptitiously emptied your pockets and stolen your superannuation, with this from Robert Kennedy: "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 9th and 16th October 2011.