Saturday, January 14, 2012


And the philhellene award of the year goes not to the homonymous restaurant in Moonee Ponds, but rather, to the inhabitants of the French city of Nantes who have attempted to redeem the historically tarnished name of their town in a most novel way. For it was Nantes, lotted and pillaged by the Saxons and laid waste by the Normans, that was the capital of the slave trade in France prior to its abolition and it was there that the French revolutionaries punished the rebelling monarchists by executing thousands of them via the novel ‘republican marriage,’ whereby a man and a woman where stripped naked, tied together, and drowned in the Loire. This notwithstanding, the Nantais have generously conjured up a novel way in which to manifest their solidarity with the beleaguered Greek people.
The “Je suis Grec,” or ‘I am Greek’ movement, encourages the Nantais and all other Europeans to express their support for the Greeks during the economic crisis, by submitting applications for Greek citizenship to local consulates and embassies of Greece across Europe. To actively seek to be a Greek at a time when Greece, its people and practices are almost universally reviled by the Western world is breathtakingly touching, verging as it does, upon the incredulous.
The movement’s manifesto however, does more than express support for the Greek people. Instead, it delves deeper in order to identify the global market and financial practices that caused Greece’s quandary, in order to soundly condemn them: “We are outraged by the indignity the Greek people have been subjected to. We are angered by the cowardice and lack of vision of Western governments against the dictatorship of money and infuriated by the indignity to which to the Greek people is currently subject, shamelessly accused of profligacy and fraud, collectively condemned as guilty without a right of self-defence, doomed to an endless austerity and penance in terms reminiscent of Marshal Petain’s seizure of power in 1940 in order to safeguard the ‘moral order.’ Do not forget that those who now sacrifice Greece for the sake of speculation, hope in vain that economic fascism will be satisfied with this small country and that they will escape.”
The gallant French activists of Nantes, in stark opposition to the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon media, view Greece as a victim rather than a perpetrator, a victim of a global system that has seduced it with the siren-song of affluence and an augmented standard of living, all the while enmeshing it within the thraldom of debt and dominance by the West. It is with such an analysis of the current situation in mind that the request for Greek citizenship is worded: “Your Excellency, in solidarity with your country, I, the undersigned………….. request personally to be counted at heart a Greek, to enjoy the rights and duties of dual nationality, and to express this international citizenship with a view to the establishment of universal democracy in liberty and equality, twenty-five centuries after the time of Solon, Cleisthenes, and Pericles.”
It beggars belief that in the face of such impassioned mention of some of the greatest luminaries of the ancient Greek political and legal world that the unimaginative Greek ambassador in Paris has responded to some of these heart-warming requests by bureaucratically pointing out the residence requirement along with other reasons as to why the Nantais’ application for Greek citizenship must be rejected. This, in the diatribist’s view, is most shameful and downright ridiculous. After all, considering that Nantes has been rated by Time among others as ‘Europe’s most liveable city,’ and as an ‘Innovation Hub,’ surely it is invariably more expedient to grant these aspiring Gallic Greeks citizenship. Having thus been Hellenized, they can be the first Greek citizens to be subjected to the full rigours of intense taxation. That will teach them to pay homage to the ancient, rather than the modern Greek political luminaries. Viewed from this prism, the Greco-Nantais hold the keys to Greece’s economic recovery. Given that Nice was a Greek colony and that Nantes also starts with the same letter, perhaps Greece can seek the cession of Nantes as fair and equitable compensation as well.
Brittannic idealistic Greco-worship comes in marked contrast to the behaviour of their Britannic cousins across the channel, who, if the Channel 4 program “Go Greek for a Week,” is anything to go by, look towards inherent elements of the Greek identity to prove that it is the very nature of the Greek that is responsible for the country’s current economic and social woes. According to this way of thinking, just like the noble savage of the eighteenth century, so too can the Greeks not be blamed for their plight. They can’t help being who they are.
The Channel 4’s description of the series is most revealing: Three British families try out the tax, pensions and work practices that caused Greece’s economic crisis and brought on the austerity measures aimed at cutting the deficit and qualifying for EU bailouts. A 54-year-old British hairdresser discovers the generosity of the Greek pensions system, which still allows hairdressers, pastry chefs, radio continuity announcers and people in almost 600 other jobs to retire aged 53 at 90% of their final salary because their jobs are defined as hazardous. A bus driver reaps the rewards of the Greek approach to state-run services, where bus drivers could be paid up to almost double the national average salary and receive extra bonuses for arriving at work early and for checking bus tickets and a British surgeon is delighted to discover how paying income tax the Greek way will transform his disposable income. The personal experiences of the three main characters are supposedly supported by expert interviews that establish the patterns of tax evasion, corruption and mismanagement that are alleged to have helped to sink the Greek economy. Of course
As one British commentator sagely pointed out the description omits mention of whether the participants will have a moustache, wear a traditional skirt or an ancient toga and dance Syrtaki all day long. Further, it has not been made clear whether the winner will be awarded a bottle of Ouzo, or a kilo of olives and/or a frenzied OPA!
No amount of Pericles, Themistocles, Agathocles or Hierocles or their combined achievements, so appreciated by the Nantais of Brittany can serve to allay an apparently inherent Britannic prejudice based on a violent imperialist past and intermittent bouts of social inequality and repression, whereby southern Mediterranean peoples are, by virtue of their current economic and political strength, inferior and thus, legitimate figures of fun. For this reason, a “Go British for a Week,” where gangs of dispossessed youths would be allowed to rampage through the city streets wreaking havoc, policemen would be allowed to shoot suspicious looking foreigners on the grounds that they may be terrorists, soldiers could invade, bomb and/or conquer other countries and appropriate their resources, and tourists would be permitted to travel to southern European countries where they can indulge in binge drinking and public acts of fornication would still not suffice for the purpose of showing how self-righteous, sensationalist and insulting racial stereotyping and schadenfreude is simply not cricket.
If anything, the narrowness of the “Go Greek for a Week,” vision is to be pitied as much as the Nantais’ broad understanding of the wider causes of the Greek tragedy is to be admired for it is self-assured complacency that inhibits assessment and introspection, which finally leads to social decline. What the world, the detractors and the Greeks themselves must learn from their current condition is that the Greek people have been around for an exceedingly long time. During that time, they have reached the pinnacle of brilliance as well as the abyss of degradation. Yet it is this innate ability to shine, albeit intermittently and to carry on despite all adversity that perennially is their greatest triumph.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 14 January 2011