This morning I received the following video in my email. I must confess that watching it had a profound effect on me. I felt emptiness to the very core of my entire existence. It purports to show how proud modern Greeks are about their selves, in what I consider, a very disturbing way.
First some introductory remarks and then a few comments on the video itself.
Being raised as a Greek and having studied Greek history and literature, I have a lot to say about the country’s interior, especially as far as culture and national identity are concerned. Stripping away all the superficialities of the economic crisis, the nation suffers from a crisis of identity, central in its recent history, ever since the establishment of the modern Greek state.
The Greeks never experienced the fertilizing wave of the Enlightenment, as did other European nations a few centuries ago; and have yet to answer the central questions concerning the very essence of being “Greek”. As the philosopher Cornelius Castoriades accurately pointed out some decades ago, modern Greeks have not yet managed to choose between the democratic and open society of ancient Athens, and the theocratic, totalitarian rule of the Byzantine era.
By the way the Byzantine Empire, which is often depicted as a Greek state, especially by Greeks themselves, never was a “Greek” empire, litanies to the opposite notwithstanding. The machinery of crime and oppression of the Byzantine rule, used fire and steel to obliterate anything that resembled ancient Greece.
The Academy of Athens, founded by Plato, was shut down, by Justinian who is known for his “achievements” as the “Great”. Even the word “Hellene” (“Greek”), which the lady in the video so proudly pronounces, was forbidden and the people identified themselves as “Romans”, from the time of Theodosius (“the Great”) 4th century AD, up until the late 18th, early 19th century. These two vastly diverse world-views are irreconcilable, yet the average Greek suffers from the schizophrenia of somehow adhering to both.
Though I am fully conscious that in touching upon these issues I risk being seen as an “anth-Hellene” – “anti-Greek”, by those anxious to obfuscate and conceal the fact of our cultural problem, I just cannot remain silent. I uphold that we must at some point stand up to reality and criticize ourselves, before pointing our finger to foreigners. Now allow me to comment upon the video itself.
First of all this is a really amateur imitation of an advertisement from the beer “Canadian”, which alone is enough to prove the cheap fabric of the entire message. Yet this is only the beginning of the problem. The video wishes to present, in a vastly distasteful manner, how we the great Greeks are superior to all the rest. “My country is a democracy, it actually invented the concept” “and if I owe you any money, it’s because I invented the idea of the free market”. We are the best because we invented this, that and the other. We even invented “the west” and if you are actually criticizing “us” it is just because we invented criticism in the first place!
It is one thing to innocuously accept that ancient Greeks were the first to elaborate on many aspects of what we today as “Westerners” consider part of our culture; but it is a fundamentally different thing to argue that everything henceforth should be attributed to “us the Greeks”.
Such kind of perverse mode of thinking plagues the modern Greeks for quite some time now. It is those arguments locals use when they expound on the superiority of Hellenism, stemming from the achievements of antiquity; unconsciously perhaps to justify their current nothingness. The discussion usually runs along the lines of “by the time we were inventing democracy they were still living in caves”.
For the sober non-Greeks it is crystal clear that this mode of thinking is inherently flawed and fallacious, let alone its vanity. Even if it were true it still provides no justification whatsoever for any mistakes currently committed, nor does it allow space for complacency.
But many Greeks do not treat this as a source of major concern since they fail to realize that while we “the great Greeks” have not made a single step forward since antiquity, but have instead made strides backwards; the “cave-dwellers”, the “barbarians” have already been to the moon and beyond. Then there is this “nice” touristic marketing touch of the beautiful country with the thousands of islands. So what? Is it the only beautiful country on earth? And even if it were, why should that make you proud about it? Did you also invent the islands, the beaches, the sunshine? Or did you also come up with the very concept of “tourism”?
Finally, I would like to draw your attention to this ultimate sign of naivety (or illiteracy?) coming at the very end.
The preposterous effort to draw a dividing line between “Hellenes” and “Greeks”, as if the latter word is somehow tainted and its use only tarnishes the memory and glory of our forefathers. For those of you who are not familiar with Greek mythology and/or history – video production team included – Hellene and Grekos were both sons of Zeus. Hellene lived in Thessaly, from where Achilles and his Myrmidons originated, while Grekos lived in Eperus, the land from where consecutive waves of migrants/sailors moved westwards to establish colonies in Southern Italy, which at the time was known as Magna Greciac (Big Greece).
The fact that “Greek” became the standard ethnonym has to do with the fact that the Romans first encountered a Hellenic tribe identifying itself as descendant of Grekos, hence “Greek”. Thus the Romans assumed that all these people residing on the peninsula of Emos (Greece) and the surrounding areas are the “Greeks”. We should be proud that foreigners use the word “Greek” (among others) because it reminds us of the time we travelled outside our borders and met other people and cultures, contrary to our modern narrow-minded, pseudo-nationalistic inwardness.
I understand that the morale of the Greeks may be at its nadir. That systematic efforts may be required to reignite their inner flame. To make people believe in their selves again.
However, I strongly disagree with the entire message of the above video. Make no mistake, the problem is not the video per se but its very content which perfectly depicts the failing mentality that brought the country to this point of disaster. It is that self-defeating slavishness to brutishly survive under the shade of a glorious past, without any ambitious vision of determining the future in any decisive way.
We need to reinvent Greece, not perpetuate its vegetable existence. To believe that change will come from the recycling of the same old utterly repulsive attitudes, unexamined dogmas and backward shibboleths, is in my humble opinion, foolishness of the highest degree.
To read Protesilaos’ thoughts (which he licences under a creative commons attribution license) visit www.protesilaos.com/2012/04/nothingness-of-i-am-hellene-video.html and view the ‘I am Hellene’ clip at http://youtu.be/KpDtvumzbV0
Above one of several humorous responses to the original video.