Compassion

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” ― Plato

It’s been a difficult few days. I’ve spent them in rural New England, but my thoughts have rarely strayed away from Athens, from my friends and relatives there, the suffering that has gripped the city. As far away as I have been, I have been anxious — at times in physical pain — as I’ve watched Greek skinheads celebrate their party’s electoral gains, or as I’ve received hate mail from their sympathizers. Flashes of childhood memories mix with these new scenes: the deep bullet scar from the war in my uncle’s calf; a tank smashing through a university’s gate; posters with the names of dead students.

I’ve been thinking about fear, my own and theirs, the ones who voted last Sunday. One out of five is out of a job. Those who are still working have seen their salaries cut by as much as half. Hope, it seems, now comes only in the form of irregular bail-out payments. It’s all miserable and humiliating and easy to see that it could make one feel violated, powerless, and frightened.

Athenians are afraid, and I am afraid, and perhaps those who voted for Golden Dawn are the Greeks who are most afraid. The Greek working class, from which the group draws its support, has long suffered in a society of deep class divisions and social inequity. In the crisis, these, too, are the people who are the least capable of weathering hardship. Which might explain why Golden Dawn’s supporters scapegoat immigrants — the only social group weaker and more vulnerable than them. (How fatefully ironic that Germany would be the driver of Greek austerity and the inspiration for Greece’s worst social pathology.)

A social entrepreneur, who tries to rehabilitate violent offenders among Germany’s right-wing extremists, says she first tries to reawaken feelings of empathy in them. It got me thinking about fear and how it can destroy empathy, making ordinary people act like monsters.

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Take sides

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.” ― Elie Wiesel

Greeks are suffering as their country lies in the European margin, ravaged by the global financial system. For this predicament, a sizable portion of the Greek electorate is about to blame not bankers or politicians, but a class of people who are suffering even more than ordinary Greeks. For voters of the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi gang, the problem is other, even poorer  people — the undocumented migrants and refugees who live in Greece. And the solution is waving flags redolent of Nazi Germany, violence, and a place in parliament from which to legitimize their barbarism.

UPDATE: Greeks will awake to a vile dawn on May 7, 2012, as some 350,000 of them cast their vote for the neo-Nazis. With nearly 7% of the vote, they are projected to hold 21 seats in parliament. In its first official act of intimidation, these goons forced journalists to stand as the chief goon entered the room for his post-election press conference. Any journalist that refused to stand would have to leave. And so they all stood.

Dark and strange

Greek miners, Utah.

Driven from their native country by extreme poverty, thousands of dark, single men began to arrive in Utah. They looked strange, they didn’t speak English, and they refused to assimilate in the local culture. When they sought work, they were given the most dangerous tasks and they were paid less than the others. The authorities prohibited them from living or owning property in certain areas. Two of the men  were lynched for marrying American girls. Others among these immigrants dared to venture farther west to California, where they were likened to rats and where they were forbidden from entering restaurants. Others, too, ended up in Nebraska, where a local newspaper reported that they were dirty and that they offended women. So many of these dark, subhuman, dirty, and criminal immigrants arrived in the land that the Ku Klux Klan mobilized against them.

No these strangers were neither Muslim, nor African, nor Asians, nor Eastern European, like the immigrants who now live in Athens. They were Greeks — the ancestors of those who now demonize and dehumanize the immigrants in their midst. Perhaps these modern Greeks think that there is something different about them, that they have nothing in common with the KKK, that their hatred is justified.

Swastikas Over Athens

As teenagers, Manolis Glezos (left) and the late Apostolos Santas, took down the swastika from the Acropolis a month after the German invasion of Greece -- an act of defiance that has come to symbolize the country's resistance to Nazism. (Photo: AMNA)

The children and grandchildren of people who suffered the Nazi occupation of Greece now hail their own Hitler in Athens. They belong to Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group that is seeking political legitimacy by participating in the upcoming national election. The latest polls suggest that they will get it by exceeding the 3 percent threshold for a place in parliament. The group, which is known in Greece as Hrisi Avgi, has long operated as a vigilante force against immigrants and junkies. But its program spans the full range of hatred: antisemitism, homophobia, anti-communism. The group’s ideology seemingly draws from the Third Reich, ahistorical notions of ancient Greece and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the junta that ravaged the country from 1967 until 1974. In the hands of these people, the Greek key is transformed to a Greek-inspired swastika, the cradle of democracy into a cauldron of fear and violence. “Blood, honor, Golden Dawn,” chant members clad in black shirts.

I first encountered this group back in 2002 as a name next to a swastika spray-painted on a wall (see FACING ATHENS). Back then, its presence as a violent fringe group told me of an impending social crisis, but I never imagined that the group itself would become a threat. Now Golden Dawn does not seem like any other neo-Nazi group, whose existence we can bemoan but dismiss. As the economy worsens, Greek social and political institutions are eroding. The democratic system that ordinarily allows for, protects, and ultimately controls dangerous political forces, such as Golden Dawn, is now under attack. The New York Times reports that the country’s two largest political parties, rather than denounce this group, are co-opting its nationalist rhetoric. (If the Church of Greece has spoken out against the Golden Dawn’s use of the cross, I haven’t heard it.) Factions within the police have long been suspected of having ties to Golden Dawn, either shielding its members from arrest or using them to combat left-wing and anarchist protesters. That these Nazis can launch a national election campaign also suggests that they have enough financial backing to do it. It’s difficult to know if these are strong enough signs of greater danger ahead. But as someone born in the midst of dictators, I can’t help but worry.

UPDATE: Members of Golden Dawn launched an attack against supporters of the PASOK party during a pre-election rally in Athens on April 21, 2012 — the 45th anniversary of a coup d’etat that brought the regime of the colonels in power. The military junta of 1967-1974 was politically, socially and economically a disastrous period in modern Greek history. After the recent attack, the thug who leads Golden Dawn took credit for it publicly. From my perspective, that is legal grounds for prosecution. While political leaders denounced the attack, there were no reports of legal actions against Golden Dawn. Instead, the group received free national media attention just days before the national election. Clever. For a history of Hitler’s violent attacks against political opponents, see Operation Hummingbird.

Us and Them, No More

Left: Cretan immigrants, Utah 1918. Right: Immigrant detention center, Evros, Greece, 2010.  (http://eggs-in-art.blogspot.com/2010/11/10-2010.html)

When communism ended in Albania twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Albanians began crossing into Greece to escape social unrest and poverty. Greece responded by criminalizing them, pushing them into sections of central Athens that have become immigrant ghettos. As some 150,00 brown and black people from the developing world continue to enter Greece illegally each year, little has changed in the country’s immigration policy. The police still round-up immigrants, loading them into buses that transport them to “hospitality centers,” most of which have yet to be built, and ultimately releasing them. At the behest of other European countries, Greece is now planning to install a 12.5-kilometer fence of razor wire along the border with Turkey — the dividing line between Europe and the millions of poor people to the east.

The only substantive change that I can see has been in the discourse about immigration, which in the least few years has expanded to include voices critical of the inhumane and racist treatment of immigrants in Greece. In self-defense, Greeks have enriched their lexicon with the word, lathrometanasteysi — a compound word (lathraios or smuggled and metanasteysi or immigration), meaning illegal immigration. It’s a clever construction, marrying those two words every time there is a reference to the unwelcome visitors, because the word shifts attention to the illegality of the immigration, rather than to the presence of immigrants in the homeland. And perhaps it would be convincing if Greek society had not spent the last two decades persecuting, exploiting, and demonizing immigrants, or if Greece had a workable process for legal immigration.

I hear Greeks also suggesting that the country simply cannot afford to care for or to legalize its illegal immigration population because its economy is collapsing. Indeed, immigrants account for people with whom Greeks must compete for meager public services, and perhaps increasingly for low-paying jobs and substandard housing. The argument would be credible, of course, if conditions were any different for immigrants in Greece before the economic crisis.

A Greek friend of mine, now in his mid-40s, is immigrating with his family to Switzerland. His immigration, sponsored by a multinational corporation, is legal, as was mine to the United States back in 1980. But the economic reasons to uproot his family at this stage of his life are quite similar to those that are driving others to immigrate to Greece. (Is this point even necessary to make anymore?) My friend, and many other Greeks who are, themselves, immigrating, are joining about ten million other people of Greek descent who already live outside of Greece. And while many people in this Greek diaspora started out as undocumented immigrants, that’s all ancient history. Today’s Greek immigrants are clearly legal, European, white, and educated — and lest I forget, far less desperate than those others.

The Other Greeks (part 1)

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Increasingly it seems that Greeks are rediscovering farming as a way to make a living and perhaps to escape a failed economic and social system. Today, Greek television reported a government program that awards fallow public land to would-be farmers looking for a way out of unemployment. One of these farmers was going to grow snails for export; another was going to grow fruit trees, including pomegranate. The Times also has been covering the story over the last few months; today the newspaper ran a piece about the stifling effects of bureaucracy on Greek entrepreneurs and used the example of someone seeking to sell olive oil online.

Coincidentally, I am reading The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization by Victor Davis Hanson, a historian and Californian farmer, who argues for the centrality of agrarianism in the development of the polis. Hanson, who spent time in Greece, describes agriculture there much as I came to understand it, observing my grandparents working the land.

“In agricultural terms, then, Greece offers opportunity but does not guarantee bounty. In any given year trees, vines, and grains neither uniformly fail nor inevitably flourish. Innovation and experimentation , rather than rote and timidity, overcome climate and terrain, with predictable consequences for national character and group identity. The successful harvest leads not to security, riches, and leisure, but simply the guarantee of yet one more year to come. So Greece is a poor candidate for the hydraulic dynasty, replete with vast herds, cavalry, chariotry, crop surpluses, and a complacent and ordered population. But for an insolent, self-reliant man [or woman] of nerve or muscle, who welcomes the solitary challenge of the mountain terrace, the lone farmstead, the chaos of the olive, grape, grain, fig, goat, and pig, the choice to fight beside his family on ancestral ground, it is an altogether hospitable place.” (p. 26)

In signing the lease to her new farm land, one of these would-be farmers told her television interviewer that the stigma of a life in agriculture no longer applied, at least not to her. And I thought how quickly the recent history of stigmatizing farming became the dominant narrative in Greece. Because, you see, like many Greeks, I am just one generation removed from those insolent self-reliant men and women of the land.