Majestic in Exile

Op-Ed Contributor
Published: June 18, 2009

As a Greek, I have to visit the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum whenever I am in London.

I understand the strong feelings of my compatriots who want to see these unsurpassed sculptures returned home, ending the wrong done by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, two centuries ago. I feel the sense of dislocation — the incongruity — of the brilliance of Classical Athens at its peak trapped in a dull northern light, carried off by a foreign aristocrat and sold at a time when Greece itself was enslaved and its people unable to prevent the looting of their treasures.

And yet, without going into the legal or moral aspects of the issue, without weighing whether the Parthenon Marbles were saved or damaged by their removal, I cannot help feeling that the looting may have done the sculptures themselves and the idea of Ancient Greece more good than harm.

The British Museum is one of the greatest repositories of human achievement. It has given pride of place to the sculptures from the pediments, metopes and frieze of the Parthenon, providing them with the grandest gallery in the majestic building, when the wonders of other civilizations are cramped in smaller halls and corridors.

I agree with the British Museum that its exhibits tell the story of cultural achievement throughout the world and that the display of the Parthenon Marbles allows millions of visitors each year to admire them and “gain insights on how ancient Greece influenced, and was influenced by, the other civilizations that it encountered.” Visitors, who are not charged an entry fee, can contemplate treasures from the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia, from Egypt and from Greece from earliest times down to the Hellenistic era.

And among the whole world’s treasures, the Parthenon Marbles shine — the expression of a free people celebrating their freedom from foreign invaders, their freedom from kings, aristocrats and religious bureaucracies. Because this, more than the wonder of their art, is the beauty of the Parthenon sculptures — whether in the British Museum, in Athens or wherever lesser segments are displayed.

In their depiction of the goddess Athena bursting out of Zeus’s forehead and her triumphing over Poseidon to become the city’s protector, in the mythical battles between centaurs and men, in the lively procession of contemporary citizens of democratic Athens honoring their goddess, the sculptures sing of freedom, community and the glory of life.

They are like a sunburst in a long and sometimes regressive chain of civilizations that created great art but whose people lived in the shadow of kings and priests and superstition. The Parthenon sculptures enshrine the point where the human melds with the divine, where, through the genius of mind and hand, stone is smoothed into the rippling of flesh, spirit and motion.

From the time they were brought to London, as the British Museum points out, the Parthenon Marbles inspired poets and artists and had a profound effect on scholars and the public.

Before the era of mass tourism, there can be no doubt that the sculptures drew broader attention to the achievements of the ancient Greeks and their descendants’ struggle to break free from the Ottoman Turks and establish their modern state.

Like silent envoys whose mere presence was their message — their appeal — the works that Pericles commissioned and Phidias created once again expressed the will of a people to be free. In an echo of this, the spirited campaign for the Marbles’ return to Athens renews their importance — to the benefit of both the British Museum and Greece’s heritage. The dispute reflects the value of the works, and their value drives the dispute. Their being in London, for now, does them no harm.

I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum. Those that were once burdened by the name of Elgin have been in exile for just over 200 years — a brief period since their creation 2,500 ago. They have outlasted empires and civilizations and will continue to do so. They will be appreciated as long as there are people who appreciate beauty and freedom. And there are enough such people in Britain to ensure that sooner rather than later the Parthenon Marbles will go home.

Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.

This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.

Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini and editor of the English-language weekly Athens Plus.

Contributed to the International Herald Tribune

Published: June 18, 2009


The Acropolis is more than the Parthenon

As the Acropolis and its monuments declare to the world, nothing makes a grander statement than a grand building. Thucydides, in his unforgettable chronicle of the decline and fall of Athens, noted that in the future people would look on the ruins of his city and consider it greater than it was, while the ruins of its great rival, Sparta, would make the Peloponnesian city appear less mighty than it was. Athens’s fortunes have waxed and waned at the foot of the Acropolis for more than 2,500 years and the rocky hill and its monuments have reflected this. Free people celebrating their triumph over foreign invaders built the Parthenon and its temples on the smoldering ruins that a Persian army had left behind after a debate on whether it would be best to preserve the ruins as eternal condemnation of the desecration or to push aside the past and build for the present – and posterity.

The outcome of that argument was decisive in shaping our civilization – and in creating a heritage for Greeks through the ages. The Greeks did many great things in philosophy, medicine and the arts but nothing concentrated their achievements more than the buildings and sculptures on the Acropolis. The polemics over the Parthenon and its sculptures – especially those in the British Museum for the past 200 years – often overshadow the fact that the Parthenon may be the grandest but is not the only building on the Acropolis. The “Sacred Rock” as Greeks call it, has a history dating long before the Golden Age of Pericles, when the ruins that we now see were built. And the naturally fortified hill that allowed prehistoric tribes to settle in this once-fertile plain has a long tale to tell. The saga of the missing Marbles is a chapter in that long story, one that will end when they return to join those in the New Acropolis Museum. For now, the missing Marbles tell the story of the Parthenon during the long night of the Ottoman occupation, when the Greeks were unable to protect their treasures from destruction and theft. The shattered shell of the Parthenon underlines the vulnerability of a nation caught in endless war. The ongoing preservation works tell the story of mistakes in past preservation projects and the effects of modern Athens’s chronic air pollution.

The new museum highlights the missing Marbles’ absence by stressing where they would have been if they were here. This finger-pointing, too, is part of the story. But, as every visitor will see, the Acropolis hosts not only the Parthenon but also the Erechtheum, the temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaia, while many of its treasures are a lot older than the sculptures of the Classical era. The new museum will show the development of Greek sculpture by juxtaposing copies of the absent pieces with treasures from other buildings and other eras on the Acropolis. The generous exhibition space will also allow a new appraisal of many overlooked masterpieces that were in storage or cramped into the tight corners of the old museum.

The rock of the Acropolis is the touchstone of Greece’s fortunes. The New Acropolis Museum, built after a delay of decades, is a declaration by the people of this land that they honor their past not by crying over lost glory but by protecting it, displaying it in the best possible way, and by creating a new public space that will change the way the city, its people and their visitors interact with the Acropolis and its treasures. And the best way to get the missing sculptures back is to embarrass those who hold them by showing them up as unwitting players in a story that is so much bigger than them.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 19 June 2009

Welcome acknowledgment

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments on the expulsion of minorities from Turkey is very interesting in terms of the “self-criticism” that it suggests with regard to an issue that has had a terrible cost for the people involved and for Turkey itself over the past century. It looks like welcome acknowledgment of a situation that Turkey has always tried to ignore – that former citizens lost their homes and livelihoods while Turkey lost the wealth of experience and cosmopolitan atmosphere that it once had.

But it is difficult for anyone outside Turkey to understand precisely why Erdogan made such comments and whether they will lead to anything as regards those ethnic groups and their survivors within and outside Turkey. Because all too often we have seen Erdogan making comments that come across as if he was the leader of an opposition party and not the prime minister. So it is very likely that his criticism of the authoritarian decisions of the past is aimed at scoring points in the endless struggle taking place between the Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military/foreign policy establishment. For example, for years Greeks have watched in vain for a solution that will allow the Orthodox seminary on Halki to function, in the knowledge that a breakthrough there would help Greek-Turkish relations but would also set a precedent regarding institutions of higher education that would benefit the AKP. Even though Erdogan had appeared supportive of a solution, we have not seen one.

Either way, Erdogan’s comments regarding the minorities are very welcome because they reflect a more nuanced understanding of history and the need for a society that will be more tolerant of all the various groups within it. It is like the country’s preparation toward European Union accession: Everyone, especially Erdogan and his party, knows that meeting the political and social criteria set by the EU will be to the benefit of all of Turkey’s peoples – except for those shadowy parts of the state mechanism that are opposed to a more open state and who hold back progress on all fronts. And yet little progress is made. So even if Erdogan’s latest statements are nothing more than a salvo in the much larger conflict, at least they have been fired in the right direction.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 26 May, 2009

Could Alexander govern us?

And so the Greeks have voted that Alexander the Great is the “Greatest Greek” of all time, beating the philosophers, doctors, artists and politicians who created the unique Greek miracle which remains the world’s touchstone for achievement. The result was hardly a surprise, as Alexander was indeed Great: He reached the ends of the known world through military conquest, creating a huge empire which made a gift of the Greek tongue and culture to countless ethnic groups, which could then communicate with each other and exchange ideas, religions and products. Alexander changed the world and (this is what concerns us mainly), he made it “more Greek;” he made the past more familiar to us. For the citizens of a small country in a world of growing uncertainty, it is natural that we should seek to identify with Alexander’s triumphs, as if, in this way, we can impose ourselves on others, conquer fear, strike a blow against anyone who underestimates us, who to tries to usurp any of our achievements.

We miss Alexander, but what would we do if he suddenly appeared before us, ready to rule? We’d try to kill him, to run away, or – most likely – to strip him of the qualities that made him Great. (You see, Alexander’s great, but so is the democratic system that the other Greeks – whom he beat in the competition – bequeathed to humanity. And we would not like to lose our right to misgovern ourselves.)

Alexander – just as in his own time – would divide us between those who would like to follow him and those who insist on their state’s independence. Also, he would oblige us to be in a state of continual warfare – which might be okay if the fighting were aimed at conquering a perennial foe, but Alexander had no intention of stopping: He was forced to turn back only when his exhausted army finally rebelled on the bank of the Hyphasis River in India as they contemplated yet another meaningless battle against a superior foe.

But because Alexander was a hero of his time, when military conquest or defeat determined whether one lived or died, where a king might believe that he was the son of a god and therefore need not abide by the laws of men nor institutions, it is pointless trying to judge him by today’s criteria. That is how great leaders have always been – Alexander was just more successful than all the others, because he managed to leave a positive impression on many of the regions that he conquered, as we see from the survival of his name in many cities and narratives of distant nations.

So let’s not judge Alexander by today’s standards. Let’s compare ourselves with him instead, so that we might be judged. First of all, in Greece today, Alexander would not be so fortunate as to attain power as a headstrong 20-year-old (unless he were the son of a king, which, he was). In Greece today, mediocrity and selfishness rule – and it takes many years for a capable young person to have all good qualities knocked out of him and acquire the necessary networks among political, economic and academic interests that will allow him to climb the ladder of power. He would need to be at least 40 before he achieved this. And then he would find himself confronting the many systemic problems that we all know and which are maintained by the interests that will have supported him in his rise. As a graduate of our narrow-minded education system (because it is one thing to be tutored by Aristotle and another to study at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki), a hostage to interest groups and to the corruption that feeds off political apathy and maintains it, he would cut no Gordian knots. He’d just keep talking about “change” and “reform,” not daring to do anything that would endanger his support, as he’d play for time. He would allow the country to sink, as long as he could remain in power. (Suffering along with his soldiers when they lack food and water would be taken as a sign of dangerous, unforgivable weakness.) And if today’s Alexander were to embrace foreign nations and their customs, this too would meet with disapproval from his cohorts and a large part of his nation, which feels comfortable only when flattered by claims of its purported superiority to all things foreign. (This bigotry is far removed from the anger and dismay that Alexander’s tough Macedonian generals felt when they saw him luxuriating in Persian dress and being overwhelmed by delusions of grandeur.)

So we might miss a leader who made the Greeks known to the whole world and we might miss an age in which our nation dominated all others. But if we compare ourselves with Alexander the Great, we may justly argue that he was the greatest Greek of all time – except for our own.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 25 May, 2009

Karaghioz, a very Greek hero

The recent death of Evgenios Spatharis, a master of Greece’s shadow theater named after its anti-hero Karaghioz, marks the end of a long cultural tradition. Spatharis was himself the son of a legendary karaghioz-player, Sotiris Spatharis, and, in his lifetime saw his loudmouthed, avaricious everyman move from the central stage of popular culture to a museum piece. Where once whole neighborhoods or villages would gather in a central square or vacant lot, the children seated on the dirt in front of the portable stage made up of light, painted wood and a sheet, Spatharis in his later years entertained societies that invited him to perform and he produced television shows. He also devoted himself to a museum on the shadow theater that he set up in the suburb of Maroussi.
Spatharis was not the last of the karaghioz-players as there are still some old hands putting on shows and some younger players have tried their hand at the art. But he was certainly the best known of the generation which had tried to survive the transition from the cultural mainstream to being a relic of a bygone era.
Spatharis himself had no illusions about his audience. “People who have not been barefoot and hungry cannot play Karaghioz and they can’t understand him,” he told me in an interview in 1991. We spoke as he was preparing his small stage for an afternoon performance for a women’s society in Kefalari’s plush Pentelikon Hotel. Spatharis was neither surprised nor bitter at his profession’s decline, he just noted that times had changed. And he changed with them.
Before the spread of cinemas, and the golden age of Greek popular movies in the 1960s, karaghioz players and, on the odd occasion, traveling theater troupes provided the only theater that most Greeks would ever see. The player would stand behind the white sheet with a bright lamp, maneuvering a cast of up to 10 characters as the handmade figures cut out of transparent, painted leather appeared in full color on the sheet. The player would put on all the distinctive voices of the stock characters himself while having them speak and fight, run and jump – all at the end of the sticks that he held – as the story progressed. Karaghioz, the protagonist of just about every scene, was easily distinguished by his humped back and a very long arm, which he would use in his tireless efforts to steal or beat up others. Invariably he would get his ass kicked for overreaching. (It says something about the Greek character that its popular hero would be a small-time conniver who received lusty beatings from his enemies – Greeks and Turks – before being bailed out by someone else). The catharsis in these playlets was not the result of fear and pity that one encounters in the ancient Greek tragedies, it was more the result of a good laugh at the expense of a likeable and indestructible rascal.
The plays would be rough-and-tumble affairs set around a classic theme such as Karaghioz’s attempt to steal something, to hide from someone, to seduce the Turkish grandee’s daughter. There were also grand “historical” tales, such as “Alexander the Great’s defeat of the damned serpent” and patriotic episodes from the war of liberation against the Ottoman Turks.
“The karaghioz player would always have his ear pricked to hear the audience’s reactions, and he would improvise accordingly,” Spatharis explained. The player was in intimate contact with his audience, and would milk a situation for laughs or pathos accordingly. In the same way, the karaghioz players moved with their times. One successful play, at the time of the Apollo lunar landings, concerned Karaghioz’s trip to the moon. When they lost their monopoly to movies and could not get crowds to attend performances in empty lots, they turned to radio, to vinyl records and, when the time came, to television. But, as Spatharis noted, the rise in living standards and the plethora of other means of entertainment had made karaghioz something of a curiosity.
Today, fewer and fewer people remember karaghioz performances in the open. Schoolchildren might still be treated to the occasional karaghioz performance by well-meaning adults, and they might even be entertained – but they are far more comfortable with the Mario Brothers of Nintendo fame. This does not mean that modern popular culture is to blame for the demise of the shadow theater, because karaghioz was the very personification of popular culture. It is more a reflection on the way that Greece has changed and on the fact that much that gave our nation its particular color is being lost. Karaghioz came to us via Turkey during the Ottoman occupation, his roots lost in the mist of time in the shadow theater of the Far East. It is tragic that we should attend the funeral of a hero who was born centuries – if not millennia – before us but whose death we were all witness to. Unless… Unless the Internet and video games inspire some young Greeks to grab the hand at the end of Karaghioz’s long arm and make the leap into the present. And, from there, into the future…

Milestones&Footnotes comment in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009

Quiet museums of the mind

Something is stirring in Athens’s relationship with its ancient past. The New Acropolis Museum will open its doors in a month, the National Archaeological Museum has been refurbished and now, due to the pressure of local residents and renewed interest from the Culture Ministry, the desolate ruins of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum will be added to the map of places worth visiting in the capital. All is not rosy, of course: Visitors to Athens still risk finding the crown jewel of Greek civilization, the Acropolis, closed because of a strike, while the National Archaeological Museum stands out like an island of a lost civilization in the decaying city center. Still, adding to Athens’s important archaeological sites is a triumph of a present that is all too often the scene of one defeat after another.

The Academy and Lyceum are, on the surface, empty lots with a few stone ruins and both are in highly developed parts of the capital. The Lyceum is more fortunate, so to speak, in being located in perhaps the most prestigious part of the capital, next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, in the open space between Rigillis Street on one side and the National Gallery and the Athens Hilton on the other. The site was intended for a new museum of contemporary art when archaeologists discovered (or, more likely, confirmed) that this was the location of Aristotle’s famous school of philosophy. From then on, the Lyceum appeared to be condemned to the fate of so many ancient sites: sealed to the public, abandoned to the elements. Now, according to the Culture Ministry’s plans, the grounds of the Lyceum will be joined to those of the Byzantine and Christian Museum and will be opened to the public.

The site of the Academy was identified in 1966, after which time the area was allowed to decay without hindrance. Residents are now trying to block a high-rise office block planned by Athens Prefecture. But today citizens have a much greater awareness of environmental and cultural concerns and they demand that business interests and their government contribute to the common good rather than make a bad situation worse.

Abandoning important sites is perhaps a sign of the embarrassment of archaeological riches that Athens possesses and a confession that perhaps these particular sites do not have something especially impressive to show in terms of ruins. Indeed, they are not much more than an outline of stones on the hard ground. But their importance has very little to do with their physical ruins and everything to do with what they symbolize: Plato taught in the Academy and Aristotle, his student, passed on his wisdom at the Lyceum. We know both philosophers through words – theirs and others’. Their names and the names of their institutions have come to us through the centuries, as foundation stones of western intellectual civilization. The world, and its languages, is full of academies and lyceums. Anyone who studies the history of civilization knows Plato and Aristotle, and their great teachers and students. Their greatest achievements – their eternal presence – is in the mind, in the world of ideas.

It really does not matter if the Academy and the Lyceum are not great monuments of stone, something to inspire awe on a par with the Parthenon. Their glory lies in their very simplicity, in the fact that they are the sites where sparks of thought, in an unprecedented intellectual ferment, set the world on fire. There can be no greater museum – in the mind and on the ground – than the quiet spaces that helped shape the concepts that govern how we think and how we see our world.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009

A vote for the future

Since signing up to join the European Economic Community 30 years ago, Greece has had the honor and the responsibility of being part of the growing unification of Europe. The benefits and obligations are a two-way street. The EEC “acquired” a member very different from the others – all of whom, at the time, were far more “Western” than Greece both geographically and historically. From Greece’s problems, demands and obsessions, Europe learned how to embrace new members with different needs and modes of behavior. It learned, also, how to enforce its will when necessary (as in imposing environmental directives, for example). Without the thorns in the initial relationship with Greece, it is doubtful whether subsequent European “enlargement” would have gone as smoothly as it did. On the other hand, Greece won the longest period of political stability and social well-being in its history, along with huge amounts of money for modernization and its people’s advancement.

Europe and Greece both gained from this osmosis. But, just three weeks from the June 4-7 European Parliament elections, there is a strong sense that both Europe and Greece are in a quagmire in their relationship but also in their separate development. Europe suffers from a lack of vision and a dearth of self-confidence on the part of its leaders, while Greece is trapped by the structural dysfunctions that no politicians dare tackle.

This problem is expressed by lack of interest in the Euro elections. Whereas 63 percent of EEC members’ citizens voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, by 2004 this had dropped to 45.7 percent (with participation in Greece dropping from 79 percent to 62.8 percent over the same period). For these elections, Eurobarometer found that 53 percent of European citizens are not interested in voting, reflecting perhaps a wider disconnect with politics.

In Greece, according to a Public Issue poll published by Kathimerini yesterday, only 39 percent of voters are interested in these elections, although 80 percent plan to vote. Their mood is dark: With 8 percent still undecided, the major parties show a dramatic drop in support. The opposition PASOK party leads, with 26.5 percent saying they will vote for it – a drop from 38.1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and from 34 percent in the euroelections of 2004. Ruling New Democracy is supported by 21 percent – a dramatic halving of the vote it got in 2007 (41.8 percent) and 2004 (43 percent). The Communist Party has the support of 6 percent (down from 9.5 percent in 2004), while the extreme right-wing LAOS is floundering at 3 percent (from 4.1 percent in 2004). Synaspismos shows a small rise, at 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 2004. Out of nowhere, the unknown and untested Ecologist Greens party has the third-largest group of voters: 6.5 percent.

The percentage that the main parties will get will most likely be larger on election day, but it is already obvious that our politicians’ inability to do anything about the country’s problems is leading to an impasse. The lack of policy leads to problems growing so big that no one can deal with them. The result is that the dysfunctional economy and society lead to a combination of apathy and rage at the lack of choice for voters. Of course, protest votes are not exclusive to Greece, as throughout the EU governments are expected to feel citizens’ anger through abstention or votes for small parties.

In Greece, though, we are worse off because we are trapped in a vicious cycle. Our politicians do not tackle corruption and other systemic problems in our economy and society. This is a permanent handicap, but the most severe consequence is that young people who might have made the difference in our politics, civil service and other spheres of public life see that any effort to help out will be in vain. And so, as mediocrity and expedience smother a country, it becomes more urgent for Europe to become stronger and more representative, so that citizens can hope for an end to their own country’s impasse. The challenges that the EU faces today are common to all its members to a greater or lesser degree – whether in the fields of the economy, security, migrant policy, energy or the environment. The parties which show that they are capable of taking Europe seriously, and which present candidates capable of playing a role in Europe’s development, are the parties that we should support. Not only in these elections but in the national ones as well. Because what is good for Europe is good for us. And vice versa.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 18 May 2009

Character is destiny

On Saturday, Jacob Zuma was sworn in as the third president of post-apartheid South Africa, following the legendary Nelson Mandela and the bookish Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa, with a population of about 50 million people, is Africa’s economic and industrial powerhouse. Its future will have a decisive effect on the stability and welfare of the entire continent.

In the past two decades, South Africa achieved a miracle: It passed bloodlessly from a regime of institutional racism to a noisy, multicultural and exemplary democracy.

The nation has shown great progress since the first free elections of 1994, but major problems remain unsolved: inequality among rich and poor (not necessarily always on the white/black axis), violent crime and 5 million people infected with HIV.

Zuma has now been called upon to solve these problems at a time when the global economic crisis is rocking South Africa – reducing demand for its industrial products as well as its gold, platinum and other resources. The new president’s character, however, is another cause of concern, as he is as different as one can be from Mandela and Mbeki.

His predecessors were men of learning and persuasiveness, who managed to combine their anti-apartheid struggle with a decidedly Western image: Mandela, a member of the Xhosa aristocracy, was a lawyer before his 27-year imprisonment, during which time he continued to read and learn. Pipe-smoking Mbeki has a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex.

Zuma is a self-educated, polygamous former cowherd and firebrand trade unionist who stokes up crowds with his trademark guerrilla song: “Bring me my machine gun.” He won the presidency after a long struggle against corruption and rape charges, for which he has been cleared.

So it is natural that many in South Africa and abroad should worry that after the “gentlemen” Mandela and Mbeki, the populist Zuma could destabilize the economy and upset the delicate racial balance in the country. The recent troubles in which poor black South Africans carried out a pogrom against even poorer Zimbabwean immigrants (accusing them of taking their jobs), showed how fragile the situation is and how little patience remains for a more just distribution of national wealth.

And this is precisely where one might hope that Zuma’s election could be cause for optimism: Only someone like Zuma, who appears to be closer to the people than to the governing elite, could carry on with the prudent, conservative economic policy that Mandela and Mbeki followed without provoking a revolution. Because the ruling African National Congress has not lived up to expectations of solving all the country’s problems, it has to appear to change itself radically in order to remain in power.

In Zuma’s case, we might say that we have proof of Heraclitus’ view that “character is destiny.” If Zuma were not so popular nor so determined to pursue power, he would not have endured the war declared on him by the establishment under Mbeki in the past few years. He not only won, but there is even the possibility that, because of this character, he may be just the person his country needs in order to secure a peaceful continuation. Time will tell.

If we look at the character of a number of leaders with regard to their career and the course of their country, we may find reasons both for hope and for despair. For example, Barack Obama, with his seriousness, patience, academic achievements and desire for consensus, may be just the person the United States need to lead them out of economic crisis and two wars. In Russia, the low-key Dmitry Medvedev and strongman Vladimir Putin appear to be finding a balance with each other; at the same time, they are keeping a tight hold on the reins of power, while gradually developing their country and its institutions. In Britain, Gordon Brown, on a burning deck, is trying doggedly to steer through the economic storm that his government did not see coming.

If we turn to Greece and look at the people who are in power or in pursuit of it, then we see why we are in so much trouble. It appears that here it is not leaders’ characters that are their destiny but their name. And a name – whether it be Karamanlis or Papandreou – means very little if it is not accompanied by the character of a leader.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 11 May, 2009

We are what we eat

The Greeks’ relationship with the Cretan diet, as the Mediterranean diet could also be termed, is typical of their relationship with their country’s culture and its natural and architectural beauty: In less than two generations we have managed to squander the wealth that was refined by centuries – if not millennia – of acquired wisdom. In the past five decades we have seen our old way of life destroyed, the cobbled paths of villages bulldozed into dust, coastlines covered in cement, rivers and ravines poisoned by garbage, towns and villages stripped of green and smothered by cars. So is it any wonder that we would violate the very foundations of our lifestyle – our diet?

We are fortunate that we can still enjoy the benefits of a long tradition of healthy eating, thanks to the momentum that drives most Greeks to seek out quality in what they consume. People who have grown up eating the oily “magirefta” foods, such as lentils etc, which their mothers and grandmothers cooked, will be more likely to select them when the opportunity arises than will the children who are growing up on a staple of red meat, fried potatoes and a range of other foods that are overwhelmingly rich in calories and which lead to obesity and ill health.

Here we see the dangerous confluence of tradition with the its breakdown: The older generation – today’s grandmothers – who grew up during the long years of deprivation want to make sure that their darlings are getting plenty to eat; but what they eat today is not what they would have been eating yesterday, when fast-food outlets and processed foods were not an option. Lifestyles also changed along with our diet. The majority of Greeks no longer live in the countryside and, of those who do, fewer of them are involved in agriculture. And even farmers have pickup trucks and mechanical equipment that save them from long walks and heavy lifting. The result: People who are less fit than their parents and grandparents were at a comparable age are also overindulging in food, cigarettes and drinks.

From a hard life that was forced on them by their hard land, the Greeks went straight to the luxuries that their grandparents would never have imagined. With the serious lack of organized (and mandatory) school sports, very few children build up the physiques and the character to help them cope with their future sedentary lifestyles. And so we became a nation of “soft people,” the “malthakoi” that the ancient Greeks so abhorred. Prizing a sound mind in a sound body, they would surely have been horrified to see the modern Greeks surrender to the excesses of the good life. In fact, they would probably have blamed the country’s many ills on the fact that citizens had given up the rigors of physical and mental exercise and were allowing their children to grow up fat and idle.

Fortunately, the healthy solution is at our fingertips. Fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil and the other features of the Cretan diet are all readily available year-round and are still cheaper than most other options. Clever businessmen understand that people want to eat healthy food but may not always have the time to cook, so even some fast-food franchises tailor their menus to reflect this. What we need now is for even cleverer people to marry the beneficial ingredients of the Cretan diet with our changing lifestyle, creating ready-to-eat meals that are actually good for us. But perhaps the most effective way to get Greeks to eat right is to force school canteens to carry only healthy food, not their greasy, sweet or highly processed fare. As all the healthy ingredients are produced in Greece, we will attain healthier bodies as well as a healthier economy: Not only will we import less, but a successful brand of healthy food would be a great product to export.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 24 April, 2009

Cutlasses into ploughs

(This is from November 2008. I pulled it out of the drawer because of the recent intensification in piracy, including the capture of an American captain by Somali pirates)

The hijacking of a supertanker by pirates hundreds of miles off Kenya earlier this month has thrown the spotlight on a phenomenon that had been growing in recent years but to which few had paid much attention. After nearly 200 years of law and order in marine transportation, the rise of piracy appears to be something of an anomaly. But history shows that piracy – the plundering of merchant vessels and the ransoming of their crew and passengers – has always posed a threat to shipping. Piracy flourishes when there is no strong empire that can rule the seas or when a country does not have a government capable of securing the well-being of its people or of maintaining order. In Somalia today there is no credible central government; no one is capable of – or interested in – maintaining order in the coastal areas. Anarchy and neglect push the people into ever greater desperation. Ambitious young men can choose between poverty and crime.

Pirates have a special place in the world’s folk tales and in the collective memory of people like ours, whose history, human geography and architecture has been shaped by piracy. (For example, for centuries no one could build settlements along our coast, for fear of pirates – unless the settlers were pirates themselves).

The oldest reference we have from a somewhat historical source is in Homer, where piracy is presented as the natural consequence of the collapse of the Cretan naval empire. After Minos, the Athenian empire and then Alexander the Great’s fleet maintained some kind of order. Political forces have always exploited pirates in order to harm the interests of their enemies.

We see this through antiquity right up to our recent past. In the Caribbean in the 17th century, for example, France and England encouraged pirate attacks on ships of their common enemy – Spain. Only after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, when Britain became the sole sovereign of the seas, was piracy stamped out.

Ancient Rome presents an especially interesting case. In the last years of the Republic – the 1st century BC – the Romans were undisputed masters of the land and showed little interest in policing the seas. But while they were involved in endless civil wars, piracy developed to such an extent that pirates would also carry out raids inland and more importantly, had also disrupted Rome’s food supply. With less wheat getting in, prices rose so much that fears of famine grew. That’s when – in 67 BC – the general Pompey was granted unprecedented absolute powers to raise a mighty army and fleet and stamp out piracy. The Roman elite was alarmed by the concentration of so much power in the hands of a single man, but Julius Caesar, to further his own plans, pushed the people into demanding Pompey’s appointment. Such was the public’s faith in the great general that his appointment alone sufficed to bring down the price of wheat in Rome. In three months, through methodical and effective campaigning, Pompey had ended the pirates’ reign.

But the road toward supreme authority resting with one man had been opened. This would quickly lead to the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Caesar and then his adopted son Octavian, who was destined to become the Emperor Augustus, exploited this. Augustus later established an imperial fleet, which maintained order on the seas for nearly 300 years. When the empire weakened, the pirates took control of our region again for more than 1,400 years.

Today, the Somali pirates’ actions are leading to a rise in ships’ insurance premiums and the higher cost of shipping goods via longer routes. These costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. A multinational fleet of warships has assembled off the Horn of Africa. But however much naval forces may try, the only way to beat piracy is to promise Somalia a better future. The secret of Pompey’s success was that when he had captured 20,000 pirates he neither executed them nor did he release them so that they would go back to their old ways. What he did was give them land – and they settled down and became peace-loving farmers.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 24 November 2008