[This piece was originally published at Thought Catalog.]
IT WAS DRIZZLING in Athens seven weeks ago. The beer I ordered was colder than anything in the city:
“Card?” I asked, making a square with four fingers held together.
The proprietor looked down at my bloated coaster, shook his head, laughed in a single syllable. This was something explanative. I nodded, remembering the jingling Euros in my pocket.
Syntagma Station, the area of Athens named for the central metro hub outside of which I was seated, was where riots had been taking place. “When you look at people’s faces on the street, what do you see?” my Athenian friend would later ask me. I would tell him that people look worked, and, um, tired, and… “Do they look happy or not happy?” I told him they looked generally happy, despite the disquietude. “Yes!” he resounded, having awaited hearing something triumphant and essential.
There above the street, on his herbed terrace, Pantelis’s arms outstretched to perform a volume he wouldn’t allow his voice. An astute drummer in his twenties, he began to unearth the ruinous complications mounting beneath the ancient Parthenon. He agreed with me that the suspiciously succinct “Greek Financial Crisis” is really a European financial crisis that exposes the systemic inadequacies of major centralized currencies around the globe, namely, the dollar. But leave this claim aside. Greece has problems. To say that Greece is not itself going through a crisis is to forget local economies for the arcane financial entanglements of large public and private institutions.
Pantelis tells me all of this before I can suggest it. According to Pantelis too, Greece is an economic dog; it eats its way through more than it produces and sells. Tourism, its largest industry, is being injured by the media scapegoat machine, discouraging both foreigners and strapped Greek citizens from spending money on the islands.
But Pantelis has something darker to show me. This something will sustain itself beneath all of Angela Merkel’s paper Band-Aids. Of all permutations of Greece’s “identity crisis,” of all the moribund economic distress, this is the most devastating, the most disturbing. Pantelis’s eyes widen before addressing an open browser window. As I try to locate the sun, a pastel glob bouncing between khaki rooftops, a sound emerges from the computer.
Someone is yelling. Behind the microphone is a squat man standing in front of a banner. His voice moves between the vociferations of an angry, tired lecturer, and the squeal of a jet turbine. He stands in front of a snaking insignia, a design clearly interested in evoking the swastika. People are clapping at every interval. The speaker waddles like an upside-down pendulum, taking secretly heavy breaths.
At the microphone is Michaloliakos, the owner-operator of Greece’s most violent and radical political party, “Golden Dawn.” Beset by worsening economic conditions, the voting public has made the expressly anti-democratic Golden Dawn a growing force. Pantelis calls them neo-Nazis. Though Michaloliakos, the totalitarian-styled “Great Leader,” claims no interest in Hitler or the Nazis, indications to the contrary overflow from party meetings, rallies, and naïve manifestos. Tactical thuggery and murder replace grassroots campaign strategies. Ethnic cleansing, racism and fascistic nationalism bent on invading countries like Cyprus and Turkey in search of an idealized, pan-Hellenistic Greek state have all become trademark pursuits of Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn and its street enemy – a collection of violent activists simply referred to as the “Anarchists–” are Pantelis’s most urgent concerns. Young Greek citizens like Pantelis are considered by most articles and media outlets to be politically fictile material, entirely without memory of Greece’s mid-century dictatorship – handouts today can mean tyranny tomorrow. But Pantelis and his friends are disgusted with Golden Dawn and its de-civilizing terrorism.
“I have to tell you, I am for the ‘no’ vote,” Pantelis says, meaning he does not support the deal made with the EU to keep Greece afloat, in the Eurozone, and moored to greater austerity demands by its creditors. He continues: “But Greece must come together with a different solution. The violence is unacceptable.” He assures me that Greeks are not one people but many, like all nations, built by centuries of intermixing, war, migration.
Anthropologists ought to agree, as any assertion of “pure race” is an arbitrary demarcation of genesis along a homo sapien lineage that has no clear beginning, one that roots together all human ethnicities back to Africa. However, many supporters are looking the other direction. Most who claim affiliation with Golden Dawn excoriate the racism, beatings and murders, but fancy the handouts. When the EU austerity meansures kicked-in, many older Greeks lost pension income. That’s where Golden Dawn swooped in to earn the votes of the desperate bereft.
IN DOWNTOWN ATHENS, it sometimes appears as though the promontory of the Acropolis and its temples is actually Athens itself. All the other buildings bow below it, modern afterthoughts cloaked as a craggy basin. With this perspective, even Athenians don’t live in Athens. They live transfixed on a past that is so momentous, the cult of Athena is still more palpable than the future of Greece.
We ascend the foot-polished stones where ancient Greeks coalesced to form the first democracy. Pantelis – perhaps like many Athenians – is part-museum docent, always pointing up and down at things, never shunting his role as a historian of ancient Greece. He struggles to comprehend his own country every day: “I get a feeling when I am around these rocks; every time I am around these rocks I get a feeling. I, I cannot describe it.”
This is a feeling many of us understand, something only a handful of locations in the world can arouse. There is a difference between the spectacle-gazing and inquisitive historicism of Pantelis, and the loutish pride and citizen-sponsored terrorism of Golden Dawn. Standing where we were, one realizes something subtle, but something imbedded in the rock: Athenians have always had a powerful sense of self-awareness and importance. Indeed, Golden Dawn has a weapon that the Nazis did not: the most glorified nationalistic state in history of Western civilization.
Alongside democracy, Ancient Athens had a reputation for statism and militarized nationalism. Strong defenses and a country-over-kin ethnocentrism were virtues. Historian Clifford H. Moore wrote, “The Athenian nationalism of that time was never surpassed by any ancient state.” People forget this part of the city’s history. Hellenism brought race consciousness on an imperial scale. Golden Dawn’s propaganda cocktail is twice as potent when desperate Greeks – “happy” or not – have been inculcated with an admiration for all things Athenian, and after Alexander of Macedon, all things Greek.
There is a new myth pulsing down streets near Syntagma. That anarchy is better than austerity. Political Balkanization is stifling Golden Dawn’s dusky decent. Back on Pantelis’s terrace, we leave our ouzo to look for a source of the chanting. I can’t understand a word of the Anarchists. The voices are bundled tightly together, paroxysm echoing in every direction. Something held it together – a rhyme? “So much history in a small place that it produces all these stories,” Pantelis remarks, himself, in awe. I go down to collect one of the small flyers scattered about like ruffled plumage. It’s double sided. I asked Pantelis what it means. “Smash the state’s attempt for suppositional stability,” and “Armed battle to destroy state and capital.” I’m told it’s a difficult translation. Another shot of ouzo.
In Pericles’ Funeral oration, Thucydides recalls him saying, “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” We are one of these “future ages,” and – as predicted – the distinguished pro-Athens speech continues to resonate. So long as Greek nationalism stays in awe of democracy and liberalism, and does not mount to destroy it, there will yet be life for Greece.