Nathalie Camerlynck

Greece: Not quite European – Public perception of Greeks in crisis

Nathalie Camerlynk sees the continuing perception of the glorious identity of “Ancient Greece” as potentially wreaking havoc on the lives of “Greeks” today.

 

In the collective Western imaginary, a kinship and commonality is maintained, not with “Modern Greece,” but with the great, founding civilisation that was Ancient Greece.

Even in far-flung American institutions, this imagined kinship is sustained and the cultural markers appropriated – from fraternity houses to High Courts. An unqualified “Greek” refers more often to the dead language than the living one. The celebration and appropriation of a Greek past, a Greek cultural heritage, has always rested on a denial of modern Greek culture – of the realities of a modern Greece struggling, re-conquered and re-dispersed.

There are, of course, the travel journal stereotypes of Greeks. An old shepherd man with a pipe, a charismatic gap-toothed smile and sparkling imbecility in his eyes. Or the lovely old woman in black, whose only goal in life is to press foreigners into accepting food.

In the travel literature on Greece, in all the folkloric accounts, where are the youth? Where are the middle-aged?

Old people and children. That’s all the tourists want to hear about, the only thing they want to see. Thanks to continuing austerity in Greece, this demographic gap has almost become a reality.

If “Modern Greek” is a minor language, it is because Greece is a “minor” country. Unlike with other minor countries, Western powers not only deny their guilt and involvement, their direct contribution to the state of things, they add insult to injury through their conviction that these Greeks are not really the Greeks at all. Our glorious European heritage exists in Modern Greece only as a geographical coincidence. The actual people of Greece are foreigners, uncivilized, under-qualified and untrustworthy. This is evidenced in the discourse surrounding the economic crisis. A celebration, a love, an acknowledged indebtedness to Ancient Greek culture in no way hinders the cold-hearted dismissal and punitive measures adopted since 2010.

The reality is that people are burning refuse to keep warm, dying from want of medical attention and that the suicide rate has risen dramatically. Because of Greece’s perceived place in European cultural history, these facts are either denied or downplayed, and public opinion happily shifts the burden of responsibility to the Greeks themselves. Because they are Europeans, they must have had the resources and natural endowments to form a healthy nation state, and the fact that they haven’t is entirely their fault (never mind what’s happened in recent centuries).

However, because they are not quite Europeans (corrupt, swarthy etc.) their history and heritage is stolen, their identity denied – these Greeks are not the Greeks.

Placed in a double-bind, our perception of the past, of our own glorious identity, continues to wreak havoc.

 

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