We were in Athens, near the end of July, having dinner with some Greek friends at Attikos, a popular rooftop restaurant with a view of the Parthenon. Like most conservatives, our friends are somewhat pessimistic about what the future holds for their country, and from their description it seems to me that as the left has grown more virulent, the soft-bellied right has, for the most part, lost its nerve.
Greece, like other E.U. countries, is being flooded by immigrants. In Greece, though Albanians continue to cause a great deal of mischief, a greater danger is presented by Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East.
For at least 800 years, Greece’s main threat has been Muslim Turks, who attacked and finally conquered the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Even after they were liberated, Greeks under Turkish rule have been harassed and persecuted. There was a terrific slaughter in Anatolia after World War I. In 1922 Kemal “Atatürk” personally presided over a genocide in Smyrna. And, in 1955, the Turkish government launched a pogrom in which some Greeks in Constantinople were killed, and many more raped and beaten. Their homes, schools, shops, printing presses, and churches were attacked and destroyed.
A cynical Allen Dulles, who happened to be in Turkey, advised the government to blame the disruptions on the communists, since Turkey was regarded as a solid ally in the Cold War. The State Department clucked its collective tongue and did nothing, and it has refused to do anything ever since. Whenever Turks attack Greeks, the United States inquires about the position of Turks in Western Thrace, who, if Greeks behaved like Turks, would have been forced out long ago. We cannot, apparently, even instruct our “allies” not to fly their warplanes into Greek airspace. And the conservative government of Kostas Karamanlis? It does nothing. Indeed, Prime Minister Karamanlis stood best man at the wedding of the son of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the nationalist-Islamicist prime minister of Turkey, and the Greek press, rather than standing up for the Greek people, routinely urges conciliation and self-abasement.
The Greek left is as poisoned with self-hatred as the left in Britain and America, from whom they sucked the venom. They have done their best to turn a noble and dignified language into a gutter dialect, masterminded a spelling simplification that tends to cut modern Greeks off from the writings of their ancient and Byzantine ancestors, and they now transliterate names phonetically into English as if they were just a Third World country. My hotel, for example, is on Odós Falírou (accents added), which disguises the fact that hodos is the ancient word for road and Phaleron is a famous harbor. Simplified spelling, in any language, is an act of historical vandalism.
Not surprisingly, most Greeks are not terribly fond of the United States, though they never seem to hold American citizens responsible for the actions taken by their democratically elected government. American-style democracy, they probably realize, is a tightly controlled oligarchy that has deliberately kept the people too stupid to complain about anything but taxes.
Our friend Nikos Hidiroglou waits until after dinner (about 11) to tell me that he has promised an interview to a conservative newspaper, Eleftheri Ora. When I ask what subject he has in mind, he glances through a copy of Chronicles and hits on the ad for my lectures on the Greek conservative mind. Greeks have been taught the same distorted liberal version of Greek history and literature that we Americans have been indoctrinated into, and he expresses some skepticism, adding, “You know, I hardly never go up there,” pointing at the Acropolis.
I begin to explain the theme of my lectures. Ancient Greeks, from Homer to Aristotle, valued kinship and friendship, family, clan, city, and Hellenism above all universal values. The most important political philosopher of antiquity, Aristotle, had no use for what we call equality or mass democracy. He preferred a balanced constitution in which the wealthy and well-born could have the influence to which they were entitled, and even crazy old Plato, whatever his faults as a utopian dreamer, hated Athenian democracy and takes Sparta as his model. Andreas, a political activist who occasionally writes for us, interjects that he comes from the Peloponnesus and is pro-Spartan from birth. When I point out that he is actually an Arcadian, and the Arcadians were the enemies of Sparta, he responds, “My people belonged to the pro-Spartan faction. They were real conservatives.”
Even here in Athens, the establishment of democracy was largely a work of political opportunism. Cleisthenes, the alleged founder of democracy, is said to have taken the people into his faction, not because he believed in democracy but because he wanted to dish his rivals. His descendant Pericles ruled as a virtual dictator.
Even during the most radical period of democracy, only free adult male Athenian citizens could vote, and Pericles even had a law passed restricting citizenship to the sons of two citizen parents. In some ways, tiny Attica was more decentralized than the 19th-century United States or Switzerland.
Anyone of sound mind who goes to Athens during the summer ought to have a good reason and a large supply of 50+ sunscreen. The delicious pleasures of air travel and mass tourism are compounded by heat that even the Greeks find oppressive. The coolest days were in the mid-90’s, and on several days the temperature reached 105 or higher. I think of our upcoming Winter School. Beautiful January, with empty streets and daily highs in the mid-50’s—how I long for you.
We had spent our first morning in Athens, wandering about the Agora, trying to make sense of the place, which was both market and civic center. I had not visited the Agora often enough to get the same understanding of it that I have for the Forum Romanum in Rome. (I say “in Rome,” because there is a Roman Forum in Athens.)
I had chipped away at my ignorance by looking again at John M. Camp’s guidebook published by the American School, though it was my wife’s sharper eyes and ability to read a site that guided me out through the bewildering landscape of marble. What a place. The Agora is a rich jumble of ruins and historical fragments overgrown with East Mediterranean weeds from Neolithic to modern times, representing 5,000 years of history. A man who understood this place fully would know a great deal, indeed. I have scratched only the surface—metaphorically, of course: Archaeologists frown on amateurs setting up shop with spade and sieve on their sites.
The so-called Theseion (perhaps a temple to Hephaestus) is one of the best-preserved Greek temples. Set up on a slope above the west side of the Agora, it contains several clever variations on the Doric order. Considering the fragments of the sculptural ornamentation, I am reminded, as always, of how prone the Greeks were to divide the world up into opposing camps: gods versus giants, Lapiths versus centaurs, Greeks versus Amazons, Greeks versus Trojans. These motifs are quite correctly related to the heightened sense of identity they gained from the Persian Wars, but there are earlier examples which indicate that the conflict with Barbary only intensified their ethnocentrism.
Ancient Greeks knew who they were and were not shy about vaunting their superiority over lesser races. On the other hand, they were almost too eager to attribute their own advances to Egyptians or Phoenicians. A self-confident people does not have to elevate itself by climbing up the reputations of its defeated rivals. Herodotus, always ready to make fun of the topsy-turvy world of Egypt, was perfectly happy to accept the Egyptians’ chauvinistic version of history, and Xenophon the Athenian admired not only the Spartans but the Persian nobility, whose warriors had twice invaded Greece.
A few days later, in the new Acropolis Museum, I am able to see for the first time the famous relief sculpture of Athena leaning on her spear. The piece has been given the title Pensive Athena, but considering the date (460 b.c.), I wonder if she is not pensive but simply weary of defending Athens, for 30 years, from her Persian enemies. The sad part of the story is that, in defending herself and the Greek islands from a multiethnic “evil empire” (actually, the Persians were the kindest imperialists the world had known up to that point), Athens became as ruthless an imperial power as the hated Persians.
I think about this conversation all next week, when we are enjoying Taki’s hospitality on board Bushido. When Nikos’ interview came out as a front-page headline piece in Eleftheri Ora, it apparently caused a minor sensation, at least among the Athenian conservatives who read the paper. Toynbee criticized Greeks for always being haunted by a distant golden age—the Trojan War, when the gap between gods and the semidivine kings and heroes was smaller than it became, the brilliance of Periclean Athens, the miraculous conquests of Alexander, the glories of the Byzantine Empire before its decline and fall. If Greeks once went too far in admiring their ancestors, Greeks today are being asked to swallow a revisionist history that regards the humane religion of Christian Byzantium as morally inferior to the empires of the cannibal Aztecs and Incas, and the artistic and literary treasures of ancient Athens as decidedly inferior to the long glories of majestic Zimbabwe.
What a pernicious ideology Anglo-American liberalism has been in all its forms! For liberals, ancient Greeks were individualists who liberated themselves from the shackles of religion, class, and tradition, while for the left, they were misogynistic, xenophobic, slave-owning capitalists. It is not that American historiography has been any different. So-called conservative historians, whatever their field of specialization, tend to be either shills for democratic capitalism or outright liars. We have stripped ourselves of our usable past of ancient and medieval, British and American history, and replaced this past with a thin-gruel ideology of either Marxist feminism or democratic capitalism, which we then export around the globe to weak countries like Greece or Iraq that have real histories to be proud of. We were so busy in Baghdad, tearing down the statue of Saddam and promising women’s rights, that we hardly noted that Iraqi museums were being looted of the irreplaceable treasures of ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.
The great Greek poet C.P. Cavafy once wondered what we would do without the barbarians. He need not have worried. We have, to paraphrase Pogo, met the barbarians, and they is us.