Friday, January 25, 2013


When I was nine years old, my younger cousin Kyriakos, his mother (my aunt Sofia) and my Yiayia (grandmother) came to live with us for about a month. It was a strange and difficult month: We moved menorot to make space for the icons Yiayia had brought with her, and woke each Sunday to the smell of burning incense. Since the visit came in spring, Yiayia spent the duration of the Passover seders huddled upstairs in the room we had given her, bawling at the thought of her grandsons consigned to whatever type of perdition Greek Orthodox theology reserves to the Jews. Six-year-old Kyriakos revealed the prejudices to which he had been exposed. When my mother revealed to him that she, my brother and I were all Jews, he raised his hand as if to beat the devil out of her.

Later, as if to reassure himself that America was not some pit of vipers, he asked her if she was Nea Dhimokratia or PASOK--until recently, the two major parties in Greece. He found her explanation of the differences in America, and her avowed identity as a Democrat, reassuring, since Democrat--for etymological reasons well-known to adult readers--sounds much like the Greek word dhimokratia.

The alignment of my Greek relatives with the avowedly right-wing ND had nothing to do with their material conditions or the program of the party: They were broke, their only real asset Yiayia's increasingly dilapidated two-story house in a suburb of Athens. It was a function of inheritance: My Yiayia's status as a scion of an old family of prosperous Athenian merchants, and my Pappou's past as a fascist bully boy turned soldier turned cop turned anti-communist torturer turned barely legitimate business man. If the right gained power, someone in a family of that pedigree who remained loyal to its affiliation could expect a few favors with which to keep body and soul together. If that meant indoctrinating one's children into a world view that saw the Turks, Jews and communists bound up together in a conspiracy to keep true Hellenes down, that was the price.

It was thus that I did not truly understand the significance of the economic crisis that has been grinding away at Greece for six years now until I friended Kyriakos on Facebook--and realized that his political allegiances belonged to SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, a motley jumble of Eurocommunists, left social-democrats, Trotskyists and other assorted radicals. It meant that the inherited patronage networks which had kept a sclerotic, thoroughly corrupt elite in place for four decades since the overthrow of the Junta were beginning to crack up under the strain of the economic crisis.

Yet that elite remains in place, guarded in different ways by the armed force of their police, the demobilizing and disorganizing efforts of the union bureaucracies, and the brutality of fascist auxiliaries styling themselves "Golden Dawn". For the radicalization has not only been toward the left, and while SYRIZA may end up the most popular party in the next elections, it is near certain that Golden Dawn will place third, behind the zombified remains of Nea Dhimokratia. In the last elections, 40% of all police officers voted for Golden Dawn.

This is a statistic that is met with shock and alarm by many in the Anglophone left. Young radicals in English-speaking countries learn about fascism by reading Trotsky and Gramsci and then show, through their actions, that did not understand a word they read--shouting insults and slogans at hooded Klansmen or swastika-ed neo-Nazis through thick lines of armored police, or hysterically decrying every president from LBJ to GWB as "fascists," and sometimes both. Young radicals in most other countries of the world have their own confusions, but for them fascism is written into the peculiarities of their own family histories, not just books. Greece is no exception, nor is my family, and I have already mentioned Pappou. Even at two generations remove, fascism is written on my body in the shape of a character-giving bump on my nose, left by the fist of a father who never learned to control his inheritance of rage.

I therefore approached Discordia by Laurie Penny, with illustrations by Molly Crabapple, with skepticism. I barely feel like I can understand Greek politics, and I have studied it, can read the language, have family ties there, and follow all the right Twitter feeds. Could a journalist and illustrator without such connections make any sense of things at all?

Penny is a good journalist, with an excellent habit of mentioning telling details in an understated manner. The preface by Paul Mason compares her to Hunter S. Thompson, but this book has more in common with Homage to Catalonia or the The Road to Wigan Pier than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I'll give just one example.

There is lengthy disquisition in the middle about distrust of journalists in radical-left spaces that turns into a dialogue between Penny and Crabapple about how young women who dare to try and make an impact in the public sphere need a certain swagger. I found myself getting bored with it, wishing that Penny would get back to the discussion of Greece. And then Penny turned it back on me with a single sentence: "We attempt to define swagger as we see it, for the benefit of Yiannis [their roommate-cum-fixer], who has become our audience and isn't wholly comfortable about that." Reading that sentence, I formed mental images of every Greek man I had ever met--family, friends, friends of family, antagonists--who ever appeared uncomfortable at the mere fact of being audience to a woman. Then I remembered all the times I had been that Greek man. And then I realized that I was being that Greek man, and looked back on the chapter with a deeper appreciation. Everything you need to know about how Greek masculinity is performed as rhetorical mastery, as a re-enactment of Pericles on the proscenium, is there in that sentence, if you can figure out how to unpack it.

All told, Discordia succeeded in returning me to two spaces that feel to me like my childhood home--confusing, frightening and unhealthy but inescapable--Greece and the radical left. It succeeded so well, I could smell the cigarette smoke and triggered, psychosomatically, a little asthmatic wheeze.

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