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The Apology of an Anti-Hellene

If Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal have a Greek analog, it is Nikos Dimou. One of his generation's most fertile minds, a legendary advertising man and a prolific writer, Dimou is best known as the author of The Misfortune of Being Greek-the book that earned him the label of an "anti-Hellene." Nearly a quarter century after it was first published, Dimou comes clean.

Nikos Dimou is a master of provoking passions. It is an art that he learned, perhaps, as one of the pioneers of advertising in Greece (his bloodied map of Cyprus, overlaid with the slogan "I Do Not Forget," is the primal symbol of the island's occupation). He honed it as a columnist for the newspapers To Vima and Kathimerini in the 1980s and 1990s-famously being forced to leave both ? the latter in 1996 after its publisher accused him of subverting church and military.

In the meantime, beyond the crucible of the country's political debates, Dimou indulged a series of less controversial passions: In over 40 publications, ranging from poetry to photography, he revealed his love of everything from cars to cats, philosophy to Greek light. While the country's political press has waxed and waned in its enthusiasm for Dimou, his columns have been a popular constant for over a decade in specialty publications like 4 Troxoi and RAM (Greece's leading car and computer magazines, respectively).

Recently, Dimou decided to revisit the text for which he is most famous-The Misfortune of Being Greek. First published in 1975, The Misfortune is a series of 193 mostly brief, often cutting aperηus about Greece and Greeks (see sidebar). In the very last lines of the postscript, Dimou writes: "I have tried, simply, to articulate my observations in such a way so that serious people will find them to be serious, while less serious ones will find them less serious. I am now tortured by the possibility that the exact opposite will occur."

Perhaps it did. What is certain is that although the book became a best seller and an evergreen one (over 100.000 copies sold) as time passed Dimou came to be known as a gadfly at best and a traitor at worst. Reading through The Misfortune today, it is difficult to understand why: While he is at times viciously blunt, and while many of his observations are clearly debatable, Dimou always exudes a love for Greece in his text-a love more pure, many readers have observed, than that of the most ardent (self-proclaimed) patriots. The negative reactions to The Misfortune seem to betray as much about the critics as they do about the author.

The essay that follows is Nikos Dimou's response to his critics.

The Apology of an Anti-Hellene

This text, with the Greek title "Apologia Enos Anthellina", is the introductory essay of the eponymous collection (1997, Opera Publishers) as translated by the staff of Odyssey magazine. A few paragraphs have been omitted.

 Hemlock is no longer prescribed by the city of Athens-there are, however, other poisons. As the century comes to a close, the accusations weigh heavily on my mind, and I feel the need to unburden myself. Especially since most of the attacks leveled against me concern things I have never said. I am charged with harboring ideas, attitudes, and theories in which I have never believed. And so, once more, I will attempt to clarify what I do in fact believe, so that those who wish to judge me will be able to base their case on facts.

Let me say up front that I feel no guilt, and that I use the term "Apology" ironically-with Socratic irony, if you will. And I deliberately omit placing quotation marks around the word anti-Hellene. They are unnecessary. I consider the term an honorable title, won by many worthy Greeks. As Nietzsche once wrote (I don't remember where and haven't been able to find it again), it was the anti-Germans who proved to be the best Germans.

To whom do we refer as an anti-Hellene? As a rule, to Greeks or foreigners who write (or say) unpleasant things about Greeks, who criticize us, or express opinions we don't like.

Regarding the Greeks who are placed in this category: Is it really so difficult to understand that such a critic does his country a greater service than the most enthusiastic cheerleader?

The foreign anti-Hellene is another story. He may be a journalist who reports or editorializes, or an academic who propounds a theory. He is called an anti-Hellene from the moment we disagree with his opinions, regardless of how appropriate or how accurate. Fallmereyer would be considered an anti-Hellene, even if his theory of the descent of Greeks from Slavs were proved 100 percent correct. (Indeed, then he would be considered even more culpable).

In truth, this categorization of people into Philhellenes and anti-Hellenes is, at best, naive. Journalists, politicians, and (especially) academics, historians, etc., rarely think or act on the basis of emotion. (I very much doubt that Fallmereyer hated Greeks). Nor are they such racists as to be prejudiced against entire peoples. The ludicrousness of the label becomes even more obvious when one of those supposedly confirmed anti-Hellenes (Henry Kissinger, for example), comes out pro-Greece on the Macedonian issue, whereupon he is immediately credited with a philhellenic outlook.

Dimou the Anti-Hellene

In 1975 I published The Misfortune of Being Greek and immediately became 1. well-known, 2. of questionable intellectual gravitas (because the book became a runaway best-seller), and 3. the bearer of the two titles I have carried since, as does a camel her humps: "the author of The Misfortune" (so what if I've written 40 other books), and "Dimou the anti-Hellene".

It didn't happen right away. The first reactions to the book were positive. Greeks, still dazed from the dictatorship, initially embraced a text laden with bitter truths. But soon this introspective phase passed, foreigners were blamed for everything ("puppet" dictatorship), and The Misfortune became bothersome. Even more bothersome was a seven-page interview I gave in 1977 to the German magazine Der Spiegel. This interview, which once again stated bitter truths, was deplored and distorted by the Greek press, while the original text was never published in Greece. I actually managed to land in the line of fire of the Left and the Right, being christened an anti-Hellene by both.

But my reputation wasn't really sealed until the period 1991-1996, during which I rebelled against the eruption of Greek nationalism. The daily newspaper Kathimerini promptly expelled me from its ranks. Meanwhile, The Misfortune was added to the Index of Anti-Hellenic Publications.

Yet now as then, I maintain that this document was born out of a love (possibly an excessive one) of Greece. If anyone reading it failed to perceive how much I feel for this country, then surely he must be biased. Satire is always born of pain-the satirist is a sensitive person who transmutes his disbelief and rage into bitter sarcasm. Nevertheless, there are many who maintain that I do not love my country, that I would rather live elsewhere, (e.g. Western Europe), and that this is the cause of my discontent.

It is true that I would rather live elsewhere. But I would prefer that other place to be here. That's what I've fought for-to spread and to cultivate the positive elements of Western (i.e. Greek) civilization in our country. For 20 years, in addition to my books, I have made use of all forms of media in order to publicize my views. I got involved with newspapers, television, and magazines -all of which, in the eyes of the intellectuals, called my credibility into even greater question. And it was all pretty much in vain. In the past few years, waves of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, racism, anti-westernism, and isolationism have overcome our country. As I read the various studies analyzing the opinions, the outlooks, and the attitudes of Greeks, I think how pointless all my efforts have been. The brainwashing by the Helleno-centrists is insidious and unremitting. In this land, the words "Europeanist" and even "modernizer" have come to sound like insults, or, at least, like ironies.

Maybe my leaving would have been, on a personal level, the simplest and most effective solution. I wasn't forced to stay. I had managed (after much effort), to acquire the financial means to live abroad. As for the other requirements (foreign languages, familiarity with foreign lifestyles), I was already prepared. And I do admit that there were moments when I seriously considered it. It saddens me when I compare my experience to that of western European friends and classmates, who have never had to confront the cannibalistic and small-minded behavior that prevails in our spiritually cramped marketplace.

I stayed, though, and fought. Because what mattered to me wasn't just to live in a decent place-but to improve the one I lived in. I believe that this country has a lot to gain from proper modernization and a lot to learn from the West. Because the West is not something foreign-it is a continuation of our culture. What Greece should aim for is a synthesis of the positive aspects of our neo-Hellenic identity and heritage with the positive qualities of the West. (At the moment, we do exactly the opposite: combine the least flattering elements of our national character with the worst the West has to offer).

I won't discuss here my love for Greece-for the past 40 years I've shown it through my writing, and illustrated it with my photographs.... But for me love doesn't mean uncritical praise, blind adherence to myths and mirages, jingoism and demagoguery. As the old Greek saying goes, He who loves, troubles. Real love is revealed by how much we grumble and rage at all that's wrong and crooked in our land.

Greece gets to me so much that I've devoted seven books and countless other writings to her. In Diary of a Heat Wave, I wrote: "This country is killing me. You know how we say 'flood victim,' or 'earthquake victim'-well, I'm a Greece victim. Greece-with all her beauty and all her absurdity-has run me over like a steam engine."

The Pitfalls of Fanaticism

My image of my country isn't based on an idea, but on a feeling, an affection for the familiar. I consider my homeland neither better nor more important than any other land; I merely love it-the way I love my neighborhood, because it's my corner of the world. But, just as I would never dream of turning my neighborhood into an ideology and killing for it, I don't see any reason to do the same in the name of the nation, and to sacrifice people for a false idol.

I love Greece the way someone loves his house and the people close to him. But that doesn't mean I'm blind to her faults, just as I don't consider my own house and my own relatives better than other people's. Even as a child I used to wonder at fanatics-whatever their cause. And I still find it hard to understand how someone can become a sworn supporter or a blind follower. It always surprised me when I saw grown-ups argue over political parties or soccer teams, and stop speaking to friends because they backed the "wrong" group.

Personally, I never felt such a passionate need to belong. Perhaps as a result of the fanaticism I witnessed as a child (I was nine years old at the time of the "Dekemvriana"-the December 1944 clashes between rightists and leftists), I developed the opposite passion: that of fanatic disengagement. As a consequence of this, I've now become, at the age of 60, completely marginalized. (In Greece, unless a political party, clique, media group, religious or soccer organization backs you, you might as well not exist).

Still, in spite of all this, I'm not in the least inclined to alter my opinions. I'm merely tired of arguing-especially with people who haven't the slightest interest in what anyone else has to say. In Greece, the minute you express a view you get stuck with a label (e.g. supporter of the West), and, subsequently, anything you say is considered more or less predictable. The supporters of your group will automatically agree with you, while those on the opposite side will disagree, without even knowing what you said. A Panathinaikos fan will never discuss the views of an Olympiakos supporter. As a result, there's never any real dialogue. What with all the slogans, the labels, and the stereotypes, the intellectual scene is coming to seem more and more like a soccer stadium.

Know Thyself

Greeks' contemporary self-image is built upon a series of myths. The myth of continuity. The myth of the racial and cultural superiority of our ancestors (and, thanks to continuity, our own). The myth of being special. The myth of racial and religious purity. The myth of the genius of the Greek race.

The existence of these myths provokes certain predictable reactions. Thus, my typical compatriot, while proud to be Greek (95 percent, according to polls) will abuse and censure his countrymen at the slightest provocation. And this, naturally, because they fail to live up to the expectations and the demands created by the myths.

This explains why we're simultaneously the greatest eulogizers and the worst critics of ourselves. Depending on our point of view (and on the moment), we either denigrate Greeks or sing their praises. (In the former case we usually refer to them as "Romious"). Naturally, both attitudes are wrong. Instead of applauding or cursing, it would be better to stop, and think. Calmly, and rationally. (But I forget myself. Rationality is also a Western, imported Evil for our Helleno-centric intelligentsia. So much for Aristotle!)

The "Evil" West

Manichaism (i.e. the contrast between black and white) is one of the ills that corrupts us. There is no such thing as pure evil or pure good, and what's called for isn't antithesis, setting one against the other, but synthesis. Yet we've become so used to this game of tug-of-war, that when we don't have enemies, we invent them. Thus, for example, we have the "evil" West, or our "bad" neighbors.

It's amazing how much we oversimplify and distort certain things, in order to transform them into enemies. We have a distorted image of Europe. But Europe contains everything, including us. It contains rationalists as well as anti-rationalists, nationalists, cosmopolitans, and romantics. There is no tendency in Greek thought today that doesn't have its European counterpart-maybe even its progenitor. The West today includes the East, which has had such a profound influence on the art and thought of this century. It encompasses the whole range of schools of thought, from rationalism to non-rationalism, from Descartes to Derrida. Even Dostoyevsky-the anti-Westerner, the slavophile-is a fundamental part of the Western tradition.

Actually, its a mistake to speak of Western culture. What the West represents now is a world culture, one that has integrated all the cultures that came before it. It's the first culture in history that has kept and still cultivates all tendencies and traditions. Older cultures, on the other hand, always began by uprooting those that came before them, or those that were different (as the Christians, for example, destroyed the monuments and writings of the ancients).

Of course, as soon as we hear talk of a world culture, we're gripped by the anxiety of integration, of losing our identity. It's an understandable reaction for a small nation. But there really isn't anything to fear. Centuries of coexistence within the same national bounds didn't turn the Sicilians into Milanese, the Bavarians into Prussians, the Welsh into English, the Proven?ales into Normans. So why will our culture be swamped? The spread of Coca-Cola and blue jeans doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with the spread of cultural values. (Most anti-Americans I know wear jeans). Concurrent with the internationalization of culture is the opposite tendency, an obsession with difference, which, as witnessed in the former Yugoslavia, can be defended with far too much zeal. At no other time in history has humanity been so sensitive to the rights of minorities-and at no other time have local traditions been so respected and nurtured. The new international culture can ensure both unity and difference.

I don't know how bad the West is for us. I do know that we owe it a lot. From our independence (no one ever mentions Navarino in 1827, when Western navies helped salvage our battle for independence) to our love of ourselves.

If any Western import has harmed Greece, it's been neither rationalism, nor the political system, nor technology. It's been the idea of the continuity of Hellenic civilization.

Oddly, this idea, which today is waved about like a banner by anti-Westerners, is an entirely Western notion. Foreign "Philhellenes" uncovered our ancient monuments, and it was they who taught us to believe that we were the immediate successors to the ancients, responsible for the continuation of their traditions. The Romioi of the 18th century didn't feel Greek-much less of the ancient variety. They were a Balkan nation, originating from the admixture of many races and cultural traditions, with their own attitudes and ways of thinking. Out of the blue, the Western "Philhellenes" (and their mimics, our own "scholars") stuck a helmet on their head, dubbed them keepers of the ancient flame, and injected them with a passion for purity.

Pure race, ergo, pure language. How this nation has suffered in the name of purity! It was a first in the history of linguistics: the creation of an artificial language, a retro-dialect. All impurities were rooted out, place names were changed, history was distorted-for the sake of proving...what? That Greece was not a Balkan nation like the others, but a racially pure aristocracy, not only of the region but of the whole world. Like certain pseudo-bluebloods who fake their family trees to prove their superiority.

But you don't become worthy on the strength of your lineage, but on the basis of your achievements. The son of a Nobel prizewinner has no birthright to a Nobel prize. The ancient Greeks belong to the whole world, especially to those who study them. An English classicist at Oxford is nearer to the ancients than an ignorant Greek.

Yet even today our intellectuals call the Greeks "the aristocracy of nations." Even today many (most) Greeks believe in their hearts that we are a chosen people. This is why we're always complaining about the way we're treated. Like spoiled children, we demand of everyone their unconditional support-even when we're wrong. And we insist on believing that we're always being cheated, ignoring the fact that we happen to be the only country in the region to have doubled its size in the last 150 years. We've woven endless conspiracy theories so as to absolve ourselves of responsibility, and to cast the blame on others instead. Our belief in our superiority shows up clearly in our racist attitudes. What Greek doesn't consider himself better than the Turk, the Albanian, or the "Gypsy-Skopjan"? Go ask an Greek educated audience about Turkish civilization-they're certain to chuckle.

Well, this Greek, this Greek who asks the world "Do you know who I am?", who shouts at demonstrations, who denies the Other his basic human rights, who has conducted pogroms against his Jewish (in the past) and Muslim (today) compatriots, who ends up shooting (by mistake) the Albanian and the gypsy; this Greek, I don't like. And on this point I remain, incurably, an anti-Hellene.

History as a Western

Not a day goes by without the papers ranting about some anti-Hellenic threat. The Turk coughed, the American scratched himself-woe to us! Since my childhood, Greece's history has seemed like a (cheap) Western movie, one in which the Greeks were, always and unequivocally, the Good Guys. The Bad Guys were always changing. There was "the threat from the North," then from the East, then it was the North again, and back to the East. When I was a child, the word "Bulgarian" was a curse, more so than "Turk." It was forbidden for Greeks in northern Greece to design themselves as "Macedonian." "Albanian" then had a neutral tone; today it's become a threat.

Sooner or later we need to free ourselves from this Balkan mindset. That in which, in the words of the writer Fred Reed, "one man's national martyr is another's war criminal, where one country's founding myth is another's tale of woe and usurpation." Here, the ideological exploitation of history has become state-of-the-art. I was amazed to realize, on reading the history books of West European nations, that there are histories that aren't based on competition and enmity, that don't indulge in nationalism and hate. Where neighbors are even regarded with sympathy.

But do you dare compare Greeks with other nations? Well, yes, I do, and we would do well to forget our uniqueness in misfortune as well. History isn't a comforting mother who you can run to when things go badly-who will pet you and show you special favor. All the nations on earth have been through bad times-there's no sense in competing to see who can feel the most sorry for themselves. It's time we grew up!

And above all we have to stop living history as Western. Every morning the papers scream (like the little kid in the movies), "Look out! He's right behind you!" Every day the same fear: What are the Bad Guys up to? (As if they do nothing else from morning till night but conspire against us.) When will we realize that in history, as in life, people can't be divided up into the purely good and the purely bad. That the greatness of nations isn't measured in myths or fears, but primarily by their capacity to overcome problems of the present (and of the past, when it becomes present). Consider what it took for the French and the Germans to reconcile their differences-differences reinforced by centuries of bloody warfare. Each time I read about the European Community's French-German axis, I remember my first French teacher, and how she used to curse the "Boches" with rabid fury.

The One & Only "National" Issue

I don't consider the Aegean or the Macedonian issues "national issues." Nor even the economy and public administration problems.

For me, the one and only national issue is the one posited by poet Dionysios Solomos: The nation must equate the national with the true. If this isn't done (and it can't be achieved from one day to the next-it requires years of effort, mainly in education) then we won't be able to stand up in today's world. We'll always be in a limbo between whining and belligerence. We'll spend billions-in blood and sweat-on useless armaments. We'll continually be quarreling with our neighbors, and with the whole world. We'll see paranoid schemes and conspiracies everywhere. Like a sick, maladjusted person, we'll spend our lives wavering between hysteria and depression.

Who will dare to teach Greeks the truth about their history? (Including, for example, the aforementioned pogroms...). About the history, and culture, of their neighbors? Who will dare to teach them the truth about certain "national issues" (like the FIR Athinon, our irrational airspace)? When will Greeks succeed in seeing themselves as they really are: a nation like all the others, with abilities and weaknesses, with talent (often more than this land can hold), and insecurities, capable of both generosity and meanspiritedness.

Beyond the overhaul of the economy, I preach the revamping of our attitudes. Am I really an anti-Hellene? Or do I love Greece? The future will decide.