COMMENT

Myths, symbols and delusions

NIKOS KONSTANDARAS

The government has made major construction projects its own, inaugurating them and giving them names of its choosing. This is no surprise.

In this way, SYRIZA stresses not only that it is in power but also that it’s changing the country’s relationship with its past and its future. Giving names to places and projects is a declaration of dominance, however transitory this may be.

Colonial powers imposed names on countries, cities and sites that had nothing to do with the names the natives had used – and the latter, after their liberation, hastened to change them again, determining their world anew.

All over Greece we find names honoring myths and history - from old battles to the Heroes of the Polytechnic; Piraeus’s Peace and Friendship Stadium recalls the heyday of socialism in the 1980s. Across the globe cities are named after cities elsewhere – New York, Nea Smyrni in Athens, Edessa in Mesopotamia. Names change all the time: The capital of Rhodesia, named after the old English city of Salisbury, is now Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.

Two years ago, Barack Obama signed a decree changing Mount McKinley’s name back to Denali (meaning Tall or High One in the language of the area’s indigenous people), marking a radical change of thinking with regard to the past.

Names, as we know from our turbulent region, are a serious issue. We need only remember Macedonia, where neighbors’ use of the name implies expansionist claims, while the use of different names (as in Imia and Kardak) implies the same.

When Turkey invaded and occupied northern Cyprus, it changed Greek villages’ and sites’ names to Turkish ones in a bid to erase the past. Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan named a new bridge over the Bosporus after a Sultan who had slaughtered Alawite Muslims – a clear and chilling message to the country’s Alawite minority.

By naming some tunnels on the new Corinth-Patra highway after heroes of the Left, the SYRIZA-led government has made clear that it wants to leave its mark on the country. It encourages its supporters, showing that despite bad polls and a collapsing economy it is in charge and confident.

It proclaims that it is the part of the Left (as opposed to the Communist Party) which can play a decisive role, which can carry high the symbols of the Left, whether through the prime minister’s visit to the site of a WWII massacre, or the inauguration of a museum honoring a Communist executed by a right-wing government, or through shaping its own version of the past and the present.

SYRIZA’s persistence with symbols is not strange. The problem is that when the government conjures up a parallel universe it runs the risk of believing it is real, that it need do nothing else.

Online