It has been 100 years since my father and his family left the beautiful Bosporus in Constantinople. No one likes to suddenly leave their home, but they had been included in the “exchange of populations,” as it was quaintly called, between Turkey and Greece. This followed the genocide of their people, the Greeks, including the Pontic genocide, named after the organized killing of the Christian Ottoman Greek population of Anatolia carried out from 1913 to 1922.
My father’s father was a scholar, a priest and the leader of a large Greek community in the Ottoman capital. The United States gave him and his family immediate visas to come to America and begin a new life, as the nation did, subsequently, for millions of others.
Achilles was young, he worked at various jobs as a teenager, and later attended Lehigh on full scholarships. He finished his PhD from Princeton. On his way to teach political science and international law at Stanford, the State Department asked him to join the Department, and there my father stayed for around 35 years.
That was the America in which I was born and raised. In school every morning, hand over heart, standing at attention, my class repeated, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” (This pledge became official in 1892. Interestingly, the passage “under God” was added in 1954. The historian Kevin M. Kruse writes that the addition was intended as a strike against Russian and Chinese atheistic communism during the Cold War.)
The earliest documents upon which the new nation of America was founded are sometimes obscure, but even if one quickly reads the Declaration of Independence, the first words stand out:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
One would think that these words were clear enough. They are ideals, lofty principles, and seemingly a priori. They don’t need interpretation. But in the last six years or so, one can easily point to events and changes which are directly opposed to the supposed values and principles upon which America was established. When one examines even a partial list of these changes, the enormity of what this means is readily apparent.
The plight of the poor and the pursuit of happiness. Basic rights of a huge number of people, the disadvantaged and marginalized, many veterans of war, are diminished daily. Homelessness is rampant, programs to help the mentally handicapped are becoming ineffective and the indifference is stunning. The Republican-controlled Senate will not pass the basic legislation to aid the misfortunate. What a huge change from FDR! (Ironically, only wealthy conservatives could purchase tickets to see “Les Miserables” on Broadway, to shed a tear over a glass of champagne, and then proceed to step over the homeless on sidewalks outside of the theater.)
Women and Liberty. Pro-choice, the right by which women themselves decide what will take place within their own bodies, had been legally guaranteed in the United States for the last 49 years. And suddenly, this? Young women and girls will now have fewer freedoms than had their mothers and even their grandmothers. Even worse, state laws restricting women’s rights are based, seemingly, on the definition of life, which was always defined as “at birth,” or a functioning heart and brain within the womb. Now, depending on the mood of the conservative Supreme Court Justices, it may be at “conception.” Having read Justice Thomas’ comments on SCOTUS on the need to “reconsider” contraception, President Biden warned this week that soon conservatives on the bench may restrict birth control! The protection of a foetus before it is conceived? This is so unconscionable, so ludicrous, that it begs belief.
Separation of Church and State: This is absolute in America. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote, “…believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God.” Between man and his God. Not between me and your God. Clearly your church doctrines declare that abortion is a sin. That’s fine, for you. I respect your beliefs. But please do not impose them on others. (I, myself, am a Christian. But I will fight with my life not to force you to be one, too.) This is what Separation of Church and State means.
In the last six years or so, one can easily point to events and changes which are directly opposed to the supposed values and principles upon which America was established
Gun Control. In the first six months of this year, there have been at least 278 mass shootings in the US. In 2021, there were 692 mass shootings. In schools, in the first six months of 2022, there have been 95 incidents of gunfire, 40 deaths, and many more seriously injured. In the new America, firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens. It’s more than ironic, it is shocking, that the same people who demand that women give birth (whether a woman likes it or not) also demand that children be allowed to buy assault rifles, the reason for which is simply to kill others. Gun control laws have become looser in the past few years. And the number of murders has climbed dramatically. This defies any logic. Who gains from this trajectory? Corporations which manufacture weapons, as well as their mouthpiece, the National Rifle Association, and of course their beneficiaries, a large number of senators and congressmen, including Leadership of the Senate.
Today, it is evident that the majority of Supreme Court Justices, the most traditionally hallowed people in the land, are not concerned with these issues as much as they are with birth control. This is an American nightmare. It is American because no other country in the world allows such potential savagery.
There are so many other immediate issues: worsening racism, nonexistent healthcare, hazards of climate change, which are in urgent need of addressing. Classic books with which we were raised are suddenly being banned, theories of critical thinking about the history of the United States will stop being taught in American schools. It is now labeled “unpatriotic” to tell the truth about slavery and racism in America.
Many around the world as well as in the US believe that America has reached its peak and will soon collapse upon itself. Divisions are at the edge and the words “civil war” are being uttered far too often. Last year’s insurrection at the Capitol, the foundation of American democracy, was a coup attempt. Often people are heard making the fallacious argument that the group was just a bunch of rednecks playing games. Actually, the English, at the beginning of America’s war of independence, thought of the American fighters in the same vein. It must be made entirely clear: This was an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States.
The early documents, however, are still powerful. The Declaration of Independence asserts that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety.”
But we remain hopeful because, despite their sometimes vague words, the founding documents are loud and clear. There is hope because the choice for president of the conservative base lost the last presidential election, both through the Electoral College and by the popular vote of the people. We are hopeful because according to all recent polls, the population of America favors a woman’s right to choose. And we are hopeful because finally the Congress has begun to pass legislation on partial gun control. It remains to be seen, however, if even this small attempt will hold. Lastly, by witnessing the massive but legal and peaceful protests and demonstrations of the past days held in hundreds of cities across the United States, large metropolises and small villages, we clearly see democracy at work. The American democracy was one by which, perhaps for the first time in history, had been built on the principle: “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
It may aid us in our understanding of America that it began as a bold experiment, a total rejection of allegiance to monarchies, autocracies, and religions and even to particular races and ethnic backgrounds. America became a beacon of hope to millions. It provided my father, his parents and brother, a home. It provided jobs, and it paid for my father’s education. He was the most loyal of Americans, in his new country.
Two hundred and forty-six years later, the States are struggling to be united and America is searching for its way back home.
Tenia Christopoulos is a freelance writer from Washingtonian, DC, who lives in Athens. She is a contributor to Kathimerini, The Washington Post, Insider Magazine and Tatler, and is the author of “Lords of the Dance.”