The Week in Review

November 17 is the third great public holiday (not counting the religious ones of Easter, the Assumption of the Virgin and Christmas) that modern Greeks celebrate as a nation-defining moment. March 25 commemorates the beginning of the uprising in 1821 with which Greece eventually became an independent state; October 28 marks the day in 1940 when, again, the fractious Greeks united to take on a foreign invader; November 17 memorializes the day in 1973 in which students and workers took on a local dictatorship, provoking it into using tanks and troops and setting off a chain reaction of which one consequence was the collapse of the junta the following July. Every city and town has a street named for the Heroes of the Polytechnic. Every year student groups gather inside the Athens Polytechnic on Patission Street in an atmosphere best described as angry carnival. Sometimes fisticuffs break out as one group tries to disrupt the wreath-laying by another. Then, on the afternoon of November 17, national student union leaders take the bloodied Greek flag that was at the Polytechnic’s gate when a tank crashed through it and lead the march to the US Embassy. It is now a 27-year-old ritual. The understanding is that the Americans are to blame for the seven-year dictatorship, and, by extension, most if not all of our ills. This is very comfortable, as it gradually clears most Greeks of involvement in instigating and supporting the dictatorship, absolves those who were comfortable with it, fails to set the Polytechnic uprising in the context of the days in which it occurred, and ignores the role that the rebellion played in the disaster that befell Cyprus the following year. But this year the demonstrators outside the American Embassy were far fewer than before, with only about 5,000 flag-carrying members of the Communist Party youth wing, KNE, and anarchist revivalists marching under the banner of the Genoa 2001 anti-globalization movement, braving the chilly Saturday afternoon. The rest of Greece did what it usually does on a weekend: Eat, sleep and, in one case, throw Molotov cocktails at a commuter train carrying rival soccer fans. On the same day, north of our borders the people of Kosovo voted to elect a Parliament, resulting in Ibrahim Rugova, the veteran who had led the Kosovo Albanians in a peaceful revolt since 1989, winning most of the votes at the expense of the nationalist radicals who had provoked the Serb reaction that in turn provoked NATO’s war on Yugoslavia. A coalition of the Serb province’s Serbs won over 10 percent of the vote. A moderate in power and the Serb minority’s representation in the province’s parliament gives some hope that a semblance of multicultural tolerance will gradually return to the troubled area. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was widely seen in Greece as American meddling that would bring about a wider catastrophe to the Balkans and entrench the American presence here. It did provoke a terrible chain reaction in which a Serb crackdown that cost many ethnic Albanian lives gave way to the Albanians hounding hundreds of thousands of Serbs out of the province when they gained the upper hand, and it did cost Yugoslavia much of the infrastructure that it had before the American-led bombing. But overall, the Greek pundits were mostly wrong: The Americans did not bomb Yugoslavia in order to establish a protectorate or regional beachhead. The Americans cannot wait to get out of the Balkans, just as – after making some attempt at helping reconstruct the poor country – they will pack up and leave Afghanistan as soon as they believe that their task of destroying terrorists and their haven is done. Yet there is little debate in Greece over the consequences of the Kosovo war, nor over the fact that a defiant Slobodan Milosevic is unlamented by his compatriots as war crimes tribunal prosecutor Carla del Ponte heaps charges upon him. All that passion of 1999 and multiple protest marches to the US Embassy appear to have dissipated into the usual Greek condescension of things that are beyond our control. But perhaps the greatest indication of dissipated passion is the relative lack of anti-American sentiment at the very time when the Americans are waging war in Afghanistan, when the old warhorse slogan Americans, killers of people could be trotted out with new conviction. Perhaps the moral equivocating after September 11 has simply shut some people up for the time being (or deprived them of a ready platform on television). Or is it because of the Afghan people’s relief at having thrown off the yoke of the radical, reactionary Taleban and their honored guests, Osama bin Laden and his zealous assassins, who are no longer able to be mythologized as a revolutionary underdog. Most of all, though, it is probably the fact that America is clearly winning against the Taleban. Overall, though, the Polytechnic commemoration is a celebration of impetuous youth placing itself in harm’s way in a battle to defend what it believes is good and true. This in itself is good and true. If only we could wage that battle every day, seeking truth and changing our minds when, to our great surprise, we might discover that at times we too can be wrong.

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