OPINION

Our myths, our selves

One can only wonder at the persistence of some extreme left-wing groupuscules that never tire of attacking American targets in Greece. Where does this unquenchable rage come from, and how does it keep raging over 30 years after the collapse of the military dictatorship widely seen as having enjoyed US tolerance if not support? The answer is complicated and depends only partially on the fact that in recent years the United States’ policies have given new life to the «anti-imperialist» struggle, whose protagonists feel justified by the huge mistakes made by America and by the sense of insecurity born of the effects of globalization. But there is another factor that does not depend so much on America’s behavior, deriving instead from the need some people have to maintain the myth of heroic opposition to the mighty. The Greeks are not unique in this, as most nations create myths to explain incidents and patterns of behavior. But in our case, it is most impressive to see how the creation and maintenance of myths can carry on in the face of reality, even when the result is that our perception of reality is distorted and national interests harmed. Since prehistoric times, the people of this small corner of the earth have been creating myths and narratives to record the important stages of their journey. Hesiod wrote his Cosmogony as a coalescence of stories whose origins were lost in an ageless past. More recently, the national uprising of 1821 is traditionally tied to the raising of the banner of revolution by Bishop Germanos on March 25, 1821, even though many other dates and incidents could have been chosen instead, as the Greeks had been mobilizing for a long time and the country was on the boil. Other heroic moments in the national memory include the campaign against Italian forces in 1940 and the student rebellion that centered on the Athens Polytechnic in November 1973. The creation of these myths around events does not undermine the importance of the events – on the contrary, it shows just how important it is to codify and condense these moments in order to pass them on to the next generations. This is useful in that it helps a nation learn from the past and gives it courage and endurance when it faces new difficulties with the resolution and heroism of its ancestors (and God knows, Greek history has more than enough heroic incidents to supply many nations). But when these myths cause a nation to see things in a distorted fashion and this then affects their present behavior, they become dangerous, they undermine their perception of reality and they dictate forms of behavior and relationships that might have developed in a healthier way. If the myths concern – let’s say – Rome’s founding by the descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, this helps the Romans establish a heroic past, filling in the gaps of a time of which no one had any recollection. This benefits the Romans, does no harm to the Trojans and creates an unavoidable rivalry between Greeks and Romans. When, in another form of myth-making, a country tries to usurp the history of another, as our northern neighbors continually keep trying, then that country should expect the just reaction of those affected by its myth-making. Often, of course, these so-called «foundation myths» cannot but be born of the antagonism with another nation in the continual push and shove for territory and influence that is the basic ingredient of history. The victory of one nation implies the defeat of another. But every now and then we face a myth which is kept alive by certain groups only so as to make themselves appear heroic. This is the case with Greece’s «domestic terrorists,» who appear to be inspired by the resistance to the dictatorship even though the dictatorship ended 33 years ago. (Also, the fact is that the dictatorship collapsed under the weight of its own criminal incompetence which led to the Cyprus tragedy, rather than because of any urban guerrilla group.) However many sins the Americans may have committed during the dictatorship and in previous decades (with their intervention in domestic affairs), the obsession with «dynamic» forms of resistance against the United States displays an obsession with a fairy tale that has no place in the Greece of today. On the contrary, while some play games with symbolic attacks, the country is looking for the way forward in a world that is difficult and far from the world of fairy tales.