Letter from Thessaloniki

It happened at one of our recent class reunions. Anatolia College graduates. The American school in Thessaloniki. The school was – and still is – in Pylaia on the outskirts of the city. A place called Arsakli at the time. «Hard to believe it’s been more than 40 years since we were here!» «Hard to believe how very different we were then.» «Remember? You were a member of something called Young Greeks for Liberty, after the ‘Young Americans for Freedom.’ An extreme rightist group it was!» «And you were a leftist. Do you remember how long your hair was? Oh, it’s unbelievable how much we hated each other then…» «I detested you too. I remember you preparing for an American university and constantly yapping on about Mao being just another commie megalomaniac.» «And what about you turning purple shouting that Nixon – or was it Eisenhower? – was a paranoid psycho?» «I met you a few years later and you sneered at Castro… insisting he didn’t give a damn about democracy…» «And, God, how I hated Kissinger’s role in the invasion of Cyprus and kept blaming him for installing a neo-Nazi regime in Chile…» «You were absolutely certain that communism could never provide even a half-decent standard of living.» «And you were so damned positive that capitalism would lead to a dangerous globalization and to the big companies taking over the world…» «It sounds crazy, I know, but…» «Yes, you are right… we were both damn right, after all, about everything… Weren’t we?» On Saturday there were fresh clashes in central Athens between police, protesters and supporters of extreme right and leftist groups that had organized rallies in the city center. We – the older generation – have seen this before. I still remember the smell of the old tear gas used to disperse warring far-right supporters and leftist youths. And these recent clashes have signaled the arrival of a new generation of young, politicized anarchists and fascists. Is it the ever-widening gap between the center-left and the center-right in everyday Greek politics that appears to be advocating extremes from the right and the left as the only alternative? There is some evidence that in fits and starts our generation – the baby boomers – and our children are now once again confirming the generation gap. Needless to say, what is happening this time is best described as the voice of youth demanding badly needed social change. But defining necessary social change is of course not an easy task, though Greek judges and state legislatures seem not to mind tackling the issue. Good for them. The problem of the generation gap has long been a matter for concern. Yet nowadays most administrations do not acknowledge that there is a considerable discrepancy between what is generally accepted as good behavior and what is in actual fact tolerated and practiced. Describing the enormous differences in cultural – and sexual – norms between members of a younger generation and their elders is more difficult than ever. With all the corruption-related events taking place at present in Greek society, how is one to measure intolerance, indignation and disgust? How can one lightheartedly condemn clashes between the far-right and leftists in Kolokotroni Square on Saturday, when one does not belong to the guardians of old-time virtue? «It sounds crazy, I know, but…» «Yes… we were both damn right about everything…» How many generations back do you need to go before reaching some conclusions about meaningful student involvement in modern-day life? Public attitudes change continuously. Take the film «300.» Take Greek nationalists. They no doubt admire our glorious past, filled with the adventures of the Spartans and Alexander when our nation was pursuing many a successful course of military expansion. Yet what would our legal moralists of today say when they realize that what was morally desirable in a fine-limbed Spartan army officer then, is now punished in Koumoundourou Square? Most certainly, public views have changed a great deal since those hectic days. Imagine now how much they have changed since we went to school. And it is not so long ago… As one of the more common truisms goes, every generation gets the singers, the film stars, the youth and – not least – the government that it deserves. And as things now stand, we have what we have.