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Friday, November 01, 2002

Our Opinion

Scoundrels and Other Patriots


In 1993, at the biannual symposium of the Modern Greek Studies Association at Berkeley, the anthropologist Anastasia Karakasidou delivered a paper on the predominately slavophone village of Assiros in northern Macedonia. Her presentation had been eagerly anticipated, and so the auditorium was filled to capacity, with – unusually for such a conference – a large number of non-academics in attendance and a great deal of tension in the air.

After her presentation, some Greeks and Greek Americans in the audience attacked Dr. Karakasidou. This all occurred at a time when the republic of Macedonia’s name was being intensely contested by Greeks and Dr. Karakasidou was considered to be biased against Greece and hostile to the Greek government’s efforts to prevent its northern neighbor from taking the name of Macedonia. As someone in the crowd said characteristically, Dr. Karakasidou’s paper and arguments in general were anathema to all Greeks.

It goes without saying that this affair violated every rule of academic freedom. What was also of interest here, however, was the public’s wrongheaded conviction that Dr. Karakasidou’s work could affect situations outside the narrow confines of academia and thus exercise some kind of political influence. The public did not understand how little weight such debates actually carry outside academia, and particularly in such an esoteric field as modern Greek studies. Indeed, as usually happens in such cases, more damage was done by the reaction to it than by the paper itself. Ten years later, in fact, Dr. Karakasidou and her research hardly register on the Greek public’s radar screen.

Two weeks ago, a similar confrontation occurred at an international symposium on ancient Macedonia in Thessaloniki. The conference’s proceedings were broken up by a screaming, angry mob of 400 “patriots” who were protesting against two papers, and demanding that they not be presented at the symposium. The “offensive” papers concerned witchcraft and homosexuality, respectively, in the court of Philip II. Riot police had to protect the participants, and the mob that stormed the auditorium and interrupted the proceedings demanded statements of “philhellenic” rectitude from the conferees. (Greece, after all, is the nation that not so long ago demanded pistopoiitika koinonikon fronimaton – certificates of social probity – from its own citizens.)

The behavior of 400 lunatics should not lead to stereotypical conclusions. What is puzzling in this case, however, is the fact that these 400 were allowed to create such mayhem. Why weren’t the conference participants protected from the crowd? Furthermore, one has to question the Greek press’s role. Such academic conferences usually receive very little attention outside academic circles. Why did the Greek (and parts of the Greek American) press focus on this particular conference – and, specifically, on only two out of 60 presentations?

Finally, why was the absence of government – locally, regionally, nationally – so flagrant in the condemnation of this affair? Local authorities refused to comment, while Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s government did not even dare to rebuke the outrageous remarks of one of its parliamentarians – the unregenerate Macedonian hardliner Stelios Papathemelis – who justified the attacks and even condemned the invited scholars. Are the votes of 400 people on the eve of municipal elections more important than the country’s reputation? So much for that vaunted Greek philoxenia.

This all coincided with the blatant intervention by the archbishop of Athens and all Greece in Athens’s mayoral election in favor of the right-wing extremist, Spyros Karatzaferis, who ended up winning 15 percent of the vote in the first round – to the glee of His Eminence. Is all this a coincidence? We doubt it; in fact, we’re sure that where there’s smoke, some kind of fire will surely follow.

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