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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Chronicles of Ozymandias

The End of an American Family

On May 6, sometime in the early evening, an SAS airliner took off from Newark airport for Copenhagen carrying, among its many other passengers, my mother and brother. My brother, born in the Bronx, had moved to Denmark over a decade earlier. My mother, born in Kavala but having lived most of her life in New York, was now joining him. The next day, I got on a plane for Athens, to rejoin my (New Hampshire-born and -bred) wife in Evia, to which we had moved permanently almost three weeks earlier. It was the end of an American family.

One of the least-told stories of American immigration is, of course, the tale of American emigration, or, more accurately, the return (felicitous or bitter) from the Promised Land.  During the great wave of immigration to the United States (from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the First World War), about a third of all immigrants (and, interestingly enough, pace the Coppola cine-mythopoesis, almost half of all Italians) went back to their countries of origin. Looked at as a business model—the quintessential way of confronting the world for most Americans today—a 30-percent rejection rate is a spectacular failure. Imagine a third of all GM or Ford cars being recalled year in, year out; or a third of Citibank’s depositors taking their money somewhere else every day; or a third of Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s corn flakes ceaselessly found to be contaminated: no business can survive that kind of basic malfunction or repudiation. But America? One person leaving for every two coming is still considered a singular tale of emancipation, of the glorious persistence of “common” men and women defeating all the accumulated tyrannies of human history. And maybe it is. It’s just that, if it is, it makes you wonder about our understanding not only of life and liberty, but of the infinitely thornier notion of the pursuit of happiness.

My father never went to America to secure either life or liberty—at least not in any conventional sense. He had fought on the winning side of a civil war and, as soon as the bloodletting stopped (the war continued, in one form or another, for another quarter of a century), was offered the options resulting from victory’s spoils. As a reserve officer, he could have had a regular commission, but he refused: basically, he despised the army, and certainly the Greek army circa 1949, in its relentlessly fascist reorganization. He immediately got married, took a job for a while with the ministry of reconstruction, had a son (me), and, at the first opportunity, left the country, not because of what it was, but because of what it was becoming.

So, my father went to America, not for life or liberty, but to pursue his happiness, which, at the age of 38, he knew to be an increasingly fleeting proposition. Although he believed deeply (regrettably, for him as well as for everyone else in his family) in all the social proprieties, I suspect that he sought to escape “order” (and definitions thereof), as well as apparently unending obligations to a country whose people, it seemed, would never be citizens but always subjects (Greece was still a monarchy then, while my father, born into the Balkan diaspora, was a staunch Venizelist). But I can already hear the objections. This all sounds like a man “yearning to breathe free.” Maybe it does, except that my father never felt unfree in Greece, he felt alienated.

And trapped. Mostly by his father-in-law, which is another story but nevertheless leads us, once again, to the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, it also led my father into a much worse trap, in the guise of his own family waiting for him in the United States.

My father’s brothers and sisters who had preceded him to America were classic economic migrants who had gone to make a less onerous life, start businesses, and prosper—all of which they signally achieved. They had been barely connected to Greece when they had left it; indeed, some of them had left directly from Bulgaria, where my father’s family originated, in the ethnic Greek communities of Eastern Rumelia. They were hardly educated, young when they left, and emotionally attached to a vague, national(ist) notion of Greece, but thoroughly distant from any real knowledge of the country as a place of daily existential exchange, experience, and, above all, enrichment.

My father, however, as I’ve said, was 38 when he left Greece, to which he had come as a child during one of the population exchanges that racked the country in the first quarter of the twentieth century (my mother was born into a refugee family from another of those exchanges, this one with Turkey). He grew up in Greece, was educated there, matured there in every sense of the word, and put on its uniform twice within seven years, first in response to the Italian invasion and then during the Civil War. It is obvious that he could never have been expected to look upon the country apathetically—or, by the same token, to embrace the United States with the same emotional receptivity, or gullibility, of some of his siblings.

In the event, a diffuse, unspoken but unmistakable, detachment from his family ensued. With my mother’s coaxing, he left Chicago, where his entire family had immigrated, and moved to New York, where the Greeks were not only less provincial—which is to say, as counterintuitive as this might sound, less Americanized—but also continually reinvigorated and (again, despite the clichés about “old countries” and “new worlds”) “modernized” by new arrivals from Greece, who kept the New York Greek community more contemporary with Greece than any other Greek community in the United States.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties, there were Greek bookstores around Eighth Avenue, so my father was never without his Nea Estia; at some point, he also discovered the Greek-language section of the foreign books division at the Donnell library. Still, he also read voraciously in English, a daily newspaper (he actually preferred the American press to the Atlantis and National Herald, both of which he found too reactionary by half) and endless books. For my father, maintaining his Greek identity had absolutely nothing to do with separating himself off from his American reality. Both he and my mother became citizens as soon as they could, and with their first vote for president—he for Kennedy, she for Nixon—confirmed the respective visions of the world that they had developed in Greece.

Meanwhile, my brother and I became weirdly “Hellenized” in a way that none of my other cousins did (although, interestingly enough, several of them ended up back in Greece after marriage), growing up in a household that was simultaneously Greek and American, but never “Greek American.” More than anything else, I think that explains both our subsequent engagement with Greece and ultimate disengagement with the US. We saw both places as equal elements, and determinants, of who we were, equally valuable but also equally questionable, opposable, and even rejectable. Coming of age in the late Sixties (for me) and the early Seventies (for my brother) clearly also contributed to our sense of the world. Geopolitics being what they were then (and, sadly, still are), it was also evident that loyalties could be divided; that, just to give the obvious example, if one were “for America,” it meant, for all practical purposes, that one was against Greece.

I was 16 on the morning of April 21, 1967; my brother was 16 on the night of November 17, 1973. So, while neither one of us has ever had any illusions about Greece, we’ve never had any illusions about the States either.

And yet, I don’t think there’s ever been an American who hasn’t believed in the City on the Hill, in the Beacon to a benighted humanity. I actually don’t think one can be an American and disbelieve these things. If America is not promise, it is nothing. The very history of American self-criticism is the tale of competing claims (to the point of fratricide) on that glorious City so high above the Old World’s Valley of Death. That is precisely what makes the current state of the nation so frightening, and so seemingly remorseless.

The City on the Hill now seems to have fallen into the Valley of Death. Fear and trembling have replaced the pursuit of happiness; or, rather, the country now appears to be unevenly divided. On the one hand, there is the utterly powerless but vast, silent majority that lives in perpetual fear: of “terrorists,” of immigrants, of gay marriage, of their children being abducted or abused or somehow mistreated by the world’s contingencies, of “godless secularism”—but also of Islam, and of the Arab world in general, and of Iran (since their ayatollahs replaced our SAVAK), and of North Korea (and also of the intentions of South Korea), and of Venezuela, and the French, and Russians and Chinese (yet again), and, of course, Cuba (always and forever until the ages of ages, amen), and of an infinite number of demons, devils, incubi and succubi, seen and unseen, foreign and domestic, which will all finally be exorcised only at the Last Days. On the other hand, there is an absolutely powerful but tiny minority, ever richer, ever enriching itself by looting the social legacy created by the vast (and ever silent) majority, ever “global” (and therefore ever cynical of the beliefs and fears and trepidations of its “fellow” citizens in the vast majority of enduring panic and eternal silence), ever indifferent to because ever excused from the neverending war for “freedom,” “human rights,” and “democracy” to which the vast, silent majority is sacrificed every day, in small ways and great, every which way to the Sunday sermon that promises life everlasting in the next world since life is obviously Hell in this one.

Need I say it? This is not the country to which my father escaped from his own, in pursuit of his happiness. Ironically, more than anything, in the increasing psychological (and even social) fascism of its everyday life, the United States today bears infinitely more resemblance to Greece in 1951 than it does to the United States in 1951. And, no, I am not forgetting McCarthyism, nor am I discounting the US constitution or Bill of Rights, nor am I ignoring the continuing reality of a polity that remains democratic in substance as well as in form. However, I think those of us who will be unfortunate enough to witness it in our lifetimes, and even more so those next generations who will follow, will come to see that twenty-first-century fascism is radically different from its twentieth-century namesake. By all initial indications, “post-modern” fascism will be consensual in essence, democratic in nature, “multicultural” in definition, and anything but terroristic in practice. Indeed, in regards to the latter, its terrorism will be applied only to its enemies, who will, in any case, be self-chosen (and globally denounced as such as the “new fascists” themselves) in their opposition to the consensus, democracy, multiculturalism, and anti-terrorism that the new world order will ostensibly proclaim and defend.


My father anticipated his sons’ wanderings. In the fall of 1986, after coming back from a long vacation to Greece, he decided to build a house there. During that summer, he had bought the land, outside of Salonika, where he was going to do it. Unfortunately, he fell ill right before Thanksgiving (another bleak irony), with what he thought was a temporary indisposition but was actually an advanced cancer, and died within three weeks. It’s another classic immigrant tale, of course: the one about being struck dead just when you’ve finally decided to go back forever. The hardest part for his widow and sons was leaving him behind in New York, where he’s buried and where he remains, because of where he was born and where he wanted to die, twice removed from himself.

Nothing points to a society’s failures more than emigration. By that measure, the United States remains an extraordinary—in fact, historic—success. As far as I can tell, in other words, Americans are not deserting their country en masse. It is a terrifying loyalty.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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