Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From Greece: Putting What's Ours Back

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Lord Byron, "Childe Harold"

Now I've seen it, our Western Root Temple, monument to reason, proportion, and the polis as an ideal of human culture: The Parthenon, its 4 by 17 Doric columns glowing in sunlight and floodlight 24-7 atop the Acropolis of Athens. And just as we've been trying in our own American experiment to perfect a democracy founded on empire, so modern Greece has struggled to redeem the empire's plunder of its heritage, exemplified in the so-called Elgin Marbles. In 1801, Lord Elgin conspired with the occupying Ottomans to loot the Parthenon's frieze, which now graces the walls of the British Museum, accompanying hoards of other imperial booty. The Parnathon Marbles, as they are more properly called, portray the Panatheniac Procession, a quadrennial festival glorious with lowing cattle led to the sacrifice, maidens bearing libations, musicians, and girls of noble birth carrying the safron-collored peplos, or shawl, to be place on the Goddess Athena's statue in the Erectheum (that's the one with the caryatids, columns in the shape of women).

The Brits argue that they have cared for the freize better than could have the Greeks, plagued by 20 decades of instability, poverty, and acidic smog. Let's chalk that up as a happy accident. The new Acropolis Museum is a state-of the-art repository. On the top floor are the remaining fragments of the Parthenon's pediments, friezes, and metopes combined with casts to replicate the original arrangement of the various high and low relief sculptures. In glass-walled and steel columned splendor, the works present themselves to the visitor in exact proportion to the original, which the visitor can gaze on where it sits aloft the Acropolis nearby.

Lord Elgin's was not the last insult Empire imposed on modern Greece. Like the Arabs, the Greeks were betrayed by the Brits after joining them against Turkey in WWI and then abandoned in their efforts to secure Ottoman precincts like Cyprus. Then there was the Great Depression, the Metaxis dictatorship, Nazi occupation, the post-WWII thwarted revolution and civil war, the military junta of 1967-73, and, finally, after an irrational exuberance of neoliberal growth, new disasters with the globalized Great Recession.

While tourists can still enjoy pampering and great food, the signs are there. 300 employees of the Metro were just fired, precipitating a series of one-day strikes, inconveniencing mildly the traveler compelled to take the bus or taxi from the airport.

At the eastern end of Avenue Ermou, which divides the city north from south, we encounter Avenue Persefonis, which is, indeed, a kind of ghostly incarnation from another world. It is a former industrial area, complete with giant oil tanks, brick factories, and towering chimneys, now illuminated in the red floodlamps of gentrification. The Athens Fringe Festival has taken over these formerly productive environs, now throbbing with disco beats and (always) English lyrics. Stylish young women emerge from the Metro or ride up rear seated, bare legged, and stilleto shod on motorcycles to sample the neo-Greek cuisine at Cafe Sardellis or Mamacas. For a festival weekend, however, the district is hardly mobbed.

A couple days later we are to see more signs of an economic collapse, this time in Crete. Some 20 kilometers the wrong way along the northern highway, we exit to get directions from one of the many hotels that surround the CretAquarium and nearby beaches. The area was deserted like a ghost town. Still, anyone contemplating a visit to Greece should not hesitate. The Euro is down, the bargains are up, and the chance of rain is zero. 

Pundits stateside pontificate cheerily how Greece, like General Motors, made promises to their workers that they could not keep. For example, I am blogging from a comfortable government-run free internet cafe in Heraklion, complete with software and tech assistance. Greeks should have made provision for the day it would rain credit default swaps.

But the land that first envisioned the polis failed to adapt to worldwid corporate governance. They faild to surrender willingly their heritage of Parthenon Marbles and social democracy and dared to proclaim in strikes and the "Bring Them Home" campaign that they will not surrender.

Now, when do we Americans get our social contract back? Where is our culture that envisions an American polis?


  1. The Brits are right and wrong about the Elgin Marbles. Right that they were better custodians but wrong that they should not be returned to Greece.

    The story of modern Greece is a bit more complicated, and yes it has been treated very badly by imperialist powers, notable those selfsame Brits and the Third Reich.

    But the excuses ran out for the Greeks many years ago and as a government and society they only need look in a mirror to see who is substantially to blame for their dire straits.

    Corruption and cheating are the coin of the modern Greek realm, as an aerial survey of an Athens suburb recently showed. There were 13,000 some swimming pools counted but fewer than 200 homeowners with pools were paying the government tax on them.

    Cheating on swimming pool taxes is by no means the only crisis in modern Greece, but it is an apt metaphor.

  2. Yes, Sean,
    As any any society, you can find faults or you can seek for points of solidarity. It is not the middle and upper middle class tax cheats that the German Banks and Eurozone neoliberals are after, however; it is the social contract.
    In many lesser developed parts of the world, the Empire clucks itstongue and preaches transparency, but what can compare with the trillions they are laying claim to to pay for their corruption and incompetance with the world financial system?
    From what I see, Greece exhibits a range of abilities in caring for their antiquities. The Parthanon museum is better for the Marbles than the British museum for many reasons by far.