Posts Tagged 'violence'

The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

Disappointed in the sun

Photo by Todd Kesselman

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to be philosophical about the situation in Greece these days, but if Simon Critchley is right that “philosophy begins in disappointment,” then maybe we should give it a chance.

The 50-year-old philosopher was born in Britain and is an exponent of so-called “continental” philosophy – a bit of a rarity in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is famously allergic to the esoteric and nonanalytical explorations of their continental peers. Author of, among others, “Very Little… Almost Nothing,” “On Humour,” and “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” Critchley currently teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York and is the man behind “The Stone,” the New York Times’ extremely popular philosophy forum. “How to Stop Living and Start Worrying,” a collection of interviews with Critchley, was recently released by Polity Press.

Recently, Critchley visited Athens to give a brief lecture on violence at the industrial premises of EDW, a brand-new multidisciplinary venue in the up-and-coming Kerameikos district. He talked to Kathimerini English Edition about politics, violence and, one of his “top 5 philosophers,” Friedrich Nietzsche.

You visited Greece in the midst of a major economic, social and political crisis. Does philosophy have anything to offer to someone who has lost their job or house?

Absolutely. I take no pleasure in people losing their jobs and homes. But the fact is that people and in particular their governments in Greece and all across the European Union and elsewhere were living a lie, a kind of dream. It is sometimes extremely painful to wake up. The wisdom of ancient Greek philosophical traditions is essential here. Diogenes the Cynic threw away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands. Pleasure for Epicurus was a barley cake and a beaker of water. “Give me a pot of cheese,” he said, “and I will dine like a king.”

Do you see liberal democracy as a successful project? What are its main failures? Are there any alternatives?

I am not a very good liberal and the wrong person to ask about the success or otherwise of liberal democracy. It’s main current failure is the massive disconnection between the political class and those who that class are meant to represent. My alternative would be small-scale federalism based on direct democracy, or as close to that as possible.

What do you think of the EU project?

Not that much. It has prevented a war between France and Germany for the past 60 years, but I remain skeptical of its political ambitions. I agree with Paul Krugman that Greece’s entry into the euro effectively undermined national sovereignty.

You have lived in the United States for seven years now. How does it compare to Europe?

I don’t really live in the US. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. I love this city because it is a city of foreigners where everyone is a visitor, a metic and no one is a native. I can’t speak about the US as a whole.

You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment. What is the meaning of that phrase? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Would you argue for a Nietzschean-style re-evaluation of values, as it were?

I remain very close to Nietzsche, in particular on the question of pessimism and optimism. For Nietzsche, rightly I think, there was something deeply nihilistic about the naive scientific belief in progress. Ancient Greek tragedy, by contrast, is an affirmation of life that succeeds by staring the worst in the face without flinching. Philosophy might begin with disappointment, but it doesn’t end there. It culminates in ethical commitment and political resistance, in my view.

On violence

In your Athens talk, you discussed violence. Most people in the audience seemed to suggest that the world we live in is a more violent world, compared to the past. Do you agree?

The world is a dark and violent place. Is it more violent that in the past? it is very hard to tell and it is also unclear what is often meant by violence. There is physical violence, of course, but also what we might call the “soft” violence of language itself and the violence of what often passes for peace.

You also said violence is never justified, but it is sometimes necessary. Can you explain further?

My view, but this is part of a much longer argument that comes out of a personal commitment to the ethics and politics of nonviolence, is that violence is sometimes necessary, but never justified. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Notre musique” puts it, “To kill a human being to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.”

Left-wing discourse in Greece likes to justify physical violence as a rightful response to systemic violence, as it were. Do we risk losing the meaning of violence here?

Like I said, violence is sometimes necessary. But I am not one of those people who supports virile, heroic acts of political violence. But it is always important to remember that violence is a phenomenon with a history and that history is one of the cycles of violence and counter-violence that seems to catch subjects in a repetitive loop. My hope is that this loop can be broken.

Violently happy

By Harry van Versendaal

The seemingly subdued reaction to the deaths of three bank employees during a demonstration against austerity measures in central Athens on May 5 indicates that it’s not just the protests which are seen as natural in Greece but also the violence that accompanies them.

Stathis N. Kalyvas, a professor of political science and director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University, talked to Athens Plus about the cultural roots of the rioting and destruction, the misguided role of the left and the long-term impact of recent developments.

Contrary to the massive protests in the wake of the police shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008, recent demonstrations in protest of the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank on May 5 have been extremely modest in size (a recent demo on Syntagma Square, which had no political affiliation, only gathered some 150-200 people). What is the reason for this?

For a number of historical and political reasons, Greek society remains very sensitive to loss of life caused by agents of the state compared to other types of victims. In turn, this sensitivity is further reinforced by the capacity of various leftist parties and groups to mobilize people whenever state forces are seen as exceeding their authority. Indeed, this type of situation is critical for these groups, as it provides a unique recruitment opportunity for them. Lastly, the mass media, staffed by many journalists who came of age politically right before and after the fall of the Colonels’ dictatorship, in 1974, are happy to reinforce this type of sentiment through a highly emotional coverage.
In contrast, no political organization called for, let alone, organized public protests for the three deaths at Marfin Egnatia Bank; likewise, the emotional reaction of the mass media was much less intense. In fact, there were several attempts to displace a part of the blame for these deaths toward the bank management, using a perverse way of reasoning — it was argued by some the bank building lacked effective fire protection.
I think that this biased attitude also explains why no one seems to care much about the tens of deaths caused on Greek roads by avoidable traffic accidents and other similar instances.

Some commentators have branded the events of December 2008 a “popular uprising.” Do you agree with that description?

If by “popular uprising,” we mean a sustained mass protest seeking to challenge a political regime, as is now the case in Thailand for example, then it is pretty clear that the events of December 2008 fail to meet this definition. What happened in December 2008 was a convergence of two distinct events. On the one hand, many high-school students protested peacefully against what they perceived, with good reason, to be the unjustified killing of one of their peers. On the other hand, several extreme leftist groups used this opportunity to generate widespread mayhem and destruction. They were helped in this by the fateful decision of a fearful government not to challenge them.

Some analysts appeared to read too much into the December 2008 protests, while certain politicians on the left sought to capitalize on the events. What degree of responsibility do they share for the current violence?

In my opinion, they share a considerable degree of responsibility. By fanning the flames, they sought to gain political advantage. The electorate thought otherwise, however, as indicated by the results of both the European and general elections, which sanctioned these politicians.

Greece’s left lost the Civil War but it seems to enjoy a peculiar type of political and cultural hegemony, which has made it largely immune to criticism from the right. Would you agree with this?

Yes, this is correct. The collapse of the dictatorship in 1974, which had appropriated the right-wing narrative of the Civil War, caused the total delegitimation of this narrative. Almost by default, the counter-narrative of the left became the official version of the history of the Greek Civil War, further enshrined in books, school textbooks and art. However, because the left-wing narrative is so closely associated with the so-called “metapolitefsi” period, i.e. the post-authoritarian era, it is unlikely to outlast the present economic crisis, which has brought this era to an end.

It has been argued that Greece has a “culture of violence.” Is violence in Greece seen as a legitimate part of the political game? Could violence be legitimate under a particular set of circumstances?

It is true that a certain culture of violence persists in Greek politics. This culture is primarily verbal and highly ritualized. Insofar as it is physical, it generally targets objects rather than people. Terrorist activity remains, on the whole, beyond the pale, even when it is not condemned as vigorously as it could, and should, be.
I find it very hard to think of circumstances that would justify the use of violence under a democratic regime. The biggest achievement – indeed the very content – of democracy has been to decouple conflict from violence.

Does violence in Greece stem from the flawed relationship between the state and citizens?

There is, indeed, a flawed relationship between the state and its citizens in Greece – but it is also a contradictory one. On the one hand, several studies have shown that Greek citizens view the state with distrust. On the other hand, the same people expect the state to also employ them and assist them with all kinds of high-quality services. This flawed relationship can be traced to a history of polarized conflict and the domination of the state in political and economic life.

Do you agree that – much like homegrown terrorism – anarchist violence is, first of all, a question of social tolerance?

Absolutely. How else to explain the impunity that allows this type of violence to go on? According to recently released police data, there have been 5,952 firebombings during the last 12 years; and yet, one only finds 20 convictions during the same period. It is difficult to find another explanation for this type of impunity than social tolerance sanctioned by political decision. However, I think that the Marfin deaths may mark a turning point in this respect: There may be support now for the application of the law.

Do you think that lingering economic and political crisis will turn ours into a more violent society?

Only if these extremist groups are allowed to continue to operate with impunity. Controling them should not be a difficult problem; after all, their numbers are small. If these groups are placed under control, the crisis will likely generate only peaceful protests, not violence — unless, of course, a huge shock, such as a bank run, takes place.

Do crises like the current one expose the primal elements of a nation’s psyche?

Not necessarily. Take the recent violence: There is nothing new about it. Four people died in a similar incident, during protests that took place in 1991. There have been several close calls since then. Street violence in Greece has been a constant, not a variable. This is what many foreign correspondents seem to miss when they attribute the violence to the crisis.

Do you see the recurring riots leading to a more aggressive police state?

Only if the street violence problem is not addressed. Indeed, the issue is not to move toward a more aggressive state but toward an effective state — one that applies the law. Failing that, there is a point where a majority will demand order at any cost. There is no question that this would be a negative development.

Cut the Krapp

By Harry van Versendaal

Elbowing my way through the PAME troops rallying in scruffy Omonia Square, I felt tempted to walk back into the metro station. Looking at these hordes of KKE labor unionists, greater in size and passion than at any other time in recent history, I could not help but ponder the root causes of much of Greece’s current ills: populism, opportunism and blanket rejectionism. And there I was, ready to take part in that same rally, prompted by the socialist government’s IMF-inspired austerity measures.

Torn. As Greece spirals into crisis, it has become clear that we need new tools, and perhaps a new vocabulary, to explain the world; for the old dividing lines, the old camps are no more. Haunted by the specter of a “lost generation,” Greece’s 30-somethings can feel little solidarity with the generation of their parents. Politically and socially bankrupt, the so-called generation of the Polytechnic (a reference to the 1973 student uprising against the 1967-74 military dictatorship) is now struggling to hold on to their hard-won rights and perks. The problem is some of these are indefensible and, to a large degree, responsible for the current deadlock. So, frustrated masses, but not pulling in exactly the same direction.

And then came the violence, so uncomfortably predictable and so dreadfully tragic, to remind us that when it comes to death there are no gray areas – even though some seem to think otherwise.

As three bank employees choked to death after being firebombed by self-styled anarchists on Stadiou street on May 5, dozens of angry demonstrators marched past the burning building firing barbs against the trapped men and women: “Let the scabs burn!”

This was an accident waiting to happen. In fact the biggest surprise was that there had been no victims so far. If you play with fire you will, eventually, get burned. And the truth is that on the issue of violence the country’s left-wing parties have been unashamedly pro-blur. This was the case when the variegated and ideologically nebulous Synaspismos Left Coalition sought to capitalize on the violent riots that swept the capital in December 2008 following the police shooting of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in Exarchia.

Some degree of mourning and soul-searching for the Marfin bank deaths would again have been more appropriate. But the typically opportunistic Alexis Tsipras was quick to point a finger at the “agents provocateurs” who aim to disorient public opinion and undermine the people’s movement. A crime like this, the argument goes, can only have been committed by those who benefit from it. Tsipras’s party is not the only one to find scapegoating easier than change.

The Communist Party of Greece, which has never taken the trouble to denounce its Stalinist legacy, is singing from the same hymnal. After demonstrators carrying PAME flags assaulted the Parliament during the May 5 protest, KKE General Secretary Aleka Papariga provided the good old anti-capitalist reflex reaction, handily blaming the carnage on outside forces.

In the world of the willfully amnesiac KKE truth is not based on accuracy, but ideology. All this should come as no surprise from a party that is openly allergic to “bourgeois democracy” – a party in fact that has repeatedly been seen to mistake democracy for capitalism. A KKE spokesman recently said that the party does not recognize the Constitution because it did not vote for it, while PAME unionists last month blocked the port of Piraeus, preventing some 1,000 foreign tourists form boarding their cruise ship.

True to their Marxist DNA, Greece’s communists, who garnered just over 7 percent in the last general election, do not hide their metaphysical pretensions as they claim exclusive access to the “true interests” of the people. A political minority sees the right to elevate people’s “true interests” above national law – an extremely perilous concept and one which has played a part in nourishing the country’s culture of violence.

On Sunday evening, a silent demonstration organized by citizens via the Internet could hardly claim to have drawn more than 150-200 people – the fact that death did not come from a police bullet did not seem to help much. A note stuck on the wall of the fateful bank, addressing the killers and all those who allowed them to be, reminded everyone how too much relativism can be unbearably nihilistic: “Back in December [2008] your slogan was ‘you talk about broken shop windows, we talk about human lives.’ What do you have to say now?”

Watching Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” on an Athens stage later in the day evoked some unsettling patterns. Lonely old Krapp, played here by Bob Wilson, relives his past by listening to tapes of his young, confident self. The man will soon go down in a sea of doubt and despair about his life choices and the devastating realization that nothing can change anymore.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for the rest of us.

Seven years in Tibet

By Harry van Versendaal

Seven years in the making, Dirk Simon’s controversial film “When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun” made its international premiere this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Based on 800 hours of footage shot in India, Beijing and Chinese-occupied Lhasa, the German-born director deftly unfolds the story-within-the-story of Tibet’s liberation movement: a damaging split between followers of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent, middle-way policy and Tibetan radicals who have come to see violence as the only way to shake off Chinese domination. Beijing claims Tibet is part of China.

With the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Olympic Torch route fiasco as a backdrop, Simon presents exclusive interviews, rare archival material and breathtaking imagery – all wrapped up in a super soundtrack crafted by Philip Glass, Thom Yorke and Damien Rice. The morning after his movie earned the thunderous applause of the Thessaloniki audience, the Colorado-based filmmaker spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of and his expectations for this groundbreaking project.

Why did it take seven years to complete this movie?

I never intended to spend seven years making this film. First, it was a question of budget: From the beginning, I knew I wanted a movie that would be intriguing from a cinematographic and a musical point of view, and I knew this was not going to come cheap. Then it was the story and the research. For every answer, we would find ourselves with three more questions. For three or four years, the story just became bigger and more complicated.

How did things work out for you in terms of funding?

We didn’t get any support really. We applied for funding in the USA but we didn’t get any. Nor did we get any in Germany, part of the reason being that you have to spend some of that money in the country. We talked to a few German production companies but for them it was too expensive and too political. So we borrowed the money we didn’t have.

What other problems did you have to overcome?

There were many logistical problems. We had a lot of overseas shooting, remote locations, and getting the equipment on top of a mountain was a challenge.

Of course, shooting in China and Tibet was a big question mark. We couldn’t apply for any permits; just mentioning the name of Tibet would raise enough flags in China. Once you put yourself out there with a project like this, you risk jeopardizing the entire project. They might not give you visas or could even try to stop you from doing anything at all.

So you opted to lay low.

Yes, we tried to keep a low profile but also to gain the trust of individuals and support groups. I believe we were the only media group, if you like, who knew that the protest on San Francisco’s Golden Gate would take place and that’s how we were able to put a helicopter on standby [to film the protest]. Gaining their trust was a process of several years. Obviously, they had to be very secretive and gaining their trust was not easy.

The movie features no statements by Chinese officials. Does that not affect the neutrality of the movie?

No, I don’t think so. It’s almost like a general rule: “You have to have all sides in there.” In the beginning, I wanted to [include them] but then I realized that it wasn’t going to help the project and wasn’t going to help the Chinese either. They weren’t going to look better. They were only going to look worse.

But there must be Chinese intellectuals or activists who object to the official line.

This is true. After the uprising of March 2008 [the 49th anniversary of the failed uprising against Beijing in 1959] there was a group of about 20 intellectuals and dissidents who wrote an open letter to their government and some got arrested over that. But it was risky. I was trying to contact one well-known person but we kept missing each other. We had to be very secretive, it was like an undercover operation. It all happened in Beijing during the Olympics; she was watched constantly and we had to assume that we were too. Rather than have some Chinese showing that they are compassionate to the Tibetans, I tried a different approach, which was showing these contemporary artists, basically showing Chinese who also care about humanity and freedom. I did not want to make it a one-dimensional movie, so to speak. I wanted it to have many facets.

You take a clear stand on the China-Tibet standoff but you don’t take an equally clear stance on the division within the Tibet liberation movement. Was that done on purpose, was it because you had not made up your mind, or did you want the audience to draw their own conclusions?

All of the above, in a way. I knew I was not going to find the final answer, so it was more important to raise the right questions. For me personally, it’s very hard to make a decision as to which is the right way. I have a personal history of growing up under communism and escaping. I can see myself picking up a stone at some point and throwing it.

Even so, I intellectually understand the concept of nonviolence and that this should be the right way. I feel torn too. I think the only way to come to a solution is to discuss, but not in the way that it has been done over the past 20 years, where people just keep going back and forth. [Tibetans need] leadership and inspiration and to become united again. The real Achilles heel for the Tibetan movement right now is that lack of unity and that lack of leadership. They haven’t gone anywhere for 20 years.

Did growing up in a divided Germany influence you in making this movie?

Absolutely. I was a teenager when this started to affect me, this growing desire for freedom. And I started to realize that something was wrong in my own country, which eventually led me to leave everything behind, family, friends, all belongings. Freedom has ever since been a very important topic to me.

Has making this movie made you more or less upbeat about a solution?

It’s a roller-coaster ride, really. [After the San Francisco Torch fiasco], everyone was celebrating that the party didn’t happen and they were so happy. What I felt was actually sadness. After all this shouting and yelling, I felt there will never be a dialogue; it’s impossible. They are so entrenched and there is so much hatred, it seemed like they will never overcome it. All we saw was a huge triumph for the Chinese government. At the end, we all joined in and we clapped our hands and said that this was such an amazing opening ceremony. But there is not much hope left.

I am actually happy but also surprised that audiences have said they found the movie “inspiring.” People truly understand that what I really meant to say is: “This is about to fail. We are on the verge of failure. The most famous nonviolent movement is on the verge of failure and not just because China is so dominant but also because we are not supporting it; we are allowing the Chinese to do what they want.”

Near the end of the movie, an interviewee draws a comparison between Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews and China’s crackdown on the Tibetans. Don’t you think that statement was over the top?

That is probably the point we discussed the most in the 15-month editing process. I knew it was provocative in many ways. We discussed it with many people. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Americans found it bold but accepted it, it was easy to get the image. Germans were very, very nervous. They thought we were crossing a line here. But my concern was also the Jewish community, how they would feel if we allowed the Tibetans to say this on film. And, of course, I was concerned about the Chinese, because the film also reaches out to them. In the end, we left the statement because I felt “What if he is right?” I mean, imagine if someone at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had made a film predicting the Holocaust.

Even if we might not experience a Holocaust like that of the last century, what we are seeing is a society that is not even hiding its aspiration for dominance and one that is going not just for Asia but global domination. It is not even hiding it. We all believe that Tibet is something far, far away while the Chinese are, politically speaking, already knocking very heavily on our door.

Click here to watch the official video.


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