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A tragedy
by Thanos Kalamidas
2007-11-13 10:06:41
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I have often mentioned that I grew up and met adulthood during one of the darkest times of the Modern Greek history, during the seven years of the military dictatorship. And I have often said that it is very difficult to describe how it is to live during dark times like those even to younger Greeks that have enjoyed total democracy and freedom of speech and expression. Actually, during times like that you learn to appreciate freedom of speech and expression and you realize how much the lack of them can influence your every day life.

To give you an example, during the first years of the secondary school - I think it was the second - we had to learn Sophocles and to be precise Antigone, probably his most famous play. To be honest when you are forced to learn something, especially when it becomes a lesson with homework and exams, there is no joy and in the end you have no idea how beautiful that play might be, the only thing you care about is learning the lesson and making the right point. And that’s exactly what most of us did. If somebody had asked me at that time what I thought about Antigone my most likely answer would have been …boring!

The story is about Antigone and her will to bury her dead brother despite the dictator’s objections, in this case Creon. The dictator wants to bury one of the brothers, Eterocles with army honours and prayers while leaving the other brother, Polyneices to the wild animals. During this magnificent drama and over the dead body of her brother Polyneices, Antigone is talking with her sister, Ismene in long monologues she talks about the power of the individual and the weaknesses of the state, she’s talking about women and their role in family and society and in one very small part of a whole scene she mentions …democracy!

This small sentence where Antigone prays for democracy, in a book written nearly 2,500 years ago, became the reason over night for the play to be forbidden from the military dictators and their bowdlerization. A book that made over four generations and thousands of Greek kids yawn during the lesson in one night became a bestseller.

It is a book that very few have read after school times yet it became a must on every bookshelf. I still have my copy and I’m very proud of it. Much of the play learned by heart and when the dictatorship was over Antigone became one of the most popular plays in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. The event continues today as a joke and an example of stupidity of how far a dictatorship can go and how ridiculous they can make of themselves.

I remembered all that while reading on the news that the Iranian religious dictators printed a list of moral vices that the police are targeting giving them the right to suppress ‘decadent’ books and films. Of course, they have added to those make-up, hats, instead of headscarves, women wearing trousers and any un-Islamic behaviour. Oh yes, the Greek dictators did the same, they just called it …un-Christian behaviour, you see it was the sixties and mini skirts were in fashion.

The seven-year dictatorship left hundreds dead and thousands tortured, exiled and dying from wounds, so who knows what is the cost of the decades of the dictatorship in Iran. Thirty-five years after the end of the dictatorship in Athens we can laugh at their stupidity but who knows how long and how many more tears will it before Iran will be free of all the parasites inland and abroad that milk the Iranian people using religion as their excuse.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-11-13 12:36:55
There is little doubt that a theocracy wherein morality is legislated from the top by dictators is the worst kind of combination of politics and religion imaginable but the impression is given at the end of these otherwise perceptive musings on democracy and religion that the problem is religion per se and that when it is liquidated all the existential political global problems of our brave new world will be solved once and for all. Religion is not branded as “poison” a la Mao, but it comes close, it is called “an excuse,” Perhaps I am misunderstanding the piece but in my opinion the picture is a bit more complex and needs desperately to be analyzed on a global scale. I intend to do so in a forthcoming contribution. For the moment allow me please a few quick reflections. For example, undoubtedly the country in the world where religion is most respected and considered integral part of its cultural tradition is India. It also happens to be the greatest democracy in the world in stark contrast to the People’s Republic of China which is neither the people’s nor a Republic by any stretch of any sane people’s imagination. On a purely economic level no knowledgeable person would brand India today a failed state even when compared with China. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2007-11-13 12:38:03
. That phenomenon which appears strange to Western eyes accustomed to secular states often contemptuous of religion, and somehow making a ling between secularity and prosperity, ought to be looked at and studied carefully to determine how the juxtaposition of religion and politics works in India before putting in motion any knee jerk reaction against religion and pronouncing India a failed democracy simply because it tolerates and even honors religion. Unfortunately I have seen just that kind of superficial thinking ushering from a mind-set that often confuses cults and superstition with religion and proceeds via caricatures and clichés about religion.

Emanuel Paparella2007-11-13 12:39:11
(continued from above)
Also, to be at least considered, is the flip-side of the argument put forward in this article and it is this: in the long history of mankind there has always been atheism and anti-religion but never was that ideological mind-set put in practice in the political arena except for the 20th century. The results were so disastrous in the long run that, as reprehensible as the religious wars in Europe are, they made those look like a picknick. As per Alexander Solzhenitzyn, somebody who experienced on his own skin the benefits of Stalin’s workers’ paradise and is intimately knowledgeable of the above described phenomenon of religion vis à vis politics, 66.5 million Orthodox Christians perished from 1917 onward during the Soviet Union regime. For daring to call the emperor naked he was promptly vituperated and exiled from the former Soviet Union but the truth of what he said remains. More later.

Emanuel Paparella2007-11-13 15:29:49
P.S. A comparison between Antigone and The Gulag Archipelago is also intriguing, in this sense: the Greek Colonels defeated their own purpose and made themselves ridiculous to boot by condemning Sophocles greatest tragedy; pari passu the Soviet Bureaucracy made sure that Solzhenitzyn got the Nobel Prize for literature by condemning his work thus making it even more popular. The same thing had happened previously with Pasternak but it would appear that narrow mindedness and stupidity never learn their lessons. It is like teaching old dogs new tricks. They are blinded by their grab for power and their biases. What makes it even more ridiculous and bizarre is that they attempt to sell it as “the common good of the people.”

Emanuel Paparella2007-11-13 16:14:46
It ought to also be pointed out here that while democracy is briefly mentioned in Antigone, religion is also there and prominently so. Creon claims that the gods support his view that the polis has priority over the family. Antigone on the other hand insists that the gods require that all human beings be properly buried and that the law of the gods is higher than the law of the polis. That a principled compromise between the two views cannot be reached results in the final tragedy.

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