“On The Misfortune Of Being Greek” - Germans Dig In To Ever Pertinent 1975 Essay

Greek intellectual Nikos Dimou published a book in 1975 slamming his native country's failure. Now published for the first time in German, “On the Misfortune of Being Greek” is painfully relevant to understanding the current crisis engulfing the

Nikos Dimou talks about the Greek need to mythologize their past (Drassi/Tilemahos)
Nikos Dimou talks about the Greek need to mythologize their past (Drassi/Tilemahos)

By Berthold Seewald
DIE WELT/Worldcrunch

BERLIN -- In late November 2011, some German journalists were ordered to appear before an Athens court to face defamation charges and allegations that they insulted a national symbol after they published a doctored photograph of the Venus de Milo giving the finger. The image appeared on the cover of "Focus' magazine.

The situation was not without irony. Here was a country with a long Christian-Orthodox tradition miffed that someone would dare disrespect a pagan goddess whom people there were barred from worshiping some 1,600 years ago. Not content to stop there, Greek authorities decided to sue nationals of another Christian nation about the matter. From there it's but a short step to the depictions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a whip-wielding dominatrix, a vampire, and a Wehrmacht Tiger tank that appeared in the Greek media.

Happily, there are some Greeks who can make sense of such displacement activity. "We create myths about ourselves. And then we're unhappy when we can't live up to the myths we ourselves created." Put another way: "A primary symptom of the modern Greek soul is mythologizing."

The words are those of Nikos Dimou, a leading Greek intellectual. And what's particularly interesting about them is that they are not reflections on the recent bouts of mutual German and Greek mudslinging. Instead they date back more than 35 years.

Dimou must possess the gift of prophesy, because he also wrote: "Here is a statistical parameter of the average Greek. Measured by the salary he or she receives, the Greek lives in the most expensive country in Europe. It has the worst social security system, the most traffic accidents, the most pathetic educational system and the fewest number of books published. (I'm hoping there's another country – maybe Portugal? – that can prove me a liar on at least one of these points.")

Dimou, who was born in Athens in 1935, received part of his higher education in Munich, has written over 60 books, is a familiar figure on Greek talk shows and radio programs and has even ventured into the blogosphere. In 1975, he published a book in Greek called "On the Misfortune of Being Greek." Most of those in Greece who read books have read this book. And now it's been translated into German.

The dismal thing about the 72-page essay is that its aphorisms, which Dimou recorded during another Greek drama -- the dictatorship of the colonels from 1967 to 1974 -- are for the most part as pertinent today as ever.

Take this example: "On principle, a Greek does not take reality into account. He or she lives not only once but two times above their means. They promise three times as much as they could possibly deliver. They know four times as much as what they actually know. And they multiply their feelings by five when they express them."

Masters of the blame game

Right there lies an explanation for the charges brought against the German journalists. How about the public and media outrage at the euro group's austerity measures? Dimou evokes another myth: "‘Foreign intervention." Modern Greeks have never enjoyed accepting responsibility. It's always somebody else's fault – the intelligence service, NATO, the CIA…" And apparently Angela Merkel and the Nazis.

A lot of this material would be funny if it didn't have such a bitter edge and wasn't quite so pertinent. That holds true not only for the compatriots Dimou portrays so mercilessly but for all the philhellenes who've been telling themselves for hundreds of years that they're the descendants of Aristotle: "We are a people without a face, without identity. Not because we don't have these things. But because we don't dare look in the mirror... So we've learned to play alternate roles – sometimes we're the descendants of the ancient Greeks, and sometimes we're Europeans."

Every page of Dimou's book is imbued with this double perspective, explaining how Greek-Orthodox subjects of the Sultan could perceive themselves as the heirs of Pericles slotted for a return to glory. When this failed to happen, Greece was schlepped along – into the European Union, into the euro, and into the debt crisis.

But Dimou's book doesn't only suggest that Greece's problems are down to confused ideas: Greece also lacks institutions, he says. "Other people have institutions; we have mirages." Or: "The worst thing you can say about the Greek bourgeoisie is that it doesn't exist. Our capitalists are profiting less from the work of others than representatives of that glorious Greek tradition, the windbag: middlemen, agents, tricksters and dealers…" And: "The only dangerous institutions in Greece are the gerontocracy, the bureaucracy, and the matriarchy."

To Dimou, Greece is the sum of a national history that began in the 19th century with foreign dynasties, went from one political and economic bankruptcy to another, and in the 20th century knew several dictatorships and a civil war besides two world wars. "With methods and systems we do not apply to daily life, we concentrate on our secret mission: destroying the wonderful country that is ours as effectively as possible."

But what saddens Dimou most is that his writings fell on deaf ears. Typically, he turns it into a joke. "What's the bleakest thing in the world?" the passionate patriot quips. "Ten Greek intellectuals in a room, each one trying to get the other to listen."

Nikos Dimou: "Über das Unglück, ein Grieche zu sein". Translated by V. Maro Mariolea. Kunstmann, Munich. 72 pages, 7.95 euros. ISBN9783888977657.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Drassi/Tilemahos

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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