Thursday, 5 July 2007

'Blood brings blood': The courage to be liberal

'Blood brings blood and more blood' - a line from the work of the poet and diplomat George Seferis quoted in the first chapter of The Greek Civil War: Essays on a Conflict of Exceptionalism and Silences (King's College, London) organised and edited by Philip Carabott and Thanasis D. Sfikas. On the front page there's a black and white photo, dated 1948, of a boy balancing on a railway line. If he lives he'll be my age. Work is being done which could not be done earlier. Having found Mark Mazower and his co-writers, then John Koliopoulos and Thanos Veremis, and earlier the reference to George Seferis, I've now found Carabott and Sfikas. These fascinating investigations led by Greek academics inside and outside Greece is not popular in some quarters. Last night, on getting home from the West Country, I came across a review - the only review - of Greece: The Modern Sequel. I won't quote it all here since it's bookmarked (above):
A new anthropologic specie has planted its roots on the Greek soil that of the graecosaxon liberal historian. Its main traits are neutrality, a tremendous effort to accommodate everyone's needs and wants, by massaging events, distorting the true and cutting and pasting facts .... It is a book full of elegant lies, half truths, but not the brutal truth ... the British blockade of the Mediterranean was the major cause of starving the Greek people to death. (Robin Waterfield: Athens). Blockade that was enforced selectively to target the Greek people, while the Vichy France had all the Mediterranean supply routes open ... We will never learn who are these hypertrophied corrupted babbits*, their attributes, theirs connections and by what tide of times are washed out to mortgage the future of Greece. The chapter on ideology is so fraught with self hate and reflects so a desperate attempt to please Fukuyama or Huntington that we leave the review of this chapter to the psychiatrist ... The sorry arrogant egomaniacs pseudohistorians still remain as formidable a force in rewriting Greek history as the Corleones ever were in the Mob politics of Godfather ... this existence is more than enough to unleash the banality of Mob historicism and thus become a mouthpiece of the Orwellian Neo-History in the era of globalization
. My response:
How depressing it is to read the first review on Amazon of a book that attempts to tread so gingerly through such a politically charged field. This uncivil polemic claims that "a new anthropologic specie has planted its roots on the Greek soil that of the graecosaxon liberal historian." The authors are accused of "distorting the true and cutting and pasting facts". The reviewer has no tolerance for ambiguity; no hint of Tolstoyian confusion amid the fog of war. Against the evidence, he says the writers "never miss an opportunity to denigrate the Greek people". The idea that someone describing the country he or she loves might be self-deprecating, able to acknowledge that his country is not always right, seems outside the reviewer's moral scope, as is the paradox of unintended consequence and the work of fortunae in human affairs. The authors are accused of writing "a neat essay with a priori thesis and all loose ends tied together". In fact loose ends are regularly acknowledged by these authors, but if you can't achieve coherence you shouldn't put pen to paper, and certainly not seek a publisher. The reviewer continues. This is "a book full of elegant lies, half truths, but not the brutal truth." Here we go again - the fundamentalist who 'knows'. Such people so loath the uncertainty that is part of Popperian science that some have coined the oxymoronic slander - 'liberal inquisition'. How this reviewer hates the 'L'-word! Not for him the struggle to control the inescapable risk of bias or the conscious evasion of assumption based on class, origin, gender and all the other reasons for being opinionated in matters of high importance; no respect from this reviewer for the care brought by Koliopoulos and Veremis to arriving at a working approximation of what might have happened over the two centuries of their study of Greece; no sense that the authors are the first to admit that theirs is one of many interpretations - a sound working hypothesis; the nearest any of us can ever get to truth. In that humility the reviewer sees a disingenuous attempt to flatter as many readers as possible, rather than the caution of minesweepers. The reviewer excoriates "disconnected historians". Could it be that the most courageous researcher, even as he or she picks through shallow graves is struggling to see clearly through the haze of their own tears? ['But, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it' Thucydides] Contemptuous of the authors' liberalism, the reviewer criticises them for it accusing them of having "erased ... all references to leftist terror", claiming "no one word is uttered about the killing fields". I'm not sure we were reading the same book - or did Amazon edit a review copy? I challenge the reviewer to number the page where the phrase 'heroic communists' appears. The review increasingly loses direction in the way abusive rants can wander into capitalised words, underlined sentences and serial exclamations, followed by the non-signature of a poison pen. These "hypertrophied corrupted babbits*". Long words. "The chapter on ideology is so fraught with self hate and reflects so a desperate attempt to please Fukuyama or Huntington that we leave the review of this chapter to the psychiatrist." Longer sentences. Wasn't accusing people of being insane a way to attack the curiosity and doubt that accompany research? This unknown reviewer finds open-mindedness unforgiveable. The spirit of Socrates' accusers lives. "The sorry arrogant egomaniacs pseudohistorians still remain a formidable force in rewriting Greek history as the Corleones ever were in the Mob politics of Godfather." It was a great film but an innaccurate comparison. History is forever being rewritten with pen and paper or with keyboards on screens - hardly devices of the Mafia. "The banality of Mob historicism". Do I spy spittle at the reviewer's mouth? This book is "a mouthpiece of the Orwellian Neo-History". Koliopoulis and Veremis are doing what Winston did for Orwell's Ingsoc, serving totalitarianism: "If you want to imagine the future of humanity imagine a jack boot stamping on a human face for ever." Somehow I don't see Veremis and Koliopoulos, or for that matter Mazower and his co-writers or Carabott and Sfikas and their co-writers doing the goose step, joining in the morning hate and gazing on a benign portrait of Big Brother. This is not a perfect book. How could it be when we are still debating the Peloponnesian War and the veracity and method of its historian? Koliopoulis and Veremis have striven to be loyal to their fascinating subject without being partisan. The book's freshness is reflected in a number of typos - miniscule blemishes easily corrected in a second edition. I'm grateful the authors have striven to reach a vantage point that makes sense to a wider readership in this contested area. Neutrality is impossible and, if it means disinterest, undesirable, but some professional detachment is honourable when sifting through scenes so drenched in blood. Simon Baddeley
*'babbitts' - from the Sinclair Lewis character Art Babbitt, referring to timid, uncultured, middle-aged, middle-class businessmen.

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