From top: The Pass at Thermopylae, Greece, where for three days 300 Spartans are said to have held back a vast Persian army; David Langwallner
Several years ago I assisted a gentleman lawyer, Mr Leonidas Pegiadis, in The Mark Marku case in Crete and then Athens, Greece. Huge scepticism on his behalf as to what The Innocence Project was. Rightly so. Mr. Pegiadis, an oracle, said: ‘Neoliberalism, David is a form of decadence’. Like Zorba The Greek. Like Leonidas The Lion. I listen but judge.
When we were in the Marku case In Crete, on his instigation, I took a long journey or pilgrimage to see the memorial and grave of Zorba author Nikos Katzianakis. Of course, Zorba the Greek (1946) is one of the great novels. A cry against the neo-liberal womb of destruction. Male or female.
The great writer himself was a chronicler of Cretan oppression under fascism and of the ambiguity of religious feeling, most evident in Christ Recrucified (1954) and the unfairly vilified The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). It was a man grappling with his shattered faith.
The sun is warmth and there is sex in Greece or at least light as many appreciated. including Lord Byron. The Greeks, like Italians but unlike the Irish, have a Catholic understanding in the broad sense of religious doctrine and the balance between pleasure and pain. But the light is dying as is the Greek way. Which is a tragedy as it is the crucible of civilisation.
Now Greece, of course, is immortalised in human rights lore in a foundational case of The European Convention Human Rights, The Greek Case (1967), an inspection by the then commission of the ECHR of the effects of fascism, brutal military dictatorship and the regime of the colonels.
It led to multiple findings of torture, revealing the practice of the bastinado, violations of the right to life and, ever since, Greece has veered uneasily between fascism and leftist proto communist parties and with an erratic disregard for human rights.
The enormous courage of Leonidas Pegiadis during our case needs to be dealt with. As a very well connected but deeply sceptical member of the Greek establishment, he represented Mr Marku for a few drachmas brilliantly and passionately. A shrug of the shoulders but deep seated vocationalism.
When I was there, the leftist communist government objecting to austerity which had destroyed the social fabric, had twice gone cap in hand to Brussels to be met with rebuke and the infamous phrase by Christine Lagarde that they [EU,IMF, etc] were the adults and the Greeks presumably children, which led to the book by Varafakis, ‘Adults in the Room‘.
Well the neo-liberal corporate elites are the inappropriate adults in the room and they are infantilising us and destroying our critical faculties. a form of dehumanised brainwashing.
Greece is, of course, the historic center of democracy. Thus everyone who goes to Athens visits the Acropolis, but that is a centre of culture and also of the inception of theatre. On the opposite side of the road, less visited but free, is the Agora and it contains much of democracy. Socrates‘ burial place the purveyor of truth and the first parliament where Pericles intoned overlooking the Greek hills.
The great Communist Greek director Angelopoulos was also, like Socrates, accused of the innocent and his wonderful film Travelling Players (1975) is a kind of homage to the victimhood of dissidence as are many of his works. The soul of man under fascism.
Our Brave New World of the Internet is incubating a dangerously compliant and accepting population, reflected in the far right or indeed soporific left’s obsession with marginal issues, democratic liberals persuaded to consent to their own demise.
This is what Timothy Snyder called ‘anticipatory obedience’ and involves going with the flow of home seizures and deportation of untermenschen migrants and demonisation of others, until at last they come for you, at which point there is no one left to protect you.
So stand up and be counted. Hopefully it won’t require you to walk out in front of a tank, but be prepared. An image not dissimilar to the pass of Thermopylae, Central Greece, which I also visited.
Spartan discipline and brutality is something I disapprove of but it did make them a warrior caste so that 300 plus Spartans and sundry others kept the Persian hordes at bay for an extended period of time of seven days before betrayal. Matters got exaggerated over time but there were probably at least 150,000 Persians and it may have ultimately been part of a chain reaction that led to Greek victory.
It is a classic example, like David and Goliath, of how great training and great methods can defeat superior numbers but of course all were wiped out including the leader Leonides the namesake of my leader in Greece.
The sea has moved and it takes an act of imagination to work out what happened in 480 BC. But geography and a narrow path assisted the Spartans in hand to hand combat. The Greeks are not Spartans now and their friendly casualness is not confronted with Persians but a technocratic autocracy, There is no alternative.
The control of the EU and indeed world governance by corporations is precipitating disaster and Coronavirus is only a symptom of the same. People are commoditised by banks and financial institutions: there are far too many of them, and their number needs to be reduced.
As the former Greek finance Minister put it, ‘And the weak suffer what they must.’ And he has scant hope for a post virus universe if that ever is the case. Increasing inequality and wealth cartelization, the gradual implosion of the EU after enrichment and the growth of what he terms nationalism, but is in reality fascism and extremism and indeed racism. EU plutocrats self enriching as Rome burns and Europe elects fascists.
Why? Well genuine democracy requires mass literacy and proper education, which is diminishing, as is access to accurate information. Bannon and Cambridge Analytica have used artificial intelligence to influence voting patterns, and warp the human mind.
The Left is nostalgic and sees opportunity in Austerity but, lest we forget, after the Wall Street Crash the Weimar Republic did not witness a Populist socialist insurgency, but Nazism. Our present economic collapse is ineluctably leading towards a new form of corporate fascism.
If the Left is to salvage democracy it must borrow the approach of Antonio Gramsci, the leader of the Communist Party of Italy in the 1920s, which is to construct a cultural hegemony with a receptive middle class (especially now as the distinction between working and middle class is being obliterated).
This will involve an expansion of state institutions and husbandry of natural resources to bring an electable and progressive broad social democratic front to power. A balance of moderation between left and rights and a reassertion of national autarchy and self sufficiency with a public private partnership. A new politics. I doubt it.
On my plane journey to Athens I read an extract from a speech by Barack Obama about visiting the same birthplace of Periclean democracy I had visited. He expresses himself beautifully: precise, as is his want; erudite (something he is given too little credit for); and with pristine socially-democratic-convictions.
But his achievements are merely a modest corrective indeed, flawed by his excesses with Goldman Sachs and the persecution of whistleblowers as well as the embrace of a false political correctness. The falsity of liberalism that has destroyed America and led to the alt right.
Using the excuse of such shibboleths as national security, public order and the common good, rogue state institutions classify their enemies as criminals and subversives. When marketisation criminalises. Democracy is dying because our elected leaders, rather than distancing themselves from extremists, are embracing them.
There are insidious forms of subversion: a coup can not just be the regime of the colonels as in Greece but governance by the grey, for the grey, where small but influential think tanks and special interests pull the strings.
The Greeks, of course, had a great British hero. According to Lady Caroline Lamb, he was mad, bad and dangerous to know. He was Lord Byron and before taking the boat to Crete there is his inscription not far from the scene of his death on the edge of the mainland in Sounion at the base of the Temple of Poseidon with the perfect overview and gateway to the Greek islands.
His romantic words have been quoted by rakes for centuries and his life the stuff of excess and legend. Odd then that he extolled the power of the word and the script to conscience raise. For the Greek contribution to humanity is enlightened thought, Aristotelian moderation and reason, Sophoclean scepticism, the great works of Homer, the incomparable Callas the Diva of all Divas and in good measure Byronic rebellion and of course democracy.
‘But words are things, and a small drop of falling, like dew, upon a thought produces
that which makes thousands, perhaps millions think.’
And if not these words, then the dance of Freedom of Zorba The Greek.
The dance of the light against the dying of the light.
David Langwallner is a barrister specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. His column appears here every Tuesday and Friday. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner