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26 August 2006

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Ted Laskaris

Stavros:

I have struggled with the same questions you touch upon in this post. I am not a "Greek-American," but rather a "Greek-Greek," but I have come very close to becoming one by virtue of family connections and my own desire to establish permanent roots in America (which I have failed to do due to a series of accidents).

My approach to the question of "Greekness" vs. "Americanism" adopted a simplified route: learn English better than the English and lose that telltale accent, get the best American education you can get, get connected as much as you can in American circles that count, and immerse yourself in the concerns and issues of American society. All this must be done earnestly and consistently. You cannot be an American if your every other thought is about the folks back in Paleo Phaliro and the next (senseless) election to choose between Karamanlis or Papandreou. I have found that such Greeks professing "Americanism" through naturalization are perhaps worse than the typical Greek from the Motherland; they draw together and internalize the worst from both societies.

Now, the essence of being an American of course is Anglo-Saxon. For all the multi-culti yapping, and for all the endless, pointless philosophizing about "tolerance" of and "respect" for other cultures, the core values upon which the US is established were, are, and shall remain dominantly Anglo-Saxon with a healthy grain of other European legal and political traditions. It is indeed striking to discover -- if you look closer -- how "European" many aspects of America are, and that should come at no surprise.

The most successful Greek-Americans I have met (pardon Ted Roosevelt) are the ones who learned how to adjust to the Anglo-Saxon set of values that underlie the American edifice -- like the now retired federal judge with roots in Sparti; the eminently successful pediatrician with a list of patients from the most influential families in the mid-West; the CEO of a major NYC company with worldwide access... and so on and so forth. All these people (none of them born in the US) are so "American" you wouldn't tell them from ice cream and apple pie; if it were not for their "suspicious" last names, they would be immediately thought of as offspring of prominent Anglo parents in Boston, Providence, Long Island, or New York.

Are these fully "assimilated" Greeks "worse" Greeks because of their 100 percent job in becoming American? Certainly not. In fact, most of them have retained intellectual and emotional ties to Greece so strong that put to shame the natives of Hellas. But, at the same time, they have come to internalize American values to such a deep extent as to be way ahead of the US crowd as well. Theirs is the best of both worlds.

However, assimilation rarely works that seamlessly. The key ingredient in all of this is... you guessed it .... education. Without it, the boy from Karpenisi would most likely remain just like my former boss at the pizza house, who couldn't wait to collect a few more dollars before packing up and returning to Nea Smyrni to buy a few more apartments, rent them, and spend the rest of his largely purposeless life in the kefenion (as he's doing right now as I type this in). Turning into something that you are not by design is not, as some think, an easy job.

Bottom line: Becoming a non-hyphenated American is within grasp and it won't defeat your Hellenic roots. Indeed, learning how to balance between Hellenic values and your American "new" being would, in most cases, result in highly successful personal stories. Your are richer and smarter by virtue of Greek descent. Use it to best advantage.

USA

Mr. Laskaris,

Please raise your hand and repeat after me. You are now an American.

God Bless you!

Ted Laskaris

Mr USA: Thank you. I am now an American!

demonax

Stavros
What you say is important. It destroys in one fell swoop the idea of the ‘diaspora; that is, that there exists beyond the borders of Greece (and Cyprus) another 2-3 million Greeks who are a unified source of political and cultural strength to Hellas, who are culturally and politically aligned to their country of origin, who pursue Greek interests in their adopted homeland, who will pass not only their genes but also this culture and loyalty from one generation to the next. This, it transpires, as I always suspected, is pure fantasy. Once a Greek leaves the homeland, settles in a foreign country, his Greekness begins to diminish and eventually die. I’ve always thought immigration – Greek immigration – was a disaster, a catastrophe, the loss of so many talented Greeks to second and third-rate entities like Australia, Germany, England, Canada and America.
The whole, rotten experience of Greek immigration is best summed up in Cavafy’s poem, The Poseidonians, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. I think it is a terrifying poem.

The Poseidonians

‘The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival's end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remembered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they'd fallen now, what they'd become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.’

Also, I’m not sure that the pressure to shed the hyphenated part of American identity is as smooth as you describe or that the process of becoming American is something voluntary and not compulsory and coercive. As with most things in America, the immigration experience and the process of becoming American, strikes me as being riddled with violence and bitter struggle. American ideology is not as benign or uncomplicated as you make out. I’m thinking, among other things, of the way social movements, like anarchism, socialism, syndicalism, brought over from Europe, were brutally crushed. You might be glad that they were crushed, but the fact and nature of their crushing reveals a much darker side to the American immigrant experience and the quite limited and limiting nature of what is an acceptable American identity.
Finally, more shocking to me than your unwillingness to support Hellas in any sporting contest with the USA – it seems our chaps and your chaps will be meeting in the semi-finals of the World Basketball Championships – is your unwillingness to support fellow Greek Americans in political contests. Not only are Greek Americans incapable of showing primary loyalty to Greece, but it seems they are also incapable of showing any loyalty to each other.

Stavros

Ted & Demo,

Isn't it strange how two smart and very astute Greeks, like yourselves, can come to such radically different assesments regarding the Greek-American immigrant experience? Strange but so very "Greek."

I agree that Greek immigration was a disaster, a catastrophe of the highest order for Greece as a nation. Greece was forced by circumstances to export a great deal of talent and energy and will never be able to retrieve it unless it is willing to make significant changes. For most Greek immigrants, but especially for those of us who came from places like Turkey, it was a matter of survival. That said, I believe the monolithic Greek Diaspora that Demo described, existed only in the minds of Greek politicians waxing eloquent at rubber souvlaki dinners. On the other hand, I don't think that things are as bleak as Demo would have us believe. It is naive to suggest that people should always regard themselves as temporary sojurners in a foreign land, even after they have lived there for generations. Expecting those people to advocate for Greece exclusively, even while conveniently ignoring that in the US they do so much more than probably any other immigrant group other than the Jews, is unrealistic and in my humble opinion, plain wrong.

Diasporan Greeks are supposed to give their undivided loyalty, political and cultural strength, and pursue only Greek interests. OK. What is the Patrida and Greeks who live there supposed to give, if anything?

No doubt about it, early Greek immigrants met all kinds of difficulties in America, more than half returned to their homeland. I would never suggest that the American immigrant experience did not have a dark side which included bitter struggle, rascism and violence. Those Greek immigrants that stayed and later generations however, were not coerced into becoming Americans. They wanted to be Americans and they proved to be damn good ones. My own family experience is not exceptional, in fact it is like many other similar Greek-American stories. Your experience in the UK is so diametrically different that I am interested in hearing your own story. Why are we so different in this regard and so similar in other ways?

One last thought, Demo I will confess that I am not much of a sports fan. I love to play, but get bored easily when sitting in the stands. Honestly, I couldn't care less which team wins. I'd rather argue with Hermes at Phylax. Since you would never have accepted my heartfelt delight if either team won, I gave you what you were expecting to hear: that I would cheer for the home team. Only a true "Greek" would transform that into a referendum on my loyalty to fellow Greeks.
On the other hand, if some of the Greek fans embarass me by making anti-American gestures I will call them some choice names in their native tongue.

demonax

Stavros
I won’t go into detail about my personal experiences of being a second-generation immigrant in the UK – it’s not that interesting and will probably only reveal how much I suffer from self-pity – suffice it to say that no doubt one of the reasons I keep bugging you is because I’m fascinated (and envious) that your experience and the experience of Greek Americans have been so much more positive than the immigrant experience of most people to this country.
I think the NY Times piece which GreekAmericanNYC recently recommended at Phylax on Pakistanis in the UK and USA is very instructive on how immigrants fair in the two countries http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/21/us/21devon.html
One of your previous commenters – Margaret, I think – also observers that what’s really on offer to immigrants over here is Britishness – which is a formal identity, i.e. a passport, a nationality, access to services in return for paying your taxes, etc – and not Englishness, a cultural and historical identity. If they want a cultural and historical identity, then immigrants have to look elsewhere.

On the last point about loyalty to fellow Greeks, I think we’re at cross-purposes. What I was trying to get at was a previous exchange we had about Phil Angelides in California and whether you would support him because he was Greek or support Arnie because he was a Republican. You said you’d support Arnie. This is what I meant by Greek Americans not showing loyalty to each other. Again, in the UK I have tended to support left-wing candidates, but if a right-wing Greek or philhellene stood in my constituency I would have no hesitation in putting aside my normal sympathies and voting for the Greek/philhellene.



Stavros

Demo,

As a lifelong Republican, I voted for Dukakis because he was "Greek," to my everlasting shame. I realize now that being true to our beliefs is more important than always being true to our tribe. As a Greek, I am proud of Dukakis and Angelides success. As an American, I disagree with their political beliefs and what they would mean for the future of my children.

I feel a special kinship with ALL the Greeks I have dialogued with on Phylax and on this blog even though I might disagree with their opinions. There are Americans whose ideas I personally abhor even though I consider myself a patriotic American.

Takis Theodoracopoulos is a very pro-American Greek and a "conservative" but I wouldn't follow him into the men's room because I don't respect him as a human being or a role model.

The Greek or American label does not confer instant approval on my part, and I believe that deep down you would probably agree with that as well.

G

Just one problem. this unerlying preme is simply not true:

"Expecting those people to advocate for Greece exclusively, even while conveniently ignoring that in the US they do so much more than probably any other immigrant group other than the Jews...."

The Greek American lobby is well behind at least ten other ethnic lobbies, maybe more. The proper term today anyway would be "Greek lobby" since almost all the effort is carried by groups funded out of Athens and Nicosia.

Spending by Jewish Americans on lobbying, more precisely "public affairs" dwarfs by several orders of magnitude that of Greek Americans, where spending can be counted in the hundreds of thousands. The only real national Greek American group, AHEPA, doesn't spend $10,000 a year on legistlation or Washington efforts affecting Greece. Even with the Patriarchate and Halki, which affects our religious freedom directly, this "lobby" slumbers.

Stavros

G, Welcome to MGO. I'm not about to defend the Greek American community's lobbying efforts, since I agree that there is room for much improvement and more work to be done, especially as regards the Patriarchate & Halki. Those efforts do not reflect our capabilities. At the same time I won't write off their efforts as inconsequential, in particular, during the invasion of Cyprus. BTW, I would like to know who the more successful ethnic groups are when it comes to lobbying?

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