Greeks Reflect On Democracy
Hellenes Gather For Panel On Greek Influence In Politics
Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
The Heights Room was filled with Hellenes and Philhellenes alike Monday for a panel discussion on “The Greek Influence: Democracy Today.” A collaborative effort between the Hellenic Alumni Network and the Hellenic Society of Boston College, the panel explored the influence of the Greek political and cultural heritage on American democracy in its origination and current existence. Moderated by Joseph Coutlis BC ’09, LGSOE ’10, the panelists each presented and then accepted a number of questions from audience members in their area of specialty.
Drawing in experts from different fields, Drake Behrakis, BC ’86, the chairman of the Hellenic Alumni Network and a University Trustee, brought in Nikolaos Krikos, First Political Counselor to the Embassy of Greece, professor Robert Bartlett, the Behrakis professor of Hellenic political studies at Boston College, John Grossomanides, the Supreme President of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA), and Elizabeth Prodromou, an assistant professor in the department of international relations at Boston University.
Coming from a political and historical point of view, Bartlett examined the impact that the political philosophy and the political history of ancient Greece had on the writing of the Constitution.
“How did these two great moments come together?” Bartlett asked. “[The U.S. was] a rebel nation fleeing the British monarchy—fleeing toward what? There were no living models of what the U.S. wanted to become. They [the Founding Fathers] wanted to revive a mostly dead form of government. They looked back toward ancient Greece and Rome for what they wanted to become.”
However, Bartlett also stressed that the U.S. was explicitly not a democracy. The Founders wanted a form of government that emphasized the “middling element,” as Aristotle described the middle class. Bartlett highlighted how Madison owed the moderate republic to Aristotle and how Madison, Jay, and Hamilton frequently referred to Aristotle’s Politics.
In a shift of focus, Prodromou assessed the current crisis in Greece and sought to explain what could be learned from it for Greece and America. She stressed that what the media largely painted as an economic crisis was really something much greater.
“What does [the Greek crisis] say about democracy today?” Prodromou asked. “The economic crisis is a reflection of and a contributor to a political crisis. There is no sense of collective good.”
Looking into some of the causes of the political malaise, Prodromou pointed to a lack of accountability in the government and a lack of responsible activism. She said that the question facing the Greeks was one of sovereignty. For the nation to regain its strength, “Greece needs to reclaim its brand [on democracy],” Prodromou said.
Looking at contemporary America, Grossomanides focused his presentation on the political and economic success of Greek-Americans in the 20th century, especially in terms of the role that AHEPA played in that success. He began by telling the story of the foundation of AHEPA in Atlanta in 1922 and how it was formed to help Greeks who were discriminated against by white Southerners.
“The founders were intent on Americanizing Greek-American citizens,” Grossomanides said. “They wanted to educate members and their children.”
After education, Grossomanides said that AHEPA has also focused on political activism. He talked about the Hellenic Caucus in Congress and the efforts to promote legislation important to Greek-Americans.
Last of the four panelists was Nikolaos Krikos. Not originally a part of the panel, he stepped in for the Ambassador of Greece, Vassilis Kaskerelis, who had to remain in Washington, D.C. for his wife’s surgery. Returning to antiquity, Krikos focused on Athenian democracy and what that meant for the ancient citizens of Athens and what that meant for citizens of the U.S. and Greece today. He stressed that what today’s democracies were missing was the affection of the citizens.
“Democracy meant the affection toward the city and coming out of the city,” Krikos said. “The city and the citizen are interlinked.”
Krikos then stressed that the difference between the U.S. and European models of democracy was based in the focus. He claimed that the U.S. looked back for solely practical reasons, while the focus was on the future. He contrasted this with the European attempt to recreate classical humanism in the Renaissance, where the focus was antiquity itself.
There was noticeable tension in the room during the audience’s opportunity to ask questions, as a few controversial questions were asked. One of the more controversial questions focused on the current prime minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, a technocrat and former vice president of the European Central Bank, and whether or not his appointment could be characterized as a suspension of democracy. Krikos explained the crisis as spiritual and political and responded, “There is no vision for Hellenism.”