Saturday, 26 November 2011
When is an egg not an egg?
On the 25 of September 2011 Marina Demetriades took aim at the head of her local member of Parliament (Mr. Othona) with an egg. She did not miss.
This occured in Rethimno, on the island of Crete, during a severe economic downturn. Many people were angry about the failure of the government to keep its promises to protect public services, and angry about the drastic cuts in wages, pensions and rights. On the monring in question Mr. Othona was speaking to a crowd. He had chosen to speak about the importance of the bicycle.
On the 10th of October Marina appeared in court and was sentenced to five months in prison - a sentence that was suspended for three years. The charge in Greek was εξύβριση, which translates as insult or abuse. During the 8-hour trial Mr. Othona did not appear, and the court raised no objection to his failure to appear.
After the incident Marina set up a website to post her defence - a defence that she was not allowed to read out in court. It is a long defence with a long and detailed list of Mr Othona's broken promises, quoting the fine things he had said as an opposition politician, and contrasting them with the recent policies that he was supporting and (as a member of the government) was partly responsible for.
Her blog has attracted a very long list of comments. Reading them, we see that another ugly battle is raging - a hermeneutic battle - a battle to decide how Marina's act is to be read.
What did she do? To her sympathizers she was expressing the collective rage of citizens who were being treated badly by the government and who were being denied a voice in any meaningful democratic process:
"I believe your act expresses a huge part of this downtrodden populus"
"Με την πράξη σου εξέφρασες μεγάλο κομμάτι του ταλαιπωρημένου λαού μας πιστεύω..."
To her opponents her act was childish:
"Citizens acting like impetuous 10-year-olds and 'revolutionary' dreamers..."
"Πολίτες με θυμικό δεκάχρονου και "επαναστατικές" ονειρώξεις. Σας απολαύσαμε από το καλοκαίρι στις πλατείες. Μεγάλο κίνημα, σπουδαία παραγωγή ιδεών. Lifestyle και άγιος ο θεός. Και μετά απορούμε γιά τα χάλια μας."
Or the act represented a rejection of democratic principles and was tantamount to Fascism:
"I disagree with your act and find it clearly Fascistic ... every form of totalitarianism has begun with a denigration of the institutions of democracy and of the people representing it."
"Δεν συμφωνώ με την ενέργεια σου, την οποία βρίσκω καθαρά φασιστική. Σαν ιστορικός θα έπρεπε ίσως να σκεφτείς πως όλοι οι ολοκληρωτισμοί ξεκίνησαν με την απαξίωση των δημοκρατικών θεσμών και των προσώπων αυτών που μέσα από δημοκρατικές διαδικασίες τους αντιπροσωπεύουν."
On the whole, both the sympathisers and the critics see the act as political. By contrast, to the court (if I have understood correctly) the act had no political significance whatsoever. It was simply an act which insulted/abused/attacked another individual (and it was presumably supposed to be irrelevant that the individual in question was a member of the government).
Marina, herself, seems to be troubled by these different readings and is not sure how to interpret her act. Near the end of her home page, after the long defence of her act, she says:
"There is no way I would recommend egg-throwing as a form of social/political opposition. And, to be honest, I don't know how to react when people stop me and congratulate me in Rethimno especially since I have done other things that I consider much more praiseworthy than egg-throwing, although those acts have gone unnoticed."
"Σε καμιά περίπτωση δεν προτείνω την αυγοβολή ως πολιτική στάση και μορφή κοινωνικού αγώνα! Και πραγματικά δεν ξέρω πώς πρέπει να αντιδρώ όταν με σταματάει κόσμος στο Ρέθυμνο και μου δίνει συγχαρητήρια, τη στιγμή που θεωρώ πως έχω κάνει πιο αξιόλογα πράγματα από το να πετάξω ένα αυγό και δεν έτυχαν ανάλογης υποδοχής!"
This hesitancy after such a bold act is surprising, especially in the light of the fact that Marina is a historian. History is a bloody story, and the history of modern Western democracies is no exception. How many were established by a polite and peaceful transfer of power?
Is Fukuyama correct, and does the current status quo represent some great historical end point, beyond which nothing better can be hoped for or fought for?
If this is not the end of history, then there may be one or two revolutions to come before the Earth heats up too much and becomes uninhabitable. It would be nice if those revolutions could be polite and respectful and bloodless, and even eggless and yoghurtless. It would be nice if the oligarchs could be politely persuaded to step down and allow a new form of democracy to flourish. Perhaps they will. It would be nice, for instance, if the bankers could be persuaded to let the whole business of printing and distributing money come under democratic political control. Perhaps they will. It would be nice if the mulitnational corporations and the "markets" would listen attentively to the arguments of the new democrats. Perhaps they will. But the lesson from history is that they probably won't.
Democracy (if it is not to be a smokescreen for oligarchy) needs a public arena in which the most articulate voices from the grass roots can be heard, and in which voices can be given to the forces for change in society. As it stands, that public arena has largely been closed off. Walls have been built with heavy doors guarded by armed men. An interesting comment Marina made in passing was that on the day of the demonstrations she was disappointed to see how reluctant the TV channels were to let any of the demonstrators speak. The floor was given to journalists, politicians and other talking heads who speculated about what the demonstrators might be wanting and what the protests might mean.
When voices are excluded from the democratic process by high walls and doors guarded by armed men, true democrats will feel the historical need to have those doors opened. Of course, we must first ask politely for the people inside to open them and politely persuade the guards to let us in. If they refuse though...