This past Sunday, I went with my partner to our city’s Remembrance Day ceremony, which I do every year. My brother has served two tours in Afghanistan with the Canadian forces, and a tour in Bosnia after the civil war there, and many other members of my family have also served. I’m not one for overt expressions of nationalism, and I have numerous issues with the overly Christian-themes on display there, but for me, Remembrance Day is about my brother and the sacrifices he made. I think about his friends – some of whom did not make it home alive – and I remember that whether I agree with the mission in Afghanistan or not, the government that represents me sent them there. If nothing else, it reminds me of the absolute necessity of striving to elect people who understand the concept of ‘Just War’, and who recognize the heavy cost of sending young people to fight and die in our name. When we decide that the past is no longer something to remember and learn from, the old, crappy ideas that caused so much damage begin to seem a lot less crappy, and they start to be rediscovered by a whole new generation.
The next day, while guzzling down the barely-sweetened, caffeinated tar that is my morning coffee and reading the news, I received chilling, yet unsurprising confirmation that in some parts of the world, we aren’t just in danger of forgetting the past; we’re in danger of foolishly trying to repeat it. I’m talking about the that grim horror-show that is modern-day Greece, a nation so badly beaten down by the economic crisis now facing Europe and the rest of the world that many of its citizens have decided – against all hope of reason – that perhaps Hitler wasn’t so wrong after all; maybe all Greece needs is a sharp dose of fascism* to stop its slide into anarchy.
Enter the Golden Dawn, a ridiculously melodramatic name for a modern-day reincarnation of a very old spectre. In the minds of the party leaders, Greece’s real problem is that immigration has diluted the character of the Greek nation, and if all immigrants could be forcibly deported, Greece’s woes would be solved. If we were to believe the spin of some of the party’s top members, illegal (or rather, all) immigration into Greece has resulted in crime rates skyrocketing, and they’ve used a few well-publicised events to push that rhetoric.
Of course immigration into Greece is not the reason why the state has been unable to cover its debts; one of the main causes for that lies in the almost militant indifference on the part of many Greeks to pay their taxes. It’s a rather simple piece of economic arithmetic: if governments rely on tax revenue in order to pay for services and to balance their cheque-books, and if less than a third of Greek citizens and businesses actually pay their taxes, then the state cannot pay its bills, and the government grinds to a halt. Contrary to the assertions of libertarians everywhere, when national governments cease to function, the markets don’t just ‘step in’ to fill the gap; they begin to destabilize as well. The tremors spread outwards from the state into the international monetary markets, which react by throwing up firewalls around the troubled state – selling off Greek holdings and demanding the Greek state begin to make good on its international debts, while refusing to lend any more funds, etc. If the state cannot get its financial house in order – by say, raising revenue through tax collection – then its credit is downgraded, its ability to maintain the scope and quality of its services decreases, and necessary public institutions begin to fail. Once the process starts, it becomes exceptionally difficult to stop it; state collapse becomes as inevitable – and inexorable – as the collapse of a building after a severe fire. So what does this have to do with the Golden Dawn? Well, quite a lot, actually.
Historically, xenophobic and ultra-nationalist movements rarely gain popularity during times of plenty; when the going is easy, no one needs a scapegoat to blame their troubles on. But once the good times end, and social, political, or economic crises arise, the anxious and troubled pall that hangs over society provides perfect cover for radical and extremist movements that, like fungi, grow and moulder in the dank, shit-filled corners of the state. Their ideas are rarely original; they find a population or sub-group within society – usually an already marginalized one like immigrants, ethnic, or religious minorities – and they blame them for society’s woes. They cite flawed studies to support their arguments or, if they’re lazy (and many of them are, at least intellectually), they simply make shit up in order to cast their targets in as poor a light as possible. They chant slogans and hold rallies – often martial and aggressive in nature – where they proclaim their simplistic, reductionist solutions to complex problems, and offer themselves up as the panacea for all that ails society. And that’s just the beginning.
Groups like the Golden Dawn (or like the Nazis and the Klan before them) often cultivate unofficial relationships with law enforcement agencies and other organs of the state – often at the local or municipal level at first – which they use to both act on their agendas, and to garner for themselves a veneer of legitimacy. And, inevitably, they seek to gain real political power, as they are desperately trying to do in Greece.
As I’ve said – forcefully – to many of my friends, colleagues, and audiences of the various talks I’ve given on the subject, these groups are not to be taken lightly; their rhetoric is simplistic and offensive and their members are often clumsily, laughably foolish, but given the right circumstances, they can grow quickly and come to wield real power. These groups are dangerous; they are malignant. They show us all the importance of holding true to our dedication to acceptance, inclusions, and solidarity (at least, those are principles I happen to hold and idealistically hope others do too). It’s simple to keep to our convictions when doing so is easy, or when times are good; but history has shown us again and again just how quickly many of us can soften our dedication to our principles when times get rough. There is a reason why groups like the Golden Dawn always emerge in troubled times; the loss of hope in society often goes hand in hand with an increase in desperate searches for solutions – the simpler the better.
When I speak with the Veterans I meet at Remembrance Day ceremonies, I see in many of them the cost of ignoring groups like the Golden Dawn. I remember that many of them, while here to witness the ceremonies alongside their fellow citizens, left many of their friends behind on battle-fields all over the world, where they fought in opposition to the ultimate expressions of xenophobic, bigoted hate and “racial pride”. The pogroms, genocides, and atrocities of the early and mid-twentieth century aren’t history; they’re still with us, if we’d take the time to see it. Our elders are our society’s memory, and many of them remember the horrors of fascist and totalitarian regimes and what it took to stop them. We’d do well to ensure that their memories do not die with them.
Lest we forget.
* This is an often-misused and misunderstood word, and I wish that people would stop using it as a synonym for ‘Conservative’ or ‘person whose beliefs I don’t happen to like’. For an absolutely fascinating examination into the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of early and proto-fascists, I’d suggest reading “Male Fantasies” by Klaus Theweleit.