Remembering why we celebrate the past

It was always my belief that the greatest reason to celebrate the past is because it can help us re-evaluate the present and inspire our journey towards our future.

On a day when we recall how, 71 years ago, the Greek prime minister and the Greek people said ‘OXI’, or ‘NO’ to Mussolini’s forces when they demanded Greece allow Axis troops to enter and use the country in their advance towards North Africa, are we asking ourselves, “Do we say ‘OXI’ when we need to?”

There were annual parades across Greece today, but protesters in the northern city Thessaloniki prevented the annual military parade from taking place.  On Thursday, the student parade took place in that city with only the mayor participating. All other politicians opted to withdraw their participation. In other parades, students turned their faces away from politicians, city bands carried black ribbons, and protesters attacked dignitaries. More here.

While I agree with activism, I do not support violence or throwing objects at people for any reason. I do not necessarily agree with protestors blocking and forcing the cancellation of a parade.

But the reactions to these events raise some important questions.  I would say that memory does not stand alone, or apart from the present – particularly a national memory.  The Oxi Day national celebration is for a political moment. How does a historic political memory or celebration stand apart from a society’s current reality?  How do we celebrate this past memory without seeking to reflect on the lessons it teaches today’s society?

Politicians seem to be asking that people pause their serious discontent with the economic and political crisis to celebrate the past. The president of the opposition party New Democracy was quoted in Reuters as saying, “Those who are glad to have ruined our national holiday must know they have injured our national pride. They have insulted the memory of our heroes.” Many will share this sentiment. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Citizen Protection condemned incidents at parades around the country, saying that people need unity right now.  It sounds like what many politicians mean by ‘unity’, however, is more like ‘quiet acceptance.’ I am not drawing this conclusion on my own, simply from politicians’ statements in the media.  While in Greece for over two months this summer, the common theme I heard in discussions with business and domestci media leaders, entrepreneurs, academics, young people, civil society leaders, was that there is great feeling of mistrust between citizens and government, and people in Greece feel there is no political leader that is offering any vision for the future, or for any way forward. Without inclusive dialogue, where will trust and unity come from? National parades?

Today, do we say ‘OXI’ or ‘NO’?

Do we say it at critical decisions where we need to say it? Do we say it to the status quo when it is time? This is a discussion that protesters in more countries than Greece are demanding.  It is a question that is still relevant today, because it is not always an army that destroys.  It is not always a force from the outside – outside our borders, outside ourselves – that does us the greatest damage. Are we saying no to weak or ineffective institutions, corruption, our own silence or complicity when we have the means to fight for change, crumbling social safety nets for the most disadvantaged groups, flaws in financial institutions or the financial system itself?

Given these questions, I would ask: did the parade organizers try to consider making the day’s celebration relevant to today’s Greece? Did they try approaching different groups in society to discuss organizing an event that would respect both the past and the present?

Some people will prickle or laugh at the thought of this. But I find it unfortunate if it was never considered or attempted, because it reveals that there is still no acknowledgement of the need for new dialogue among national, local, public, private and grassroots elements of society, even at moments where all can agree on the need to draw inspiration from the past.

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