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Works and Days

Wandering Around Europe

May 24th, 2009 - 11:30 pm

Crete

We made it from Frascati to Chania, Crete on leg two of this year’s tour–after a near miss with an Italian bus company that turned up 94 minutes late to (barely) get us to the Rome airport. Thoughts on Crete: I first came here in 1973 and have been back a few times times since, and the island is unrecognizable since my first visit 36 years ago-new prosperity, new infrastructure, new attitudes more attuned to those on the Greek mainland. You don’t see so often the long Cretan boots, the handlebar moustaches, and the all black outfits in Herakleion or Chania as in the past.

One of the most baffling of historical questions is why and how after over 2000 years (3000-1100), palatial civilization in Greece simply disappeared (systems collapse? Dorians? Sea-peoples? Natural disaster?)-and was replaced, after an ensuing Dark Age, by something entirely antithetical to the centrally planned state.

The polis seems ostensibly an easy refutation of Jared  Diamond’s thesis that geography and natural resources govern a culture’s destiny. Both the Minoans and Mycenaeans lived in roughly the identical climate as their successors. The Mycenaeans spoke the same Greek language. And yet once an entirely new political, economic, and social system-the polis-emerges in the unchanged landscape, then we see artistic, literary, philosophical, and military development unimagined by the earlier impressive palatial cultures. A Knossos or Mycenaean is a world away from the Athenian agora, or the world of an Aristophanic comedy or Sophoclean tragedy, and is relevant to the ongoing controversy over the relative value of statist versus decentralized political systems.

Poor Crete

It is hard to imagine a more dangerous neighborhood than Crete’s. Halfway between Europe and Africa, between East and West, Crete has plenty that others wanted-fertile land, an industrious people, good harbors, ideal weather, well-watered plains. No wonder it has been invaded by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans, Europeans, and Germans-all of them able to control the coastal cities and large plains, but never quite to conquer the mountainous and hard-to-reach interior villages. History is never static, but one understands why, despite the endemic anti-Americanism, the huge NATO base at Suda Bay stays-it ensures that Crete will be safe and autonomous, something very rare in its 4,000-year civilized history.

PS. While in Crete I always stop at the British War Cemetery to visit the grave (10E6) of John Pendlebury, the great British Minoan archaeologist who wrote the classic 1939 The Archaeology of Crete. I visited his grave today at 10 AM above Suda Bay. He perhaps knew more about Crete than any living foreigner, and played an heroic role in the defense of Crete in 1941—until captured by the Germans, and executed for being out of uniform (he had been wounded by a German air attack and was recovering from wounds). Dead at 36, a tremendous loss for archaeology. Accounts of his life–scholarship, topographical studies, linguistic mastery, Egyptian excavations— remind us of that few of us today could even begin to emulate the achievements of prior generations. I first ran across Pendlebury through his publications on Crete, and references to his early ecological work about the carrying capacity of the Cretan landscape and ancient populations. Modern society would find it odd that a world famous scholar, at the age of 36, would volunteer his services to organize resistance to the Germans in protection of both his country’s interests and the freedom of his Cretan hosts, but such British courage and audacity in WWII were commonplace. Walking through the cemetery today, one is struck by the Latin mottos, and the Biblical phrases at the base of the marble crosses  (unlike the practice of American military crosses that do not allow such individual commemoration) of the British dead. Meanwhile, we are worrying about the waterboarding of  Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the architect of the mass murder of 3,000 civilians on 9/11 who cut off Daniel Pearl’s head with a dull knife. That the world now worries over the force interrogation of such a horrific monster and has forgotten the thousands of Pendleburys of WWII says a lot.

Deficits

If one were to Google something like “Bush”  and “deficits” and “2001-8″  it would not be hard to find persuasive, mostly liberal critiques of the Bush administration as recklessly spending and adding to our national debt-again, all true. But if some projections hold, Obama will take a 1979-83-like recession and turn it into the largest spending spree in American history, exceeding all of Bush’s aggregate deficits in a little over a year. Surely these same critics can apply their logic to fault Obama’s felony the way they once did Bush’s misdemeanor?

Disconnect

I have probably been to Europe at about thirty times in the last  36 years, and I confess I am just as baffled by the European disconnect now as I was over three decades ago. Such a strange mix-socialist equality of result superimposed over a hierarchical, class-bound, and largely aristocratic society. You see guys in designer clothes, shades, and pricey motor bikes pasting communist posters on light poles. You can have a conversation with a European outraged about American hegemony who in passing talks about a family villa in the mountains, and a beach get-away by the sea, both predicated on limited access and privilege. You can hear ‘Bush did it’ talk, juxtaposed with real racist fury about Muslims and other minorities that are ‘overwhelming’ Europe. You can hear about the beauty of the EU entitlement in the same conversation about an ancestral family estate thankfully not open to the public.

You, Not Us

I think the disconnect is analogous to what we see in the states, where the technocratic and governing class-think Geithner, Daschle, Solis, Richardson, Spitzer, Dodd Rangel, Jefferson, etc.-thinks either that the rules should not apply to themselves, or that their own professed liberalism somehow should provide exemption from what others must follow. There is something to the age-old observation that the elite liberal mindset is a sort of psychological mechanism by which one justifies his own privilege and exclusivity by professing a cosmic egalitarianism (in theory).

World Beneath Our Feet

What excites one about Europe are the layers of civilization. Walk out in the Cretan countryside or in the hills above Rome, and one, either through myth, literature, or archeology, quickly grasps the land beneath one’s feet is part of a long prior story of civilization. In contrast, when I walk over my farm, I know that I experience what my mother, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother knew, and have found in the dirt at times a horseshoe, or square nail, but prior to them (ca. 1870) the land was mostly just parched grass landscape in a depopulated landscape for eons, without a monumental building, road, or artifact to be found. Again, in Europe you bump into the visible past-2000 BC, AD 320, 1074, 1579, 1942-almost each second.

Editing

I am writing most of these two weeks’ blogs while in Europe in between leading a tour. That is no excuse for the unusual number of typos and slips, and I will try this week to download from MS word on to the Pajamas site rather than write directly on it in too hasty fashion.

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