By Dr. Robert Zaller, Professor Emeritus, Drexel University, Special to the Hellenic News of America
Freedom means a lot of things. Traditionally, it goes back to the great experiment of ancient Athens in a form of government called democracy, worked out over more than a century in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. It was based on the notion of citizenship, the idea that those who constituted the permanent base of the city had an equal right to determine is governance. The truly radical element in this idea was that all citizens enjoyed this right, regardless of personal wealth, occupation, or standing, and that they exercised it by means of a function called a vote, in which each citizen’s participation in decision-making had the same weight as all others. Decisions would be rendered by a simple majority.
This is still a radical idea. America calls itself a democracy, but its founding fathers defined it as a republic, which weighted votes by various criteria. Each of the states of our federal union had equal representation in the upper chamber of its legislative body, the Senate, regardless of population: thus, the state of Wyoming today, with a population of little more than half a million, has the same Senatorial representation as does California, with its population of nearly forty million. Thus, a citizen in Wyoming casts a vote for the Senate with the equivalent of more than sixty votes of one in California, and, since the approval of the Senate is required for the passage of any legislation, has a grossly disproportionate impact on decision-making. There is a rationale for this, but not a democratic one.
Similarly, in votes for the office of president (itself a position of far greater power than that exercised by any other citizen), a national majority does not necessarily determine the candidate chosen, but only the composition of a quaint device called the Electoral College, which has five times in our history resulted in the selection of the minority candidate, of whom the most recent was Donald Trump. We also have an institution called the Supreme Court, whose nine unelected members can overturn laws and customs at will. The founding fathers did not devise this power. The nine unelected justices, so called, arrogated it to themselves.
The reason for these peculiarities is that modern democracies are not directly ruled by their citizens but by representatives. The citizens of ancient Athens were few enough in number—about five thousand—to conduct their business personally. Even this number was awkward, so Athenians rotated in a five-hundred man Assembly that conducted day-to-day business—about the size of the U.S. Congress. It was expected that all citizens would have the opportunity to serve in the Assembly, so no elections were required. And all citizens thus remained equal in the governance of the city.
Direct democracy would be difficult in today’s large and complex societies, but with modern technology not impossible. It would certainly be refreshing to see what its response might be might be to CEOs earning 350 times the income of their line workers, or citizens sleeping in tents and cars.
This does not mean that the Athenian model was without its defects. It excluded women and slaves; that is, more than half its population. (So too did the American republic for a good part of its history.) It made some very bad decisions, such as the Sicilian Expedition and the execution of Socrates. Thucydides paints an unflattering picture of its deliberations. Wisdom does not always accompany freedom. Nonetheless, from Pericles to Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill, its ideal has been affirmed.
Churchill makes a case in point. Like Pericles and Lincoln, he was an imperfect character, and, until his mid-sixties a failed politician who had never quite lived up to his gifts. In England’s moment of crisis, however, he was the only man to turn to. He defended democracy, and unified his country. He made a multitude of mistakes, but never wavered in his resolve. And he fought not only for the ideal of democracy, but for the deepest meaning of citizenship. Democracy, too, makes many mistakes, but at its core is the identity of a people as one. Even without democracy, it is the instinct that preserves a nation. It preserved England, under Churchill’s leadership, when from June to October of 1940 it stood essentially alone, with a sympathetic but distant America and an empire oceans away.
Then came Oxi Day. Greece was not a democracy on October 28, 1940, but a military dictatorship under General Ioannis Metaxas, who, despising the Second Hellenic Republic, overthrew it in August 1936, eliminating all civil liberties, outlawing all political parties including his own, and instituting a regime of persecution, violence, and torture. He adopted much of the political style of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, and, like the fascist dictators, dreamed of establishing empire. Metaxas had never been a popular figure; now he was a despised one. Empire, however, required the independence of Greece itself, and when Italy demanded its capitulation on the night of October 28, he refused.
Legend has it that Metaxas made the one-word reply “No!” to Italy’s demands—Mussolini’s troops had already invaded Greece—and legend is almost certainly what it was. But the word carried throughout Greece, and by dawn, Greeks were already in the streets. Metaxas was no more popular than before, but the single word attributed to him was enough to galvanize the country; it was as if not he but Greece itself had spoken it. Nor was the war he waged until his death three months later his own, whatever his orders; it was that of Greece. Efforts were subsequently made to depict him as a war hero, but without success. The war of 1940-41, first against Mussolini and then against Hitler, belonged to no one but the Greek people, and it will always be remembered that way. Like the stand of the ancient Hebrews at Masada and the last defenders of Byzantium against the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was a collective act of courage.
Some battles are won by being lost. Greece was overcome, but never conquered. Its defiance of the fascist dictatorships was a beacon of light in a moment of particular darkness, and it was something that gave courage even to Churchill himself, who aided Greece and fought beside it in the last, heroic resistance of Crete. Nor were those days forgotten, even long after and from the far corners of the earth. While traveling myself in Crete, I came across a monument to the people of Greece in an out of the way place on the island. It had been erected by an Australian soldier, at his own expense and fifty years after the event, who wished to express his gratitude to the people of Crete, alongside whom he had fought and who had saved his life. Oxi is a day that, like Marathon, will never be forgotten. Oxi was a day when the odds didn’t matter, and duty was plain. It was a day when the whole world was Greek.