It sometimes happens in the middle of the night. I am woken up by a horrible racket and find myself fighting – with myself. “You are a lazy bastard” my German self is shouting to my Greek self. “You dirty Nazi” retorts my Greek self to my German one. Going in-between is useless. I even risk being beaten up by both of them at the same time. Now, how did all that start?
It is almost two years ago that a German magazine (in generally merely known for its reactionary, misogynistic or simply stupid articles) reached unexpected fame by publishing a picture of an old relative of my Greek self, Aphrodite of Milos (aka Venus of Milo), showing the finger to the word. Not only was the old relative nude, but she was caught in a shockingly obscene gesture for a person of her age (several thousand years) and status (a Goddess). My Greek self summoned my German self (in the middle of the night), one word brought the other and mud-hurling has not stopped since. (Don’t even consider asking me to describe the Greek answer). They are both so sure of knowing exactly who the other is, that they keep fighting – while somebody else out there robs them of everything they have. Forgive me for sounding totally besides the point and the focus of this blog, but I woke up with a terrible headache from the midnight fights. Bear with me and I will try to make sense of the above.
Places and people are so strongly interconnected in our heads, that it is hard to think of them independently. Consider the way you think of any person you know: Her being a German – or a Londoner – from the North or from the South – becomes part of what she is in your eyes. We are sure to know how “Parisians” or “Berliners” are and how they behave (“in Rome do as the Romans do”). We make overgeneralisations that tend to be extremely resistant to time and change. This is one dimension of place identity: Place reputation, place image (not identical) become part of who people are or, at least, of how people are perceived. We all know very well how it is to be travelling abroad and be confronted constantly with all the prejudices directed to the country we come from (remember this blog entry with the mapping of prejudices?). This type of “geographical imagination” can become a very serious problem in times of crisis. It makes you blind to the real problem and the real enemy. Nationalism is based on this type of place identity: overgeneralizations, reduction of complexity, homogenization. And the real enemy may not be the citizen of another country, but right next to you. Enter the ant and the cicada.
In an excellent blog entry today, Yanis Varoufaki refers to one of Aesop’s (another relative of old Aphrodite) myths. Can you remember it? It’s about the ant that works on all summer long gathering provisions for the winter, while the cicada sings in the high grass enjoying life, not thinking about the future. When winter comes and food becomes scarce, the cicada starts feeling the hunger. It goes begging to the ant, which of course turns it down. So far so good. But Varoufakis says something else. There are ants and grasshoppers (his version of the cicada), but the equation is not that simple: it is not the Germans who are ants and Greeks who are grasshoppers. There are ants and grasshoppers in both places. Today again, it is the grasshoppers who demand that the ants make sacrifices.
It is important to question the images we have of people and places in our heads. They can sometimes be just funny, but they can also be very dangerous. No place branding can repair the damage that was done to the reputations of European countries in the past months. Anyway, next time I am woken up at night by my Greek and German selves’ fighting, I’ll sit down and read to them out loud “The grasshopper and the ant” by Aesop. But maybe not even that is a good idea, since the author was Greek. Remind me to look up Grimm’s fairy-tales today.