Stereotyping Greeks as "ethnic hysterics"

by P. D. Spyropoulos

The cliche of Greeks as "ethnic hysterics" -- a term cited by New York Times Istanbul Bureau Chief Stephen Kinzer when referring to Greek-Americans protesting a Hollywood film hagiography of Ataturk ("Banderas Quits Ataturk Film After Protest", 7/16/98) -- has repeatedly been used by journalists, political actors and others to dismiss legitimate Hellenic concerns and to marginalize Greeks and Greek-Americans themselves.

For example, an October 1992 Time magazine article by Strobe Talbott asserted that "Greece is reminding the world that it too is a Balkan country, the inhabitant of a region where history often induces hysteria . . . Partly because the Greek position [on Macedonia] is so preposterous, the suspicion persists that the complaint about the name camouflages a revival of Greece's own age-old expansionistic ambitions."

Rather than discuss the fact that Greece had long ago renounced all territorial claims outside its borders, Talbott instead opted to advance irresponsible conspiracy theories and conjure up a racist stereotype of Greeks as Balkan hysterics. Talbott subsequently became U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and has played an integral role in shaping US foreign policy towards Greece and the larger Balkan region.

When California State Treasurer Phil Angelides had the courage as a publicly elected official to stand up against a report by a pension fund consultant intimating the denial of the Armenian Genocide, the attack was immediately leveled against Mr. Angelides that he was "a Greek treasurer who doesn't like Turks".

While discussing the Ataturk film protest, a journalist interviewed on the left-of-center National Public Radio dismissed larger issues of false historical revisionism and the glorification of totalitarian rule and declared that the protesters were acting "because Greeks believe the only good Turk is a dead Turk".

Likewise, in a May 1999 editorial, David Klinghoffer, a senior editor of the prominent conservative weekly The National Review, began an invective against Greeks and Greek civilization with the assertion that "Greeks hate Turks".

Exactly three months later, the Greeks stunned many commentators in the US with their spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and material support for the victims of Turkey's devastating earthquake, ushering in the much-heralded "seismic thaw" in Greco-Turkish relations. That this seems to have taken so many by surprise, particularly in America's political and media circles, indicates just how far astray their preconceived notions had led them. These same faulty assumptions have similarly impaired their understanding of Greek foreign policy and seem to be largely responsible for the US's disastrous current policies vis-à-vis Greece, Turkey and the Balkans.

While the Greco-Turkish dispute is widely portrayed as one founded upon inter-ethnic hostility, a more sober understanding of the realities underlying this relationship would reveal that it is now in essence a crisis resulting from a progressive European democracy being forced into chronic conflict with a highly militarized, authoritarian neighbor.

Coverage of Greek Opposition to NATO's Kosovo Intervention

US press coverage of opposition by Greeks to our Kosovo intervention, particularly during President Clinton's visit to Greece, resulted in a pervasive pattern of anti-Hellenic bias.

In a November 23, 1999 editorial entitled "Greek Tragedy" for example, The Wall Street Journal wrote:

"During his visit to Greece [Clinton should have acknowledged] Turkey for finally helping Greece to get rid of the junta by resisting when it tried to annex Cyprus . . . A large and vocal section of Greek opinion, it seems, remains out of step with the values that today define the West . . . [Greece's] long record of giving aid and comfort to foreign terrorists, such as the now-captured Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan . . . are of a piece with Greek attitudes toward their Balkan neighbors . . . Greek sentiment has looked with favor on Milosevic's program of a 'Greater Serbia' at the expense of the Bosnians, Croats and Kosovars. . . In part this has to do with Greece and Serbia's shared Orthodox faith. Traditional Greek hostility toward Albanians also played a role, as did a pattern of reflexive anti-Americanism . . . The challenge now for Mr. Simitis is to move his country further away from the nationalist and statist shibboleths . . . To do so, he'll have to show ordinary Greeks that they have more to gain from closer political and economic integration with the rest of the world than from a politics of score-settling."

In The Washington Post, E. Wayne Merry characterized Greeks as supporting "rabid anti-U.S., anti-NATO, anti-EU, anti-Turkey, anti-Western nationalism" and berated all Greeks for having "deep-seated ethnocentric Balkan prejudices" ("Greek Terror", 11/9/99).

Likewise, The Boston Globe published an Associated Press report by Brian Murphy that used incendiary terms such as "unanimous outrage", "feverish", "ang[ry]", and "zealots" to perpetuate similar negative ethnic stereotypes of Greeks ("Anti-American winds building in Greece before Clinton visit", 11/8/99).

The Chicago Tribune published an editorial by senior writer R.C. Longworth declaring that:

"Greece might be the last truly Balkan nation.. . . the Greeks seem determined to live up, or down, to the worst stereotypes of Balkan emotionalism. . . [Greece] is a peasant land [where] passion too often dominates reason. . . Fifty years, apparently, is not enough to shake off the Balkan mind-set -- instinctive nationalism, brooding victimization, an obsession with history and a reflexive hostility toward neighbors . . . Reason takes a holiday and demonstrators take to the streets . . . It is legitimate for the West to tell the Greeks that it saved them from Stalin and protected them from Turkey and that it expects more in return than tantrums. . ." ("Whose Side are Greeks On, Anyway?", 11/28/99).

Following our media's worst tradition of ethnic-bating and yellow journalism, our most influential news sources are using what amounts to racist stereotypes to portray Greeks as fanatic, anti-American zealots.

As with all harmful stereotypes, part of the effectiveness of this misograecist strain lies in the fact that it rings true to many -- and can thus be magnified or emphasized to the exclusion of competing constructs, or used to promote wider misperceptions and agendas among the uninformed or among those predisposed against the targeted group. Such powerful stereotypes are also often used to piggy-back a veritable mountain of false, misleading or simplistic arguments in order to denigrate a group or advance an agenda.

Censoring The Realities Underlying Greek Dissent

The kernel of truth underlying the cliche of Greek national extremism has eroded considerably over the past 25 years as Greece has evolved into a progressive-minded and globally-oriented European democracy. This means that anti-Hellenic pundits are disseminating a double-falsehood; counting on the longevity of outdated stereotypes not only to reinforce and perpetuate these stereotypes but also to distort current events to fit within their purview.

NewsWatch editor Trevor Butterworth, of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, was highly critical of US press coverage of demonstrations in Greece during Clinton's visit there:

"In light of the rioting that greeted the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle this week, the admission that the security operation failed to contain, let alone arrest the small number of anarchists and fringe groups bent on violence, and the condemnation for using tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters, criticizing Greece for the way it behaved during President Clinton's visit smarts of hubris. . .

Why single Greece out on these issues? And why sneer at dissent that would be tolerated on the pages of the Wall Street Journal itself?

It's not simply a question of whether these kind of characterizations would be tolerated if applied to other ethnic groups, it's a question of whether these clichés end up substituting for explanations. And when complexity is reduced to a rhetorical flourish, or a sneering phrase, when facts are ignored or distorted to make an argument, you can be sure that journalism has turned into politics by other means.

In trying to explain why a small number of Greeks rioted in Athens, one has to ask why two newspapers [The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Tribune] made the leap to beating up on Greece itself?" ("Blaming Greece", 12/2/99).

Trevor Butterworth's pointed question "Why single Greece out?", is all the more compelling when looking at the diverse list of fervent critics of our Yugoslav war who were not summarily dismissed as extremists or hysterics. This group has included Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, renowned political thinker Noam Chomsky, US Senator Tom Hayden, German brigadier general Heinz Loquai, and sixteen members of British Parliament.

Moreover, press characterization of Greece's demonstrations as stemming from "deep-seated ethnocentric Balkan prejudices" uniformly missed two diametrically opposed and key insights: firstly, that Greece's opposition to America's Kosovo policy had far less to do with "rabid anti-Western nationalism" than with a deep-rooted tradition of critical dissent and the mistrust of (both domestic and foreign) governmental power, and secondly, that both of these qualities have been integral to Greece's evolution into arguably the most progressive and democratic country in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East.

A commentary by AHEPA and the American Hellenic Media Project, published in The Chicago Tribune in response to Longworth's anti-Hellenic diatribe, argued that the negative portrayal of Greeks for their opposition resulted in large part from a misreading of the Kosovo conflict itself:

"Although caricatured by some as reflexively pro-Serb and anti-Albanian [and although the Greeks] were among the most vocal in opposing NATO's use of force against civilian targets in Yugoslavia, they were also among the most outspoken in demanding the return of all Albanian refugees to their homes in Kosovo . . . Greece has served as a valuable bridge between the West and Eastern Europe, and has taken a leadership role in both stabilizing and democratizing its region using a sophisticated mix of economic and diplomatic incentives.

The same humanitarian concerns that underlay Greece's opposition to our bombing of Yugoslavia resulted in the outpouring of support by Greeks for the victims of Turkey's devastating August earthquake -- ushering in the much-heralded seismic thaw in Greco-Turkish relations after Turkey reciprocated by helping Athenian victims of a smaller quake three weeks later. This is not chauvinistic nationalism but forward-thinking globalism" (The Chicago Tribune, Perspective Section, George J. Dariotis and P. D. Spyropoulos, 12/5/99).

Among the conflict's best-kept secrets, at least here in the US, is that Greek aid to both Kosovo's Albanian refugees as well as to Albania itself has been among the most ambitious of all EU and NATO countries.

Early in the conflict, Greece was the second largest donor of humanitarian aid to Kosovo's Albanian refugees among all NATO countries including the US. Greece is also Albania's second largest trading partner after Italy, accounting for 25% of Albanian trade.

With the largest refugee load in the Balkans, Greece also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled Albania since the fall of communism there in 1991, and hosts an equally large number of seasonal workers from Albania each year.

Greek political, diplomatic and business initiatives, and millions of dollars in remittances from Albanian workers in Greece, have served to stabilize one of Europe's poorest and most backward countries after a collapsed pyramid scheme threatened to destroy Albania's economy.

As recently observed by John Sitilides of The Western Policy Center, a D.C.-based think-tank: "More than 3,500 Greek firms have invested over $3 billion in Balkan economies. . . Taken all together, Greece accounts for more than half of total Balkan productivity, and over 70% of foreign businesses active in the Balkans today are based in Greece."

Last November, Greece unveiled a $500 million reconstruction plan for the Balkans--the first of its kind subsequent to NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.

These and other largely unrecognized economic, political and diplomatic initiatives intended to wet-down the Balkan powder keg are what led Samuel Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, to characterize Greece last November as "a leader of recovery in the Balkans".

The Myth of Greek Support for Serbian Human Rights Violations

A false impression was also widely ratified by the press that Greece was supportive of Milosevic's government and its human rights violations in Kosovo. This was largely founded upon the notion that Christian Orthodox Greeks were viscerally supporting their co-religionists in Serbia.

Martin Peritz, for example, asserted in The New Republic that "The Eastern churches, moreover, are bonded to one another like Siamese twins . . . the Eastern churches of Orthodox Christianity [have been] partners in the near-genocide in Kosovo, as they were partners in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia" ("Holy Wars", 5/10/99).

That Greek support and sympathy for Serbians -- and their opposition to NATO's use of disproportionate and excessive force against civilians -- did not preclude Greece's opposition to Milosevic and his Kosovo policy was a crucial distinction that escaped the ken of our media. Greece's Defense Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos, for example, repeatedly condemned Milosevic for ethnic cleansing and for destabilizing the region.

While the great weight of Greek criticism was indeed directed against the US, this was based less on "reflexive anti-Americanism" than on an understanding that NATO's war against Yugoslavia, and its encouragement of a "Greater Albania", were a far greater threat to human rights and regional stability than Milosevic's brutal campaign against Kosovo's equally violent separatists.

Hindsight seems to have borne out the prudence of this position.

A groundbreaking op-ed in The Washington Post by the Cato Institute's Christopher Layne and The Atlantic Monthly's Benjamin Schwarz reported:

"The KLA's guerrilla campaign was a deliberate attempt to provoke Belgrade into reprisals that would attract the West's attention. Knowing it could not defeat Yugoslavia without NATO's military support, the KLA waged a nasty insurgency that included assassinations of Serbian political and military officials. The KLA calculated--accurately--that a violent Yugoslav retaliation would pressure Washington and its allies to intervene. Although U.S. intelligence warned the Clinton administration of the KLA's intentions, Clinton and his advisers took the bait
. . .
The U.S. believed it could easily force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept an American-imposed settlement of the Kosovo question. The Milosevic government might eventually have accepted partition, a solution that might have restored a semblance of peace. But instead of pursuing that diplomatic solution, the Clinton administration cynically offered Belgrade terms that would have nullified Yugoslav control of Kosovo and granted NATO the right to station troops anywhere in Yugoslavia--terms Milosevic was bound to refuse. The United States and its allies then decided to teach Milosevic a lesson by carrying out their threat to bomb Yugoslavia.
. . .
Clinton's assertion at a June 25, 1999, postwar news conference that the bombing was a way to stop 'deliberate, systematic efforts at . . . genocide' in Kosovo seems either disingenuous or ignorant. Before the start of NATO's bombing on March 24, 1999, approximately 1,800 civilians--overwhelmingly ethnic Albanians but also Serbs--had been killed in 15 months of bitter warfare between the KLA and Yugoslav forces. Up to that point, however, there had been no genocide or ethnic cleansing. The Yugoslav army's admittedly brutal operations had been directed at rooting out the KLA, not at expelling Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population.

Ironically, the U.S.-led NATO bombing precipitated the very humanitarian crisis the administration claimed it was intervening to stop. Belgrade did not turn from conducting a counterinsurgency against the KLA to uprooting the province's ethnic Albanian population until several days after NATO began its bombing campaign.
. . .
Not only did the forced removal of civilians result from the NATO bombing, but administration claims of mass killings--made to rally popular support for the war--turn out to have been exaggerated.
. . .
To date, according to U.N. reports, forensic specialists working under U.N. auspices have exhumed 2,108 bodies. . . In the end, the number of civilians believed killed by the Yugoslav army in Kosovo is certain to have been far less than the Clinton administration and NATO claimed.
. . .
Moreover, despite the presence of U.S. and NATO peacekeepers, once Yugoslav forces left Kosovo the KLA began a new campaign of terror, this time targeting the province's Serbian and Gypsy populations. This campaign of ethnic cleansing continues unabated"(The Washington Post, "Was It A Mistake?", 3/26/00).

A few more key facts should be added to this expert summary of our Kosovo debacle -- facts that remain essentially unknown by the US press and public -- when judging the propriety of Greek opposition.

At least 400 Serbs have been killed in Kosovo since Albanian separatists took control of the province. During its bombing campaign, NATO under U.S. leadership pounded both civilian and military targets in Yugoslavia with more explosives than were dropped on Germany during any comparable period in World War II.

According to a team of international legal experts from Canada, Norway, Britain and Greece that has brought war crimes charges before the Hague against NATO officials, about 1,800 people were killed and 5,000 wounded in Yugoslavia by NATO's bombing campaign. This number does not account for secondary victims, such as those that will die, get cancer or be born with birth defects as a result of radiation poisoning from our widespread use of ordinance hardened with depleted uranium (DU), or the many deaths that have resulted from deteriorating medical care due to our blockade of Serbia.

Significantly, the number of people purportedly killed by NATO's bombing is at least equal to the number of Albanian deaths in Kosovo before NATO military intervention. In other words, the 'humanitarian crisis' that served to justify our military action was at least equaled, and most likely bested, by our own intervention.

In addition, our war in Kosovo has reportedly cost Greece over $300 million. That two Greek civilians were killed last year by NATO's April 12th bombing of a passenger train en route to Thessaloniki should lend some further perspective to Greek opposition--how would Americans have reacted if two of our own were killed by bombs from a belligerent fighting a war most Americans believed to be illegal and immoral?

Taking all these hard facts into consideration, Greek dissent is less a result of 'feverish, rabid, reflexively hostile, anti-US and anti-Western instinctive nationalism' than of an opposite motivation, namely, of a progressive and humanitarian mindset with a regional strategy of consensus-building that our own policymakers could learn a great deal from.

Our media's uncritical adoption of the misinformation disseminated by the Executive Branch during both the Gulf and Kosovo wars and, more importantly, the press' failure to remedy the structural and systemic faults that have resulted in its becoming an instrument of Executive foreign policy propaganda, pose serious questions about our press' efficacy, credibility and independence.

As a result, our media has fallen victim to, as well as helped to reinforce, outdated misograecist stereotypes of Hellenes as hate-mongering nationalists. That the press has generally defaulted to this negative typecast but has refrained from using these same blanket characterizations for many other groups evinces a double-standard indicative of an anti-Hellenic bias.

To cite a recent example, Elian Gonzalez's seizure by Federal law enforcement officers on Catholic Easter weekend resulted in Cuban-American demonstrations in Little Havana where police were beaten, numerous bonfires were set on Miami's streets, law enforcement officers were pelted with rocks and other objects, and American flags were carried upside down and burned. Yet coverage, for example by MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, never characterized the demonstrators as ethnic hysterics or as anti-American zealots, but repeatedly stressed that these acts were being carried out only by a minority of "hoodlums" and that the larger Cuban-American community was not to blame.

This of course stands in sharp contrast to US press coverage of Greek demonstrations against a US-led military campaign that bombed dozens of children like Elian Gonzalez to death. While it was repeatedly stressed by Greeks and others that only a tiny minority of anarchists, "hoodlums" and other fringe groups were responsible for the fires and property damage in Athens' streets during Clinton's visit there, media coverage failed to legitimate that distinction, and our most prominent dailies in fact used the demonstrations as an opportunity to bash Greeks with racist stereotypes.

That Strobe Talbott, Kevin Myers, David Klinghoffer, William Safire, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and other demonstrated anti-Hellenists consistently and selectively use these stereotypes to disparage Hellenes or to dismiss their concerns attests to its fundamentally misograecist nature.

Thus the "ethnic hysteric" stereotype has exercised such a powerful hold in the media and the political arena that a small number of key actors have been able to employ it to eclipse international law in the Imia and Cyprus issues, distort historical memory in the Macedonia-FYROM controversy and, in the wake of Clinton's visit to Greece, revile legitimate humanitarian concerns over devastating US foreign policies.

Of great concern to the Hellenic community is the fact that there has been a readily discernible and steadily increasing pattern of such anti-Hellenic bias and misinformation advanced by prominent Jewish-American academics, editors and journalists as well as by Jewish-American organizations in the wake of the Turko-Israeli "axis" (as characterized by former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu).

The Chilling Effect of Misograecist Stereotyping and Self-Censorship

The chilling effect anti-Hellenic stereotyping has had on academia, politics, journalism, business and other fields cannot be underestimated. Any allusion to being considered a Greek "nationalist" can ruin reputations and destroy careers both in the American mainstream as well as within the Hellenic community itself.

The fear of being perceived as too ethnic, parochial or chauvinistic has led many Greeks and Greek-Americans to not only censor themselves, but to censor and damage other Hellenes by using this very same stereotype as a bludgeon.

This can perhaps most readily be observed in the academic sector. Many have expressed the concern that the mainstream of Greek Studies in some of our most prestigious universities revolves around a deconstruction of Greek nationality, a refutation of Hellenic continuity, and an almost exclusive focus on the flawed aspects of Greek national mythology. As a result, modern Greek scholarship in the US may be more aware of its subject's shortcomings than the scholarship of any other heritage or peoples.

Encouragingly, this self-criticism has been the key to heightened self-awareness among Hellenes and has played an integral part in their democratic evolution. One need only look across the Aegean to observe firsthand the destructive and culturally retarding effect that the restriction of open and genuine self-criticism can have in keeping a society from realizing its full potential.

Yet this 'deconstructivist' school has nevertheless become dogma, insisting on an exclusivity that rejects other approaches that recognize the organic reality of Hellenic identity and continuity. One of the most effective ideological bats that has been used by proponents of this approach to silence competing paradigms is the very charge of nationalism or ethnic chauvinism. As a result, this dogma has not only stunted a more inclusive, constructive and empowering understanding of Hellenism in the academic world, but has been selectively used by anti-Hellenists as a weapon to disparage Greeks and undermine Hellenic issues in the larger political arena.

The Wider Effects of Discrimination and Bias in The Media

Bias in our media has of course not only affected Hellenes but many other groups as well. We are reminded that our awareness of the dehumanization of target groups by Nazi-era Germany -- or the discrimination of Japanese, German and Italian-Americans during WWII which resulted in mass internments and other serious civil rights violations -- should serve as a potent reminder not to repeat history.

Yet despite the continued prevalence of a politically-correct sensitivity for a handful of ethnic and other minority groups, our mass-media continues to tolerate and at times encourage the singling out and disparagement of the target-group-du-jour.

This discriminatory treatment by sectors of our media has not only directly contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths during this decade, as in Iraq and Yugoslavia, but has negatively affected many Americans as well.

The media's demonization of groups has often had a very real and direct impact on Americans who belong to those targeted groups. Arab-Americans have commonly been the victims of hate crimes, particularly after terrorist attacks and during the Gulf War. A recent article in The Toronto Star entitled "Serbian children stung by schoolyard taunting" reported that the anti-Serb image created by the media has resulted in Serbian-Canadian children experiencing significant discrimination and psychological trauma.

Yet what seems to have escaped the sector of our press that has sponsored biased coverage is the obvious fact that the scapegoating of Arabs, Persians, Serbs, Greeks, Russians, Poles, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, "Christian fundamentalists" and others sets a precedent for the disparagement of Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics and other historically vulnerable groups in the US.

This is not an "ethnic" issue, but one that has wide repercussions for all Americans. When a group is singled out, denigrated or demonized in the media, and when our media fails to inform responsibly, accurately and independently of government, corporate and other dominant interests, all of our voices are marginalized, our trust in our press is eroded, and our fragile democracy is damaged. How the media portrays these issues will have a profound impact not only on the efficacy of our foreign policy and on our nation's moral well-being, but also on the success and welfare of our children and our communities on a more personal and immediate level here in the US.

The Hellenic community's inaction in addressing this media crisis, and its failure to grasp the enormous significance of the media to the American democratic process, has resulted in their exclusion from this process. Yet experience has shown time and again that an ounce of prevention now can help avert an Armada of disasters waiting to happen in the future.

It is up to each and every one of us to participate in the rehabilitation of our media, to hold journalists and newsmakers accountable to ethical and responsible journalism, and to ensure that our voices contribute to the diversity of viewpoints that are so lacking today, yet so necessary to a free and effective press.

P. D. Spyropoulos is Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project (, a non-profit think-tank created to address bias in the media and encourage independent, ethical and responsible journalism.

Posted: May 25, 2000

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