Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Civil Inconvenience; or, the Virtues of Temporary Darkness

A guest post by Jennifer Tuder

I had the opportunity to travel to Greece last spring, in preparation for a study abroad program. I traveled with an educational tour group and our journey took us from Athens, out into the Peloponnesian Peninsula, and back into Athens. The Greek strikes against the austerity measures had just begun. The strikes were not apparent to us until we spent the night in an Argolidan resort.

Our tour of roughly 50 people were the only ones present, since it was the slow season. As we settled into our rooms, all electricity suddenly ceased. We were immediately plunged into the great, silent night of the rural Mediterreanean coast. The resort owners guided everyone from the lodging buildings across a dark parking lot, through a tunnel underneath the highway, and into the dining hall, where generators provided light. We sat around tables, talking with one another about what we had seen and what we would do the next day.

We were to visit the great theater at Epidauros, where students were allowed to do brief performances. None of the students had volunteered to do something on their own, so I took advantage of this unexpected assembly to organize an impromptu performance of the chorus from Oedipus Rex. I recruited students from each of the three schools represented. They were anxious, but willing to try it. In exactly one hour, the lights came back on and we returned to our rooms. This was a part of the strike, we were told.

The next day, a small group of novice performers gathered at the center of the orchestra. They stared at the magnificently restored theater that seats up to 14,000. Their voices were soft at first; fortunately, Epidauros's famous acoustics came to their aid. By the end of their brief performance, though, their voices grew stronger. They gazed up into the seats as if they could see the ancient throng, come to hear Oedipus's tragic end. These students had not spoken much before, either to each other or to the group. In this moment, though, they found a voice.

On our final day, we were free to wander Athens. I spent my day with Robert Harrison and Callie Palmer from Linn Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon. That day we revisited the earliest monuments to Western democracy: the Acropolis, Pynx Hill, and the Agora. Our earlier encounter had been rushed, since we had to keep the students together. On this day, however, we reveled in these ancient sites. I experienced an uncanny elation: a sense of coming home to a place I had never been. This was the birthplace of the political ideals I held most dear. Yet my elation faded. These places were crumbling, destroyed by conquest, time, and neglect. I was reminded that a democracy founded on slavery and oppression was doomed to fail.

We encountered the strike again as we navigated the Athenian streets. The taxi drivers were on a 24-hour strike that day; the following day the bus drivers were striking. As we emerged from the underground metro train into Omonia Square, we found students rallying, chanting, and preparing to march. This time, I felt a sense of hope. Empires had come and gone from Greece, but the people were still here, ready to raise their voices and place their bodies on the line for what they believed.

It wasn't until I was leaving that I remembered the Greek American woman I had met on my flight into Athens. She had lived in the U.S. for about 20 years and was coming home to visit family. I had asked her what I should expect from the strikes, since it was my first time in Greece. She dismissed my concerns. This was, she said, real democracy. Greeks fight, they resist, she told me proudly. "You Americans," she said, "you just take everything."

The Greek strikes have reportedly turned violent, though I did not personally witness any violence in those early days. Violence, to me, is the losing strategy in any conflict. Violence usually breeds suffering rather than solutions. But there is something to be learned from the Greeks, ancient and modern: First, a government that seeks to rob its workers of their voices hastens its own demise; second, a temporary darkness sets us on a journey to solidarity; and finally, we must be ready to raise our voices together in order to be heard.

Jennifer Tuder is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Theater at St. Cloud State University.

Image Credit: User vicguinda at flickr - Creative Commons Share License

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