Dear Mr. President Elect
My Greek immigrant grandparents arrived in this country sometime in the early 1920’s from Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and while no one talks about it, I’m fairly sure they didn’t just leave, but escaped. Ethnic cleansing is nothing new across the globe: WWII Germany; Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s; Syria today. For my grandparents, it was the problem of the Armenian extinction. About 1 million Armenians and half a million Greeks were killed between 1915 and 1923, but the number is sketchy because to this day, Turkey denies it even happened. (For a great book on the topic, read Black Dog of Fate, by Balakian.)
What was once the Ottoman Empire — the most culturally ambitious and religiously inclusive place the world had known, a stunning experiment of cooperation and trust — was losing ground as parts of it claimed independence, and with it, its religious diversity. When the Turks, who were Muslim, started killing the Christians, my grandparents split for America, the burgeoning City on a Hill that offered so much promise. They arrived before Lady Liberty who came from France in 1924, but way before then, everyone knew that America was the land of opportunity, the place to practice your religion and live your life as you saw fit, a place where working hard meant you could actually get ahead, the place to make a new start. Until they died, none of them could talk about the Turks without scowling or making the sign of the cross, and despite my peppering them with questions, no one would explain why. Sometimes it takes decades to solve a puzzle. (BTW, I visited Turkey when I was studying abroad and found the Turks to be a warm and gracious people.)
Some of my earliest memories revolve around political discourse, not just a couple people sitting around drinking a beer and talking genially about politics they way they talk about football, but yelling, screaming, fist-shaking, hand-wringing discussions. Being the homogenous people that Greeks are, they stuck together, and mostly every weekend we’d gather around my great aunt Thea’s dining room table for dinner or cake and coffee. (Thea means aunt. Greeks like to keep it simple.) My mother, who was not Greek, but the daughter of Italian immigrants from a small town south of Rome cringed a bit every time the party started. (BTW, my grandparents didn’t love the idea of my father marrying a non-Greek, but they got over it for the sake of family unity.)
My mother was by all measures a quiet woman, but she was no shrinking violet and while she had strong opinions, she chose to keep her own counsel. My father on the other hand was loud and boisterous and loved a good debate as much as he loved the coffee that accompanied it. So on any given weekend night, my grandmother, my aunt and uncle, and various cousins, friends, and relatives would gather around the table and talk about — what else? — politics. I was young, but I soaked it all in, so much so that there’s no denying this $#%!’s in my blood. After all, the Greeks have been arguing about politics since ancient times, Athens being the primary birthplace of modern democracy, and since we’ve not all gone on to paradise yet, or evolved to a state of utopia where we don’t need laws to govern us, the Greeks feel it is not only their God-given right, but their duty as human beings to have an opinion about things, a generally loud opinion. If you’d been sacked and attacked on your island shores and kicked out of others, you can damn well be sure you’ll always have your nose trained on the political winds. Unfortunately for my mother, she equated all that yelling with ill feelings so these evenings were not always pleasant for her. The “discourse” brought out the best and worst in my relatives and sometimes opinions would be swayed although not then and there because that would mean admitting defeat. You’d have to hit on a reason why you’d changed your mind and then argue as vociferously for the new opinion the next time. More often than not, people remained entrenched, and always there were fireworks of emotion.
Today, much of the world is in shock because of the election results and America feels a lot like Thea’s dining room table no matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on. Right now, both halves of the country think that America, that bastion of hope and freedom and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” has lost her way. How did this happen, you ask? It didn’t happen over night, but over decades: we just got greedy and stopped listening to each other.
There is a Cree Indian prophecy that says: “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.” I am reserving discussion of this ginormous topic for another blog post. In the interim, I’d like to say to the President-Elect, if you love this country, and you want it to be “great again,” then think before you act, consider the consequences of your actions on the larger whole, and understand that losing the popular vote while winning the electoral college does not give you a mandate. We all have to live here — together. Let all of our opinions be heard and considered. Remember you can’t eat money, and you’re not going to sleep well if everyone is hating on everyone else. You control both houses of Congress now, but you don’t control the hearts and minds and souls of the American people, and you don’t control how history will remember you. Hero or villain, it is up to you.
About the weekends of my childhood, I should add that after the coffee was drunk and the baklava all gone, the cups and dishes and silverware washed and put away, and the table wiped, and after all the yelling and fighting and the, “How could you believe that?”; “What are you crazy?”; “You just don’t understand what this means for the country, for the world.”; and my favorite, “That’s it. I just can’t talk to you. I’m not coming here anymore!”, after all that rancor and what seemed to my Italian mother to be more animosity than her 108 lb. frame could bear, all my relatives down to a man (and woman), put on their coats, grabbed their hats and bags, and hugged and kissed each other before going out the door, saying, “See you next week. Same time?” Okay, maybe not every single time. Sometimes it did get so heated that it seemed fisticuffs were imminent, but even then, they were back the next week. That’s love, of your family, of your country, of the world.
The Greeks have three words for love: Agape — love of mankind; Eros — passionate love; and Philia — friendship, or love between equals. We need all of them now, Mr. President-Elect, if we are going to make it through these times. And in the meantime, to borrow (and bastardize) a line from Sting, I hope our newly elected, and long-serving officials love their children, too.