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Conscience of a Hellene: The Greek Identity Crisis

Wednesday, October 28, 2015  | 

Loukas Kozonis

People often ask me my thoughts on the situation in Greece.  I do not live there.  I am not an economist or a journalist.  However, as the child of Greek immigrants, they feel I offer insights lost in newspaper headlines.

Too often these conversations begin with a question or comment reflecting a caricature of all Greeks as lazy, crooked, spendthrifts.  “Is it true that everyone in Greece retires at 40?”  “This was bound to happen when no one pays taxes!”  Many Greeks, especially the young, feel angst with their inability to shake this impression and take insult to such stereotyping.  However, my understanding of what it means to be Greek and the values it signifies is vastly different.  I contemplated this contrast.  Why is my perception so different?  Am I missing something or being naïve?  Am I idealizing my heritage?  The more I thought about it, many more questions emerged.

For instance, most people are familiar with the Greek’s ancient glory.  But how does it fit into our identity?  Do we have a greater claim to that history than the average Western citizen?  Does it play an outsized role or create unrealistic expectations?  What role do more recent events play in our perception?  Is the Greek “brand” Western or Eastern?  Have the Greek peoples’ travails and triumphs over hundreds of years of occupation, war, and crisis positively or negatively influenced our assessment?

The effect of a widespread global Greek diaspora also has to be accounted for when discussing the Greek “brand”.  How does the Greek diaspora shape our reputation?  How does each family’s individual immigrant story shape the narrative?  Does being second, third, or fourth generation alter the notion?  Is there a difference between being Greek, a Greek-American, or an American with Greek ancestry (for ease, this piece refers to all simply as “Greek”)?  If so, what does each label signify?  Is it important and to what extent do traditions and culture, like Greek dancing and even Greek food, matter?  What makes someone Greek?  Does America’s “Great Melting Pot” create challenges or opportunities for us?

Finally, we have to look at the glue that has held generations of Greeks – from the subjects of the Ottoman Empire to the first Greek immigrants – close to their identity, the Greek Orthodox faith.  What function does today’s Greek Orthodox Church play?  To what extent is the Greek “brand” tied with that of the Greek Orthodox Church?  Is the Church more about ethnic distinction or faith identification?  In an age of interfaith marriage, can one be Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, etc. and also be Greek?  Does the Church play as large a role today in defining the Greek image as it did a decade ago?  Why or why not?  Moreover, now that Greek is no longer the primary language it most parishes’ liturgy, is the Greek language of continued significance?  Should the Church continue to be at the forefront of promoting its study?

The Hellenic American Leadership Council wants to know your thoughts.  Does a Greek “brand” exist?  What does being Greek mean to you?  How is that label generally perceived?

If you have answers to any of these questions, share them with us.  We will be soliciting you to respond to quotes, to questions, to surveys.  We will share as many as we can on our blog, and will summarize what we have learned in a separate piece.

Please join us in this effort to properly define the Greek “brand” and to come up with ways to promote it.


HALC member Loukas Kozonis will be moderating the new weekly “Conscience of a Hellene” feature.


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