As Barack Obama swept Europe politically this week, my vantage point was the ancient agora of Athens, where I could muse whether the young conquerer might become more Athenian or Spartan.
Athens today still evokes a powerful historical parallel with the present American experience. Here, more than 2,000 years ago, an open participatory democracy was born, with lasting artistic, scientific and philosophic achievements, but in tandem with a system of slave labor. Obama strides the same historical contradiction. The city-state of Sparta, on the other hand, birthed today’s military ideal, turning young boys into warrior-patriots, becoming the vanguard of “the 300″ against the Persian advance at Thermopolae, but eventually succumbing to decay as their hyper-militarism led to over-extension.
The parallels between the Athenian Obama and the Spartan John McCain (and his neoconservative allies) seem obvious.
After George Bush and the Iraq War, the vast majority of Greeks and Europeans long for the restoration of democratic, free-thinking Athens–with the Harvard scholar Obama symbolizing the overcoming the legacy of a slave-state underclass. Instead of Spartan militarism and its echoes in Pax Romana, Nicolo Machiavelli, or Pax Americana, the dream here is of a Pax Humana led by Barack Obama. The new Athenians will have to negotiate with the modern Persians, not fight them at a modern Thermopolae.
The Republican incarnation of the Spartans is seen here as an insanely dangerous faction attempting to hold off the terrorist throngs at a new Thermopolae, somewhere near the Khyber Pass. Sparta’s vanguard units in those times were known as the Crypteria, which rougly translates as “special ops brigade.” The hard lessons learned at Thermopolae, however, have been ignored by neoconservative discourse, including the recent Hollywood film glorifying Sparta’s 300.
The Greek world view is helpful here, in permitting a distinction between the Mythic Obama and the Literal Obama. The rapture in Europe is for the mythic one. Support for his insistence that Europe join America in sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan, in a new, aggressive combat mission, meets with heavy resistance even among hardcore Obama supporters.
“The bottom line is an abhorrence with Bush,” says Spyros Draenos, a Greek researcher writing a history of the 1960s Greek reformer Andreas Papandreou, overthrown and imprisoned with the cooperation of the American CIA. Draenos’s familiarity with the sadness of modern history places him as an interested, but by no means passionate, supporter of the Illinois senator who was 2 years old when the Greek generals jailed Papandreaou and installed a dictatorship in 1967.
“But that leaves open the question of why the fascination with Obama,,” Draenos admits. “We are in awe of the fact that a black could be elected President of the US, because America is so associated with racism. Yet underneath the deep anti-US sentiment here is a desire to believe. Back in the sixties it was the same, it was the rise of a movement among those who were disillusioned pro-Americans.”