Hanson – ancient Macedonians were considered a distinct people


Some 30 years ago, the understanding of the ancient Macedonians has changed and and they were now declared as pure Hellenes, even though, until then, they were considered as, at best, a people in need of Hellenization, says Victor Davis Hanson, American scholar on the Classical period and its warfare, and a well known Conservative opinion maker. Hanson says that it can’t be said with certainty whether this change was due to new scientific, or tourist and political reasons. In his interview with MIA, he Hoover Institution professor also discussed the decline of the West, President Obamas views on Europe and the change in the way the Western countries approach warfare.

Professor Hanson, you have devoted a fair amount of your life studying and writing about Greece, its history, culture and civilization, but also on warning about the decay of Western civilization in general. What are your personal views on the Greek collapse in the last three years, which in a way combined these two issues?

Anyone who visited Greece often between 1980 and 2010 should have been disturbed. Even to the naked eye, it was a huge German-fed Ponzi scheme, in which a naturally poor country cooked the books and used German loans to live the good life—and it was very good for very long for very many. The Greece of 2000 sounded a lot like Athenian literature of the 4th-century B.C., the topics ranging from envy and jealousy to bickering over state entitlements to ways of doing very little for state pay.

As someone who was warning for a long time on the unsustainability of the European social model, what is the lesson you believe that the World will learn from the current crisis? Would it be the view favored by the Conservatives, that the it will be danger of the economy of debt, or will the Left prevail, warning that the crisis is the result of the policies of austerity?

Ultimately someone has to live in the real world. That fact is unmistakable. The fight over austerity is usually a battle over bailouts, in the sense that a country like Italy or Greece says it is willing to cut back in order to get more northern European loans and
forgiveness of debt. The assumption is that someone north of the Rhine did something different than someone south of the Rhine to have the real material wealth to loan out. So for all the sloganeering of the left, even it does not believe that its own system creates real wealth. Italy does not bail out Portugal, or Portugal Greece. Europe is engaged in what we call over here a stand-off: how creative can the more socialist debtor nations become in either threatening or guilt-tripping the more free-market creditors to bail them out. And they are creative, from raising the specter of a Samson in the temple EU meltdown to rehashing World War II.

You are certainly aware that two small Balkan countries, Macedonia and Greece, have been locked in a difficult, two decades long struggle over the name Macedonia. Many consider this a laughable issue, but it carries some serious consequences, from the Greek economic embargo of the 1990ies, to the elevated tensions in the region.

Mostly ironic, if I can be excused for such a detached view, in the sense that classical scholarship as it pertains to Greece and emanates from Greeks and philhellenes up until about 1975 saw Alexander and the Macedonians as sort of uncouth half-Greeks in need of hellenizing by the city-states. After 1980, they were often reinterpreted as pure Hellenes. I am not sure whether archaeological breakthroughs, tourism, or politics account for the change. I think the Greek view is that the culture of Macedon in the widest sense of Macedon being Pella or the key cities was Hellenic-like, with a language similar to Greek (although sometimes not easily understandable to Greeks) and a culture considered in antiquity somewhat similar to Greeks' earlier monarchies. How that translates into cultural continuity, much less claims of heritage, across 2,500 years, I am not competent to ascertain. The problem is linguistic, ethnic, and historic—as the large ancient kingdom of Macedonia is variously now interpreted as Slavic, Hellenic, autonomously Macedonian, ancient, Medieval, and modern. There were an ancient Macedonian people, like a present-day Kurdish people, and they lived in areas that now belong to different states, as is true also of the Kurds, but after that politics make easy conclusions impossible.

In the Balkans, historic research is often used to support exclusionary policies toward the neighbors. There are frequent accusations of ‘theft’ of someone elses history of tradition, often baffling the Western historians. What is your experience with the Balkan historians?

I don't have much experience other than a sense that most historians of Greek background tend to assume that all of ancient Macedon and contemporary Greek Macedonia are synonymous, and most Slavic historians seem to assume that modern Macedonia is a legitimate cultural successor to a complex ancient kingdom of mixed languages and ethnicities—and that most Americans and English historians are, as you suggest, baffled. My own view is that in the latter 5th century B.C., the royal elite of a vast, loosely defined Macedonia made a conscious effort to Hellenize its elite and its urban culture, especially for purposes of military efficacy, and it was somewhat successful, as long as one defines success as not turning the southern Balkans into Greece per se. But how that translates into 21st century politics is bizarre but not unprecedented—compare historical claims for Palestine or even East Prussia.

Greece in all seriousness takes into account its historic heritage and guides its policy toward Macedonia with this goal, of preserving it. Do you think that modern Greece has been a good steward or representative of its cultural heritage?

I lived in Greece for two years and have visited there over 20 times, and have some knowledge of its idiosyncrasies. In a word, it lives ina rough neighborhood, separated from Europe by the Balkans and wide open to the Middle East and Turkey, a society occupied for nearly 400 years by the Turks, and often a pawn in big power politics of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Greeks believe that their spectacular classical heritage has survived intact through 2,500 years of Macedonian, Roman, Ottoman, Frankish, Venetian, and European occupation, and should accord them status and influence not commensurate with its otherwise small population and unimpressive economy. Individual brilliant Greeks are thought far better to represent Greece as a whole rather than dismal economic statistics.

Greece is nominally a free market state, while Macedonia was a Communist state, which is now introducing free market reforms and maintains a low level of debt. How is it that the two countries are going in so different directions?

Well our version is called red versus blue state. An Illinois, California, and New York are high tax, big government, big exodus states. Utah, Texas, or Indiana are low tax, smaller government, and influx states. The former brag about their culture—Chicago, San Francisco, New York—the latter about their lower crime, and more freedom. The truth is, however, the blue states are in financial peril, are living off their fabulous inheritances where the American industrial miracle sprung up, and cannot continue their present course. The irony here is that once poor states seem to be far better run than wealthy states, and people are willing to leave a beautiful California to migrate to a hot and sometimes ugly Texas or Nevada to enjoy the better, smaller governance.

During the Bush administration there was much talk about New Europe, the string of new NATO allies that supported the Iraq war. The current administration seems much less interested in influencing the European countries in transition. Do you see room for a greater US role in transforming Europe?

The Obama administration sees the EU as a model, both economically and culturally. For Obama, this presents a paradox: he resents Europe for its supposedly imperialist, racist, and colonial past, but also admires it for its socialist and anti-traditional present. Add in the fact that the EU is almost imploding and a Greece is the future of California, and Obama finds it difficult to hold up Europe as a model. To sum up, present-day Europe's socialism is for Obama atonement for its culpable past, and should be best left alone. Obama admires a socialist Latin America or multicultural Asia or Islamic Middle East more than he does the prosperous and humane countries like Denmark or Germany or the Netherlands. He snubbed Germany on the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, ditches NATO meetings, flies to Scandinavia only to lobby for the Olympics or accept his prize, and gratuitously insults the British in petty ways; in contrast, a thuggish Erdogan is supposedly our model of a sober leader. He is much more likely to bow to the Saudi kleptocrats or the Chinese autocrats than the Queen of England.

In Brussels there is a bold feeling that they must unite the entire Continent under a strong, imperial technocratic Government, seen in the calls of ‘more Europe’. What do you think would be the outcome?

It is as old as Plato; the radical egalitarian always seeks more power and less democracy to ensure his vision of utopia, replete with an exempt technocracy under his tutelage. Radical egalitarianism always ends with totalitarianism, given human nature's innate desire to be free and pursue liberty and not go willingly to the equality of result gallows. We are seeing that here in the United States, as the Left is left mute when Obama trumps Bush in his lack of transparency and use of government edicts to pursue his version of egalitarian paradise. Statism leads only to poverty and misery, as Mao, Stalin, Castro, Chavez, and the North Koreans should have taught us.

You are a historian of ancient warfare, its tactics, geopolitics and heroics. Yet, the modern style of warfere, with its attacks on the civilians, terror strikes on religious shrines, etc, leaves very little room for the old heroic narrative we associated with war.

Western modernism, after WWI and WWII, rejected the idea of victory and defeat, as well as good and bad. Now we must be 100% perfect to be good at all, and can only fight if we are assured that everyone has universal health care. Such impossible expectations lead to stasis, like we have seen in the last 20 years. We fight kinda, sorta wars, out of sight, out of mind, mostly with borrowed money and the classes that we consider illiberal. But if the US or Europe does not believe in the exceptionalism of the West, why should others? And how surreal that we defer to the lead of thugs and fakers who trash the West, even as their own populations risk all to live in the West. In America we are the butt of constant verbiage from Mexico City even as 12 million Mexican nationals flee to join the gringos; your version is the hostile Arab World and radical Islam that cannot keep its own from fleeing to the land of the decadent infidel Crusaders. Is the West evil or the home of big-screen TVs or both? And yet to state just that is seen as politically-incorrect and worse. We are lost souls in the West, where only pockets of the old belief and confidence struggle on. In an existential struggle, we might abandon the pretensions brought on by our affluence and leisure, but so far our wars are mostly optional and not existential. That may change…and change in frightening ways.

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