EFP – Towards the European Forum in Rome -Thomas Svolos

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in a Melting Pot”

Thomas Svolos


I live in the United
States, in Omaha, Nebraska. All my grandparents emigrated to the United States,
about one hundred years ago, from Greece. 
While up to that point, the United States was largely settled by
Northern Europeans (especially British, Scots, Dutch, Germans and later
Scandinavians and Irish), the turn of the century marked the moment of Southern
European emigration to the US, from Italy and Greece.

dominant story of immigration in the United States has always been that of the melting
, in which people from diverse countries assimilate into the society and
culture of the United States.  This was
first articulated by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in his Letters
from an American Farmer,
where he wrote, in 1782, that “What attachment can
a poor European emigrant have for a country where he had nothing? The knowledge
of the language, the love of a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only
cords that tied him; his country is now that which gives him his land, bread,
protection, and consequence; Ubi panis ibi patria is the motto of all
emigrants. What, then, is the American, this new man? He is either an European
or the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which
you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose
grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French
woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He
is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners,
receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government
he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received
in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are
melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause
great changes in the world.”

By all
accounts, two generations after my grandparents arrived, in most ways, I was
rather fully melted into the United States. 
And, yet, for me, I have always felt myself, in a subtle way, something
of a stranger in the United States.  Perhaps
that did not have to do with my heritage as a Greek.  After all, to be a stranger can manifest
itself in many ways, above all the sense in which a speaking being may be a
stranger to himself (“Struggling with confusion, disillusionment too; Can turn a
man into a shadow, crying out from pain; Through his nightmare vision, he sees
nothing, only well; Blind with the beggar's mind, he's but a stranger; But a
stranger to himself.” John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic, 1970).  Indeed, further, I recall well in a course I
took in college on T. S. Elliot and the French Symbolist poets encountering
this line from Rimbaud’s May 13, 1871, letter to Georges Izambard, that
resonated with me: “Je est un autre,” [I is an other], an evocative
sentence that pre-figures, in a sense, the Unconscious itself (as Lacan put it
in Seminar 2, regarding Rimbaud’s sentence: “poets, as is well known,
don't know what they're saying, yet they still manage to say things before
anyone else.”).  I recall especially the
shock of the linguistic form that Rimbaud used—the use of the third person
conjugation of “to be” instead of the first person form—which now in retrospect
for me is an allusion to the great theme of Otherness (e.g, strangeness) that
Freud borrowed from Gustav Fechner for his concept of the Unconscious and that
Jacques-Alain Miller refined in his elucidation of Lacan’s notion of extimacy,
or, the way in which that which is most intimate for the speaking being is in
fact what might be most external, strange, and foreign to him or her.

that said: there is a way in which this sense of strangeness will get figured
for any speaking being, or, the way in which the strangeness will draw upon the
history of any speaking being—including that of his or her parents and
grandparents.  And, indeed, I recall from
my youth that while my familial ancestors were able to make it in the US, there
were allusions to struggles and difficulties that they faced as a function of
being strangers and the way in which they were seen as somehow lesser people
due to their Greek heritage.  I recall
particularly one memorable conversation from many years ago, around the time
that I—who grew up on the East Coast—moved to Omaha.  I was talking with a family friend who worked
as a United States Senate staffer, a Greek American well connected in the Greek
American diaspora.  He made an allusion
to the fact that Omaha was a historically dangerous place for Greeks to move
to, but did not elaborate further and the conversation quickly moved on.

lived in Omaha now for twenty years, I must say that I feel no burden or
mistreatment as a Greek American at all. 
(Though, interestingly, as someone raised in the more dynamic and
intense conversational style of the East Coast, I have had to make some
adjustment to the Midwestern discursive style—more polite, less emotional or
aggressive, as it were.  This speaks to
an issue perhaps particular to the United States, namely that “strangeness” may
have as much to do with regionality or even individual State identifications as
ethnic background.)  So, no sense of
strangeness for me as a Greek.  And yet,
researching this many years later, I learned of the very particular position of
Omaha as one of the historically important sites of Hellenophobia in the
United States (see
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Greek_sentiment and also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Town_riot for specific information on Omaha as references for
the account below).  The situation in
Omaha was as follows: in February, 1909, a Greek man was taking English lessons
from a woman who was not Greek.  The man
and the woman were arrested, and, in the course of the arrest, the Greek shot
and killed the officer.  A series of
meetings were organized by local politicians, one politician allegedly stating
that “The blood of an American is on the hands of these Greeks and some method
should be adopted to avenge his death and rid the city of this class of
persons.” (See also “South Omaha Mob Wars on the Greeks,” New York Times,
Feb 22, 1909, page 1).  A mob of several
thousand people formed and attacked Greek Town in South Omaha, beating the
Greek Americans, burning their homes and businesses, and allegedly killing one
Greek American boy.  At the time, there
were several thousand Greek Americans in Omaha and most all left the city.  Some of the language about the Greeks refers
to them as living in “unsanitary” conditions and as having “insulted”
women.  I will come back to this issue of
“dirtiness” later.  But, another key to
the whole incident is the context for the riot. 
At the time, the railroads and meatpacking were major industries in
Omaha, and several thousand Greeks came to Omaha pursuing that work.  The packinghouses were largely unionized with
workers who were not Greek and the owners hired Greeks to break some strikes
that were ongoing at the time.  So, there
were two issues at stake here—one relating to the contact between a Greek man
and a woman who was not Greek—the stranger threatening to take away the
woman—and the second relating to the Greek as stranger taking away the
livelihood of the non-Greek.

What is
interesting about the Omaha riot against the Greeks is that it prefigures a
later riot, in 1919.  At the time, with
the Greeks largely gone, the meatpacking plants had taken to hiring
African-Americans as strikebreakers. 
There were significant labor actions in many places in the United States
in 1919, and Omaha was no exception.  In
September, 1919, an African American man, Will Brown, was alleged to have raped
a white woman.  (See
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omaha_race_riot_of_1919 for this account.) 
The evidence was apparently weak, but nonetheless, a mob formed and
stormed the Courthouse, demanding the release of the Brown to the mob.  Unable to get him initially, they set to
burning the Courthouse and they also took custody of and lynched the Omaha
Mayor (hung on a lamp post), who was eventually saved.  The mob was set on destroying the Courthouse
and all the officials and officers within, and the officials eventually turned
over Will Brown to the mob, who killed him brutally.  The similarities to the Greek riots are
striking.  In both cases, a group of
people (Greek Americans, African Americans) are identified as strangers, come
to Omaha for work.  Ethic and racial
tension develop as the strangers walk the line of striking meat packers.  An allegation is made of sexual contact
between a male stranger and a female non-stranger, leading to mob violence.

It is
in the context of this personal background and this heritage of mine from which
I heard the comments alleged to have been made by the current American
President about the desirability of certain Northern European immigrants and
the undesirability of others, allegedly those from “shithole” countries.  I immediately recognized that for some in the
United States, that is how my ancestors—my grandparents and my other
relatives—were seen; that is how the Greek Americans in Omaha were seen a
century ago, as dirty and unsanitary. 
But, in addition to this signification of the other, the stranger, as
unsanitary or shitty, it must be noted as well a sense of fear that underlies
the naming—the semblant—assigned to the stranger.  It is a fear of loss—loss of the woman to the
stranger, as we saw in the Omaha riots against both the Greek and African
Americans, and also loss of livelihood, jobs, access to money.  I suppose sometimes the ingredients in the
melting pot just don’t always mix.

wonder further how much this might play into the current plight of the Greeks
in Europe.  Certainly, the
characterization of contemporary European Greeks as lazy, corrupt, and willing
to live in lesser (unsanitary?) conditions has been a part of the way in which
events of the last decade have been constructed in public discourse (always in
contrast to the industrious and hard working Germans).  But, as Yannis Varoufakis has argued in his
recent memoir of his brief period as the Greek Finance Minister, Adults in
the Room
, the culprit, in a sense, may be less the Greeks than the
establishment financial institutions (European Central Bank, International Monetary
Fund) who exhibited poor decision-making in their loans to Greece and, at a
certain point, very conscious decisions about granting loans which would likely
never get repaid, but which, as institutions “too big to fail,” as we say of
Wall Street, led to the brutal regime of austerity on the Greeks.  One of the interesting conclusions of
Varoufakis, however, is that the Greeks themselves may have been innocent
bystanders, the formal recipients of a message that was really intended for
Spain, Portugal and ultimately France.

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