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Old 07-16-2009, 02:45 AM   #1
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Default Another response to the Obama letter - This time from Oxford

Cj forum online 2009.07.02
forthcoming in cj 105
Quote:
whose is macedonia, whose is alexander?
Abstract: The article discusses an open letter to president obama on the status of macedonia.

On 18 may 2009, 200 classical scholars from around the world sent an open letter to the president of the united states of america, barack obama. This unusual action, and the contents of the letter, raise issues which may not have been considered by all those who have endorsed it, but which deserve consideration. In order to put the discussion that follows into context, it may be useful first to quote the body of the letter itself ...

Some readers may be amused, as i was myself, when they first read what looks like a—somewhat na´ve—undergraduate essay. But the amusement disappears when one realizes that the letter has been signed by countless leading scholars, many of whom teach classics or ancient history at renowned institutions such as harvard, princeton, berkeley, cambridge or oxford, to name but a few. The political impact will no doubt be limited despite this fact. But since the opinion of people of this caliber has considerable authority within the academic community, and since their sheer number may make it look to the outside world as if they represent our disciplines in their entirety, a reply is in order; for what is presented as a summary of “historic truth”—a notoriously slippery term—is in reality a crude statement that
betrays some fundamental principles of historical scholarship.

What follows is thus not to be understood as an endorsement of any real or imaginary expansionist ambitions of the modern republic of macedonia, but as a call for greater methodological and factual levelheadedness and caution when attempts are made to instrumentalize the classical world in modern-day politics. It is true that most of the factual observations in the letter are correct. But it is equally true that (a) the text is one-sided and (b) its argumentative logic is often weak. As for (a), it would have been only fair to state more clearly how much of our knowledge about the ancient Macedonian kings’ “greekness” we owe to the fact that, at least for propagandistic reasons, it could be subject to doubts in a way that would have been unthinkable in the case of, say, a spartan king. The internet documentation which is referred to in the letter may be right when it sees nothing but “a personal grudge” behind demosthenes’ calling philip ii a “barbarian,” but to cite herodotus 5.22 as conclusive evidence that alexander the great was “thoroughly and indisputably greek” is seriously misleading, since herodotus’ statement “i happen to know that [the forefathers of alexander] are greek” is triggered precisely by the existence of a dispute over the matter, long before the age of demosthenes. As for (b), the question “why was greek the lingua franca all over alexander’s empire if he was a ‘macedonian’?” cannot be adequately answered with the words “[because] alexander the great was greek,” given that we have numerous examples of ancient empires in which the lingua franca was not the language of the ruler. Nor can the presence of heracles’ head on macedonian coins or euripides’ stay at the macedonian court prove anything more than that the macedonian kings were ready to embrace greek traditions and greek culture.

But all of this is not the real issue at stake. What is at the core of the letter is a mistaken and unhealthy notion of historical identity.
“while it is true that the paionians were subdued by philip ii, father of alexander, in 358 b.c. They were not macedonians and did not live in macedonia”—but is that really so? How many paionians did we ask about it, and at what point in history? The comparison with egypt is awkward, for at least after the incorporation of “paionia” under antigonos gonatas (249 bce) a territorially continuous political unity had come into being which survived as such in the roman provincial administration. That the case of egypt is rather different in this respect need hardly be stressed. And even if it could be ascertained that a distinct paionian identity continued to exist, that alone could never prove that there was not also an overarching macedonian one; after all, it is perfectly possible to have a californian and an american identity at the same time. Moreover, to use an ancient but immediately relevant analogy, are we really to think that thucydides got it all wrong when he wrote that, decades before the conquest of paionia, the term “macedonia” also applied to lands not inhabited by “ethnic” macedonians (thuc. 2.99)?

Identities are thus shifting, not static, and they can be multiplied if need be. Few signatories of the letter would probably deny this fact when dealing with other areas of the ancient world. But to call cleopatra a “macedonian” gives away what constitutes true identity in the eyes of the letter’s authors: To them, identity seems defined by ancestry and blood-lines, by the past more than the present. Are we then to conclude that, for example, john f. Kennedy—or george w. Bush or barack obama, for that matter—were never real americans? And if john f. Kennedy’s ancestors spoke irish at one point, is it preposterous for all english-speaking americans to use him today in their construction of a national identity because of that?
One might object that this is different. By coming to america john f. Kennedy’s ancestors chose to become americans (with irish roots); but why could the slavs coming to macedonia then not become macedonians (with slavic roots)? Yet different it remains, for no political body ever encompassed both the entire territory of the modern united states and ireland at the same time. Hence, a different analogy must be sought. The internet documentation offers one suggestion:
An apt analogy is at hand if we imagine a certain large island off the southeast coast of the united states re-naming itself florida, emblazoning its currency with images of disney world and distributing maps showing the “greater florida.” but this will not do, and here we begin to perceive a categorial error even if we do not wish to subscribe to the “postmodern” possibility of choosing one’s identity freely. By focusing almost exclusively on alexander the great, the letter conveniently forgets everything that happened later in the area. Let us leave it open how the paionians or their descendants thought of themselves by the time macedonia lost its independence, and whether or not they would have objected to seeing their own region referred to as part of “macedonia” at that stage. One point is crystal-clear: The territory of the modern republic of macedonia does have a shared past with the modern greek province of macedonia—and a past, at that, during which the entire area was unquestionably thought of as “macedonia” by many, if not most, of its inhabitants.2 for “macedonia” was not only the name of the relevant roman province—later divided into macedonia prima and macedonia salutaris (not: *paionia), both of which became part of the byzantine empire—as well as the heartland of tsar samuil’s so-called “bulgarian” empire in the 10th and 11th centuries ce. It was also, more importantly for the recent history and nomenclature in the balkans, a distinctly perceived territorial unit within the ottoman empire. Essentially this is the “pseudo-greater macedonia” depicted in the modern macedonian maps which the letter decries, rightly or wrongly, as politically inflammatory. When this land was divided in 1912/13, ten years after the unsuccessful ilinden uprising of 1903, between greece, bulgaria and serbia as a consequence of the balkan wars, a “macedonian” identity of sorts had been in the making for centuries and was now forcefully broken up. To be sure, this early modern “macedonia” was never politically independent or ethnically homogeneous in any sense, and certainly not exclusively slavic. But neither must we erroneously believe that those parts of it which form the modern greek province of macedonia were ethnically as distinctly greek as they have become, for better or worse, in recent times. So the “apt analogy” of a “greater florida” is in reality a politically biased image that misconstructs the “historic truth” it claims to promote.

No matter what its ethnic mix was—and what serious scholar would nowadays want to argue that the only “good” states are ethnically “pure” states, in which everyone must speak the same language?—the tendentiously-labeled “pseudo-greater macedonia,” far from being a recent invention, did exist as a real recent invention, did exist as a real identitarian concept well before the 20th century. And in a sense its roots can be traced back to the conquests of philip ii, alexander the great and their successors in “paionia”; for if those conquests had never taken place, the history of the region would have looked different and the territory of “paionia” might not have shared the fate and fortune of “aegean” macedonia for long stretches of its history.

Thus, unless one subscribes to a dangerous “blood-and-soil ideology,” there is no reason why the modern slavic macedonians should not be allowed to continue to call their country “macedonia” and to pride themselves in alexander the great just as much as the modern hellenic greeks do. What does it matter if alexander “was greek, not slavic,” as long as no one claims the opposite?

One final analogy may help us look at the entire issue more soberly. The west germanic franks originally lived near the lower rhine, in the territory of modern-day belgium and the netherlands. During the migration period they began to move southwards and eventually established hegemony over most of roman gaul. That did not mean that the romans living in gaul at the time immediately had to think of themselves as franks or start to speak the germanic language of their kings, including charlemagne. Nevertheless the name of the franks ultimately imposed itself on the entire territory they ruled, and it survives to this day in the modern name of france. Clearly this does not imply that france “brazenly mocks and provokes its neighbor[s]” belgium and the netherlands—where the “real france” must be located according to the ancient sources—by appropriating the name of a people that did not speak the ancestor language of modern french, or by calling schools or streets after charlemagne. Nor would anyone think of writing a letter to president obama to protest against this state of affairs. But why should such a letter then be written in the case of modern macedonia? If one of our foremost academic duties as classicists and ancient historians is to think about the ancient world sine ira et studio, we must do the same when invited to express our views on a contemporary political issue, however much those who invite us try to make it look as if they shared our love for historical understanding. By putting our academic authority behind tendentious political statements like the letter quoted above, we risk not only bringing into disrepute our disciplines and the institutions at which we are allowed to work and teach, but betraying the past whose guardians we ought to be.

Andreas willi
university of oxford
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Old 07-16-2009, 02:45 AM   #2
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Mark my words, no academic will play this silly game again without looking ridiculous!
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Old 07-16-2009, 02:48 AM   #3
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True, academics and scholars with dignety will never enter into such murkey waters....
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Old 07-16-2009, 02:53 AM   #4
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Quote:
Thus, unless one subscribes to a dangerous “blood-and-soil ideology,” there is no reason why the modern slavic macedonians should not be allowed to continue to call their country “macedonia” and to pride themselves in alexander the great just as much as the modern hellenic greeks do.
Remove the 80 year old imported christian Turkish nationals from the mix and you will understand things a fraction more than you already do Sir. But a mighty fine job I would have to say.

Giorikas, do you agree?
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Old 07-16-2009, 02:59 AM   #5
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Interesting letter, thanks RtG.
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Old 07-16-2009, 02:59 AM   #6
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What does it matter if alexander “was greek, not slavic,” as long as no one claims the opposite?
I don't claim the opposite but I do not claim him as Greek either. Macedonian is my preferred title.
Many academics agree with me.
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Old 07-16-2009, 03:15 AM   #7
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You've got to love it, they always tell the Macedonians not to use the 'ancient' argument, yet that is the only argument the Greeks 'think' they have.

I guess I can see it though, I have an East Timorese friend who has a completely Latin name as a result of Portugese colonists, he will give his children equally Latin names in the future, and if his family were half the racists that many Greeks are, they would be claiming the Portugese colonial empire as their own.

India is a classic example, English is still equally as important (and probably more so) as standard Hindi, Indian's from Punjab and those from Tamil Nadu speak 2 totally different languages (the former Aryan, the latter Dravidian), in many cases English is their only means of being mutually understood. Pakistan is similar too. To these people, the English language is a means for communication, not a means to claim Henry VIII as their ancestors.

The Scots and the Irish, always a good example. How many Irish songs are there in the English language? When 'Irish eyes are smiling', etc. THOUSANDS. Imagine if the Macedonians had songs in the Greek language? Even the English aren't as stupid and racist as many Greeks to actually believe that these English-speaking Irishmen and their songs have something to do with "ethnic Anglos", much less "English patriotism".

The royal Russians spoke French at their court only a few hundred years ago!

The Mongol Mughal's of the Indian sub-continent were of a Altaic-speaking background, used Arabic for religion as other Muslims do, used Persian for the official language of the state, and the Aryan and Dravidian languages of the region still survived.

What I am writing is nothing new, and several parallels can be drawn, fortunately for the peoples and nations cited above, their neighbours aren't Greek. Otherwise, the famous Indian bread called 'Naan' and their yoghurt-type dip would be claimed as a remnant of 'Hellenism', even though Alexander the Great never ate a Kebab (from where souvlaki comes from) and Dzhadzhik (from where Tzatiki comes from).
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Old 07-16-2009, 10:02 AM   #8
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CJ Online Forum 2009.07.02 (forthcoming in CJ 105.1)

Andreas Willi, Whose Is Macedonia, Whose Is Alexander?

Source: http://classicaljournal.org/forum.php
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