Discover more from David Matthews Portable Bohemia
A Lesson in Resistance; and, the Authoritarian Threat Today
Politics is a duty, said the Greek poet Alexandros Panagoulis, poetry is a need. Panagoulis was the leader of Greek Resistance and in August 1967 author of a plot to assassinate the tyrant Papadopoulos and bring down the junta. The attempt failed. Panagoulos was arrested, brutally tortured, and sentenced to death. Under political pressure from the international community, the ruling colonels refrained from carrying out his execution. He was imprisoned for five years in a concrete cell one and a half meters by three. He could take only two and a half steps in it, at most three. He reportedly refused amnesty offers before being released as part of a general amnesty in 1973.
Panagoulis told Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (Interview with History) that before his imprisonment the least little toothache bothered him immeasurably. He could not stand the sight of blood. Yet the more they tortured him, the harder he got. He resisted with hunger strikes to “show them…that they can’t take everything away from you since you have the courage to reject everything” and adopted a “provocatory and aggressive attitude” that transformed systematic torture “into a personal struggle by the tortured man himself.” If he was not tied to an iron table, he kicked and bit the torturers. When they insulted him, he insulted them in turn, coldly telling them what he would do to their daughters.
No matter what they did he never betrayed anyone. One night, seeing him spit blood, the chief of police who directed his tortures shook his head and said, “It’s no use. No use insisting. It happens once in a hundred thousand times that someone doesn’t talk. But this is that case. He’s too tough, this Panagoulis. He won’t talk.”
Panagoulis emerged from prison with scars all over his body, his health poor, subject to breakdowns, no less committed to act on his ideals and values. After the restoration of democracy in 1974 he was elected to the Greek parliament where he continued to make accusations against politicians who had collaborated with the old regime. In turn he was subjected to pressure and threats intended to put a stop to his allegations. He died on May 1, 1976, at the age of 36 in a car crash a few days before he was to reveal files of the junta’s military police in his possession. Many do not believe his death was an accident.
While in prison Panagoulis wrote poems on his cell walls and tiny pieces of paper using his own blood as ink. Some were smuggled out of prison by friends. Others he recalled from memory after his release. A collection titled Others Will Follow: Poetry and Other Documents of the Prison of Boyati was published in 1972 and awarded the Viareggio International Prize of Poetry. A second collection, I Write from a Prison in Greece, was published after his release.
In the introduction to her interview with Panagoulis, Fallaci wrote of the “notable position” he took in Papadopoulos’ trial when he opposed the death penalty for the former dictator:
Alekos argues that such a sentence would be just only when the suppression of freedom has forced upon the citizen the moral right and duty to act as prosecutor, judge, and executioner. When freedom has been restored, killing is reduced to mere personal vengeance.
Alexandros Panagoulis is celebrated for his courage and the tenacity of his resistance to tyranny. His attempt to assassinate the tyrant is a thornier matter. Maybe there is some hypothetical, extreme circumstance where political assassination can be justified or, more accurately, rationalized. The argument against it rests on practical as well as moral considerations. Assassination is not a vehicle for the restoration of democracy. It is more apt to provoke backlash, reprisals, and repression, or in the event of a successful attempt, civil conflict between individuals and factions vying to fill the power vacuum left behind. The innocent bear the brunt of the consequences. The Greek junta was brought down not by assassination but by widespread opposition and the regime’s own bungling during seven years of brutal and inefficient military rule.
For me Panagoulis’ assertion that politics is duty, poetry is a need, means that responsibilities and duties of citizenship do not negate the need for poetry—poetry taken here as a trope for life of the spirit. These thoughts grow weighty as I contemplate developments on our political scene and the paltry significance of a single individual, or even an association of the like-minded, a barely audible voice within the cacophony and tumult that mark this day.
As I write, the House blockhead caucus is using the threat of default to establish itself as a de facto junta imposing its will on the federal government. One Republican talking point has it that elections have consequences. From this, the line goes, it follows that a slender Republican majority in the House with a feckless leader who serves at the pleasure of its most extreme members can dictate terms for raising the debt limit to the president and the Democratic majority in the Senate. Why, one might reasonably wonder, do the elections that gave Democrats the presidency and a majority, however slender, in the Senate not have comparable consequences? In the meantime the normalization of Donald Trump proceeds apace. CNN’s news-entertainment event masquerading as a town hall is only the latest step in that process.
Earlier this week The Bulwark published The Corruption of Lindsey Graham, Will Saletan’s fine in-depth study of how Republican politicians came to rally around an authoritarian, excuse authoritarian acts, and embrace authoritarian ideas. Saletan uses Graham as a case study to illuminate what happened to the Republican Party, in his words, how the poison worked.
We need to answer these questions because the authoritarian threat is bigger than one man. Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency destroyed the myth that the United States was immune to despotism. Our institutions and the people who run them are vulnerable. We have to confront these vulnerabilities and learn how to deal with them before our democracy is threatened again.
Why focus on Lindsey Graham?
First, because he was a central player in the Republican party’s capitulation to Trump. And second, because he talked constantly. He produced an enormous trove of interviews, speeches, press briefings, and social media posts. Through these records, we can see how he changed, week to week and month to month. We can watch the poison work.
The Bulwark has made Saletan’s project available free in a 112-page PDF that is surprisingly engaging. I felt obliged to give the piece a cursory review before plugging it and found myself reading through to the end. There are no sensational revelations. Instead we have a comprehensive, well documented account of Lindsey Graham’s transition from a fierce critic of Trump in 2015 and early 2016 to the person he became as he surrendered to despotism. Today, as Graham has said on a number of occasions, Donald Trump is the Republican Party. And Lindsey Graham is Trump’s man.
I cannot imagine being enthusiastic about Joe Biden’s candidacy. As things stand now, because he is the sitting president, no one of substance is likely to oppose him for the Democratic nomination. Presumptive third parties such as the centrist group No Labels will attract voters more ideologically aligned with a mythical Republican Party from the past than with Democrats but for whom the Trumpian alternative is a step too far, while the Trumpian base remains firm, paving the way for Trump redux.
What we can do seems painfully inadequate to the dimensions of the threat: vote, participate in efforts to get out the vote, speak out wherever and however we can. More than a few commentators have observed that it feels a lot like 2016. Others see Weimar brewing as Trump says January 6 was a “beautiful day,” floats pardons for participants in the attempt to overthrow the government, incites violence and conspiracy, annd affirms that he will not accept the results in 2024 unless he wins. On one point we may rest assured: Should Trump win or otherwise seize power, the second time around will be worse.
Alexandros Panagoulis (02/07/1939 – 01/05/1976), Greece.com
Maria Arkouli, 37 Years Without Alexander Panagoulis, Greek Reporter, April 30, 2013
Amanda Carpenter, CNN’s Trump Town Hall: All Spectacle, No Sunlight: It’s 2016 all over again, The Bulwark, May 10, 2023
Oriana Fallaci, Interview with History, Houghton Mifflin, 1977
Laura McDowell, Resistance poems fight tyranny from behind bars, Kathimerini English Edition, June 6, 2002
Liz McGregor, John Hooper, Oriana Fallaci: Controversial Italian journalist famed for her interviews and war reports but notorious for her Islamaphobia, The Guardian, September 15, 2006
Will Saletan, The Corruption of Lindsey Graham: A case study in the rise of authoritarianism, The Bulwark, May 9, 2023
Michael Scherer, No Labels group raises alarms with third-party presidential preparations, Washington Post, April 2, 2023
Thanks for reading David Matthews Portable Bohemia! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.