I’m standing naked on my balcony, cheering at the Acropolis as Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica II” transitions into “911.” Joe Biden has just been declared winner of the US election, and I’m celebrating in the gayest, Greekest way possible. It’s the same day that Greece’s second lockdown begins, so I’m alone and listening for any other cheers, but all I hear is my own “woo!” echoing over Athens.
My phone rings, and it’s my parents calling from across town. My Greek father, an eternal optimist who thought Biden would win in a landslide, emphasizes the importance of his win. My New Yorker mother, our family’s resident cynic, laments that the margin wasn’t bigger. I’m usually aligned with my father’s optimism, but I’ve moved towards cynicism in the past four years — an attitude so uncharacteristic that my mom recently begged me to set it aside and let her take it on as the “negative, cynical one.” I cry as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris talk about a hopeful future because I realize that I can finally return to optimism.
I left Los Angeles for Athens in July to surprise my parents who moved here in January from New York City because even my father couldn’t find much hope in Trump’s America. My dad has spent his life studying the historical and philosophical origins of democracy while believing in its American form, and yet, after almost 60 years in the US, he left, heartbroken to see what the Ancient Greek ideals had become. Since being in Athens, my dad and I often gaze at the Acropolis, as we both find its energy to be healing, soothing, and protective. At 75, my father is still awed by the power of the Acropolis, and I wonder what it is that draws us both in.
If Athens is the birthplace of democracy, then the Acropolis is the symbol of it. It was around the Acropolis that early democratic ideas were formed. Democracy means the “people” (demos) “rule” (kratos), so perhaps the energy of the Acropolis is shaped by the very idea of democracy: that people can rule themselves.
Breaking from hierarchical thinking to allow people the space to trust and rule themselves — in other words, offering people visibility — is an inherently queer idea. It’s one that went off like a light bulb two years ago when I realized that, even after years of being out, I was still living by the hierarchies of the heteronormative world and distrusting my own voice about what my life could be. I still had femme dresses that I never wore, was seeking monogamy or nothing at all, and believed my career was failing since it wasn’t going in a straight line. Like democracy, queerness often lives in a non-hierarchical space that values a person’s agency and visibility. Inevitably though, that queer power of democracy has been distorted by a homophobic, transphobic, patriarchal, white supremacist, and capitalist world. But the Acropolis uniquely occupies a space between idea and reality: It is both the symbol of democracy and the site where it was actually practiced.
The beauty of democracy is that it allows room to change and improve, because daily life in the 21st century United States doesn’t look like life in the 18th century — and certainly not like life in 5th century BCE Athens when the idea of democracy first emerged. Perhaps this is the difficulty that many experience with the face of American democracy, as in some fundamental ways, it feels fixed rather than fluid. A popular chant at American protests is “This is what democracy looks like,” because often, that truth of fluidity is overlooked. What are the faces of democracy, rather than its singular face, and how can they truly be seen?
This election has been posed as a fight between binaries: civil rights versus bigotry, community versus narcissism, democracy versus fascism. For most of us, it’s also been a battle between optimism and cynicism. While the two are on opposite sides of a binary, does that mean one is better than the other? Or do they exist on a lateral plane where one can move fluidly between them?
Recently, cynicism in its modern form has become the norm for many. Its Ancient Greek philosophy encouraged an ascetic life removed from the trappings of power, money, and fame, leading men like Diogenes, a founder of cynicism, to reject the material life to live on the street and “bark” his beliefs at others. “Cynic” comes from the Ancient Greek word kynikos, which means “dog-like,” and the original cynics were the “watchdogs of humanity” who told you what you were doing wrong in order to better the community. These days, cynicism is founded less on protection of the “greater good” and more on hopelessness rooted in a lack of trust of others and skepticism of the world.
The structures of power — white supremacy, capitalism, heteronormativity, toxic masculinity, etcetera — make cynicism the default perspective, so it becomes the easy one. Optimism and its hopefulness, on the other hand, become difficult. Of course, not everyone can just look at the Acropolis to feel hope, but optimism can be found anywhere: in a dance break to the new Kylie Minogue, in a gay meme that doubles you and your friends over in belly laughter, or in essays by Audre Lorde that make you cry. It can be found in the things that move you or stop you in your tracks.
Optimism moves us, while cynicism keeps us in place. The past four years have trapped us in a cynical hopelessness as we’re told that science isn’t real, logic isn’t necessary, and that truth is false. How can you do anything but just try to survive? Now we can breathe again and use that energy to create something new, not just fix what’s broken.
Just before the election is called, my parents and I walk around the Acropolis to get some exercise in lockdown. It’s peaceful but eerie to walk around the Plaka’s winding streets, which are typically filled with tourists, underneath the Acropolis. The shops are closed and the tourists are gone, and I ask my father how he feels about this. He says that, during the first lockdown in March, as now, he was struck by the quiet. “All of the monuments got to be quiet. Without all the people, they could just be still and breathe.”
I feel that quietude, which differs from the silence that can sometimes be a painful, violent, and cynical act. When I am silent, it often means that I believe things aren’t worth saying. Instead, I’m quiet as I walk under the Acropolis, open to what it has to say, and I feel its energy of contradictions: ideas and realities, the precise logic of its perfect structure that originally served as a space for religious rituals and visceral emotions, the cynicism of philosophers once living under its shadow and the optimism of others dreaming of the best possible future. The lesson, of course, is that these aren’t fixed contradictions but rather are parts of a whole, a fluid space filled with multitudes. I realize that is what democracy can look like.