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Archive for March, 2012

By way of an introduction

What to make of this? I have known Greece for nearly sixty years now and think I know a thing or two! So I was very gratified, when I first posted this blog, by the number of hits it received. At last, I thought, the world has woken up to my genius. I was soon disabused. In the original blog title, instead of “mess-up,” I had used that other, rather vulgar, English expression “cock-up.” It was quite clear from the “top searches” listed in my blog statistics, that most of the people coming to my blog were doing so in the hopes of finding something much more titillating and exciting than anything I had to say about Greece’s current crisis!

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Elládha, Elladhára mas, Greeks used to say, speaking  disparagingly of their country and its ways. It means something like “Greece, Our Big Fat Greece,” rather in the same ironical vein as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Endearing in some ways, in others ridiculous.

What they are mocking in particular is an odd conjunction of grandiloquent posturing and pomposity with a tendency to a kind of abject servility and venality. On the one hand, we are the cradle of western civilisation and the mother of democracy, the heirs of Alexander the Great and God’s chosen people. On the other hand, we have no qualms about selling you a ship that we know is going to sink before getting clear of the harbour.

Venality and melodrama

You are a foreign teacher who has just arrived in Athens to take up a post in a prestigious private school. You go to clear your household goods through customs in Piraeus. Hours are spent waiting in various offices scattered about the town collecting tatty bits of paper with rubber stamps. When, finally, you arrive at the warehouse where your possessions are stored – you can see them: half a dozen tea chests, unencumbered, easily accessible for the fork-lift – it is a quarter to two; the office closes at two. The official in charge is sleepy and bad-tempered. “Come back tomorrow,” he says. I say, “But it is only quarter to two and the chests are right there.” He won’t hear of it, clicks his tongue at me and tosses his head back. The following morning, he is better disposed. He asks me what I am doing in Greece. “I am a teacher at the College.” “Ah, a professor,” he says. “At the College? Why didn’t you tell me? Sit down. Have a cup of coffee, professor.” And then he informs me that he has two sons… Everyone wants to get their boys into the College and if you have some kind of entrée, know a teacher…

You are the only customer in a post office. The clerk behind the counter ignores you; she is doing something, you can’t make out what. “Excuse me,” you say after a minute or two. She looks up indignantly. “Have you got a family?” she asks belligerently and you see that she has a bowl of lentils on her lap, which she is cleaning.

You go to buy a replacement sparking plug for your scooter, taking the old one with you as a template. The spare parts man takes a look at it and goes out the back. He reappears and gives you a plug that is manifestly not the same. You point this out. His  retort: “It’s a spark plug, isn’t it?”

A middle-aged builder stands in front of me (this is an argument about how much money is owed; I have told the story in an earlier blog): “I who am your friend, would I lie to you? I swear on the head of my son,” he says, with tears running down his cheeks… And I know that he is lying through his teeth.

And far worse things happen too. A ship’s captain deals with the problem of African stowaways by tossing them into a shark-infested sea. After all, they are only blacks…

Facts? Evidence? What counts is appeals to emotion, theatrical gesture. Sometimes, of course, it is extremely effective. Remember the funeral cortege of Aliki Vouyiouklaki, Greece’s answer to Brigitte Bardot, or Melina Mercouri, chin jutted pugnaciously,  rousing the rabble in Trafalgar Square on Easter Day 1968 on the first anniversary of the Colonels’ coup d’état: “On this day I swear to you the Greeks… will give their lives for the Resurrection of what is the essence of the Greek soul, Liberty”  and she quoted Byron: “The mountains look on Marathon –/And Marathon looks on the sea;/And musing there an hour alone,/ I dream’d that Greece may yet be free.” We wept!

I am sorry for Greece at the moment. It is a mess and some people are obviously suffering. But I am also appalled, by the way in which some people are reacting: the gratuitous violence and destruction, the absurd rent-a-crowd antics of the so-called anarchists, who have turned out at every demonstration for the last fifty years, marched, usually  on the US embassy, calling for Greece’s exit from NATO, opposing membership of the EU as a capitalist club, while of course benefitting hugely from the vast sums disbursed in various forms of aid. They wrap themselves in the angry self-righteousness of anti-capitalism, set fire to a few cars and go home to freshly ironed shirts and dinner prepared by Mama.

It is always someone else’s fault: it used to be the Foreign Office, then it was the CIA; now it is the “troika,” the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF and the Germans. On the wilder shores of conspiracy theory, it is, as usual, all a conspiracy by the Americans, which means in reality the Freemasons and, behind them, the Jews.

And now they have wheeled out Manolis Glezos. He is good copy, a sort of colourful political Zorba, the undying image of Greek Resistance to…To what exactly, it is hard to say. He is a fierce-looking moustachioed old man, rightly celebrated for his courage in pulling down the Nazi flag hoisted on a corner of the Acropolis in 1941 by the occupying German army. He is a lifelong communist whose principal achievement has been the creation of this semi-mythic image of himself as Champion of the People. He was honoured by a Soviet postage stamp in the 1950s, if that gives you some idea of the role he has played. He can be counted upon to face the bayonets of the Oppressor with his chest bared…

And he blames the Germans – still unrepentant fascists – who owe Greece anyway, in payment for the terrible sufferings they caused the Greek people in the Second World War. They may not have won that war, but they are hell-bent on establishing a new kind of reich under the guise of the European Union…

You can’t argue with Greeks. Assertion takes the place of argument in popular Greek culture. Empirical is a Greek word, but its meaning has long since disappeared from the popular vocabulary. Demagoguery, on the other hand, reigns.

Bread, Family, the People, the Fatherland, Liberty, Orthodoxy, Hellenism… Invoke any of these and you put yourself beyond the reach of criticism and contradiction. These are self-evident goods-in-themselves. It is like wrapping yourself in the flag; and the Greek flag symbolises Heroism, Martyrdom, Virtue, the Virgin Mary, Pericles and Alexander the Great, all on your side. You cannot be in the wrong and anyone who opposes you ipso facto puts himself beyond the Pale. Greeks are the Chosen People. How do we know that Jesus was Greek? He went into his father’s business, he thought his mother was a virgin, while she believed her a son a god!

You would have thought that the behaviour of the Serbs in Bosnia under the direction of Milosevic, Karadzic and co was so appalling that no one could have defended it. The Greeks did. It was a difficult time for foreigners with friends in Greece; you risked losing lifelong friendships, unless you could share their unrestrained enthusiasm for “our Serbian brothers.” Banks – in Cyprus too – openly collected money for the Serbs. NATO’s bombing campaign against “our Orthodox brothers” was a crime against humanity.

When I first went to teach in Greece in the 1960s, many school classrooms were adorned with panoramic photographs of Constantinople, in spite of the fact that it had been in Turkish hands since 1453. I have some sympathy; it was indeed an evil hour when Constantine’s great city, seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate, fell to the Infidel. There is some Romance in the belief that some day it will be ours again, but you can’t call it realistic or pragmatic. It is one more of the great Woes and Tragedies to be borne by martyred Hellenism – not our fault, of course, in any way.

Greece’s woes: nobody’s fault but their own

But Greece’s current woes are not the fault of the Germans or anyone else but themselves: not the rich alone, but everyone last one of them. It is not a failing of the Greek character. It has happened because Greece, behind the façade of European modernity, has remained a Third World clientelist state and no one has done anything to change it, largely because it suits everyone to keep it so. There is no really entrenched class system; most people, through family or marriage, have access to someone more or less  “influential,” someone who can be made to feel under some kind of obligation to help, someone with whom some kind of deal can be struck, either to acquire some kind of good to which you might be entitled but which would not be forthcoming through the “proper” channels or quite simply to acquire some kind of good to which you are not entitled at all, like permission to build on a piece of land outside an official planning zone.

Poulimenos,” they say of someone, meaning that he has his price and has frequently sold himself for it. No one tries to do things through “official” channels: you will simply be obstructed. Public servants “sit on their arses and scratch themselves”: kathontai kai ksinontai. In a poor country, such as Greece used to be,  it means a job for life, a guaranteed pension and the power to pick up extra money through bribes from suppliants who do not want their petitions to be refused. So politicians have always bought votes through promises of jobs, whence the astonishing numbers of public servants. And in a country where no one pays tax, where does the money to pay them come from?

The best positions go, not to the most competent, but to the most pliable and those with the most influence and leverage with the powers-that-be. Greece has long suffered a serious drain of its brightest brains. I know many people who went to the USA – and elsewhere – for their education and, much as they might have liked to, never returned because there were no decent career opportunities. Of those who did try to return in the belief that the mother country needed their expertise, many have been bitterly disappointed to find that they were not welcome, butting in with their new ideas, and were denied advancement in favour of inferiors who were prepared to play the game. I was recently treated in a London hospital by a Greek consultant. He had been working and teaching in Athens, but had left in frustration at the endless politicking and dealing. A story that could be told a million times over.

The state, public office, is seen as a mechanism for enriching yourself and your clan, buying favours and paying off favours owed. Governments buy the acquiescence of the vast body of public servants they have created by conceding early retirement, bigger pensions, more holidays. Private individuals protect their own interests by offering favours, putting officials who might be able to damage those  interests in their debt: a lamb at Easter, several tins of fresh-made feta cheese…

Further west and further north, we call it corruption. But in Greece – not to mention further east and further south – it is quite simply the way things are done. You do not want to give the doctor a little sweetener? He won’t look at you. You want to make a fuss if the Customs officers help themselves to 20% of every container you import? They will help themselves to 50%.

Left to your own devices, with your own currency, you can probably muddle on like this. Many do: Turkey, Egypt… a whole host of other states. But tie yourself into a union with other “properly” functioning states, where everyone is expected to abide by the rules, you can twist and turn for a while, as Greece did – in the early days of its membership of the EU, civil servants from other member states were deeply shocked by the attitude of the newcomers – but the chances are you will be found out in the end.

How much money has the EU channelled into Greece over the last thirty years in development funds of one kind or another? (And how much money did the US spend on aid to Greece in the years following the end of the war? None of that acknowledged in any way at all, of course.) And how much of it has found its way into private pockets? I have no facts, no figures, but I have my suspicions. I have seen numerous EU LEADER projects in rural areas and wondered whether anyone  ever came to check where and how that money was spent. You would have thought a little gratitude might be rather more in order than Glezos-style hostility.

I do not know whether austerity and nothing but austerity is or is not the answer to a problem like this. It is, however, quite clear that it was not the Germans who created these problems for Greece. Greeks are quick to dish it out against others: the English, the Americans, the Germans, the Jews, but they do not want to hear it when the criticism is directed against themselves. Yet until they accept their own overwhelming responsibility for the jam in which they find themselves, they are certainly not going to get out of it.

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