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Archive for the ‘matters Greek’ Category

 

That old chestnut is back in the fire, as always happens when a Greek government finds itself up the creek (when was a Greek government last not up the creek?). Let’s find something to rouse our sense of national unity, re-animate that spirit of dogged courage and resistance to the hostile world that always surrounds us, the ingrates, ever eager to destroy our brave and noble little country that gave the world art, science, literature, philosophy: in short, the whole of civilization.

And rather as the Arab countries have that oh-so-convenient running sore of Israel’s existence in “Palestinian” territory to distract attention from their own numerous failings, so Greeks can always turn on the unspeakable Germans (war reparations – though not too politic to make too much of that at the moment when we might need a pile of their tax-payers’ euros), the Americans (the 1940s defeat of the Left; the Colonels’ regime; the Turkish grab of northern Cyprus) or the wicked imperialist British and – horror of horrors – that arrogant, bullying milord Elgin who stole our greatest national treasure, the Parthenon sculptures, and gave them to the British Museum.

Enter the Clooneys or rather the Haven’t-a-Clooneys. For what do they know about the hornets’ nest they are stirring up? But what a wonderful windfall: a glamorous Hollywood star and his beautiful lawyer wife take up the cause. A human rights lawyer, en plus. Justice and human rights: an undreamed of piece of luck for a beleaguered and incompetent government and its died-in-the-wool old lefty minister of culture.

Greek claims based on  narrow nationalism

But is Greece’s claim to the Elgin Marbles any stronger than that of any other modern state to objects or artefacts once found on what is now its territory and housed, for whatever reasons, in a museum on the territory of some other state. Are we to unravel the great international museum collections for this sort of petty cultural chauvinism? For that is what it is.

Greece does not NEED the Parthenon marbles, rather fewer than half of which survive anywhere in any form. It is absolutely stuffed with glorious monuments of the classical age. You would think they might be able to find it in themselves to leave these wonderful sculptures, which have arguably been far more influential in the subsequent intellectual and artistic development of countries other than their own, where they are: in one of the world’s great international collections. For the BM’s collection is INTER-national; that is half the point of it – it is not a matter of narrow nationalist pride. And one thing is very clear: if Elgin had not removed the marbles when he did, modern Greek administrative incompetence and corruption would have seen to it that none of them would have been around today, at least in anything like a recognizable condition, because of the appalling air pollution in Athens throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.

And why a fuss just about the Elgin marbles? Why not the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre in Paris or the sculptures from the temple of Aphaia on Aegina in Munich? Or indeed countless other Greek artefacts in various museum collections around the world? Or, come to that and closer to Mr Hasn’t-A-Clooney’s own home, the “iconic” Cycladic Harp-player in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, famously identified by my now dead friend, the artist John Craxton, as a fake. John had met its maker, a shepherd and self-taught sculptor, on the Greek island of Ios in the 1940s.

 Would any of Greece’s classical monuments have survived without the money, dedication and expertise, indeed sacrifice, of other Europeans?

How often have Greek builders, finding something suspiciously “archaeological” in the foundations of a new house, simply poured concrete as quickly as possible in order to avoid the nosey, time-c0nsuming interest of the archaeological services? I don’t know. I simply ask the question.

Here is a list of major sites largely excavated by foreigners: Delphi and Delos, by the French; Aegina and Olympia, by the Germans; Knossos, by the English; Mycenae, by the Germans and the English; the Athens Agora and Corinth, by the Americans; Phaistos, by the Italians.

Any payments forthcoming from the Greek government? Or any thanks?

And what about all those scholarly works, editions of texts, histories, commentaries, all of which have contributed to bringing billions of tourist dollars to the Greek economy over the years?

Who deciphered Linear B, the oldest version of the Greek language?

And what about John Pendlebury, the archaeologist at Knossos and organizer of Cretan wartime resistance, captured and executed by the Germans, happy to die for the country that he loved? Like many other Englishmen, many of them classicists.

And while we are talking about what might count as claims for reparation of a sort or at least sympathetic acknowledgement: has the Greek government ever considered what it might owe the English, French and Russians for defeating the Turkish navy at Navarino in 1827, in a battle which largely secured the establishment of the infant modern Greek state?

By way of an aside: Codrington, the British admiral of that fleet, is a hero in Greece, with many streets named in his honour. In Britain his family’s name is dragged in the mud because its wealth came from slave-worked plantations in the West Indies which it used to endow the beautiful All Souls College Library in Oxford, now the target of students with similarly arse-over-tip, let’s-rewrite-history views as the Haven’t-a-Clooneys.

Some further ideas for Clooney intervention

Now that gives me an idea. Hey, Mrs Clooney, you could track down Achilles’ descendants and have them up before the beak on a war crimes charge for dragging the body of Hector round the walls of Troy? Or maybe arraign the Athenians for their wholesale destruction of brave little Milos?

But that would not please the Greeks. How about going for the restitution of Constantinople, capital of Orthodox Christianity, so wrongfully stolen by the Muslim Turks in 1453? Or the whole of modern Turkey, come to that, which had been Greek for a couple of millennia before the first Turkish boot ever trod its soil? Now that would be a good use of your celebrity and expertise. And we are coming up to May 29th, the 563rd anniversary of the Fall of that great city.

Greek whingeing and celebrity virtue-signalling

My heart is basically with the Greeks. But sympathy for their plight would be a lot easier if they could occasionally resist the temptation to play the victim and not blame someone else, especially when sporting such spectacular beams in their own eyes. Unfortunately for their own moral good, they can count on a large residue of sentimental sympathy in the western world’s many categories of haven’t-a-clue-nies; the celebrity ones, the politicians and economists like our own Goves and Masons with their own anti-EU or anti-austerity axes to grind and the general public, who knowing no history either ancient or modern naturally tell the pollsters yes when asked if they think the BM should return the “stolen” marbles.

 

 

 

 

 

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Interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show this morning Michael Gove again showed scant regard for the truth where his own interests are at stake. The EU, he claimed, was to blame for high youth unemployment in Greece.

First, he is clearly unaware that Greece has frequently been taken to task for the unreliability of its employment and other statistics. Secondly, youth under-employment has been a feature of the Greek economy since long before its current economic woes, as indeed is likely to be the case in patriarchal, agrarian societies where a sizeable sector of the economy consists of small family-run enterprises. Are the children involved in one way or another in looking after the family flocks or newspaper kiosk counted officially as employed or unemployed, especially when they do not receive any formal wage? And, thirdly, at his age Mr Gove should know that, like all unreformed clientelist states, Greece has been heading for its present comeuppance since before he was born, even if, as things have turned out, the pain may have been exacerbated by joining a club of rather more sophisticated governments – and that was a matter of what the Greeks call filotimo, family honour, and geopolitics rather than cool-headed calculation.

It is not many weeks since, in a Sunday Times interview, he also blamed the Eurozone for the existence of Greece’s far-Right party, Golden Dawn, apparently ignorant of the fact that in 1936 General Metaxas staged a military coup that set up an explicitly Axis-type fascist dictatorship that was only overthrown by the advent of WWII; that a similarly fascistic kind of police state came into being in the late ‘forties during a civil war and continued in power through most of the ‘fifties, to reappear in the Colonels’ Dictatorship from 1967 (the year of Mr Gove’s birth) to 1974; and Michaloliakos, the current leader of Golden Dawn, has been involved in far-Right politics since the 1960s. All of this long before Greece’s membership of the EEC (in 1981), let alone the Eurozone, was ever thought of.

And why do I put him into bed with Paul Mason? Because he too likes to distort the Greek situation – economic and other – to suit his wishful thinking. I recently heard him on BBC 3’s Private Passions compare attending a performance of Corpus Christi,  a play that portrays Jesus and the Apostles as gays – an act about as shocking in Greece as producing cartoons of the Prophet in Iran – that was booed and jeered, unsurprisingly, by Golden Dawn supporters to being subjected to the kind of repression prosecuted by the Nazis against all that they disapproved of in 1930s Germany.

These people have got an agenda which they are determined to promote irrespective of whether or not it fits the facts.

I think I might almost recommend Aristophanes’s punishment for illicit bedfellows: a radish up the fundament and depilation by hot ash.

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If I were a Greek watching the coverage of the Greek crisis by the British media I would be inclined to believe that someone in Britain was orchestrating a massive campaign to ensure a No vote in our own referendum on EU membership by blackening its name for causing the ruin of Greece. Its accusers range from The Spectator‘s Charles Moore (poor little Greece, July 4) to David Davis MP (he would, wouldn’t he), Paul Mason of Channel 4 News, who sees pro-Syriza demonstrators as “ordinary Greeks” and pro-EU ones as “cashmere-wearing nouveaux riches, “ and Jenni Russell in The Times (July 2) who thinks that Syriza, “not yet corrupted…is the country’s best hope for genuine change.”

Or is it Putin, who wants a warm sea port and free supplies of feta cheese? Remember Encounter!

Jenni Russell does at least have the wisdom to see that the real problem is Greece’s political culture: in effect, bad habits learnt as the only available means of protection against the arbitrary and despotic rule of the Ottoman sultans under whose yoke they lived, along with much of the Balkans and the Middle East, for several centuries. The state is used as a mechanism for enriching “your” people, through dispensing patronage, in the form of jobs, contracts and so on. Samaras, the last PM, visited by a proud schoolfriend when first elected in 1981, was found to be going through lists of constituents to whom he had promised jobs: something that all MPs have done. A regional police commander, for example, will receive “sweeteners” (a lamb at Easter and Aug 15th perhaps) from shepherds who twice a year pass through his territory on their transhumant journey, as an insurance against trouble he might otherwise cause them for trespassing on other farmers’ land.

Since the state is not to be trusted you learn to rely on family and long-established networks of favours given and received or on outright bribery. If you want a favourable outcome in a lawsuit you pay the judge. If you want your tax bill reduced you pay the tax man…if you pay tax at all. Out of 800,000 registered freelance professionals (this includes doctors, lawyers, language school owners), 500,000 claim not to earn more than €8,000, the threshold for income tax. If you want to pass an exam you buy the questions in advance. I was investigated twice by London University’s chief exam security officer on suspicion of selling A-level questions.

There is a finely calibrated vocabulary to describe all these gradations of what we think of as dishonesty. We know we are doing wrong, in a sense, but volevòmaste. We make a sort of accommodation with our conscience; after all everyone else is doing it too. But people, like foreign journalists who cannot speak Greek, do not see any of this and therefore fail to understand what the Greeks themselves call the “Greek reality,” the ellinikì pragmatikòtita . Yet this is what has brought about Greece’s undoing. It is no fault of the Germans, who also, let us not forget, have voters to think about before lavishly disbursing their money.

As for the idea that Syriza “is the country’s best hope for genuine change,” well, that is a bit of a teaser. Schauble, Germany’s economics minister, found that negotiating with Tsipras and co was like dealing with student activists, which is exactly what Tsipras has been – all his life. In fact his government has just reinstated a law that allows student organisations to control universities and students to remain students for years without passing their exams, while himself personally intervening to prevent the introduction of electronic voting at elections. So much harder, after all, to intimidate the reluctant than it is when having a show of hands at the factory gate.

The Kathimerini newspaper recently carried an article about tsapatsoulià, that characteristic Greek way of doing business: botch it up, make it up, improvise something at the last minute. It is a word of Turkish origin. Once, trying to replace a spark plug, I showed the old one to the spare parts man. He returned with one plainly not the same. When I demurred, he replied, “It’s a spark plug, isn’t it?” A friend trying to get noticed by the post office clerk leaned over the counter to see what she was doing. She had a bowl of lentils on her lap which she was cleaning. She held it out. “Do you have a family?” she said belligerently.

I suspect Tsipras went into those negotiations in rather the same way, with ill-thought out proposals written on the back of a cigarette packet. No wonder the Troika lost patience with him, especially when the minute he left room he accused them of blackmail and criminality. And why would they trust him when he comes from a political tradition that has been resolutely anti-US, anti-NATO and, latterly, anti-EU? Indeed, why should one believe that he went into the negotiations with any kind of sincerity when failure allows him to preserve the “purity” of his ideological commitments, which seems to be closer to his heart than the long-term interest of the nation? And you would think that his ideological references might give his English fans some pause: the Communist Party of the 1940s with its kangaroo People’s Courts and summary executions of class enemies and its incessant attacks on other Resistance groups of different political persuasion.

People are suffering, that is for sure – though let us not examine the veracity of the statistics too closely – and you can certainly argue about the wisdom of the Troika’s proposed solutions to the Greek problem, but to suggest they caused it is both absurd and extraordinarily irresponsible. Six months with Tsipras’s hand on the till have made matters very much worse.

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At the risk of repeating things I have said about Greece in previous posts…

Paul Mason is Channel 4 News chief economics editor. He, along with other Leftie reporters like Patrick Cockburn (The Independent, Feb 1st) and Serge Halimi (Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2015), has swallowed the Greeks’ own self-serving view of the jam they find themselves in. We are not to blame. It’s the Germans.

Paul Mason obviously knows nothing about Greece. This has has been clear throughout his coverage of the current crisis and Syriza’s coming to power. He clearly does not speak Greek and is not aware of the extent to which he cannot see behind the language he does not understand. He re-iterated his version of events on The Spectator‘s Diary page on February 28th in a piece which contained a curious little passage in which he referred to his name appearing on a TV monitor in Greek letters: Πωλ Μεισον (sic). What was the point of this? one wonders. Did he think it lent authenticity to his reporting? Or was it a not uncommon kind of patronising – these funny little people with their quaint language and odd way of spelling foreign names?

Be that as it may, in an embarrassing interview for Channel 4 News with the German deputy finance minister on Feb 23rd (embarrassing not least because unbelievably rude and aggressive) he accused Germany of having twice overthrown Greek democracy. The first time was presumably meant to be in 1941 when German troops invaded Greece. But at the time Greece was not a democracy. It was an openly Fascist dictatorship under General Metaxas, who had seized power by coup d’état in 1936.

Mason also suggested to the minister that he could hardly ignore the “moral authority” of Manolis Glezos, an old-time Communist and now MEP for Syriza, who as a teenager tore down the Nazi flag from a corner of the Acropolis. But Glezos, for all his teenage bravery, has no moral authority. He has made a career out of that act, posing as a kind of political Zorba, ferocious and unbowed in his heroic and solitary rebellion against God knows what. He was honoured by a Soviet postage stamp in the 1950s, if that gives you some idea of the role he has played. And he blames the Germans – still unrepentant Fascists in his view – who owe Greece anyway, in payment for the terrible sufferings they caused in WWII. 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…

The second overthrow of Greek democracy of course is supposedly now, by the imposition of the conditions of the EU bail-out. “What do you say to the Greeks whose democracy you just trashed?” Mason asked the head of the Euro Group. But no one is trashing Greek democracy, if they ever truly had one. They have trashed it themselves. As a Greek friend said to me on the phone the other night: “It has always been like this, since the beginnings of the Greek state 150 years ago. How can we change this mentality?”

Greece is a clientelist state. Government, public office, is a means for enriching oneself, one’s clan, one’s supporters. When there is a change of government, the incomers adopt the same approach; it is our turn now. Result: no one trusts the state and they are right not to.

I have 80 sheep. I declare 350 for EU subsidy. Lots of other livestock farmers are doing the same. The subsidy man knows the score. Why does not he say anything? “Ton taïzome. We feed him.” Which means a lamb at Easter and August 15th and 50kg of feta cheese in the summer. He is happy. I am happy.

800,000 tax payers claim to be self-employed professionals. These include lawyers, doctors, language-school owners and such like. 500,000 of them claim not to earn more than €8,000 per annum, the threshold for income tax.

The introduction of the euro in 2001 made the giving of receipts fairly common. Before that, if you asked for one, people would look at you as if you had perpetrated some terrible insult.

If you want a favourable judgement in a lawsuit, you pay the public prosecutor. If you want the doctors to look at you in a public hospital, you had better hand over the proverbial fakeláki, the little packet with cash in it.

I am not making these things up. I have lived them.

The last Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, was the youngest MP ever when first elected to the Parliament in 1981. A proud school friend went to visit him, expecting to find him busy with affairs of state. He was shocked to find him going through lists of people to whom he had promised jobs in return for votes – something which has been common practice since the inception of the Greek state, whence the size of the civil service, equal to that of France, with more than six times the population.

How else could the finance ministry possibly need 600 cleaners? They have been camping outside since they lost their jobs because of the cruel Germans and their bail-out conditions. Syriza is going to re-employ them.

And the billions that the EU has poured in since 1981 through various development funds. How much of that money has found its way into private pockets? I have seen numerous small-scale rural development projects in remote mountain areas funded under the Leader programme: access tracks to ancient monuments that peter out round the corner, old footpaths cleared perhaps once and left to fall into ruin…Did anyone ever come and check whether the money had been properly spent?

And the gigantic scheme to dam the Achelöos river for hydro-electricity and divert its waters through tunnels from its mountain gorge to irrigate the plain of Thessaly: a scheme that dragged on for more than twenty years in contravention of numerous important international environmental accords and of decisions by Greece’s own supreme court, only to be abandoned in the end. At what cost, both to the Greek exchequer and to the EU, although the latter eventually pulled out?

None of this can be blamed on the Germans or anyone else. When anything goes wrong in Greece, it is always the ‘foreign finger,’ to kséno dháktilo, that gets the blame. It used to be the Turks, then the British, then the US; now it is the Germans. If Mason could read Greek, he could have read an article in Kathimerini on Feb 8th, which told the story of a similar Greek debt crisis in 1897, equally blamed on foreigners.

This is the Syriza line and Paul Mason has swallowed it, as did Paul Cockburn in The Independent. That Greeks are suffering as a result of the bail-out conditions is undeniable, though it is a city rather than a village problem. And I strongly suspect that part of the responsibility lies with the way that previous governments have responded to the crisis, introducing heavy-handed measures in an entirely characteristic manner without proper forethought or preparation: what the Greeks call tsapatsoulià – both the word and the bad habit borrowed, like so many others, from the Ottoman Turks who ruled their country for 600 years.

Mason talks about Glezos “defying the rule of law in 1941.” What has that got to do with it? It is unforgivably offensive to suggest that there is the remotest connection between Germany’s influence in the eurozone and anything that it might have perpetrated during WWII. “It’s a shabby time in the eurozone,” Mason concludes. The only shabby elements I can detect are the Greeks’ refusal to face up to their responsibilities and Mason’s arrogance in playing the role of ill-informed inquisitor rather than reporter.

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Oh Greece, Greece, who is to blame for all your ills? Once it was the Turks, then it was the English, then America and the CIA, then Angela Merkel and the cruel Germans…That was only yesterday. Today it is those wicked Greeks on the Lagarde list:  some two thousand people with bank accounts at HSBC in Switzerland who have been robbing the Greek exchequer of millions of euros owed in tax.

Well, maybe. But it should be said that anyone born in Greece before about 1975, who had the means and did not get any spare money out of the country or turn it into gold sovereigns and bury it in the garden was an idiot! For the simple reason that the political history of Greece through the first half of the twentieth century was an endless series of coups, dictatorships, invasions, civil wars and general uncertainty about what might be going to happen next.

And, secondly, as I have pointed out many times before: while it may be true that the rich profit most from dishonesty, dishonesty is practiced routinely and without remorse or shame by everyone living in Greece. Without it, it is not possible to live.

I recently spent a week staying with farmer friends in a small village in Macedonia. They told me – and I checked this story with several different people – that retired tobacco farmers are still receiving €2000 per year in subsidies even though it may be ten years since they last stuck a tobacco plant in the ground; and tobacco was a state monopoly anyway with all sorts of fixed prices and acreages that bore no relation to what was produced or how it was produced. And how many others are pocketing EU subsidies for non-existing crops and animals?

One of the women in the family is a primary school teacher. She told me that a teacher like herself can retire after twenty years’ service with a €40,000 lump sum and a full pension for ever. I heard stories of people retiring early from other public service positions with lump sums of €80,000. Not dishonest, you might say, but somewhat profligate on the part of a state as bankrupt as Greece.

The HQ of the local frontier guards – a body set up to “control” clandestine immigration from Albania – was close to where I was staying. Its personnel were apparently recruited in a somewhat haphazard manner, the local chief being a former teacher. Rather than patrolling the remote frontier areas of the mountains, he chose to “raid” all the local sheep farmers who were known to be employing Albanian workers, many of them no longer illegal but properly registered, with official papers. He would carry them off in spite of their employers’ protests and take them to the frontier where, for €200 per person, he would offer to let them return to their jobs. Was he fired when this behaviour became known? No: merely moved to another district.

One evening I was comparing prices in the Thessaloniki fruit and veg market with London. The stall-holder approached and we started talking. I said I thought prices had gone down a bit since Greece’s economic woes had started.

“Oh,” he said, “it’s the Germans. They are deliberately driving down all the prices in Greece, houses, land, islands. They want to buy everything up and take over.”

I said I thought it was a bit unlikely that the Germans wanted to buy a place that was in such a mess. I told him the story of the tobacco farmers and their subsidies. I said, “You can’t blame the Germans for things like that. How is Greece ever going to get out of this mess if no one will take any responsibility for what has happened?”

“Take my son,” he said. “He has just finished Thessaloniki university, with the best marks in physics. There are not any jobs here. The Americans have taken him from us.”

“But that will be good for him,” I said. “There is money there for research. He’ll be able to do things he could never do here. It is hard for you, seeing your child go away but it is not very far. I have lots of Greek friends who have spent their professional lives in the US and they come back home all the time on holiday.”

No. America had stolen his son, just one more example of foreign malevolence towards Greece.

It is not long since asking a village café or gas station for a receipt would have produced a look of shock such as you might expect from a person whose mother you had just called a whore.

A thousand things…How many drivers who have never been anywhere close  to a sheep or a wheat stalk are driving “agricultural” vehicles bought at huge discounts? How many farmers pay no tax? For years after the Civil War governments exempted them, presumably as a ploy for buying their favour and “pacifying” the countryside.

Foreign journalists rarely speak Greek, so cannot hear these stories for themselves. And even the ones that do rarely seem to leave their downtown Athens comfort zone.

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Greece is getting stick from all sides at the moment, in particular from journalists who do not speak Greek, do not know the country well, scarcely venture outside Athens and have little understanding of what makes Greeks tick. Greece deserves some sympathy.

Greeks themselves are certainly largely to blame for their economic woes. However,  they are not responsible for the enormous problems posed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of unwanted aliens, from cultures completely different from their own.

Greece is a very special country, with very special traditions. For all the flaws in its system of government, it has, in modern times, always been a kindly, generous, safe place, with a strong sense of what constitutes honourable behaviour. It has no history of colonial conquest or oppression of others.

It is a little place, with a population of scarcely more than ten million. Its people have a strong sense of identity, a strong sense of what it means to be Greek. And until ten to twenty years ago, its people were exclusively Greeks. Whatever transactions you or they had to conduct were conducted with Greeks.

Things began to change in the 1990s with the collapse of the communist regime in Albania, when hundreds of thousands of oppressed and poverty-stricken Albanians poured unstoppably over the frontier. “Hodja (the Albanian communist dictator) kept us like rats in a cage,” as one Albanian put it to me at that time. Greece has absorbed them, pretty successfully now. They caused their fair share of trouble and resentment to begin with, but they shared a history and a culture not dissimilar to the Greeks.

That has not been so with the waves of illegal immigrants pouring into Greece in the last ten years. For a start they are mostly brown and black, or Muslim, from the wrecked or inadequate states of  Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. They look different, their cultures are different, their religions are different – and Orthodox Christianity is a crucial element of being Greek; we should not forget that they spent six centuries under the rule of the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

Greece did not invite them, does not need them (in that rather spurious sense that we are always told our entire economy and prosperity would disappear without waves of uncontrolled immigration) and does not want them. Why should it? Greece is Greek. Why on earth should it cease to be?

This is not a reason for hurting people or a justification for the brutish activities of the Khrisì Avyì party. It is, however, a reason why sanctimonious rights-obsessed outsiders should show some understanding of the very uncomfortable position Greeks find themselves in through no fault of their own. They are on the way to Europe; that is why the immigrants come. Why don’t they try to enter Europe through Bulgaria, which also shares a frontier with Turkey? Probably because they see Greece as a softer/safer  touch.

And Greece simply does not have the resources to cope with immigration on this scale. For one thing, it does not share that Protestant/utilitarian do-gooding, care-in-the-abstract tradition that engenders outfits like Amnesty; in Greece you care for others because they are family, because they are blood, because you are connected to them – you do not lose touch with your parents and allow them to die alone in forgotten flats or institutions. For another thing, Greece simply does not have the money or the physical facilities to provide for a population of illegal immigrants that amounts to around ten percent of the total.

Cut Greece some slack! Why is not Turkey doing more to stem the passage of these people across its territory, where, presumably, they are equally illegal?

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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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