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April 19, 2012

Circle dancing with the Greeks

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Written by: DW

By David Wisner

I first drafted this note over a year ago. If anything, the tendency I described, and its implications for the future of Greece and the EU, are all the greater.

A worldly Greek acquaintance likes to tell the following anecdote. Foreign investors of a bygone era come to Greece, only to lose track of their money, passed from hand to hand as if by dancers in a circle dance.  “Greeks,” he sighs, at once indignant, amused, resigned, and defiant.

Should we jump to conclude, as many have over the past two years, that contemporary Greeks are hopelessly corrupt and profligate, perhaps even tragically so? Better in fact to look past the hyperbolic allusions to Greece’s classical past and the vulgar generalizations about the Greek national character. Greece is now engaged in a new circle dance, only its partners – the markets on the one hand and the EU and the IMF on the other – are no longer out of step. Add to this a traditional pre-election ballet and the stage is set.

Our worldly punditocracy have rehearsed all the clichés. Yes, Greece is the home of the classic genres, comedy as well as tragedy. True, Greece is also the birthplace of democracy. More fundamentally, Greeks, or Hellenes if you prefer, have given the world a rich legacy – nearly 3000 years worth – of discourse on and practice of the arts of power, authority, and resistance, from Homer to Thucydides, from the theory of Macedonian kingship to the Caesaropapism of the Byzantine Emperors.

And then came the Turks. As the British historian Mark Mazower has explained, while the Ottoman Empire was consolidating its territorial holdings in Southeast Europe a new hero emerged all across the Balkans, the bandit. More generally, a characteristic mode of behavior was codified: unabashed manipulation of state largesse for personal gain on the one hand, shrewd resistance to the mechanisms of state power on the other. “Poor country, rich people,” a popular saying goes.

Greece’s troubled reputation in Brussels is hardly new. In the early 1990s Robert Bidelux and Richard Taylor alluded to the “thorny question as to whether Greece deserve[d] to be a full member of the EC [the European Community – the predecessor of the European Union],” on the basis of the country’s rampant corruption and poor record on human rights and minority issues. Then again, a fringe discourse has existed on both the right and the left of Greek politics, according to which the EU is yet another invader from the north, some latter day Frankish crusader or racist Germanic horde, perhaps even commanded by Washington. Some veteran members of recently resigned Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou’s cabinet have reiterated what Bidelux and Taylor called “an unrepentant and unapologetic perception that the EC is an alien authority whose rules no self-respecting Greek should take too seriously.” One has heard distinct echoes of this discourse on the Greek street over the years, even as EU funds have continued to pour in.

The most recent episode in Greek-EU relations is nonetheless different in important ways. It is possible that many more Greeks have engaged in genuine soul searching than is the case among their European partners, quick as some in the north have been to gloat or pass the buck. There is also, alas, duplicity and denial enough to go around, such that bits and pieces of the plaintively populist strain of conspiracy theorizing that had periodically emanated from the Papandreou government, and which are now popular currency in pre-election campaign rhetoric, are not entirely unwarranted.

Future scholars will delight in the myriad scenarios, analogies, and metaphors used by actors and commentators alike to make sense of the story of Greece’s financial woes. Fantasy has often reigned: we have by turns witnessed a modern tragedy and a blockbuster horror show; Greece is on a new Odyssey, but wary of flying, Icarus-like, too close to the sun; the crisis is a contagion, a game of dominoes, a Ponzi scheme, a big fat wedding on the rocks; Greece’s fate is, in the words of Robert Kaplan, its destiny.

Initially, I had been inclined to frame this phenomenon of back and forth – pare-dose as the Greek say – in the context of the discourse on how lazy and corrupt Greeks ostensibly are. From an anthropological perspective, however, merely attributing the bankruptcy of the contemporary Greek state to some inherent flaw in the Greek national character is sadly misguided and simply unproductive. By design or by chance, Greece’s partners have now come to dance. Whether or not they are calling the tune, no one seems ready to stop the music.






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