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June 7, 2012

What are Greece good at?

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Written by: DW

By David Wisner

There is good news and bad news this week from the birthplace of democracy. On the one hand, according to findings from the European Values Study published by Tilburg University in Holland, more than 80% of those polled in Greece showed support for a democratic regime. This is clearly the highest average in the 47 countries in Eurasia surveyed in the study. And there is also a broad sense of moral solidarity with contemporary Greeks as they struggle to make their way out of their current crisis, if the thousands of angry responses to Christine Lagarde on her Facebook page are any indication.

Yet we still retain the impression that somehow Greece today is not up to the standards of its European partners, let alone those of fifth century BC Athens. According to the recently released IMD World Competitiveness Rankings the Hellenic Republic lags in next-to-last place among the 59 countries examined, while Transparency International laments the high levels of corruption in Greece and elsewhere in Southern Europe. The Pew Global Attitudes Project shows a relative lack of support here for a free market economy, and suggests that other Europeans continue to view Greeks disparagingly.

The implication is that Greece is both relatively illiberal and adverse to rule of law. That it is, as Robert Kaplan has implied in Stratfor, somehow not European. To rub salt into the wound, it has been suggested that this is what Greeks actually want. Last week Jeurgen Fischen of Deutche Bank was quoted in Bloomberg to the effect that Greece was a failed state. “Greece is the only country, I feel, where we can say ‘it’s a failed state,’ it is a corrupt state, corrupt as far as its political leadership is concerned and obviously other people had to be willing to support this.”

In a purely academic world these need not be value judgments. Unfortunately for Greece, Europeans do place a moral value on the very qualities in which Greece has been found to be lacking. In purely practical terms, moreover, the club that Greece joined in 1981 requires that members make concerted efforts to take them to heart.

Two immediate observations are in order. First, Greece has indeed struggled mightily to function in the context of the European Union, but second, the EU has also been a colossal failure at monitoring Greece’s progress toward greater integration. The principal problem, which many have failed to appreciate, is that Greece is playing the game by somebody else’s rules.

This insight, which is hardly original, came to me some time ago after reading an article in the Guardian on an English soccer team subtitled, “What are Arsenal good at?” Arsenal had just lost to a mid-table team. They had not played convincingly, and seemed short on identity. Whither Greece? To recast the question in the context of the current crisis in the eurozone, by what rules would Greece be a successful state? What, in other words, are Greece good at?

The easy response to this query will be to provide the litany of abuses and corrupt practices decried in minute detail in Thanos Tzimeros’ famous open letter to Angela Merkel. This is the easy way out. What if we ask the question a little differently. What are those qualities in Greece that you would most want to exemplify in citizenship education, which you would hold up to the rest of the world to emulate if we were playing according to rules made in Greece? I will name four.

Greeks are capable of working as hard as any people I know. The work rate of many of my acquaintances in the private and the public sector alike is awe-inspiring. It is a workaday quality, not bereft, however, of a talent for improvisation and a delight in being resourceful. They adapt and they overcome. Just think about how frequently Greeks succeed when they leave Greece for one reason or another. Surely such a work ethic, where success is judged on the basis of an implicit Thucydidean scale of “fitness,” would constitute one of the cornerstones of any Greek state built by and for Greeks.

Greeks speak a magnificent language with upwards of three millenia of history behind it. Some current political figures are absolute geniuses in the way they use the language. The original Sophists would be proud of their modern progeny. Think for a moment how grating it is to hear your average American Congressman babble a few words in American English and you will grasp what I mean. True, there is much to be desired in the way that schools teach Greek ancient and modern. It is nonetheless not hyperbole to remind the auditor that theirs is, after all, the language of Socrates.

Greece is also a musical nation. Have you ever gone to a night club to hear a popular singer? It is remarkable how the audience knows the words to all the songs, how they use the experience to emote collectively. There is little or no counterpoint in popular Greek music (singers sing in unison or in simple harmony generally), which may or may not have implications relative to the character of democratic institutions most suitable for the country. I would still be hard pressed to imagine more forceful expressions of spontaneous public unity anywhere in the world.

I am always struck by the ways in which religion has a central role in private and public life in this country. An acquaintance of mine put it more or less this way: I support the church not merely because I believe but also because in this way I keep alive a fundamental dimension of the identity of my compatriots. This is not meant to be an endorsement of one religious tradition over against another, no more than it is intended to belittle one’s piety. But can one imagine a prototypical Greek state without a public role for religion?

Let us stop here. The implications of this thought experiment are twofold. First, it appears clear to me that if left to their own devices Greece might well develop different practices and institutions than those by which it is currently judged by fellow member states of the EU. Seen otherwise, this may also be seen as a relative condemnation of the means by which the EU has sought to inculcate the acquis communautaire.

Second, it leads me to a conclusion I have often come to with respect to Greece’s neighbors in Southeast Europe. We measure the relative degree of health of political institutions in in terms that do not reflect those values which we might be compelled to emulate if we were better able to judge political societies in their own terms. This has implications above all with respect to civic education. Where might Greece be if it developed and shared a model of citizenship education based on values like those enumerated above? The ramifications of this are manifest in another sports analogy.

I remember a hockey game played in 1976 in which the Philadelphia Flyers hosted the Soviet Red Army team. The Flyers determined that they could not compete with and hope to defeat the Soviets if they let their opponents dictate the play of the game. So, instead, they adapted another strategy, which included roughing up their opponents at every opportunity, much to the joy of the home crowd. At one point the Soviet team actually left the ice, threatening not to come out for the remainder of the game. (Sports fans will nonetheless remember in fact that the Flyers did also display their own brand of hockey and won the game handily on their own merits.)

If one continues to press Greece to play a game at a tempo imposed by another we risk adverse consequences, as we are seeing at this very moment. Eventually they will not play the game at all, but may rather resort to all manner of rough house tactics. Incidentally, Greece have quite a lot of experience at this.

The point is not to resuscitate Plato’s Republic. Nor is it to insist that Greece leave the EU. But it would not hurt if we tempered our criticisms a bit, delighted more in the beauties and character of contemporary Hellas, and let them teach us a little of what they know about democracy.

 






One Comment


  1. Dimitrios Machairas

    A Greek state that is truly “built by and for Greeks” has yet to exist in modern history. With the 1821 revolution, and after more than four hundred years that the Greek society was under foreign occupation, the modern Greek state was established through such conditions and on such terms that rendered it a quasi-protectorate state of the Great Powers. The fact that the 3 main forces that dominated the political life of the newly founded state were called the “English”, the “French” and the “Russian” Party, is surprisingly bluntly indicative of the degree of foreign influence, if not control, and of the dependency on outside support for the continuation of the liberation struggle against the Ottoman Empire, as that dependency was perceived by the Greek political elites of the time. Then we have Otto, Royal Prince of Bavaria, becoming the King of Greece. And later on, a civil war instigated by global (f)actors. And then a Marshall Plan. As necessary as such interventions in the country’s politics may or may not had been, they nevertheless created a very real dependency and nurtured a political system and culture which was essentially non-Greek in terms of many of the parameters that permeated and defined it.

    I believe the Greek state never managed to cut this navel-string, so it is still struggling to find a balance between, at times, a pathetic, ludicrous mimicking of foreign ways and, at others, a reactionary and completely myopic disregard of international developments or paradigms. We Greeks are good at many things, but indeed, our state needs, at last, to be able to put our idiosyncratic uniqueness in good use.



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