A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


July 3, 2015

Yes? No? Vote, and stay engaged

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Written by: DW

We have an expression in the US. “Vote early and often.”

Lest you think I am encouraging you to commit voter fraud, I actually have something else in mind. If you vote when young you are likely to continue to want to vote whenever you have the opportunity. Make it a habit. Just look at Scotland, in which 16-17 year olds were allowed to vote in a bitterly contested referendum on whether to remain in the United Kingdom, and are already showing signs of wanting to be fully engaged citizens thanks to the experience.

I have been asked frequently how I would vote in this election or that. The referendum this Sunday is no exception. I have a personal opinion about what is happening in Greece, but to be honest there is little I can say that would be any wiser than what I have heard from the many young people I have talked to the past several days. So I will not call upon you to vote yes or vote no. The earth will not shatter without my opinion on the matter.

What I will do, if you have a moment, is share the following anecdote, as it reflects a lesson I learned many years ago in a similar moment of heated political passion.

It was 1986. I was teaching English at the Lycee Saint-Louis and auditing courses at the Sorbonne. One of these courses was on the history of the European Middle Ages. The professor, a senior scholar of some renown whose classes were always full to the brim, was the best lecturer I ever heard.

That year France began a grand political experiment. The President of the country was a Socialist, Francois Mitterand, whose party had initially controlled a majority of seats in the National Assembly. In the midterm legislative elections of 1986 the Socialists lost their majority to the conservative RPR party. This meant that the President and the Prime Minister, who are co-equals in the French system, were from opposing parties. The French call it co-habilitation; you might liken it to living with your in-laws. (The Minister of the Interior in the new cabinet was the recently deceased Charles Pasqua.)

One of the bills the new government put forth in the National Assembly called for a fundamental reform of admission procedures at the French universities. Immediately the university community went up in arms. Students came to Paris to protest — as many as 500,000 of them — and organize a sit-in on the grounds of the National Assembly. Predictably, perhaps, the protests turned violent when evening fell, as hooligans emerged and started to do battle with the police in the Latin Quarter, throwing cobble stones dug out of the pavement, smashing and vandalizing shop windows, burning parked cars. There were injuries and one fatality, a young student, before the government eventually withdrew its bill.

The day after the first riots I attended my favorite professor’s lecture. The auditorium was maybe half capacity on this particular day. The professor was preparing to deliver his normally scheduled lecture when one of those students in attendance asked him, unprompted, what he would do if he were in the students’ shoes. I will never forget his answer.

I did not, in fact, actually anticipate that he would say anything, and I was taken aback by his response. Setting aside his lecture notes, he approached the first row of student benches in the auditorium and asked, calmly and in a clear voice, “How many of you voted in the last election?” Gone was the austere tone of the lecturer. Nor was this a demonstration of patronizing moralism. Vote, he was implying, take advantage of your rights and be responsible citizens. We don’t have all the answers. We are counting on you.

This, in turn, is my advice to all those young people who have shared their thoughts and feelings with me, for which I am grateful. If you are dissatisfied with something, if you agree with something or someone, if you think you have an answer or a legitimate concern, share it. You want more democracy, now is the time. Take ownership of your country — the debt that Greece has accumulated is already yours, anyway. Vote this Sunday, whatever your vote — and then vote again in the next general election or local election or European election.

Democracy in Greece is at risk, not because people disagree with you, but because more and more people, young people especially, are tuning out. Our leaders will always be fallible, and foreigners will always find something to dislike in our ways. You only lose if you stay home or seek ways outside the system to try to rectify that which you do not approve of. Now that you have inserted yourselves into the debate, make the terms your own. Continue. Create your own parties. Seek new solutions to public finance. Use those assets that are uniquely your own. Help your elders understand what really matters to you.

Regardless of the outcome, finally, be prepared to accept that many of your peers do not agree with you, and have legitimate concerns that are not the same as yours. Let Europe revel at your wisdom and dignity, just as I have all these years.

As I have observed you these past several days, I can say that I am proud of my daughter’s Hellenic heritage. Vote, and vote again and again and again. And save your country.



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