Most people in America don’t realize that Greece is a very new country—its independent-nation status was made official in 1830. Greece is as old as Belgium but far more poor. Even Dubya as president did not know our name. He called us Grecians, like the hair dye, instead of Greeks.
We Hellenes are among the oldest civilizations, having invented or perfected such bagatelles as philosophy, science, medicine, astronomy, tragedy, epic poetry and literature, the arts, and classical architecture. We also invented the greatest system of government—selective democracy—based on good citizenship, knowledge, and responsibility.
But more than two thousand years since our peak, we Greeks are in deep trouble. After an Ottoman occupation of nearly 400 years that ended with a successful revolutionary war in 1827, the Greeks were as ready for democracy as, say, some African folk back in 1960. Civil disobedience and a deeply ingrained distrust of authority had been considered good for four centuries, but it suddenly was regarded as a crime. Few Greeks understood this. Democratic and liberal ideas had to be scrapped as the people’s newly found freedom turned into lawlessness. The vicious circle of freedom-anarchy-repression has marked modern Greek life up to the present day. Take, for example, taxes. Unlike American WASPS, Greeks do not consider taxes to be a civic duty and mostly refuse to pay them. Politicians choose to ignore this rather important defect, because they in turn get rich in office through bribes and kickbacks.
Military coups are not unknown in democracy’s birthplace, having taken place in 1843, 1862, 1909, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1933, 1935, 1967, and 1973. Eleftherios Venizelos—the Greek George Washington, so to speak—led two coups himself after having come in second-best during free elections. See what I mean by a vicious circle?
Greek intellectuals and historians have generally blamed the 400-year Turkish occupation for the nation’s ills. It is a fact that, where humiliation persists through several generations, the oppressed begin—in defense of their own dignity—to imitate their oppressors. The cruelty, vindictiveness, and harshness shown by warring political factions testify to this theory. But this is not a sufficient explanation. The volatility of the Greek character, probably the only remaining link with our glorious past of antiquity, is another. The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to others’ dictates. His unruliness has helped him survive through the centuries of oppression, as well as to rise above adversity. But it has also made him unaware of the advantages of a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes. This has created a climate where cheating is a way of life, where the highest and lowest of citizens do not hesitate to use dishonesty, especially in politics.
A direct result of this way of life has been the “spoils system.” Although not a Greek invention, nowhere has it been practiced more assiduously than in Greece. Succeeding governments have shamelessly brought in their favorites, returning favors and expecting new ones in the future, and changing laws to suit their purposes. This encourages resentment, divisiveness, and a “wait until my turn comes” way of thinking. This is the bad news. The even worse news is the fact that Greece might bring down the whole western financial system, as the country owes untold billions to mostly German and French banks. If Greece defaults it will make the Lehman Brothers fiasco seem like chump change, but then it was the greedy bankers who lent the Greeks money blindly and without collateral.
I almost forgot: Lloyd Blankfein’s merry little band of brothers, Goldman Sachs, were the Greek government’s financial advisors. They showed the descendants of Pericles, Leonidas, and Alexander how to cook the books when the European Union’s financial examiners checked them. Goldman Sachs made hundreds of millions by showing the Greeks how to cheat, yet now it is the pensions of the poor which are being cut in order for Greece to show that they can get their house in order.
But the Greeks never will. Default is in the cards. Every Greek government since the military junta’s 1974 collapse is responsible for the mess. Even the referendum to bring back the King—who had left because of his opposition to the junta takeover—was a fraud. He was not allowed into the country, false rumors were spread that he was behind the junta, and greedy politicians expropriated his properties without compensation. Andreas Papandreou, father of the present premier and thankfully now dead, was as responsible for the financial collapse. So was the recently departed Kostas Karamanlis, a so-called conservative who spent like George W. Bush without two wars as an excuse.
But the greatest fault lies with the EU. For years money that poured into Greek coffers was wasted by politicians in buying votes (when it didn’t go straight into their pockets). The EU turned a blind eye because it is basically corrupt and power-crazy. The unelected EU found a way to rule Europe—something Napoleon and Hitler failed to achieve. Greece, an ancient society of savers, became one of borrowed prosperity, surrendered to luxury and easy credit. It now depends on international creditors’ charity. The Greeks, among a handful of nations that have survived with their language and identity through the millennia, forgot their ancestors’ advice and abandoned their grandfathers’ habits. We became soft and have no one to blame but ourselves and the EU’s Eurocrooks.
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