Greece, history, and Chancellor Merkel
Maybe there are some things Americans need to review as we look about us passing judgment on other countries.
The French writer Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721) satirically presents Parisian society of the time through the supposed correspondence of two travelers from Persia, that is, what is now Iran.
One of the themes (letter 30) is the question, which “buzzes” around one of the characters when he is introduced, “How can one be Persian?”
Montesquieu (who incidentally, as a political writer, popularized the idea of separation of powers in government) was also asking: How can one be French? Or anything else?
It is no harder, he is saying, to be French than Persian; a people is what it is by a shared history and culture, no matter how strange those may appear to others.
This week’s New Yorker offers some salient remarks on the financial crisis of Europe and tomorrow’s Greek election in “Greece vs. the Rest” by John Lanchester:
“… Hurtling toward the cliff in one lane is the electorate, with the threat that it will vote for parties who refuse the austere terms of the bailout agreed on by the “troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Gunning alongside it is the troika, the other E.U. governments, President Obama, and just about every mainstream economist alive, all of them warning that a vote against the bailout would involve a Greek exit from the euro zone, and subsequent economic calamity….”
Normally, we admire someone who stands up against all the rest. Not in this case, it seems.
The Greeks do have their reasons: “… the loathed austerity terms … have helped to cause the Greek economy to shrink by sixteen per cent, the sharpest decline in any developed country since the Great Depression. Previously comfortable middle-class Greeks are rummaging through garbage cans for food—often after nightfall, when the neighbors can’t see….”
And “…What we have … is a Continent-wide austerity policy, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, that is manifestly making things worse….”
In 2010 an article was going around the Internet entitled “Why Europeans Think We’re Insane“ by an American expatriate writing under the pen name Democrats Ramshield.
A lot of Americans (and no doubt many Europeans too) probably think the Greeks are insane for daring to question the sanctity of the European Union and the euro, or for not wanting to do what the Germans (and everyone else) are telling them to do.
Resistance makes some sense, though; a lot of leading economists (such as Robert Reich) say “austerity” is the opposite of what Greece and Europe (and the United States) need.
Possibly the Greeks, recognized as the founders of democracy (and let’s note that almost all of our political science words come from Greek) feel qualified to stand their own ground and question the underpinnings of today’s societies, which, set up against their 3000-year history, are all pretty transient.
The Acropolis at dawn, by Jon Corelis, 2009, at Wikimedia Commons
Maybe Socrates got them in the habit of asking questions that politicians hardly dare enunciate here in the U.S. today, like “Who should actually own power in a democracy?” or “Why should the poor sacrifice more than the rich to save their country?” or “Are banks and money more or less important than actual living, breathing people?” or (in our own case) “Why is our net family worth no higher than it was 20 years ago?”
We should remember that Greece is a pretty advanced country in many ways. On 7/21/10, I posted “Why are the Greeks living longer than we are?“ To be precise, life expectancy in Greece is 1.3 or 1.55 years (depending on your source) longer than in the US. Is it possible we have something to learn from them (and from the 37 or 49 other countries that rank ahead of us in longevity)?
Do you remember the 1985 movie Eleni, based on the book by journalist Nicholas Gage? The narrator returns to Greece to uncover the circumstances of his mother’s death in the civil war between communists and anti-communists after liberation from the German occupation in World War II.
A relatively recent family story like that might help explain why the Greeks focus on their own lives, without hurrying to bow down to Chancellor Merkel’s economic theories (which someone recently characterized as: “We’ll stop beating you after you start behaving better”).
A glance at the Greek people’s history in Wikipedia) shows that they have been around a lot more blocks than we have.
Greek city states, wars against the Trojans and Persians, Alexander the Great, absorption into the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and by 1460 the Ottoman Empire… and finally, after nine years of warfare against the Turks, Greece became independent in 1830.
The “Great Powers” (that is, the dominant countries of Europe) sent in German nobles to serve as Greek monarchs (Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip, in the news recently during the Diamond Jubilee, is the grandson of German-Danish King George I of Greece).
The same Great Powers forced the Greeks in 1893 “to accept the imposition of an International Financial Control authority to pay off the country’s debtors.” Does that sound familiar?
In World War I, Greece was divided between pro-German and pro-British governments. A Republic was established in 1924 but became a fascist state in 1936, which however refused to join the Axis, resulting in (as in France) German occupation and a bloody Resistance.
After the war, violence continued between communist and anti-communist factions. A king returned in 1964 but was forced to flee by a coup organized by the US-backed “Colonels.” The curent republic was installed in 1975.
In sum, the Greeks have been ruled by their own city-states, by the (“pagan” then Christian) Romans, by the (Orthodox Christian) Byzantines, by the (Muslim) Ottomans, by foreign kings, by Nazis, by a military junta, and by three republics, with a bloody communist uprising along the way.
That’s how one can be Greek.
How can one be American?
How can one be Chancellor Merkel?