THE SICK MAN OF EUROPE
A funny thing happened on the way to Greece: I kept getting hijacked to India. When I’m researching a subject, I begin by talking to as many people as I can and pulling every halfway-relevant book off the library shelf. I also read The New York Times every morning and tear out the relevant articles, which, over the year or so I give myself for prep work, can amount to a sizable stack. Nicholas I of Russia called Turkey “the sick man of Europe” a couple of centuries ago, but in early 2012, which is when I began to think about this article, Greece was the most decrepit of the continent’s many invalids. Greece’s economic and social maladies were far more pathological than those of Spain and Italy, its rivals in morbidity, and it seems as though you couldn’t open the Times without tripping over one or more pieces about debt, austerity, strikes and civil unrest, all with an Athens dateline.
Then something happened, though I’m not quite sure what. I’d already planned a trip to India in 2014, so I began to look for articles on that country as well. These started to snowball in the paper’s pages, while the storm of information on Greece turned into a flurry and then nothing at all. Had the Athens bureau suffered a budget cutback? Had the editors in New York simply had it up to here with a Greece that seemed to be stewing perpetually in its same old juices? Or had the editorial board simply decided that the public didn’t want to read about Greece any more and so shifted the focus to a country with a fresh set of problems?
The next thing I knew, it was time to go to Greece and get my own answers. My wife, Barbara Hamby, had received a grant from the university where we both teach to follow in the footsteps of Odysseus, and I followed in hers.
DROWNING ON DRY LAND
Despite Greece’s disappearance from the headlines, I knew I was headed to a country that was in big trouble. The debt situation in Greece is so dire as to threaten not only the country’s stability but that of all of Europe as well; its heavy indebtedness could mean that Greece might leave or be expelled from the euro zone, a move that might eventually take down the euro itself. To keep that from happening, Germany has taken the lead among members of the European Union in insisting that Greeks must make sacrifices and discipline themselves in exchange for help from Europe’s more powerful economies.
Now the natural enemy of Greece is Turkey, with whom Greece has been fighting at least since the days of Troy and probably before. But memories of World War II are still strong in Athens and elsewhere, and Greeks in general are almost as reluctant to take orders from Berlin as from Istanbul. A joke I heard while in Greece went like this; it begins with German Chancellor Angela Merkel going to Greece for a conference.
BORDER GUARD: Name?
MERKEL: Angela Merkel.
BORDER GUARD: Nationality?
BORDER GUARD: Occupation?
MERKEL: No, just visiting.
That said, Greece’s economic health is appalling. In a March 15, 2013, Times article entitled “Seen From Greece, Great Depression Looks Good,” Floyd Norris looks at the first five years of the Depression in the United States and compares it to a similar period in the current Greek crisis. In 1934 in the U.S., Norris writes, the economy had contracted nearly 20 percent since 1929, and one out of every five eligible workers was unemployed; in Greece, the economic decline from 2007 to 2012 was 20.1 percent, which is comparable to the U.S. figure, though the unemployment rate was a good bit higher at 26.4 percent.
Here’s the catch, though. As Norris writes, “the most telling difference between the course of the two economies comes in government consumption spending. . . . In the United States, that spending was growing even under President Herbert Hoover and helped to cushion the economy’s fall. In Greece, required by Europe to follow a course of harsh austerity, that spending has fallen rapidly.” As a result, “by the fifth year of the Depression, personal consumption spending had begun to recover in the United States. In Greece last year, it fell 9.1 percent, more than in any other year of the downturn.”
If unemployment figures are dismal for Greeks in general, they are especially bad for young people. The unemployment rate for young men who want jobs is 52 percent, and it’s a hard-to-believe 81.5 percent for young women. As a result, prostitution is on the rise, with women selling themselves on the street for as little as five euros. Drugs go hand in hand with poverty and prostitution, and a version of crystal meth brewed from barbiturates and other ingredients, including alcohol and even battery acid. When we checked into our Athens hotel, the clerk pulled out a map and circled all the places we’d want to see: the National Archeological Museum, the Acropolis, and so on. Then she drew an x around the Omonia metro station, which is notorious for prostitutes, pickpockets, and the muggers who have become increasingly desperate in today’s Greece, and said, “Don’t go here.”
Even in less-troubled venues, the suffering is apparent. In an April 27, 2013, Times piece entitled “More Children in Greece Are Going Hungry,” Liz Alderman reports of schoolchildren doubling up with hunger pains or looking for food in school trash cans. “Our dreams are crushed,” says Evangelia, a fifteen year-old Alderman interviewed. “They say that when you drown, your life flashes before your eyes. My sense is that, in Greece, we are drowning on dry land.”
You know your government is in trouble when organized groups of citizens first take to the streets in peaceful protest and then move on to more violent activities. All things being equal, a country that pulls together can make it through tough times. The Greeks aren’t pulling together.
According to some people I spoke to, there’s a cultural reason for that. In Athens, Lilly told me, “Greeks don’t like big.” Small works better for Greeks, she said, and that’s why village life is better to them than being part of a large state. It’s also why the Greeks never went around conquering others the way the Romans did. (When I reminisce about the movies I saw as a kid, the ones based on Greek stories were about heroes, whereas the Roman ones were about legions.)
Lilly has five young male relatives—two sons, three nephews—who are in their thirties and are just getting by. One son saw his business fail and now plays saxophone in bars. They aren’t starting families and seem resigned to a life of drifting through.
At least they’re not members of the Golden Dawn party. Groups outside the mainstream are often the laughable inventions of a couple of hotheads who’ve managed to put together a web site and issue a “press release” from time to time, but Golden Dawn is big, organized, and scary. No less venerable an organ than The Guardian published an April 1, 2013 article with the headline “Greece’s Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Goes Global With Political Ambitions.” The first paragraph reads: “Emboldened by its meteoric rise in Greece, the far-right Golden Dawn party is spreading its tentacles abroad, amid fears it is acting on its pledge to ‘create cells in every corner of the world.’ The extremist group, which forged links with British neo-Nazis when it was founded in the 1980s, has begun opening offices in Germany, Australia, Canada and the US.”
I hadn’t planned to, but I got a close look at a Golden Dawn group by accident. One afternoon, I glanced out the window of our Athens hotel room and noticed an increasing number of black t-shirted young men in the street, some bearing furled flags. As the number picked up and technicians began to set up sound equipment in the square, I went downstairs and asked the young female desk clerk what was going on. At first she seemed embarrassed and reluctant to speak, but when I asked her if it was a Golden Dawn rally, she made a face and said yes, it’s them. (Since the day was May 29, the rally was to mark the memory of the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans on that date in 1458.)
The crowd consisted mainly of angry youngsters; I asked a half dozen of them if they spoke English, but they wouldn’t talk to me, except for one guy in a “Blood & Honour” t-shirt who told me they were “nationalists.” That’s a loaded term at best; as George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” nationalism is “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” There may have been other viewpoints represented in the crowd that day, but I wouldn’t know. Since almost everyone I accosted in Athens spoke at least a little English, either these guys (I’d guess 85% of the crowd was male) were uneducated or simply closing ranks against someone who clearly wasn’t one of them.
Golden Dawn members are best known for beating up immigrants and even Greeks who look “foreign,” but they also make an effort to ingratiate themselves with locals by acting as a kind of security force, escorting elderly people to the bank, for example, and even doing their shopping for them. But apparently good manners are not part of their public outreach.
As with a lot of neo-Nazi regalia, their t-shirts are black and white. But as I mingled with the protesters, I noticed one’s black-and-white tee wasn’t standard issue Golden Dawn; instead, it said “The Ramones” on it. Seeing my chance to finally start a conversation, I said, “Hey – the Ramones! ‘Teenage Lobotomy,’ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated,’ right?” The kid scowled like all the others; he probably doesn’t remember what t-shirt he put on that morning and doesn’t know what I’m talking about. So I patted my chest and said, “The Ramones – ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’! Right? Huh?” He just snarled and turned away.
More and more individuals came along, and then people started showing up in larger groups. But I noticed a lot of loners wandering nervously on the fringes and then suddenly changing into a black-and-white Golden Dawn t-shirt and joining the others. As an older and wiser friend told me once, it’s tempting to psychoanalyze other people, but we shouldn’t do it, but since we’re going to do it anyway, let’s make it quick and then say we didn’t. Almost to a man, the quick-change artists looked miserable, and most of them were physically unprepossessing, so I couldn’t help wondering if at least some Golden Dawn followers were guys who weren’t able to make friends or attract lovers and had found a home in the bosom of an us-against-them group that embraced anyone and gave them a foe to spit on.
Of course, young people sometimes go through an extremist phase as a way of distancing themselves from both childhood things and the looming demands of adult life. Later the hotel clerk told me that a high school friend of hers was very much into Golden Dawn, but when she saw him ten years later and asked him about it, he said, Oh, that—I gave it up long ago.
As night fell, people lit torches; towards the back of the square, someone set off a flare, and red smoke drifted overhead. I couldn’t understand the words of their songs, but the music reminded me of “The Horst Wessel Song” and others from Nazi-era movies. There were perhaps a thousand people in the square, but hundreds of others in civilian garb paused on their way home to show support and sing along. There were police at either end of the square in full riot gear, including plastic shields; there were dozens of buses ready to be filled for detainees, but they went unused.
And the square was spotless afterwards. But that’s part of Golden Dawn’s straight-edge policy; except when they’re beating up immigrants, they do their best to be decorous. One person I spoke to said that the group had tried to give away food in Syntagma Square recently, but when they insisted that “only Greeks” be served, the authorities shut them down.
A BAND OF FREEBOOTERS
Limited resources forced the early Greeks to look outward, braving the dangers of the seas to become traders. In this they were added by their myths and legends, for their most appealing hero was Odysseus, whom a later figure, Lucius, the hero of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, revered as a wise man who “seen the experience of many things” and “had traveled divers countries and nations, and by straitly observing them all had obtained great virtue and knowledge.”
That seems to have been the Greek mindset for centuries. Even when Rome became the channel through which Greek culture flowed to the West, the emphasis remained on individualism. And the primacy of the individual remained consistent as the Greco-Roman tradition combined with another hybrid system, the Judeo-Christian one in which Jewish values entered the mainstream thanks to Christianity.
So all that crossbreeding notwithstanding, being a Christian or a secular Jew or a Westerner these days still means embracing a personal vocation, a unique destiny. Thomas Cahill’s little book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter develops these ideas and concludes:
There was nothing the ancient Greeks did not poke their noses into, no experience they shunned, no problem they did not attempt to solve. When the world was young, they set off at first light and returned early . . . , their arms full and their carts loaded down with every purchase, domestic and foreign, natural and artificial, they could lay their hands on. Whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us.
But as much as Cahill admires Greek boldness, other onlookers take a more jaundiced view of all that derring-do. Another astute observer of Greek life, Barry Unsworth, writes in Crete that that island’s beauty is marred by tiny lots parceled off and awaiting a developer, gaunt and unfinished buildings, a natural beauty “stripped of sense and order in a matter of a few decades.” What is missing in Crete, Unsworth says, is what’s absent from Greece as a whole: “cooperation between citizen and municipal authority” and “the ability of local communities…to withstand the invasion of capital and so take a longer view, retain some space for human purposes other than the single one of spending money, open the land to people instead of closing it.”
Much of Unsworth’s book is devoted to a condemnation of marketing (“the Cretans, like their compatriots on the mainland, have a great flair for marketing”), but was not Odysseus himself the First Marketer? The adjective most associated with him is “wily,” meaning he knew how to sell himself—when he passes himself off in Book 14 of The Odyssey as a Cretan, buying time and gaining the respect of his host by regaling him with his exploits as a pirate, boasting of his many raids and all the plunder they brought him.
The most commonsensical book about the actual landscape of The Odyssey is Tim Severin’s The Ulysses Voyage, in which he portrays Odysseus as “a man of great cunning who could twist words and situations to his advantage,” rarely telling the truth if he could think of a better lie, never losing sight of his own self-interest. “By modern moral standards he was not an exemplary character,” writes Severin, and in the centuries after Homer’s epic, folklore blackened his character even further. One story has him refusing the troop call-up to fight the Trojans by “wearing a madman’s hat” and ploughing his field with salt instead of seed; the trick was exposed when an onlooker tossed the infant Telemachus into the plough’s path, forcing Odyssus to swerve aside and reveal his sanity.
Time and time again, Homer shows what little control Odysseus had over his men: when they open the bag of winds Aeolus (whose island home is pictured above) told them to keep shut and are blown off course, for example, or when they defeat the Cicones and Odysseus says “we should be off and show a clean pair of heels . . . but my fools of men refused,” and the reinforced survivors of the attack return and defeat them, killing six of their number. Severin says:
Unable to impose any degree of discipline, he begged and pleaded with his men, cajoled and threatened. But either they disregarded him or they flagrantly disobeyed him. They distrusted him, and in turn his bungling led them into ambushes and dangerous impasses where they paid the price with their lives. The impression is of a rabble, a band of freebooters with each captain and soldier behaving as he saw fit, and only loosely under the control of a rather inept war chief.
In Odysseus, then, we see everything that is both admirable and dismaying about today’s Greece, which even commentators of widely varying ideologies might describe as “ a band of freebooters with each captain and soldier behaving as he saw fit.” We all want to be Odysseus in one way or another. We all want to go on adventures and have fun and get safely home again. For exactly those reasons, we should all agree that the last thing today’s Greece needs is an Odysseus at its helm.
A HOMELESS BILLIONAIRE
Who or what will save Greece, then? It’s not going to be the Golden Dawn boys. They’re the smoke that shows the building is burning, not the fire fighters who will put out the flame and certainly not the architects of a new edifice. Nor can the present leaders be counted on: virtually everyone I polled on the present leadership responded with some version of “Aw, they’re all a bunch of crooks.” Whether or not that is true remains to be seen; what’s important now is that people think it’s true.
When I asked Greeks what would save them, I got three answers. When I asked Lilly, she turned into a sibyl before my eyes. “There will be a revolution,” she says. “It will begin in the south of Europe. Things will have to get worse before they get better. That won’t happen in my lifetime.”
Another Greek, Michaelis, voiced the opinion that’s likely to be the one held by most other Westerners, that is, people who either have faith in the power of reason that gave shape to the West in the first place or else underestimate the toxicity of the Greek state today. Michaelis said the European Union will save Greece. His rhetorical question to me was, “Would the US let a single state fail?”
Then there was a third answer, one that I got an uncomfortable amount of times: there is no hope. It’s over. Greece won’t disappear, it’ll just turn into a post-apocalyptic world with weeds growing through the pavement, wild dogs in the street, and the few people who remain foraging for themselves and doing anything to survive—which, said the most pessimistic of my respondents, is what’s already happening.
I bet that most readers who’ve made it this far are the kind of people who support Angelos’s outlook, that is, that Greece is too big to fail and that the EU will impose some form of salvation, however painful. I’m wondering, though, if there isn’t a fourth possibility. I’m wondering if salvation might possibly come from the private sector, from an individual like, say, Nicolas Berggruen, a dual American and German citizen who founded the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, a think tank that has launched a number of government reform projects, including the 21st Century Council, which is focused on global governance challenges, and the Council for the Future of Europe, which will supports European integration. Berggruen may even be an Odysseus for our time, since he is often referred to as “the homeless billionaire” because he lives in hotels and does not own a home.
I hasten to say that I offer Nicolas Berggruen as a type rather than a particular person, the point being that whoever offers Greece a way out is going to be someone who has more in common with, say, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the Sir Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web than with Churchill and Roosevelt. The original Trojan Horse was Odysseus’s idea, but my homeless billionaire will have to reverse the story and present the Greeks with a gift as unexpected yet strangely welcome as the one that appeared outside the walls of Troy one morning, and this time it is the Greeks who will wheel it in.
In following the travels of Odysseus, Barbara and I did our best to hit all the sites where he may have landed: the cave of Polyphemus near Sougia in Crete, the island of Gavrousa where King Aeolus lived, the “singing sands” near Lefkada where the sirens maddened him with their song. It was a spectacular trip, one that will have to be described in greater detail elsewhere, because the focus in this essay is on Greece’s pain, not our pleasure.
One of our last stays was in Vathi on island of Ithaca, where the story of Odysseus begins and ends. I switched on the TV one morning to catch up on the news and saw that the BBC would begin a series in a few weeks called “Why Poverty?” I like that “why”: it suggests an alternative to “the poor ye shall always have with you” outlook, to the pessimism and resignation that has governed old-school thinking for millenia. I wasn’t able to watch the show back in the states, where I’m writing this, and, in fact, some of the reviews I’ve read since suggest that it didn’t live up to its promise.
Still, as a writer, I have to believe that words have the power to change things—that words lead to deeds, as St. Teresa of Avila said. So many observers have looked at Greece and sighed; surely one among them has looked at it and asked, “Why?” and then, “What now?”
In the past, I’ve written pieces for MAYDAY on Germany and Russia, big countries that, like Greece, are as knotted with contradiction and paradox as a piece of timber is with knots and boles and crooked limbs. I’m tackling India next, so look for an essay on that country in the next issue.