Monday, December 21, 2009


“The night has been unruly: where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, lamentings heard I’ the air, strange screams of death, And prophesying with accents terrible, Of dire combustion and confused events…” Macbeth

The portents of ill omen have been many in this most troubled and vexed of years. Supreme of all such infernal signs of disquiet has been the recent bizarre robbing of the grave of the late president of Cyprus and noted opponent of the fractious Annan Plan, Tassos Papadopoulos. Body-snatching was quite the thing in Victorian times, inspiring such artists of the macabre as Edgar Alan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and most likely, resulting in various advances in mankind’s knowledge of anatomy. Nonetheless, the august president has been deceased for some time and his body would presumably be in such a state of decomposition, that it would not be useful for anatomical purposes. A nihilistic metaphor perhaps for the direction the solution to the Cyprus issue is taking? Contrariwise, the Orthodox tradition holds that the bodies of saints are incorruptible. Were the pious grave robbers so inspired by the saintliness of the deceased’s tireless ascetic struggle for Hellenism that they sort to purloin his holy relics in order to advance his canonisation and their own proximity to the divine? After all, have not the Irish recently claimed that parts of the body of St Nicholas are buried at Jerpoint in Kilkenny? Or are they indeed going one step further and purporting that when the national guardsmen who loved him came to pray at his tomb, they found the tombstone rolled away and the body missing? Is this then a lame metaphor for the resurrection of Cyprus?
Probably not. It appears that the desecrators of the president’s grave were motivated out of malice and stupidity, attacking an important historical figure at precisely the moment when he cannot defend himself. It is sickening to be compelled to recognise that we are capable of such heinous, disgusting actions.
Yet the theft and most probably destruction of the corpse of a man who all his life fought for what he believed to be the good of his people and country heralds the emergence of a society that appears to have misplaced its moral compass. Having overlooked or discarded tradition for the sake of economic prosperity, and having lost that too in turn, the Greek people, much like the Romans of the Middle Ages, who would exhume dead popes and condotteri in order to subject them to ridicule, are turning upon their dead leaders, exhuming them in order to insult them, or in the case of the recent spate of unjustified violence in Greece, turning their vehemence and venom upon society in General.
In 1892, a poster was published, featuring Greece’s prominently nosed prime minister Trikoupis at the helm of a sinking ship. The accompanying caption read: “Trikoupis, looking for a loan.” For upon assuming high office for the fifth time, Trikoupis was compelled to deal with the vast amount of debt incurred by Greece as a result of its aborted military preparations as the result of the union effected between Bulgaria and eastern Rumelia. At that time, the Great Powers blockaded Piraeus, forcing the Greeks to abandon their claims. Trikoupis believed that he could raise the value of Greek paper currency to par in a short time, in order to service the debt. However, he was not given the opportunity to impelement his currency reform as he lost the election. Assuming power for the sixth time, Trikoupis had to deal with a national treasury that had been depleted by overspending and systemic corruption, caused primarily by political campaigns in which parties promised massive spending programs. Trikoupis stood before parliament and made the most famous statement of his career: "Regretfully, we are bankrupt" ("Δυστυχώς επτωχεύσαμε"). The servicing of foreign loans was suspended, and all non-essential spending was cut. Trikoupis tried to make terms with the creditors of his nation, but failed in this also. The taxation measures he proposed aroused great hostility, and in January, 1895 he resigned. At the general election, four months later, he and his Modernist Party were defeated by a population used to bread and circuses.
Trikoupis’ situation is eerily reminiscent of the present. Analysts consider Greece to be on the verge of bankruptcy and Greece could conceivably exit the Euro and bring back their drachma if the crisis hits an acute state where the Greek government loses the ability to refinance debt at affordable interest rates. The European Commission projects Greece's 2009 budget deficit at almost 13% of gross domestic product, versus an EU average of just under 7%. Greek government debt, currently about 112% of GDP, probably will balloon to 130% before stabilizing. All of a sudden, our European partners are questioning our “European” credentials. "This raises question marks over the long-term viability of the euro's current membership," Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform, observed. "On current trends, we'll end up with economic stagnation and mounting political tensions in the euro zone, and, at worst, fiscal crises and a loss of political support for continued membership."
A high trust high social capital is integral to a healthy state and this is not somoething that Greece enjoys. Instead, as one analyst bluntly put it, “Greece has low trust and high contempt for government. One in four workers in Greece work for a government that most do not like.” The underground economy, estimated at 30 percent of gross domestic product, is integral for the preservation of a “European” standard of living in a country that has European prices but salaries below the European average. I was incensed to read this interesting snippet in an analysis of the woes of the Greek economy: “As he sat in a cafe with friends in the chic Kolonaki area on a recent afternoon, Antonis, 33, who disclosed only his first name, proudly announced that he refused to pay taxes. “Why should I pay?” he asked with a grin. “I don’t care about my government; I don’t care about my country,” he added. He conceded, however, that he did care about soccer and women.”
This is not how we were brought up. We were brought up to believe that Greece was a small, poor but valiant country that had suffered much but whose mission was to be of benefit to the world. At Greek school, at dances and all other functions, we were taught that we were all shareholders in that greatness and that we all had the responsibility to drive the progress of our corporate state. Whether true or not, it is a wonderful social charter to have. Sadly, what we seem to have created in its stead, is an insular, resentful, dysfunctional, divided Balkan appanage that having sucked and grown fat from the milk of its European wet-nurses, refuses to grow up and fend for itself. The violence that erupts at the slightest pretext in Greece is indicative of a people who hate their state and ultimately themselves for the predicament they find themselves in, trapped in “Tinakanoumestan,” a land where progress is a dream for the disconnected and the train of destiny has derailed itself.
Whether or not Yiorgos Papandreou will in the months to come mount the podium in Parliament and declare “Regretfully we are bankrupt,” is immaterial. His projected budjet cuts and reining in of spending may technically satisfy European fiscal requirements and cuase howls of protest and more violence by the irresponsible, immature Left but will not cut at the cause of Greece’s malaise. Somewhee, somehow, the Greek people need to be made to believe in themselves again. Europe can assist in this through responsible economic planning and a commitment to making all its members economically as well as socially viable. Greece’s greatest strength is its history and traditional aspirations – unity, cohesion and progress, too often because it so sorely lacked these essential ingredients to its viability. Post-modernism and crass westernisation have rendered these at best quaint and at worst, much maligned. Yet in those elements that form the substratum of the Greek identity can be found the seeds of regeneration. We, even here in the diaspora need to learn to trust each other, love each other and be responsible for one another and we can draw these lessons from a tradition that sees us as the illuminators of the world, or at least, our dark little corner of it. Let us replace our corpses in their graves, honour them, and concentrate our efforts upon the living. That is as good an end of year’s resolution as any, lest we lament like Macbeth: “Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant, There 's nothing serious in mortality: All is but toys: renown and grace is dead; The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees Is left this vault to brag of.”


First published in NKEE on 21 December 2009