Tottering on the brink of default this past week, Greece once again hit the headlines as its government was reshuffled and angry crowds rioted in central Athens.
Greece fiddled statistics to get into the European Union, then over-borrowed to fund the exaggerated lifestyles of corrupt politicians, a pliant and distended civil service and an elite rentier class for whom paying tax was somehow unmasculine.
But rather than shouldering the blame, many Greeks still blame the West, its banks, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Zionism and assorted other scarecrows for their travails. Although some blame can also be apportioned at the thresholds of the international institutions that encouraged Greece’s addiction to debt, there are almost no voices asking why, for almost two decades, Greeks knowingly lived beyond their means.
This refusal to deal with our past but rush to the soothing shelter of collective amnesia reminded me of the slightly bizarre experience of my Greek childhood. I grew up in Eighties Athens with neither the benefit of hindsight nor a means of comparison; I tended to think that I inhabited a normal sphere. After all, like those protesting outside parliament today, I could conceive of no other way of doing things.
Greece fiddled statistics to get into the European Union
So I took the embedded racism, clientilism and absence of meritocracy served up in a society governed by the laws of nature for granted.
At school, the first rule of survival was to offer unlimited respect to the teacher quite literally towering over us on his raised wooden dais (the edra). Whatever they said was gospel to be memorised and blindly parroted in the next lesson. Learning was preceded by copious displays of grovelling. I’ll never forget how after disputing a clearly false statement and being rebuked for ‘insubordination’ I received an additional helping of withering scorn from an unexpected direction as a classmate hissed at me “You’ll never make it in this society.”
When I moved to a school in London, I was shocked that the teachers actually felt obliged to come in for all our scheduled lessons instead of whimsically deciding to take days off. Or that they encouraged independent thinking and trained us to challenge them. Or that when school was over, they did not compensate for their poor pay by offering expensive private classes paid hand over fist by our parents so that we could pass the class. Not once while in London was I instructed , instead of going to school that day, to go swell the ranks of protesters in the streets chanting that Macedonia is Greek.
At sports events, the hooligans setting fires to the stadium, setting off fireworks into enclosed basketball arenas and pelting players with coins were referred with quiet pride and a dash of admiration as ‘fanatics’. Criminals organised regular escapes from supposedly high-security jails, in one case being winched out of the prison yard by a hovering helicopter… twice. Demonstrators rioted in the streets on political anniversaries while the police stood by impassively. Only later did I learn that the authorities viewed the rioting as an important pressure valve on society necessary for manipulating the political agenda. Terrorist organizations like 17 November were never caught even though they left a wealth of evidence behind them – clearly they too were offering corrupt politicians a valuable service.
Then it got even better. Entry into the EU was interpreted as a signal to become ‘Western,’ ergo degenerate. Glossy magazines featured scantily-clad girls in suggestive poses as swathes of society plunged into a consumerist lifestyle that had no precedent in Greek history. The magazine covers implied that turning themselves into Lolitas was a fine career path for the females of the species. The media did its part by bombarding ordinary Greeks with the minutiae of these models’ and celebrities’ social lives… at least until they hit thirty when they were unceremoniously discarded and replaced on the shelves of the supermarket of passion by younger versions whose thighs were tighter, breasts firmer and sexual revelations spicier.
I thought that all this and more was perfectly typical of every Western country and that Greek reality was normality. After all, raising your voice in protest at this paradigm resulted in getting shouted down as a xenerotos (pathetic) or floros (a dweeb). I didn’t realize that anything was amiss until my admiring descriptions of how bad and hard our fanatics were started eliciting strange looks instead of admiration from my new English acquaintances.
Now I live between Istanbul (which is quite close to Greece) and Kabul (which is about right distance-wise). Istanbul is increasingly filling with expat Greeks attracted by Turkey’s booming economy while Kabul is still considered about as exotic a destination for a Greek as Istanbul used to be ten years ago. I’ve chosen suicide bombings, massive corruption and a resurgent Taliban over going back to Greece for the time being because, rather than facing brutal reality, my compatriots’ perception of themselves is still as delusional as was my childhood impression of those ‘fanatics’ hanging off the stadium walls.