The Greek Volcano

The Greek Volcano

Protesters in Thessaloniki, Greece, May 25, 2011. (Photo: Tom Tziros)

I spent May 2011 in Greece. On the surface, nothing looked unusual in Athens. The same mess of traffic jams was everywhere, the risk of crossing major streets, too many people moving in the narrow pedestrian spaces away from zooming cars; and the same number of foreigners around Omonoia Square. Occasionally, one sees a beggar.

However, at the center of the city, across from Grand Bretagne Hotel in the Syntagma Square, I saw groups protesting or advertising rights for Afghanistani and Iraqi political refugees in Greece.

But underneath this superficial calm, there's a volcano brewing. Discontent is everywhere. Academics and others complain of the incompetent and corrupt state managing the sinking of the Greek economy and society. The 300 members of the Greek Parliament treat themselves like the servants of Louis XIV. They pay themselves lavish salaries and perks while the state cuts everyone else's benefits, be they salaries, retirement stipends or other services.

Meanwhile, daily reports are published about the so-called Troika running Greece: the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission and the European Central Bank. They say the terms between this Troika and the Greek government are so abysmal that they resemble colonial policies. The Greeks borrowed a lot at the urging of banks, and now, in 2011, they cannot afford to pay back the ill-gotten loans. The result is foreign lenders demanding – and getting – a pound of flesh: The Greek state has signed on the banks' dotted line, abandoning its sovereign powers to the thieves who really use Greece like an experimental animal in teaching the rest of the world who the real bosses of the planet are. They demand the forced impoverishment of the Greek people, in what looks like an attempt to strip Greece of all its resources. Secondly, they appear to want to satisfy American demands that the Turks be first in the Aegean. Dismantling Greece would – many believe – allow the Turks to grab a few of the Greek islands in the Aegean.

On May 10, I was at the University of Athens: I saw hundreds of students next to tables in long corridors having fun. The walls were full of huge political posters praising Marxism and denouncing capitalism. Greek parties fund such destructive activities, dividing college students and diverting them from their studies. A minority of these students deface the university with slogans and sometimes even close the university down. Meanwhile, as part of the Troika’s orders for “austerity,” the state cut the salaries of professors by one-fourth. And if I add the architecture of the University of Athens, the buildings being like boxes, then the result is a third-world institution educating students for no practical future. Professor Xenophon Moussas, a friend and astrophysicist, told me one of his brilliant students had committed suicide because he thought he had no future.
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I received the same report from Odysseus Chatzopoulos, owner of Kaktos Books, specializing in publishing ancient Greek texts. He said to me in all seriousness that Greece is finished. He blamed America for the tsunami-like forces attacking Greece. He explained that the Greek state is the worst enemy of Hellenic culture. Because he publishes important texts, he expected the state to subsidize him so he could do more. Chatzopoulos says his texts are designed to solidify the cultural identity of the Greeks who read them. In fact, he is right that the governing elite feels safer the less Greeks know of their ancient heritage, hence, almost by definition, the rulers of the Greeks have been largely indifferent or hostile to ancient Greek culture. As a result, they ignore the few publishers who try to enlighten the Greeks, lavishing their attention and funds on those “modernizers” and “post-modernists” who distance the Greeks from their culture.

Yet, Chatzopoulos is a man of contradictions. He speaks like a populist, but his books are so expensive that they are beyond the reach of the vast majority of the Greeks. He spoke in such dark terms about Greece that his project of enlightenment appears doomed.

But the conditions in Greece are not all dark. Yes, the country has serious financial difficulties because of the corrupt international and local elites of America-sponsored globalization. Yet, young Greeks are eager to learn and some of them are outstanding students. Moussas is proud of his students. The tragedy is in the state's indifference, its absence of any sense of responsibility to offer opportunities to those bright young students or to build a society for the best – rather than for the usual kleptokrats and their foreign allies.

Globalization is pervasive in Greece. People of all ages dress like those of New York. The blue jean is the symbol of the homogenization of the Greeks into fake non-Greeks. One could excuse such imitation as, inevitably, all superpowers influence smaller states sharing their culture. But in the case of Greece, this blind rush to adopt foreign ways harms the identity and culture of which gave birth to Western civilization.

Athens is saturated with this contradiction. From the Acropolis, one sees a city choked in a wall of cement with little that is authentic Greek. Even the exquisite new Acropolis museum was built by an American architect, who designed it as if it were a multi-story parking lot.

The Greek volcano may explode at any minute. Greeks may tolerate the ugly architecture of the Acropolis museum for long time. But they are unlikely to tolerate the colonial system imposed on the country by the George Papandreou administration doing the bidding of the IMF and the EU for very long. I witnessed thousands of Greeks vocalizing their anger in the Syntagma Square. The place was on fire with sound, insults and raw anger, the kind of anger that could spark a revolution.

What the country needs is a new, non-party government that will punish the thieves in the political elite, the members of Parliament who refuse to tax the rich, but tax everybody else; renegotiate the debt; demand the EU and IMF forgive most of it. Indeed, the European banks were just as responsible for the financial meltdown of Greece as the Greek politicians.

Finally, put the country to work: not merely supplying all that it needs, but start exporting green agricultural products and Greek technologies.

Greece used to worship the sun god Helios. Why not convert that ancient tradition into the manufacture of solar energy? Such a commitment might put the Greek volcano back to sleep, the god of engineering, Hephaistos, guiding the Greeks into a new Helios-Hephaistos age.