Saturday, December 18, 2010

An Open Letter to Pericles

Pericles, 495-429 B.C.E.
Dear Pericles,

You’ve been away 2500 years and that’s far too long.  Greece needs another Golden Age.  Please hurry back, all expenses paid.
Protesters gathered in front of Greek Parliament.
Your incredible Parthenon still towers above Athens, though it’s missing its marbles.  Come to think of it, I think your city might be too.  Have you been following the media coverage of what’s going on here?  Or are you tuning out, as seems much of the world, tired at hearing about Greece and its problems?   There’s a war going on.  No, not with the Persians or of the Peloponnesian sort, this one is of a more civil(ized) sort.  Where it is headed is anyone’s guess and everyone’s fear.  But headed it is.

Rioters attacking businesses
This is the third Christmas season in a row that Molotov cocktail and paving stone tossing demonstrators of disparate views have mortally wounded holiday shopping in central Athens.  Perhaps that’s the truest tradition of the Christmas season in that part of town.  Deck the malls with bombs and salvos…
Police confront protesters by Parliament
This week 20,000 or so largely peaceful citizens turned out in central Athens as part of a general strike across Greece to protest additional austerity measures under consideration by the Greek Parliament for addressing the country’s financial crisis.  If you haven’t heard about that fiscal meltdown, my friend, stop reading immediately and under no circumstances leave whatever state of innocent bliss you’ve found.

That demonstration answered a question I’d been asking my friends on Mykonos all summer: Why aren’t the politicians holidaying here this year?  They always did, but this year tipota, nothing.  My informal survey yielded what I thought a flippant rather than reasoned conclusion: “Because they’re afraid the people will beat the $#!^ out of them.”   I should have learned by now not to bet against popular wisdom or vox populi (if you prefer Latin).
Costis Hatzidakis, MP
During that demonstration a current member of parliament—who’d been a minister in the government that was at the helm of Greece’s economy when it drove into the rocks under full sail—tried to exit the Parliament Building and was pelted with stones and bloodied by a crowd of one hundred.  If you’re wondering what the police and other guardians of order are doing about all the goings-on, take a number and get in line.  Your question will be answered before the next 2500 years have passed.

There is real anger in the country, a pit of the stomach sense that serious suffering waits just around the corner, and one hell of a lot of finger pointing.  Perhaps the only thing the country appears to agree upon is that “all in government are corrupt.”  The second most agreed upon point is, “nothing will change.”

There is an old saying Greeks use when a fairy tale ends happily, “They all had a good time, and we did too.”  Perhaps that’s why so many Greeks let their politicians get away with so much for so long.  Everyone was profiting.  Now that times are bad, and the people want someone to blame for the unhappy ending, they’re pointing at the politicians they kept electing.

Whatever the answer, the solution is not going to be easy.  And it will be painful. I wish there were a magic wand to wave or a simple answer to the crisis.  But there is not, and the country seems desperate for a new Greek voice to listen to and trust.

The people would listen to you, Honored First Citizen of Athens; certainly those I know who act as if they had a personal hand in all the incredible contributions you helped bring to the world.  Think of them sort of like American baseball fans that claim because an ancestor happened to be at the third game of the 1932 World Series when Babe Ruth pointed before hitting his legendary “called shot” homerun off Charlie Root of the Chicago Cubs, that they’re somehow entitled to take partial credit for Ruth’s swing of the bat.  If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, wait until someone starts talking about cricket.
The great New York Yankee Bambino calls his shot.
In fact, even I would rather talk about cricket.  It’s so much easier to grasp than the sticky wicket of a relationship Greeks share with those they choose to govern them.

Jeff — Saturday


  1. Normally I'd rather talk about cricket Jeff, but the Aussies are about to beat us in Perth to level the series, so it's a sore point. I'll stick to Babe Ruth - not seen that picture before. Amazing.

    Worrying times in Greece. I think they might be scenes we see repeated in other parts Europe too.

  2. Maybe he could bring some American leaders back with him. We haven't had anyone we could vote for in years without a keen awareness that he/she was the lesser of two evils. And two years ago, when we thought an exception had arisen, we were wrong.

    Sorry about all this sturm und drang in your adopted country, Jeff. Neither of my two countries is doing well, either.

  3. Jeff, Warren Buffett has been quoted as saying, "There is a class war and it's my class against your class." There can be no doubt who is going to win.

    People in the US bought into the dream of home ownership. Banks, who once had mortgage officers who made people prove they could pay back the money they borrowed, now just handed people money that they could repay as long as they won the lottery. Banks were going to get the money or the house; they were in a no lose situation.

    It was irresponsible behavior on both sides but only one side found themselves homeless. The people who counted on the raises in pay stipulated in their contracts didn't expect their jobs to go to India. The term "outsourcing" hadn't been coined when the first wave got conned.

    Who would have thought that the United States would abandon two generations in service to the already very rich? Parents are losing their jobs, families are losing their homes, and the children are forgoing higher education because they know they may never get a job that would allow them to pay off their loans. For the first time, there is very little upward mobility in the US. Border guards have reported on reverse migration; Mexicans are leaving California because they have a better shot at a job south of the border.

    It is going to be much worse before it gets better because it keeps getting worse and no one is offering any kind of temporary or long-term solutions.

    My children have all flown the nest but we are hanging onto that nest because there is the concern that they may have to move back. How humiliating it must be for those who were independent having to admit they failed (or were failed). Children were taking in their old parents and now we have the old parents having to take in their children.

    In Greece and everywhere else, the politicians who promised so much stole hope, a much greater loss than the money they took.


  4. Dan, Tim, and Beth,

    I hear you, thank you, and know exactly where you’re coming from, except for Dan and that cricket thing.

    BUT, let me explain why I believe the crisis confronting Greece is unique. Two Greek laws present the issue nicely.

    One law essentially provides immunity to any member of parliament for crimes committed during a concluded term of parliament. That’s a get out of jail free card. And no government minister has ever been convicted of corruption, though that all may change as the result of the Greek people’s current demand for blood.

    The most likely conviction(s) will tie into a scandal arising out of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games involving former government ministers and a remote, Byzantine monastery in the secretive 1500 year old monastic community of Mount Athos. That monastery has played host to Prince Charles and George H. W. Bush, among other world movers and shakers, and Michael Lewis did a wonderful piece in October’s Vanity Fair on the monastery and its purported role in the scandal. Serendipitously, my new book, Prey on Patmos: An Aegean Prophecy, picks up where his article ends!

    On the other end of the spectrum we have law two.

    On a day in 1973 (November 17 to be exact) Greece’s ruling military dictatorship sent tanks onto a university campus to crush student protest against its regime. That bloody event led to the subsequent fall of the junta and adoption of a law forbidding police and military from entering onto university grounds for essentially any reason, making universities a haven for masked Molotov cocktail and stone tossing demonstrators who did not fear the police, as long as there was an escape route to their sanctuary.

    So, on one end we have corrupt politicians with their amnesty and on the other rioters (who may not even be students) with their asylum. Stuck in between is the rest of Greece living amid a culture where tax evasion and bribery is seen as necessary for surviving a cost of living as high as Paris (sans housing) on salaries where twelve hundred euros a month ($1,500) is considered very good for workers of any age. And that was in pre-crisis days.

    The bottom line question is where will all this lead? Answer: See, Assassins of Athens.

    Bye for now, I have some less serious writing to do. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good (k)night.