A Lament for Greece

Greece has been weighing heavily on my mind these days. Despite desperately passionate protests by the Greek people, this week the Greek government passed a package of austerity measures and structural reforms demanded by the EU and IMF if they are to give the beleaguered country a bailout that will prevent the government from defaulting on its debt in less than two weeks. This is in spite of the fact that the UN’s independent expert on foreign debt and human rights has said that the measures will likely violate basic human rights for the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

Much of the worldwide media has spent the past few weeks shaking a self-righteous finger at naughty Greece, which they accuse of not living within its means. I think this must be quite a slap in the face for most Greeks. After all, unlike in America or the UK (or even Germany to some extent), consumer debt in Greece is not the norm. Most ordinary Greeks live within their means. They don’t have credit cards or drive financed cars. They make enough to survive, and lead much simpler lives than their counterparts in many other industrialized countries. In the current economic climate, many Greek families are resorting to selling family heirlooms or even gold teeth just to keep food on the table and their children in school. In the face of all this, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cutting jibe that Greeks take too many vacations is just mean-spirited.

While many are now predicting that Greece’s fiscal irresponsibility will shake the EU and world economies, that’s simply not true. Because the EU and world economies have already been shaken. That happened back in 2008 when runaway U.S. consumer debt and unscrupulous U.S. financial institutions caused a global recession that is still affecting ordinary people worldwide, who had nothing to do with its cause. The fallout from the American dream of bigger, better, and more is still hurting people in other countries who’ve worked hard all their lives and never once gone into debt.

Before 2008, while the Greek government was no penny pincher, the economy was enjoying growth. But the American-based recession hit the country hard, and austerity measures were soon put in place under pressure from the EU. Now the Greek people, with their country already stagnating under the previous austerity measures, must face the prospect of truly draconian belt-tightening. Even worse, the EU/IMF has demanded that the Greek government begin selling off its most valuable assets just to pay the interest on the new debts it will be incurring with the bailout. Under the plan just passed, Greece will be forced to sell its main airport, major stakes in power and water companies, railroads, and vast tracts of valuable public land for tourist development. There has even been talk of selling national monuments. After these major revenue-generators are sold, Greece will have even fewer resources to service its already overwhelming debt. It’s hard to see how this can be a reasonable long-term solution. And I don’t know about you, but the thought of the Greek people having to sell their cherished public institutions, up to and including the Acropolis and the Parthenon, just makes me want to weep.

Greece is the country that gave us democracy, philosophy, and the intellectual substance of Western society. And while its government may have something to learn about fiscal responsibility, we have nothing to gain by forcing Greece to try to become a second-rate miniature Germany.

I have a Greek friend, and he is one of my favorite people in the world. He is incredibly generous, intellectually brilliant, and possibly the most thoughtful, open-minded, and warm-hearted person I have ever met. He understands what is truly valuable and beautiful, and his life is a reflection of his beliefs and values. His qualities as a person stem partially from his individual personality and choices, but he is also heir to an ancient and bountiful cultural birthright. I see all the idealism, passion and wisdom that I mourned as dead with the ancient Greek philosophers, living and breathing in him. Perhaps Greece is not as good at market competition and fiscal efficiency as Germany. But what would the EU or the world look like if we were all German (or all American, or all anything else, for that matter)?

Let me remind you of the nightmarish scene from A Wrinkle in Time that I couldn’t forget for years:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of lawn in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door. Meg had a feeling that if she could count the flowers there would be exactly the same number for each house. In front of all the houses children were playing. Some were skipping rope, some were bouncing balls. Meg felt vaguely that something was wrong with their play. It seemed exactly like children playing around any housing development at home, and yet there was something different about it. She looked at Calvin, and saw that he, too, was puzzled.

“Look!” Charles Wallace said suddenly. “They’re skipping and bouncing in rhythm! Everyone’s doing it at exactly the same moment.”

This was so. As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths.  Like the flowers. (pp. 98- 99)

And later in the same book:

“In the room a little boy was bouncing a ball. He was bouncing it in rhythm, and the walls of his little cell seemed to pulse with the rhythm of the ball. And each time the ball bounced he screamed as though he were in pain.

“That’s the little boy we saw this afternoon,” Calvin said sharply, “the little boy who wasn’t bouncing the ball like the others.”

Charles Wallace giggled again.“Yes. Every once in a while there’s a little trouble with cooperation, but it’s easily taken care of. After today he’ll never desire to deviate again.”

Chilling, yet all too applicable. Who is benefitting when austerity measures put in place to “save” an economy (or save the world) are so painful they bring the people out on the streets to protest, where they are tear-gassed by the police and beaten into submission? We will all be eternally impoverished if we allow Germany and the other EU hard-liners to break the Greek spirit and auction off their priceless heritage to stave off a crisis that is all the more likely to come once their last resources have been squandered.

I have loved the EU since its inception, because it is a place where different cultures, ideas, languages, and ways of life are cherished and protected. But right now, rather than helping Greece, the EU is trying to beat it into conformity with a global culture of competition and consumerism that at its worst and most ruthless will destroy their way of life without giving them anything in return. Why not forgive some of the Greek debts, offer guarantees for longer repayment options, and help them implement meaningful governmental reforms rather than persisting in squeezing an already austerity-battered populace? The Greek economy needs time and help to recover from the worldwide crisis; not censure and punishment from self-righteous, self-serving moralists.

This crisis in Greece strikes a nerve with me also because it mirrors what I see around me in other places I love. Italy as I experienced it last year was a very different place from when I left it in October 2008, just as the economic crisis was hitting the United States. Italians have an even lower percentage of consumer debt than Greeks. Yet many hard-working, thrifty Italians I know are struggling now to make ends meet in the economic slump.

And then there is Tunisia, along with the rest of the Middle East. Things here are hard. The revolution has given people hope, but their country still has a long way to go, and it will need all the generous promised foreign donations it can get to help resurrect its devastated economy.

Yet even in the midst of hard times and uncertainty, I see both Italians and Tunisians demonstrating an appreciation of beauty, and a gratitude for the simple but meaningful joys of life that inspires me to take a second look at what is really important. Last night in Hammamet, I saw a young man selling fresh almonds in the street. He had his little pile of merchandise carefully arranged. And in the top, he had placed one of the small, artfully arranged bouquets of jasmine that are ubiquitous this time of year. Each bouquet costs one dinar (about 75 American cents), which here in Tunisia buys five loaves of bread. As I watched, he picked up the jasmine, inhaled the sweet fragrance, smiled, and then stuck it contentedly behind his ear. I thought of Greece, and that unquenchable Mediterranean joy in the simple and beautiful things of life. And a 13th-century Persian poem my mother always quoted me:

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,                                                           and from thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left,                      sell one, and with the dole,                                                                            buy hyacinths to feed the soul.

It’s the Mediterranean way. A life worth living is worth living beautifully. There must be some reason I see German tourists all over in Tunisia. They find something wonderful here that even Angela Merkel can’t give them at home. The Greeks, the Italians, the Tunisians know the infinite value of hyacinths to feed the soul, even when bread around the world is scarce. And to me, they themselves and their countries could be our hyacinths; beautiful things worth helping and preserving with our tangible resources so that they can help us with their less tangible, but very real aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual resources. Their current troubles are at least as much a result of our society’s bad choices as theirs. If we step up in the hard times to help them make a living, maybe they’ll help teach us how to really live.

Credits: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, photos: Greek Flag, Tunisian Jasmine

One thought on “A Lament for Greece

  • November 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm
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    The hurt is everywhere. This morning I was reading how the DOW dropped 400 points yesterday because of Italy hitting the benchmark of 7% where its debt was concerned. Another article said that the foreclosures were at a 7-month high and rising, and that Fannie Mae (gov’t) lost another $5 billion.

    It’s going to get REALLY ugly, everywhere.

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