Rot – Part 12

January 9th, 2009

So, as Sam and I are walking down the street, I notice that a number of “boutiques”—all catering to a self-parodic (if substantial) cohort of wannabe (if clueless) Kolônaki fashionistas who’ve self-consciously elevated their painful tastelessness to an existential ethic peerless in its sheer crudity—haven’t been touched at all. No broken windows, no shattered glass, no cracks, no graffiti, no nothing. When I turn, however, to the other side of the street, I find that the entire glass front of what is, by far, the most elegant flower shop in Kolônaki (and, as far as I’ve seen, in Athens) has been shattered.

My first reaction is bewilderment. But I realize immediately that behind the enormous shop window stands a stylishly adorned (and large) Christmas tree surrounded by an equally stylish array of flowers, plants, and toys making up a graceful and understated Christmas display. I then look just a couple of shops down and, again, notice that the shop anchoring the corner of Skoufa and Voukourestiou has had its entire glass frontage shattered. This particular establishment is another expression of Kolônakian wannabeism—in this case, the Pottery Barn. Except that, this being Greece, the basic professional competence of Pottery Barn buyers is missing, so that the merchandise here is more ersatz, less well-made, and (again, this is Greece) head-spinningly expensive. Still, for me, passing by it every so often is, if nothing else, a visual relief, as the eye candy in its windows evokes various simulacra of the daily life my wife and I have left behind in the (real) West, so near and yet so far from Skoufa. Clearly, however, this store’s transgression in the eyes of the enraged youth who had come down the street just a few hours before seems to have been the pseudo-Victorian Christmas display behind the glass.

The next day, on my way to the plateia, on Skoufa again, I passed another shop with broken windows that I hadn’t noticed the night before. It was a tiny place that sold vintage toy automobiles. I couldn’t believe it. I actually stopped dead in my tracks. The perniciousness of the previous night’s vandalism finally struck me, or, rather, I finally understood the moral cellar in which Greece’s cretinous left is putrefying.

I cannot begin to fathom the kind of human debasement required to consider a toy store a symbol of moral turpitude and class oppression, and, so, a legitimate target of “revolutionary violence.” How diseased must a mind be today in this country to look upon a Christmas tree as a sign of cultural coercion and the commodification of repression? How utterly unformed can a human psyche be; how deeply entombed in, and damaged by, their incapacities can human beings be; how pathologically (self-)deprived of any notion of human sensibility must young men and women (the very thought sears the mind) be to so thoughtlessly and completely exile the notion of pleasure, not merely from their world (I suppose everyone has a right to self-induced misery), but—and this is precisely the point to firebombed Christmas trees and vandalized flower shops and toy stores, for Pete’s sake—the world as a whole. This is not politics. And it is certainly not social resistance. This is psychosis.

As for the “commercialization of Christmas” that was allegedly the actual “ideological” target of the anarcho-idiots, give me a break. While I don’t expect Greece’s semiliterate (albeit college-educated) left to know who Clement Moore was, you’d think they’d have heard of the American’s contemporary across the ocean, a certain Dickens. Back in New York, the Sun was assuring Virginia O’Hanlon of Santa Claus’s reality in 1897. Finally, the mother of all public Christmas trees, the 75- to 90-footer erected every year in Rockefeller Center, was first put up in 1931 by construction workers, who were then building the complex, as a spontaneous gesture of human sentiment, and decency and grace, and—above all—social solidarity. I mean, what, exactly, is Christmas supposed to be if not celebration and excess and prodigality, which is to say the singular moment in the Christian—make that capitalist—calendar when the most extreme sense of the collective and of social integration is actually honored, even if only temporarily and with almost universal insincerity? It genuinely is a wonderful life for those few days out of the year when we delude ourselves into believing the best about ourselves.

The torched Christmas tree in Plateia Syntagmatos was replaced, and torched again, and replaced again, and then covered by garbage by Greece’s young revolutionaries, and then, finally, placed under armed guard—in the end, 2,500 to 5,000 (!) riot police were assigned to protect the square, according to some media reports. Among the many things I’ve come to hate about this country, the Greek left is now very near the top of the list.

Postscript: Between finishing this piece and posting it, I went out to buy a newspaper, and passed by that vintage-toy shop—or, rather, where the toyshop used to be because I discovered that it’s no longer there. It’s been replaced by a jewelry store. Another jewelry store. Exactly what Kolônaki, and the world, needed. It seems that the revolutionary vandals were successful, after all. All power to the imagination.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 11

January 8th, 2009

Having gained some perspective by being away from this blog for a while, I’ve decided that less is more, and that I’m going to be winding it up relatively quickly (next week). Part of the problem is, the older I get, the less I have to say. After a few decades, one realizes that what goes around comes around. It is continually déjà vu all over again.

Besides, I really do have very little to say about this country at this point. Like every country, every society, it is what it is, for good or ill. As an American, I know a lot about a society being what it is, for good or ill. It turns out that Samuel Huntington was right: culture does matter, and it makes a difference, and history can never (will never) end as long as there are two people speaking two different languages—or even the same language, but coming from two different cerebral cortexes.

Which leads me to the image of the Christmas tree in Plateia Syntagmatos in flames, torched a couple of days after the murder of Alexandros Grêgoropoulos. I’m watching it on television, with my wife and a friend, who’s come to watch the news with us. I don’t get it. What does burning the tree down have to do with the price of rice? Later that night, December 8, after the anarcho-hooligan/hooded-or-not-students-or-not/lumpen-Bolshevik/rioto-revolutionary masses “attack” Kolônaki (at least mediatically), I walk down the middle of Skoufa Street with Sam (our dog), surveying the damage done by the uprisen (if not particularly downtrodden) sans-culottes manqués of Year 0. Truth be told, the destruction is as underwhelming as it is incoherent: a shop window here, a shop window there, a shop window further up and—as always, just to show some revolutionary consistency—the ATMs of the local branch of the National Bank of Greece.

Other than that, though, it’s just shop windows, often clearly with just one object thrown that, then, creates a spider’s web of cracked glass. What strikes me in particular, however, is the pristine condition of the displays behind the partially or even completely shattered windows. They’re left untouched. There seems to be absolutely no looting. In the following days, looting apparently does occur in other parts of the city; I am told by a neighborhood merchant that it also occurred in Kolônaki, but I never see the slightest evidence of it, either then or later. What I do see is random—the most accurate word is actually moronic—vandalism.

There is no rhyme or reason to the targets chosen, except for the obvious emblems of globalized capital: Zara, Benetton, and, naturally, Starbucks. But while an entire tale lies in those three names, their significance is apparently way beyond the ken, and suffocating moral universe, of Greece’s protesting “students.” The first two enterprises, of course, famously began as family businesses in provincial towns a mere generation ago in Mediterranean societies comparable in many ways to that of Greece, while the American company (also relatively recent and founded in a small city) was (in fact, remains) quite progressive, both culturally and, more important, in terms of its corporate responsibilities. In the event, not one of these entities can be mistaken for an Exxon, Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, BHP Billiton, Monsanto, General Motors, or AIG. But, of course, all three are “capitalist.” Well, yes, but…who isn’t—at least among those of us who choose to live in the West (not to mention most of the rest of the world)? I certainly am, as a partner in a (tiny) publishing firm whose only measure of viability/survival is profit and loss.

(I hasten to add that capitalism is also notorious for its “contradictions,” cultural and otherwise. Amancio Ortega, founder of Inditex, parent company of Zara, for example, recently announced that he was investing all his personal resources—about $2.5 billion in the next year and a half, as a start—in a new venture: developing alternative energy. In the eyes of Greece’s anarcho-environmentalists and related revolutionary greens, this is all smoke and mirrors, of course, another capitalist ruse to “delude” and “coopt” the “laboring masses.” So, what is to be done? For lack of a better plan at the moment, continuing to scarf down industrial meat by the kilo and driving gas guzzlers to the increasingly desertified Greek beaches until the last goat has grazed the last scrub off the last denuded Greek island. The laboring masses are much more honest about their failings than their young revolutionary defenders.)

What I do notice, though, as Sam and I are walking down the middle of Skoufa (which is closed to traffic because of the vandalism) are the attacks on the small Greek businesses on the street. Although, as I said above, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern, there is definitely—or so it seems to me—a kind of ideological signature.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 10

December 22nd, 2008

The day after I posted my last blog, the Sunday Eleftherotypia published an interview by Tasos Pappas with Theodôros Pangalos, the former PASOK foreign minister and long-time deputy. Responding to Pappas’s point that “the left considers a grand coalition [συγκυβέρνηση] of PASOK-New Democracy a logical outcome, given their respective programs,” Pangalos retorted:

I imagine that politicians who look at politics as superficially [με τόση ελαφρότητα] as Alekos Alavanos and Alexês Tsipras [Alavanos is former head of SYRIZA and Tsipras’s mentor] believe that, in this way, their doctrine of “massive unrest, nice situation” [μεγάλη αναταραχή, ωραία κατάσταση] will be implemented [εφαρμοστεί]. They see politics as a party.

After then being asked to “assess” the events of the last couple of weeks, he offered a characteristically acerbic analysis:

I believe that the movement during its first few days was spontaneous, but thuggish and troublemaking elements [κακοποιά και ταραχοποιά στοιχεία] infiltrated, and did the damage that is by now well-known, transforming Athens into a capital of a country under existing socialism….Deserted streets, cars hidden away, padlocked doors, a fearful and pitiful climate [κλίμα φόβου και μιζέριας] among citizens. I repeat: The first few days were an expression of a large movement of indignation [αγανάκτησης] on the part of youth that was absolutely justified. After three or four days, high-school and university students withdrew, and that’s why the demonstrations diminished noticeably. Today, we’re dealing with 50 people at one point, 100 at another; in other words, we’re talking about a phenomenon of political hooliganism. Well, this phenomenon of political hooliganism is being directed by [καθοδηγεί η] SYRIZA’s leadership. [Pappas comments: “A serious charge” {Βαριά κατηγορία}]….They should tell us why they’re doing it. The banner on the Acropolis and the other pathetic acts [αθλιότητες] smell as intensely of SYRIZA as cheap perfume does on a “sporting” lady [“κατάλληλη” κυρία]. I don’t know what, exactly, Mr. Alavanos and Mr. Tsipras want to achieve, but I’d like them to tell us finally what the message is so that we, too, will know what to do. What do they want? When do they think they’ll succeed? How can they tolerate so many schools and universities being closed, without a time limit, without a reason? I don’t know what they want. Do you?

I, for one, have no idea, but the insinuation that SYRIZA’s two leaders are political prostitutes is pure Pangalos. Being pure Pangalos, it is also inimitably astute. The greatest calamity that befell PASOK after Kôstas Sêmitês’s dual resignation from the country’s premiership and his party’s leadership was the assumption of that leadership by George Papandreou instead of Pangalos. The party has been paying for it ever since, and will continue to do so, especially if current events lead (as they very well might) to the heretofore unimaginable election of Papandreou as prime minister. Pangalos is notoriously impetuous, direct, and uncontrollable. He is also very, very smart—the smartest person, by far, in PASOK—and, were he leading it, the only reason anyone unaffiliated with the party might consider voting for it. He personifies the last link between PASOK and Sêmitês—that is, the last genuine hope for Western European social democracy in Greece. (George Papandreou is not a European social democrat; he’s an agent of the Clintonization of the global center-left. That he’s also president of the Socialist International only confirms the deplorable degradation, and irrelevance, of that once meaningful organization.)

It was precisely that Western European social democracy meant by Leônidas Kyrkos when he referred to the “center-left” against which Synaspismos had “mistakenly” fought (see Part 7 of this series). What makes SYRIZA’s current stance so bizarre (and ridiculous) is that it has always been the most self-consciously bourgeois party on the Greek left. (Actually, New Democracy can, and does, easily claim that its own base is infinitely more working-class and certainly lower middle-class than that of SYRIZA). It has always been the beloved party of Greek literati, academia, and pseudo-bohemians of every ideological stripe. It’s probably consistently gotten a larger percentage of votes in Kolônaki than in most working-class or agricultural districts of the country. I’m not condemning it, by the way. I’m aware, and guilty, enough of my own contradictions not to throw stones at anybody else. More important, as a couple of my previous posts have (incompletely and even ineptly) argued, I feel strongly that a “proper” bourgeoisie is critical to a properly functioning society and democratic polity. My only point is that a party that has itself insisted trenchantly, and often at great political cost, in the past that a confident middle class is fundamental to social equity and constitutional integrity in any advanced society to now champion a lumpen-Leninism in which the streets become the focus of political power is deeply cynical, and offensive to everyone who has supported it, in many cases, for several decades.

(To be continued after the New Year. Meanwhile, in contrast, and opposition, to the witless mobs that burned down Christmas trees and destroyed Christmas displays, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Καλά Χριστούγεννα, and a very happy new year, despite everything and anything that has come along or will continue to do so.)

Rot – Part 9

December 19th, 2008

Several days after the demonstrations and rioting had begun, and after meeting with Kôstas Karamanlês (who’d held a series of one-on-ones with each head of the parliamentary parties, as well as with Greece’s president), Aleka Paparêga, the general secretary of the KKE (the Communist Party of Greece), came out with an extraordinary appeal to, and condemnation of, SYRIZA. She asked that “SYRIZA’s leadership…stop caressing the ears of the κουκουλοφόροι [hooded ones],” and continued, “We’re not saying that it [SYRIZA] is the same as them, but it’s caressing them, because it sees the ballot box, chairs, or pillows coming.” (“H ηγεσία του ΣΥΡΙΖΑ να σταματήσει να χαϊδεύει τα αυτιά των κουκουλοφόρων. Δε λέμε ότι ταυτίζεται με αυτούς, αλλά χαϊδεύει, γιατί βλέπει μπροστά την κάλπη, καρέκλες, ή μαξιλάρια.”) It was the most candid, and cogent, comment on the relations between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left that any political leader had made since the violence had erupted.

It’s hard for anybody my age (let alone older) to (try to) deal objectively with the KKE. Suffice it to say that, while I’ve rarely understood the intellectual rationale behind its post-junta politics from the standpoint of the left, I respect it deeply, if only because it seems to be one of the few parties left in the West that actually understands the meaning, and implications, of the term, “working class.” (I have a personal reason, too, which I won’t go into here, but concerns my own experience a very long time ago. I learned then that the KKE has a much keener sense of justice—even regarding its ideological “enemies”—than some “socialist movements” that pride themselves on their “independence” and “renovative” principles. In the only left-wing kangaroo process in which I was ever involved, the KKE defended the accused. I’ve never forgotten that.)

Consequently, although like most people, part of me (a big part) cannot believe the KKE continues to exist, at least in the form in which it does, another part of me has, over the years, come to admire the sheer insanity of its persistence. There’s something almost Lear-like, noble and majestic, about its insistence on its own understanding of the world—but something tragic, too: “You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave…/…I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire….” In the current state of deep distrust, political decay, and seemingly systemic corruption in which all of the other parties find themselves, however, the KKE’s apparently lunatic honesty is, at least…honest. And, therefore, singular.

Paparêga has, in the event, put her finger precisely on the problem with the KKE’s perpetual rival, which, until recently, although altering its name from time to time to reflect its ongoing internal ideological “προβληματισμό” (self-examination), had nonetheless remained remarkably consistent in its actual political formulations and world-view. What is now known as SYRIZA is the great-grandchild of the Communist Party of the Interior—i.e., the Eurocommunist wing of the communist party that split from the KKE less than a year after the coup of April 21, 1967, in opposition to its Soviet orientation and, more to the point, to the mistaken direction that, the CPI argued, the KKE had led the Greek left prior to the coup. In 1986, the majority of the CPI left the party and established the Greek Left, which combined briefly with the KKE in 1989 for the purposes of the government of national unity (against the unbridled corruption that had undermined Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK government), and then separated definitively from the KKE to create the Συνασπισμό της Αριστεράς και της Προόδου (Coalition of the Left and Progress), which, finally, became SYRIZA right before the 2004 parliamentary elections.

These typically left-wing recreations, makeovers, and reinventions make Synaspismos—which, for the sake of clarity, is the name I’ll use for all its pre-SYRIZA iterations—seem a lot more sectarian (not to mention confused) than it was in fact. With Leônidas Kyrkos either at its helm or as its ideological anchor, everybody always knew what it stood for, regardless of what its name was: historical continuity with the labor, democratic (very important, this, for Greece), and, yes, communist movements, nationally and internationally; a belief in a deeply democratic dialogue and decisionmaking process within the left; a rejection of the “free” market as the sole determinant, not only of social progress, but also of economic rationality; a broadly anti-imperialist agenda; a belief in European unity and integration—which continues to distinguish it from the KKE—as well as a commitment to all those civil initiatives and citizens’ rights that, as a whole, are now generally known as “civil society”; and, finally, in foreign affairs, an inclusive sense, not only of the world, but of Greece’s own immediate neighborhood and the people(s) living in it, whether they’re Turks, Turkish Cypriots, or Macedonians, which simply means a profound opposition to Greek nationalism. In short, Synaspismos represented a radically democratic view, both of politics and society, rather than a radical one.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 8

December 18th, 2008

I had originally intended to continue today with SYRIZA and the Greek left generally, but a not-so-funny thing happened to me after I posted yesterday’s blog. My partner, Stelios Vasilakis, e-mailed me a link to a story in the New York Times entitled, “S.E.C. Says It Missed Signals on Madoff Fraud Case” (by Alex Berenson and Diana B. Henriques, December 16). I read it, and then, as is more customary than not for me when reading the paper, wanted to put my fist through the wall.

As always, full disclosure: to say that I am merely disenchanted with Greece would be comparable to dismissing George W. Bush as merely a “failed” president. I think this country is so sunk (to echo Leônidas Kyrkos’s term) in a morass of social decay and civic corruption that nothing, and no one, that I can see on the horizon can possibly save it. This is the third time in a period of a quarter of a century that my wife and I are living here, but we’re witnessing the worst social crisis, by far, we’ve seen since the collapse of the dictatorship. The only social consensus that exists at the moment is that things are impossible, and can’t continue as they are. But a society cannot long survive when that kind of fundamental civic rejection becomes the norm. This is when revolutions ensue. I don’t think revolution is coming to Greece, however. Frankly, I don’t know what is, but I do know that I don’t want to be here when it appears on my doorstep.

Having said that, I’m now going to say a few other things, which might anger, or at least irritate, some readers. Although life in Greece is what it is, I am also (deeply) conscious of the fact that my wife and I left the United States almost four years ago because we thought the country had reached a dead-end. Nixon, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush (illicitly), Bush (ditto)—preceded by the Vietnam War, serial assassinations, and black men shot in their beds for the “crime” of resisting the colonization of their communities: does anyone even remember this anymore?

During the recent presidential campaign, for example, everybody was terribly exercised over the “terrorist” Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground—who killed nobody but themselves—but conveniently forgot, repressed, suppressed, didn’t know, or could care less about, the context in which they operated at the time. When, to name just one well-known incident from Ayers’s (and Barack Obama’s) own Chicago, the Weather(wo)men destroyed several (empty) police cars on December 6, 1969, it was in retaliation for the murder two days earlier of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the Chicago police, aided and abetted by the FBI. Clark was shot through the heart, Hampton twice, point blank, in the head. The next day, the Chicago police announced that its “brave” officers had been “attacked” by the Black Panthers and had no choice but to defend themselves. As we all know now (and, actually, learned soon after), both Hampton and Clark were asleep at the time, Hampton in his bed and Clark on a chair in Hampton’s living room. This is all ancient history now. In fact, four years ago, Chicago’s city council officially (and unanimously) proclaimed “Fred Hampton Day in Chicago” on the thirty-fifth anniversary of Hampton’s assassination by…Chicago. He would have been 27 months older than me today. But, again, this is all blood under the bridge. Besides, “we” all voted for Barack Obama; so, can we just, please, move on and forget about things we can no longer control (like our memories)?

When John Kerry conceded the 2004 election although he knew Ohio had been brazenly stolen from him, my wife and I decided that we were just getting too old for this sort of thing. We were in our late teens when Nixon was first elected, which, in our youthful naivété at the time, we’d thought we’d never live to see, but, looking back, 1968 was almost a high-water mark of postwar American self-consciousness and social opposition. If you had ventured to predict back in 1968 that Ronald Reagan would be president twelve years hence, only a Weatherman would have believed you.

How time flies. And how we all accommodate ourselves to its passing. Several days ago, a previously unknown (or, at least, unknown to most of us) “financier” by the name of Bernard L. Madoff was indicted for embezzling roughly (!) $50 billion. That’s $50,000,000,000.00. Not that you don’t know what 50 billion is, but the numbers are always more impressive (and depressing) than the words used to describe them. (I can only imagine how striking they must look in a financial statement.) In the last year and a half since the world has discovered the alchemical financial alphabet of ABSs, CDOs (and related CFOs, CMOs, CLOs, and CBOs), CDSs, MBSs, SIVs, SPVs, and VIEs—not to mention LIBOR, EURIBOR, GSEs, and TARP—we never suspected that capitalism was so arcane. We all thought, when left to its own devices, it just exploited people (and resources) in a pretty straightforward manner: blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Little did we suspect how much damage it can do covertly, almost magically, from one computer to the next to the next to the…. A French options trader here, an English fund manager there, a Scottish banker a little farther north, an American broker across the pond. Next thing you know…Iceland has disappeared.

But do people actually live in Iceland? Apparently, they do; and now, with most of these people having had only the barest smidgen of an inkling of what was going on, their savings, and businesses, and homes, and futures—their country—are all at the mercy of the very thinnest ice lying between them and oblivion. What was that about creative destruction?

Nobody knows yet—nobody will know for years—what the total cost worldwide will be of those “lost assets” (lost savings, years, lives) when the numbers from this global devastation are finally toted up. Since I’ve actually been searching for this information for a while, I’m almost tempted to say that a concerted effort is being made not to add up the costs because of the fear of popular reaction. However, Douglas McIntyre, editor of the financial Website, 24/7 Wall Street, has made an estimate: it’s roughly (it’s always “roughly”) $25 trillion ( Yes, that’s 25 followed by a trillion. After a while, the mind numbs (the body’s reaction to help ease the pain). The problem is, we’re nowhere near the end of it yet. Meanwhile, the world is debating the pros and cons of throwing shoes at George W. Bush.

Of course, if we lived in a world in which the concept of justice actually meant something, George W. Bush—and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair and hundreds, if not thousands, of US and UK officers and soldiers, starting at the top—would be facing the hangman (if they were being prosecuted in the country they’ve destroyed) or the rest of their lives behind bars (if they were being held accountable for their crimes by the International Criminal Court). But, no, the “world,” that is, that notoriously opaque entity called the “international community,” doesn’t function that way. According to the most conservative estimate (Iraq Body Count), the US has killed just under 100,000 Iraqis since the invasion in 2003. The World Health Organization estimate, published by The New England Journal of Medicine, was over 150,000 almost a year ago (over a three-year period, in other words); and, of course, most famously, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Survey, published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, calculated “as many as 654,965” Iraqi deaths as of October 2006.

But we’re all discussing shoes. Or, here in Greece, burning cars and the $1.3 billion worth of damage done by enraged anarchists/students/usual suspects/only Heaven knows who. Let’s see, 50 ÷ 1.3 = 38.46 (roughly). I suggest that the various anti-imperialists, αντιεξουσιαστές, κουκουλοφόροι, γνωστοί άγνωστοι, and other revolutionary, pseudo-, quasi-, and lumpenrevolutionary forces of Exarcheia contact Bernard Madoff as soon as possible. He obviously knows how to destroy a society. Thirty-eight and a half times more powerfully than any rock-throwing, hoodie-wearing teenager ever could. Face it, boys and girls, you’re just rank amateurs compared to pros like him.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 7

December 17th, 2008

I ended yesterday’s post with an indirect tribute to Leônidas Kyrkos. I’ll make it more direct today. The marginalization of the eighty-four-year-old Kyrkos represents everything that’s gone wrong with—or, to be cruelly frank about it, the utter decay of—the Greek left, and Greek society as a whole. I’m not the only one who thinks of Kyrkos as personifying the left, and the Greece, that could have been, following the fall of the dictatorship, the movement, and the country, that got away from us, or, more frankly again, was serially suppressed because its honesty was too painful, its integrity too difficult to emulate, its indifference to self a permanent accusation of the egotism feeding the spiraling social decomposition of the last 30 years: I suspect the vast majority of Greeks feels as I do, if only out of guilt. Kyrkos is one of the last men left in Greece who makes me proud that I was born in the same country he was.

The problem with people like Kyrkos, however, is that they’re so wise, so farseeing, that most of their fellows misjudge (and, more often than not, denounce) their sagacity as delusion, especially as they age and, so (despite their best intentions and efforts), separate themselves from youth, which, in every society, is invested with the (Darwinian) hopes for the future. Earlier this year, Alexês Tsipras, who was born roughly two weeks after the dictatorship fell and so was 33 years old at the time—any comparisons to Jesus are purely coincidental, although Tsipras was hailed, almost immediately after his victory, as “the Greek Obama”—was elected president of SYRIZA (Synaspismos Rizospastikês Aristeras, or Coalition of the Radical Left), the party that, through various name changes over the years, was co-founded and led by Leônidas Kyrkos, and of which Kyrkos was the intellectual and moral lodestar. Kyrkos did not support Tsipras’s candidacy, but, rather, that of his comrade of many years, Fôtês Kouvelês.

While almost a quarter-century younger than Kyrkos, Kouvelês has always been a stalwart of what is known in Greece as the “ανανεωτική αριστερά” (renovative left). His résumé is a compendium of left-wing activity (and, since this was a given once upon a time, courage): a member of the Lambrakês Youth during the tumultuous years of the early Sixties; a member of Rêgas Feraios during the dictatorship; a member of the central committee of the (anti-Stalinist) Communist Party of the Interior; founding member of the Greek Left party (which, led by Kyrkos, broke away from the CPI); and, again with Kyrkos and others, a leader of the coalition of independent leftists that, eventually, became SYRIZA. Kouvelês has been elected to parliament six times since 1989. (Tsipras, on the other hand, although now head of his party, has never been elected to any office outside of it.)

Most important of all, Kouvelês is, like all of Kyrkos’s close comrades, an extraordinarily decent human being. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a group of men and women involved in the daily mire of public life who’ve been so distinguished by—and universally acknowledged for—their sheer civic altruism and untainted personal integrity. In the event, when the time came for electing SYRIZA’s new leader at its party congress, Tsipras won by the unprecedented margin (for the party) of 70.41% to Kouvelês’s 28.67%. I was watching the proceedings on television that night, and, while Tsipras had been clearly pegged as the favorite, I admit that I was shocked by the results, or, rather, by the extent of Kouvelês’s repudiation by his own party. At that moment, it was obvious that the Greek left—in any coherent and historical meaning of that collective description—was finished.

The victory of the hipper-than-thou, telegenic, motorcycle-riding, Panathênaikos-season-ticketholding candidate over the now fusty former member of the Lambrakês Youth and Rêgas Feraios confirmed the left’s passing into a brave new media world of lifestyle as ideology, politics as fashion statement, and infinite and unrelenting photo-ops. The Greek left had finally discovered Bill Clinton.

Kyrkos had foreseen all this and, even worse, the tragic events that followed this month. Σε ανύποπτο χρόνο, as we say in Greek (at a time, in other words, before the present)—specifically, October 2006—he gave an interview to Giôrgos Douatzês of the Athens daily, Kathimerini (“Λεωνίδας Κύρκος: ‘Υπάρχει ακόμα περιθώριο να συναντηθούμε,’”10.12.06). I quote a brief excerpt below (my translation):

LK: …We’re sinking. [Ζούμε μια περίοδο καθίζησης.]

GD: On what do you base your pessimism?
LK: On the fact that problems are increasing, but our responses are lagging. We’ve restricted ourselves to rhetoric, but meanwhile real-life situations are forming. When one sees the degree to which problems have accumulated, and the disgust [αγανάκτηση] with them, one really becomes worried [ανησυχεί πραγματικά].

GD: Why are you so worried?
LK: We’re losing time. What can be done today can’t be done tomorrow. Because other situations have been created meanwhile….A mistake that Synaspismos made was to fight against the idea of the center-left….

SYRIZA now sees itself as a “radical” vanguard. It is actually a Trojan Horse of media manipulation, presenting itself as a gift to the left, but, in reality, hiding within itself the forces of the left’s ruin.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 6

December 16th, 2008

Last night, the interior minister, Prokopês Pavlopoulos, appeared on the Mega program, Anatropê, hosted by the journalist Giannês Pretenterês. I’ve always thought Pavlopoulos is the smartest man in the government, including Karamanlês. He’s a kind of New Democracy Kôstas Sêmitês, nerdy, accountant-looking, but with a mind that cuts through the intellectual haze of politician’s claptrap, and is particularly effective in demolishing the agonizing incomprehensibility—and evasion—of the “wooden language” (as Greeks call it) that has become a supreme form of political kitsch in the mouth of its current master, George Papandreou. To be fair to “Giôrgakê,” as most Greeks call him with patent derision, his knowledge of, and ability to speak—let alone think in—Greek is…woeful, to say the least. Hearing him makes one shudder with pity (and, I hate to admit it, disdain) at the thought of a country that would actually entrust itself to such evident insufficiency. “Empty suit” does not begin to describe the dismay he provokes; the Greek “λίγος” comes a little closer, if only because of its implicit scorn. In the event, he is a living warning of the inevitable dissolution that follows when democracies become dynastic.

Pavlopoulos, like Sêmitês, is a politician who eats people like Papandreou for breakfast, mostly because he’s articulate and forthright. He finally settled the issue that’s been uppermost in most people’s minds regarding the government’s stance during the last week-plus of rioting. In answer to Pretenterês’s first question of the evening, as to whether the government had made a conscious decision not to interfere with the rioters, or had simply lost control of the situation, Pavlopoulos responded immediately that, indeed, the government had chosen not to exacerbate the confrontation(s)—that is, take the risk of another or even more innocent deaths—by dealing with the crowds aggressively, but, rather, to concede the streets to them, as it were, until the collective fury had burned itself out. His response, needless to say, raised the question of how the authorities expected the rage to burn itself out without first burning out hundreds of millions of euros’ worth (the latest estimate is €1.3 billion) of private property. Pavlopoulos never answered that query to anybody’s satisfaction, but, in a way, the point is moot. Once the government’s calculations are clear, it is equally clear that it knew there’d be a price to pay for them.

I, for one, believe that it made a dreadful mistake, but I’m also deeply aware of a profound hypocrisy in Greek life, which nobody, especially the left, will admit to: namely, that no government since 1974 has been able to impose public order against wanton destruction without being denounced for authoritarianism and repression. No accusation flies out of a Greek leftist’s mouth more readily, easier, and with less forethought than “καταστολή” (repression). If Pavlopoulos had ordered the Greek police—which is, in fact, incompetent, poorly trained, and undermined by countless “τσαμπουκαλήδες” for whom “order” is defined by cracking heads—Athens, and probably a dozen other cities, would have erupted in massive, near civil-war disorder.

There was one other issue that Pavlopoulos clarified, again after Pretenterês’s questioning. He said—and offered the transcripts of the radio communications for public examination—that Epameinôndas Korkoneas, the police officer who murdered Alexandros Grêgoropoulos, had been ordered twice by his headquarters not to return to the scene of where his radio car had been pelted by stones. Quite the opposite, Pavlopoulos insisted, the standing order of the day—and the command communicated to Korkoneas—was “απεμπλοκή,” disengagement. So, on top of everything else—the ensuing homicide above all—Korkoneas willfully disobeyed orders.

There were four other guests on Pretenterês’s show, two journalists, Pantelês Kapsês and Terens Kouik, as well as Andreas Loverdos, a PASOK deputy, and Nikos Voutsês, a member of SYRIZA’s politburo. Loverdos is a former professor of constitutional law who makes you despair of the condition and future in Greece both of the law and of its educational transmission. He is, like his colleague and ideological soulmate, Evangelos Venizelos, an inflexible and condescending partisan whose only definition of public discourse seems to be denigration of whoever his opponent might be at the moment. Voutsês, on the other hand, like so many of SYRIZA’s higher functionaries, looks like your favorite uncle (or aunt), whose avuncular and indulgent exterior bespeaks an unusually shallow definition of “progressivism” that equates permissiveness with tolerance and indolence with anti-capitalist morality. Suffice it to say that both Loverdos and Voutsês made Pavlopoulos look like a statesman by comparison.

But only up to a point. Several times throughout the evening, Pavlopoulos maintained (with a bit more thespian insistence than was seemly) that no one understands how deeply the events of the last 10 days have affected him personally, and that he will always carry with him to the day he dies the knowledge that Athens burned on his watch. I have no reason to question his sincerity, but, somehow, the more he protested that it was so, the less convincing it appeared. The problem is, he’d have to be someone of unequalled selflessness, brutal honesty, and an almost painful integrity for me to believe him. Pavlopoulos seems to be a decent man, but he’s not Leônidas Kyrkos.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 5

December 15th, 2008

This must be the reality we like because we don’t seem to be doing anything to change it. This is what we like. This is who we are.
Paraskevas Golfis, having coffee in the Golden Hall shopping mall that opened last month in a former Olympic venue, quoted in the New York Times, December 12

Anyone who’s actually read “The Ballad of East and West” knows that Kipling’s purpose is, in fact, to deny the cultural and moral certitude in its (notoriously misrepresented) first line that “…East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet….” In this globalized age (as, in fact, in Kipling’s), East and West not only meet (every second of every minute of every day), but merge. What is uncertain, however, is if they actually integrate. (I won’t touch upon the issue of whether they should or not. Personally, I think they shouldn’t. Others think differently. There is right and wrong on both sides.) The truth is, being an extremely intelligent imperialist, Kipling understood that geographical immutabilities aside, “…there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth/When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”—the point being, naturally, that “strong men” (I’ll add “strong women” to the calculus here) always decide for themselves who they are and, more relevantly, why. Paraskevas Golfis, the man in the street (or, more accurately, the man in the mall, which, in itself, speaks volumes about Greece today), has cut to the chase and, in his laconic lucidity, explained his country’s current condition better than all the pundits and academics (and, certainly, I) ever could: “This is what we like. This is who we are.”

Sipping coffee in a mall might seem to be the quintessential definition of Western life, but as a cultural (and commercial) practice, it’s more or less identical to sipping coffee (or chai) in a bazaar. So much for East or West. So, the mall in itself doesn’t tell us much about the transformation of Greek life at the moment. (Nor does it even begin to address the sheer weirdness of cultural processes. How many people remember Victor Gruen now? Victor Gruen? Yes, Victor Gruen, the committed—indeed, idealistic—Austrian socialist who invented the…mall. Following the Anschluss, he escaped to the United States, where he built the first mall ever near Detroit in 1954. His hope, his dream, was to replicate the café society of Mitteleuropa in what he saw to be the dreadful, and reactionary, cultural deserts of the American Heimat. East and West, indeed.)

So, no, the problem is not the mall (or, at least, not the mall per se). The problem is what surrounds the mall. And why Greece seems only to be building malls during the last few years. And what happens after all these malls have decayed into increasingly tacky (and low-rent) bargain emporia. (The fate of most malls today in the US, for example.) This particular mall, the “Golden Hall” (kitsch definitely belongs to the Western esthetic heritage) is built on the site of a former Olympic venue, the International Broadcast Center. Hmm. Question: As everybody seems to agree, Greece desperately needs updated and upgraded university facilities (not to mention updated and upgraded universities); couldn’t this “international broadcast center,” equipped with the latest technology (at least circa 2004, but beggars can’t be choosers), have been given over to a communications or journalism department of one of the universities, perhaps even become the core of a graduate school? The government argues, of course, that it promised the Greek people to recoup the costs of the Olympics, and has been trying desperately (it insists) to fulfill that promise.

Yes, well, except that nobody’s fooling anybody. The government has made, continues to make, and will not cease making endless promises to the Greek people, none of which it will keep in any form that is vaguely recognizable as the original pledge. And not just the current government; if anything, the previous PASOK governments are guiltier of mendacity—and its effective accessory before and after the fact, corruption—than the current one. As for the Olympics, the PASOK government promised back in 2000 that they’d cost about €3 billion; they ended up costing about four times that. (Both PASOK and New Democracy also waxed lunatic about the extraordinary, historic “prestige” that would redound on Greece from every corner of the planet after the Olympics. The question is not, does anybody remember that now? The question is, did anybody actually believe it back then?) In the event, the only thing that matters today—especially given the global economic crisis—is selling off whatever can be sold off, as quickly as possible. Golden Hall, anyone? Like the man said: “This is who we are.”

(To be continued)

Read the rest of this entry »

Rot – Part 4

December 12th, 2008

Greece, as its nationalist defenders (both on the left and right) like to boast, is a unique nation (“When Europeans were eating acorns, we were building Parthenons”), or, to echo the now immortal formulation of a former Greek president, an “έθνος ανάδελφο,” an “un-siblinged nation.” As we all await the population-wide DNA testing that will confirm that singularity, Greece has decidedly proven itself to be an outlier (if not exactly “ανάδελφη”) among most Western nations in one way: the left has governed for most of the 34 years of democratic government since the fall of the dictatorship in 1974. This does not match the record of Swedish social democracy, of course, but is impressive nonetheless, if only because the rhetorical and ideological framework of PASOK, the party that governed continually, except for a three-year interregnum, from 1981-2004, is infinitely more “radical” (or at least shriller) than that of the Swedes.

In the event, the natural majority in Greek politics is left of center. Even under the last two conservative governments, the tally of the vote going to parties of the left (including ecologists and other greens) was 52.1 and 53.89, respectively, in 2004 and 2007. It is thus only the continual—and openly cynical—manipulation of the electoral law that even allows for single-party, let alone conservative, rule. Moreover, Greece’s conservative party, New Democracy, is, as many continental European “right-wing” parties are, far to the left of what the prevailing Anglo-Saxon, Republican/Tory lunacy defines as conservative. In fact, the current Greek government is, arguably, ideologically to the left of half the appointees of the incoming Obama administration. This particularity of Greek political life has, however, created a schizophrenic—and deeply and overtly hypocritical—paralysis in public discourse and policy since, while every party talks the left talk, they all walk the right walk.

And I mean every party, but especially those of the left, from PASOK to the KKE (Communist Party of Greece) to, most problematical of all, SYRIZA. Before I discuss the left, however, I want to focus on the contradictions of New Democracy, as they point directly to the contradictions that the entire world has seen playing out on their television screens during the last week. More important, they indicate how difficult it is for a modern and democratic conservative party to function in a country whose entire historical experience, and understanding, of conservatism has been, until very recently, irremediably reactionary.

My point in excavating the etymology of the word, “propriety,” in yesterday’s posting was to show (poorly and haphazardly, admittedly, for which I apologize) that “ideology” is not a will-o’-the-wisp, an imagined and mystical aura, or, worse, an “invention” for reasons of pure self-justification. It is, or at least I think it is, an organic extension, and reflection, and residue of social development, an obvious process of what Raymond Williams called cultural materialism. Anyone familiar with Jacksonian democracy or the Gilded Age in the United States, or Britain’s rotten boroughs, will not consider the ρουσφετολογία of nineteenth-century Greece exceptional. My aim, in any case, was not to accuse Greek democracy of being more stunted in the mid-nineteenth century or more clientelistic than those of other Western polities. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I still remember Tammany Hall, and that was only 50 years ago. But it is true that Greek society as a whole in the nineteenth century—and, unfortunately, in the twentieth and, apparently, in the twenty-first—was less “Western.”

By that, I mean the obvious, from social mores to economic development. And one doesn’t have to be a Weberian to grasp instinctively that social patterns, and the difficulties in breaking them, exert direct control on economic processes. The fact is that the reality of a bourgeoisie comfortable about and in its “proper placement,” as I wrote yesterday, and confident of its “proper ownership” of its social presence—its social legitimacy, in other words, based on a universally accepted nexus of explicit obligations and rights, constitutionally secured in the political realm and contractually guaranteed in the economic sphere—did not exist in Greece in the nineteenth century, except for a tiny and continually embattled minority of “reformers” and “Westernizers” who ultimately coalesced around Charilaos Trikoupês.

Consequently, the classic notion (not to mention the class itself) of a (nation-building) bourgeoisie came much later to Greece than it did to the—dare I use the phrase?—genuine West. It came, for all intents and purposes, in the twentieth century (with Venizelos), as opposed to the nineteenth, and it also came, to an enormous, perhaps preponderant extent, from abroad, from the Greek mercantile diaspora—that is, from those non-Helladic Greeks who hoped (against the country’s realities) that their most lasting investment in Greece would be precisely the ideological (they called it moral and civilizational) embrace of and integration with the ardently desired West.

(To be continued)

Rot – Part 3

December 11th, 2008

You cannot live in Kolônaki and not hate yourself. As soon as you walk out the door of your house and walk five steps down the street, you’re guaranteed to come across something, or someone, or some conjunction of both, that will immediately cause you to question the sanity of—or, more often than not, the moral decay implicit in—your decision to live where you live. We live on a relatively small and compact street called Anagnôstopoulou. The former prime minister of Greece, Kôstas Sêmitês, lives on the same street, a couple of blocks down, closer to the Plateia Kolônakiou. Recently, one evening, as I was walking to the plateia to get a newspaper, absentmindedly window-shopping, I suddenly realized, after I had already passed it (since my brain obviously could not process the information quickly enough), that a new shop had opened almost halfway between our and Sêmites’s apartments. A sex shop. Momentarily, I was incredulous over the sheer incongruity between the venture and its chosen area of enterprise. But then I laughed, mentally slapping myself. What was I thinking? I was living in Kolônaki.

Many months earlier, across the street from that sex shop, about half a block away, a lingerie shop had opened up. I don’t mean a Victoria’s Secrets-like emporium; I mean a purveyor of wardrobe (“costumes” would be the more appropriate term) more commonly found in Hustler photo shoots than (I assume) in most women’s lingerie drawers. I am not a prude. And I don’t believe that sex (of any kind) between consulting adults, privately consummated, is a public issue, let alone a “problem.” Indeed, I think that these two shops are undoubtedly two of the most honest businesses in the area and, frankly, as far as pure style is concerned, in infinitely better taste than what passes as “fashion” in the surrounding streets. It’s just that, among many other places, I’ve lived both on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and in the sixth arrondisement in Paris, and I cannot possibly imagine a sex shop on, for example, East 67th (or 74th or 87th or 91st) Street, between Park and Madison Avenues or, across the Atlantic, on rue Jacob, rue St-Sulpice, or rue Bonaparte. This is so for many reasons, but, fundamentally and above all, because both in the city in which Wall Street rules and in the one that coined the term and elaborated the social concept, the word, “bourgeoisie,” actually means something.

Primarily, it means a defense of a moral universe, most notoriously connoted by the term, “propriety.” As anyone who’s reading this is, I assume, a fairly mature adult, I don’t think I need to enter into a discussion here of the history and contested meanings, and cruel realities and self-justifications, of bourgeois “propriety.” I’m too old for that sort of thing in any case, and I’m sure the last thing readers want is to have their intelligence insulted. I will, however, pause on one point. The English “propriety” is derived from the French “propriété,” which is derived from the Latin “proprietas,” or ownership, which is itself a derivative of “proprius,” which means “one’s own” or individual. Thus, while the French “propre” can mean honest or decent or appropriate—that is, everything we associate with the English “proper”—its primary meanings are either, like the Latin, one’s own (ma propre voiture, or “my own car”) or, even more interestingly, clean or neat (such as, I would assume, one’s own house). Indeed, the point here is that, for English-speakers learning French, “propriété” is what the French call a faux ami, or false friend—that is, a false cognate, which sounds like its English cousin and is almost spelled identically the same, but means a very different thing.

Or seems to. But what was Victorian bourgeois (and imperialist) “propriety” if not ownership? And what was Second Empire “propriété” if not appearance (as Madame Bovary teaches us). In both cultures, in the West as a whole in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, bourgeois propriety was a code, not so much of honor but of place, and of social placement, of proper ownership of one’s own social space and position. But Greece has always been bereft of a social history of “proper ownership”—it is hardly a coincidence that the state has only now embarked on the εθνικό κτηματολόγιο, or national land registry, Greece being the only European nation with the exception of Albania never to compile one. Because, while in the rest of Europe, gentry and mercantile classes and industrial and finance capitalists were struggling for social supremacy and political authority—for their proper placement in the national scene—Greece was an amalgam of former thieves and brigands (in the national mythology, κλέφτες και αρματολοί), latifundistas (τσιφλικάδες), and a newly formed (in truth, jerry-rigged) state structure that was a perpetual bazaar of give and take (ρουσφέτι). In his dictionary, Giôrgos Babiniôtês traces the first use of the term, “ρουσφετολόγος,” to 1816, or 14 years before the establishment of the modern Greek state, since, like the word, “τσαμπουκάς,” about which I wrote yesterday, both τσιφλικάς and ρουσφέτι are derived from the Turkish çiftlik and rüşvet, respectively.

(To be continued)