Solving the country’s economic problems is not enough for Greece to overcome its sense of national misery. After spending a couple of days in Athens recently, one leading foreign expert on crisis-stricken countries suggested that something be done about the horrible ugliness of graffiti and slogans on every wall, statue and public building. To cynical Greek ears this probably sounds like a joke.
Our surroundings, however, make a huge difference. The Greek capital currently presents an image of major decline. It reminds you of futuristic movies showing cities in the ultimate stages of decay. Besides the esthetic pollution, the overall ugliness creates a broader climate of misery and a negative vibe. The vandalization of statues and landmarks should spark anger in society. Some spoiled kids, the products of modern Greece’s nouveau riche and misguided era of euphoria, rightly believe that this society has no rules. They completely disregard the country’s history, which clearly no one bothered to teach them. I doubt that those spray-painting the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos know anything about the man – even though the capital’s airport is named after him.
Bad behavior has assumed different ideological mantles and will persist for as long as there is no reaction. Meanwhile, despite efforts by the City of Athens, organizations and volunteers, the hooligans of ugliness and violence have not been deterred. So, we have reached the point of removing statues from public spaces and storing them in warehouses – something last done when the Nazis entered the city in World War II. Now metal sheets protect historic buildings and the battle of clearing walls of graffiti is won for a few hours before being lost again at daybreak.
All of this demonstrates what happens to a country when its society and its leaders for years gave the impression that everything is allowed.
I was thinking of the comparison between the capital’s new jewel, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, and one of the city’s oldest buildings, the historic Polytechnic, the original campus of the National Technical University of Athens. The former exudes an air of national confidence and optimism. The latter symbolizes all the negative aspects marking our decline as well as the state’s inability to protect itself and do what needs to be done. The Polytechnic produced generations of Greeks who built and re-built the country. Today it is hosting those who want to destroy it, just for the fun of it. The worst thing is that conversations on the Niarchos park go like this: “Just wait for the state to take it over and you’ll see what it will end up looking like.” Misery, cynicism and inaction have landed us in a rut. We have to react.