I recently saw an article by Fintan O’Toole, one of Ireland’s most respected senior journalists. It was headed “Why is Ireland unable to solve basic problems? Why is it so dysfunctional?” He went on to discuss the failure of the modern Irish state to respond to social crises, its reliance on big success stories to cover up its mistakes, and its inadequate health service.
He pointed to the absence of any difference between the two “essentially identical center-right parties” which had governed the country since independence and which created “phony competition” to give the impression they were opposed to one another. He highlighted the lack of accountability for political mistakes. He criticized the lack of ideas, and the failure of successive governments to pursue their election promises.
The article was a critique of the fact that, as O’Toole put it, “Ireland has not developed a culture of governance.” Reading it, I had the suspicion that the editor had received one of my columns about Greece and had absent-mindedly changed the name of the country and substituted O’Toole’s name for mine, so closely does my view of Greece coincide with his view of Ireland. The man-in-the-street passes the man-in-the-sleeping-bag in the doorway of a defunct retail outlet in Athens as often as in Dublin.
In my “Letter from Greece” in The Irish Times in July I discussed Greece’s bureaucratic nightmare and the negative effects of the austerity program. The online comments were like this: “Well, they expect handouts from people like us to keep them alive,” or “They got themselves into this mess and they expect everyone else to get them out of it,” or, worst of all, “They are just a lazy people who sit in the sun all day long, watching the women do the work.”
I am also told that the Greek community in Ireland was divided between those who thought I was unjustifiable in describing the “sclerosis” of the Greek system, and those who recognized that I was telling the truth.
But it isn’t just Ireland and Greece that suffer from widespread corruption and institutional paralysis. It seems to be endemic, while the fascism that has replaced communism in Hungary and Poland is another destabilizing factor in the so-called European “Union.”
So what does this tell us about our modern world and its “culture of governance”? It points to the lack of vision that characterizes the poverty of political leadership. It’s almost as if the best strategy is to stay quiet, ignore any problems other than the very big ones – like 100 people dying in a forest fire, or a collapsing motorway bridge, or decades of clerical child abuse – which one can always blame on someone else.
What is responsibility? On the surface, it concerns citizens’ safety, education, health, the provision of electricity, roads, telecommunications, housing for the poor. But deep down it’s about vision – having a realistic idea about where you want your country and its people to be in 50 or 100 years’ time. In Greece, with the long-term penalty of a national debt which can never be paid off, it’s difficult to envisage a time beyond the immediate impoverished present.
Becoming prime minister or president means not merely the willingness to manage the day-to-day or even year-to-year affairs of state. It means having, and articulating, a vision. Emmanuel Macron may be France’s and even Europe’s poster boy for a few years. But he may turn out to be no more effective than Yanis Varoufakis – and who sees his poster these days?
Charles de Gaulle, one-time president of France, famously asked how you govern a country that produces 246 different types of cheese. If you equate Greece, with its regional rivalries between Attica, Thessaly, Macedonia, the Peloponnese and all the island groups, with the independent-minded French regions of Brittany, Gascony, Burgundy and Provence, you get an idea of how difficult it is to persuade citizens to subscribe to a single cohesive narrative.
But the fact that a country is capable of producing such a variety of cheeses, wines, oils, or music is a sign of its capacity to survive. Successive Greek governments have demonstrated their inability to nourish this creativity, this resilience. This, rather than crisis management or point-scoring or even ideological commitment, is the true function of “governance,” towards which “government” should strive. But it doesn’t.
And one reason for this inhibition is the use we make of the past.
If, as reported in Kathimerini (September 2), Digital Policy Minister Nikos Pappas really said, “We do not have to disagree over the future with those with whom we disagreed over the past,” he was guilty of the greatest act of doublethink since Donald Trump’s latest tweet. If we cannot agree on the lessons of the past, we are not entitled to agree on the future.
We cannot erase the past. We cannot ignore it. We must debate it and learn from the successes and the mistakes. When we use the past to attribute present-day blame we are abusing history and abusing that most subjective and vital human passion: memory. History as a political weapon is an obscenity. History as a reflection of the future is a blessing.
* Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu (where he lives) and author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.” His new book “Minor Mythologies As Popular Literature” comes out on October 1. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Kathimerini.