“When you’ve always believed that society is built on trustworthy foundations, it’s very hard to accept the fact that this isn’t actually the case.”
Are these the words of a modern-day Greek politician? Sociologist? Journalist? No: They were written by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir in the wake of her country’s economic collapse, which was as profound in Iceland as it was in Greece.
I was recently asked by a foreign diplomat, “When did the civil war start and finish in Greece?” to which I replied, “It began during the war of independence and it is still happening.” I explained that, as recent historians have argued, history repeats itself in many ways, especially in a society which has debated its identity and destiny ever since its foundation.
I am frequently astonished at young Greeks’ ignorance of their modern history. History has no relevance unless its lessons can point us toward a possible future. The debate about how history is to be taught in schools in itself indicates deep ideological division, in which the Left has been traditionally excluded not only from politics but from history and education – by what Pavlos Papadopoulos calls “the founding myths of the post-dictatorship democracy.”
If young Greeks are not exposed to the themes in Greek society, as described in works such as Vangelis Calotychos’ “Modern Greece: A Cultural Poetics” (2003) or Yannis Palaiologos’ “The 13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis” (2014) or Costas Douzinas’ “Philosophy and Resistance: Greece and the Future of Europe” (2013), then a vital part of their own history is denied to them and an essential door to an imaginative, transparent and positive future is closed.
If history is a succession of starting points which are continually frustrated, then its principal lesson is that a “new narrative” or “paradigm” is needed which will enable genuine conscientious thinkers (so no politicians) to conceive a future embracing all the traditions, beliefs, prejudices and passions which collectively constitute “Greekness,” liberating it from the intellectual and spiritual straitjackets that confine and segregate them.
As I have had the misfortune to learn from experience, the Greek university system is dysfunctional. University reform is the essential key to Greece realizing its potential in the intellectual, cultural and scientific marketplace. And not merely “reform,” but “rethink”: a new conception of how to nurture, elevate and develop that potential, by making education honest and open to initiative, to knowledge and, more importantly, to the uses of knowledge.
This year, I have had the dubious privilege of advising a young man in the village on his masters thesis in robotics. The thesis had to be written in English, and my young friend was unsure of his vocabulary and his grammar. A dubious privilege? Yes, because there is no future for this young man in Greece: To pursue his career he has to emigrate, probably to the UK or the USA. He should be able to find his career, the life-work to which he is so demonstrably dedicated, in his own country. And I was helping him to do what his heart, and my heart, realize is wrong: to take away from his family, his village and his homeland the initiative and skills which they all so badly need. Obliging him to take up a research position at a foreign university, with prospects of developing his ideas into tangible results, is morally and socially indefensible.
The exodus of over 500,000 young Greek graduates since 2010 is not limited to scientists or doctors: In 2014 an exhibition, “No Country for Young Men: Contemporary Greek Art in Times of Crisis” (curated by Katerina Gregos at the Center for Fine Arts in Brussels), showed that Greece is an inhospitable place not merely for young artists but for all citizens. Of the 35 artists, with an average age of 35-40, one third lived abroad, more by necessity than choice.
Not to be entirely negative, the exhibition showed “a sense of urgency, vitality, affectivity and emotive power.” In the words of its curator, it aimed to “complicate” the otherwise evident effects of austerity (riots, strikes, the rise of fascism, street poverty) by examining how the crisis had affected people, institutions, landscape and artistic production. It combated imaginative poverty with realist presentations of how the artists saw their world. Greece needs that kind of lateral thinking in public life.
One could have expected Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his leftist SYRIZA party to change the profile and the culture of Greek universities. They did not. Neither does one expect New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis to undertake this task, because he is no Hercules. More of a Cyclops, like most of the dynasties which dominated Greek politics up to 2015.
The conservatives’ crowing over the defeat of SYRIZA in the European, local and regional elections was predictable but obscene. At least in 2015 SYRIZA and Tsipras offered reasons for optimism. The fact that they failed is due not only to Tsipras’ lack of emotional intelligence, but also to Brussels, Berlin and the International Monetary Fund. There is no reason to suppose that Mitsotakis and ND will succeed where SYRIZA failed, because there is no political or moral incentive to do so.
The only transparent thing about Mitsotakis is that, whatever he says, you can see right through him. By contrast, as a political manipulator, Tsipras has made opacity a fine art. In 2012-15 he did the unthinkable – he forced SYRIZA into the credibility gap between ND and PASOK. Today the gap is between ND and SYRIZA, and there is no party capable of either exploiting it or even being credible. The credibility has gone out of Greek politics. There are over 10 million politicians, but no statesmen.
Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.” The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.