What kind of face do we want authority to have? That’s easy: a human face. And then? How does it define itself? How does it stand apart from authority that merely wears a mask of humanity and has the power to attract armies of acolytes?
These days it is easy to express our abhorrence for Russian President Vladimir Putin and our admiration for the overall stance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But even that is not universal in this country, where the self-evident – when not distorted – is dressed in an ideological mantle so that it can then be summarily dismissed.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou recently chose to adopt a more personal and direct tone than usual during a speech at an event in her honor hosted by the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens. The fact that it was personal did not make it any less political. “The war in Ukraine is not just about geostrategic might,” she said. “It is also a direct and dramatic conflict of values, between freedom and authoritarianism, which seeks to sweep our world and reverse our post-war progress.”
Speaking at the same event on the subject of the president and the presidency as an institution, constitutional law expert and former minister Antonis Manitakis aptly underscored that Sakellaropoulou “introduced a radical change to the institution’s symbolic role by smashing certain stereotypes – and did so consciously.”
With what she does and what she says, he argued, the Greek president seeks “to unify the Us with the Others, the outsiders and outliers; to demonstrate that beyond all racial, ethnic, religious or other identities and distinctions, which we all have a duty to respect, we are all free and equal citizens of this world, and, at the same time, equal citizens of the same state.”
The fact that the president of the Greek Republic has limited powers does not detract from the importance or her role nor from the example she sets for society. There is no such thing as a “human face” in authority without a democratic conscience and without a firm commitment to the principles of equality, equality under the law, freedom of expression and freedom of participation.
Sincerity and commitment to certain standards and values are also interlinked elements. We could add more, but we would risk over-idealizing the paradigm.
However, if there is one thing that the war in Ukraine can give humanity – apart from horror – it is to act as a reminder of the inviolable line between democracy and authoritarianism; between the true human and the human without humanity: The former, despite their flaws and mistakes, seek to reach out; the latter seek to impose their will through terror.