As time passes, I feel that Greek society is moving backward. When I left South Africa to live in Athens 28 years ago, I found a society much more extroverted and optimistic, much more open to the challenges of the time, than the Greece of today. Then, 22 years old, the only things I knew in life were my love for the Greece I knew from studying the classics and from the winters I spent as a child in my mother’s village on Crete. I knew also that I could not continue living in apartheid South Africa: I could neither bring down the regime nor justify my living with it.
It was paradise to be young in Greece in 1983. This was a society that just nine years earlier had shaken off the yoke of dictatorship. With PASOK recently elected, it was testing its wings — domestically, through the redistribution of wealth and privilege, and abroad, with a more independent foreign policy and an increase in trade and construction projects in the broader region.
Today we can see how badly most of this turned out, thanks mainly to the sloppiness of the Greek state and the greed of so many players among the country’s political and business elite. At that time, though, one felt that Greece was leaving behind the divisions of the past and — despite all the mistakes and grandstanding – was seeking its way in the world as an independent country. As a member of both NATO and the European Economic Community, with Constantine Karamanlis president and Andreas Papandreou as prime minister, the country seemed to combine stability with a new and hopeful present. We were living through change and we wanted to be part of it all.
Public debate showed that Greece was part of the world, that it cared about what happened in Nicaragua, Palestine and South Africa. Although a member of the Western Alliance, Greece had placed itself squarely on the side of democratic movements and national emancipation. Everyone was so sure of the righteousness of the Greek position that this crossed the line into arrogance. The other side of the coin was the way in which the Greeks saw their foreign policy issues, most of which were the product of the age-old rivalry with Turkey, especially with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. It was easy to understand the «international» spirit in which Greece saw the world, but it took some getting used to the unanimous suspicion with which the Greeks saw their neighbors. I was taken aback by the unequivocal condemnation of all the nations that upset us for one reason or another, be they Turks, Yugoslavians, Americans, Albanians or whatever. But I did not think about that too much. (However, when Greece won the European basketball championship in 1987, I was completely unprepared for the way in which the Greek fans booed whenever a member of a rival team touched the ball.)
Now, after 30 years of membership in a united Europe, after the longest period of prosperity the country has known, our society seems more closed, more frightened and one-dimensional. Despite all the trips abroad, the millions of visitors each year, the foreign universities attended by our students, we have become more suspicious of each other, opposing every change — as if, on every occasion, we prefer an impasse to any solution. Ideologies, as we understood them, have died: The true division is between those who understand the need for change and compromise and those who resist everything. Strangely, the leftists — the most «internationalist» political group — are the most conservative, the most opposed to changing the status quo in any sphere. Often we find the «left» and the «right» in a consensus of suspicion.
Perhaps the reason for this is that for so many years we have not solved any problems. We allowed our schools, our universities, our social security system and our hospitals to sink under the weight of mismanagement and debt; we learned to live on borrowed money as if we would never have to pay it back; we abandoned our city centers just as we abandoned immigrants to criminal gangs; we ignored the needs of refugees; we cultivated a mentality in which we demanded the most of others while making the least effort ourselves, without evaluating our output; we left every major scandal unpunished while the most miserable among us went to prison; we learned to demand the maximum results from our diplomacy rather than accept any compromise.
That is why, after so many years, we never solved any problems. Not a single one. Whether we blame «others» or ourselves, the result is the same: Without quite understanding how, demanding only absolute victory, we learned to live with defeat. Now that we have to stand on our own two feet in a difficult world, we have to make up for ground lost over decades, we have to restore our lost optimism.