The rage of Achilles, over and over

As Greece teetered on the brink of bankruptcy last week, the protagonists of our public life appeared oblivious to the danger, sticking to the risky behavior that became the norm over the past few decades. Extreme confrontation has become automatic: Now that things are very dangerous and we need to make a great effort to achieve consensus and show flexibility, we remain trapped in the rituals of absolute conflict. It is no coincidence that ?The Iliad,? the mold from that which we now call Hellenism was shaped, focuses on the personal quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles which jeopardizes their 10-year expedition against Troy. Our politicians in Parliament, the masked stone-throwers and the heavily armored riot police repeatedly relive this ritual, each seeing himself as a hero.

The danger of this obsession is great: We don?t see the essence of problems (and so we cannot solve them), we don?t cooperate with each other, we lose any moral high ground that we may have and we flirt endlessly with catastrophe. When the causes of conflict are trivial, the damage may be limited. When our future is at stake, blind submission to this tradition could be fatal. Yet we persist with our mistakes.

Our society doesn?t trust our politicians, nor our institutions. At the same time, it shows great tolerance for extremist behavior — whether this involves unions demanding greater benefits, the predations of anti-establishment raiders, or security forces mistreating citizens and migrants. Countless foreign invasions, dictatorships and liberation wars have bred into the Greeks the need for self-sufficiency (even as they demand as much as possible from a state that they are part of but which they distrust) as well as a romanticized devotion to militant causes, even if these are self-destructive. Until now, we didn?t care if some group gained benefits at the cost of society as a whole. Now, some are losing benefits while others are deprived of hope. All are enraged, ready for war.

Maybe Greeks are just aggressive and, by nature, incapable of avoiding division. Last century alone, the National Division (of 1914-17) and the 1946-49 civil war cost the nation dearly. We would win our wars and waste the peace. Today, after 37 years of unprecedented prosperity, our two-party political system did not manage to build on this stability. Instead, it cultivated division. When the two major parties alternate in power with such ease, each taking on the other?s role in government or in opposition, they undermine ideologies and institutions. Politics remains a personal business, incapable of getting past the weaknesses of its protagonists. Whichever party is in power undertakes reforms that it does not believe in, while the main opposition party (which may have proposed these very changes while in office) fights them mercilessly.

The smaller, leftist parties are usually out of government (with the controversial exception of 1989-90, when multiparty coalitions ran Greece briefly) and have perfected the role of smugly criticizing whoever is in power. The result is a political culture in which compromise equals treason and dialogue is impossible. When each side owns the truth and defends the only right cause (its own), it undermines the concept of responsibility and conscientiousness at the personal and collective level. It keeps people wary of institutions, reinforcing the belief that citizens are unprotected unless they find someone to protect them or take things into their own hands.

Today, we are at war for our collective survival. What is at stake is not personal, whether we be party leaders or among the ?indignant? thousands that gather at Syntagma Square every night. The main issues are how we will make our economy viable without losing democratic values, and how we will negotiate (politicians and citizens, either together or in conflict with each other) with our partners in Europe to find solutions that will give hope to all the societies which today stand on the brink of bankruptcy.

In these battles, it is useful to have the grasping egotism of Agamemnon and the mad pride of Achilles; but, in the end, it is better to heed the poet-warrior Archilochus? advice — do whatever must be done to survive today, so that you can fight again tomorrow.