It is time to be a ‘democrat’

Since I left Athens last July Greece has been more prominent in the world press than ever in its modern history. Neither the Civil War, nor the coup d?etat of 1967 and the military dictatorship that followed received such coverage. The reason is that Greece?s economic situation threatens the stability of Europe and the economies of the ?developed? world. The economic disaster that has overtaken the country has been recognized as partly self-inflicted, but there is also a great deal of sympathy for the plight of the average Greek, and a realization that those who benefited most from the years of corruption, irresponsible borrowing and profligate spending are not those paying the price of this debacle. Still, Greece?s woes would not be headline news, day after day, were it not for the fact that Europe?s future teeters on the brink, and a Greek default could push it over the edge. The consequences for the global economy might be disastrous.

For Greeks and people like myself who adopted Greece as a second homeland, the tragedy is not something in the future, it is here and now, and has been looming for years. Nor is it unfamiliar. Greeks who are alive today can remember the starvation and brutality of the German Occupation, the violence of the Civil War, the horrors of Makronissos and the island prisons of the 1950s, the torture of the dictatorship, the tragedy of the Cyprus invasion. There is a difference, though, between those tragedies and the present state of Greece. During those terrible events there was an enemy, one you could confront with a brave act of defiance, a demonstration, a song of protest. The Nazis, the British, the Right or the Left (depending which side you were on), the Colonels or the Turks were responsible for the suffering. It might be dangerous but it was rewarding to be on the side of the good. You had heroes: the blue-eyed boy who tore down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis, the Olympic hero who was murdered on the streets of Thessaloniki, the composer jailed and exiled for his songs. These figures inspired us and made us believe that one day Greece would be a free and democratic country.

After the fall of the dictatorship, when Greece was still in the news, I worked as a foreign correspondent in Greece for an Australian newspaper. I decided to travel to some parts of Greece where I had never been to find out what people were saying about the upcoming elections of November 1974. One rainy night I arrived on the island of Ithaca and began looking for a taverna where I could talk to people and ask their opinions about the candidates. The cafes and restaurants on the waterfront were almost deserted and I was about to give up for the evening, when I heard the sound of singing. I followed the music into a back street and found a wine-shop where a single table was occupied by a group of men singing [Mikis] Theodorakis songs. I sat at a corner table, ordered a ?miso kilo? of wine and softly joined in the singing. When the song ended the men looked at me curiously, then one of them asked, almost in a whisper: ?Are you by any chance a democrat?? (Mipos eisai dimokratissa?) In those days, democracy was a loaded word. When I nodded, we raised our glasses to Greece?s uncertain future and sang together until the wine-shop closed. Then one of the men took me to his house and woke his sleeping mother to make us coffee. She rose from the couch, tucked her long braid behind her shoulders and put a ?briki? on the stove. Tacked on the wall beside the household icons was a large poster of Che Guevara.

I often thought of my night on Ithaca as democracy returned to Greece and ceased to be a loaded word, a word that carried decades of oppression and hope on its back. I listened to the politicians talk, and saw the villas creep up the bare hillsides surrounding Athens, Thessaloniki, Mytilini and Aegina, the Mercedes and BMW?s clog the city streets, the yachts and motorboats fill the island harbors. Democracy and prosperity were here to stay, it seemed, but something was missing. A friend whose father had fought in EAM left Greece in disgust and settled in New York. The conversations of his old friends were no longer about politics or poetry, he said, but about their mistresses and yachts.

After the first few exhilarating years that followed the fall of the dictatorship, it was hard to find music of the sort that mattered to me. Theodorakis was free to compose whatever he liked, the rembetika had risen from the slums to the status of a national treasure and [Dionysis] Savvopoulos had become a true patriot. We ?democrats? should have been content, but there was something disturbing about the sudden wealth of Greece, even about the victory of the socialists. There were tales of corruption on a gigantic scale, of tax evasion, of drug-use and unemployment spreading among young people. The chaotic delays and sky-rocketing expense of the Olympic Games were disturbing symptoms of the profligacy of government spending. Poverty was creeping back into Greek life, but Greeks were ashamed to admit it. No-one could believe that they could be rich one day and hungry the next, that they would be sitting on property worth millions of euros and unable to sell it. They seemed not to recall how recent a phenomenon prosperous, democratic Greece was.

In the 4th century BC a law was passed in Athens forbidding people to ?recall the misfortunes? of the defeat of Athens by the Spartans and the oligarchy of the 30 tyrants. Aristotle recorded an incident of a man being dragged in front of the Council by a moderate democrat and put to death for speaking of the ?misfortunes.? The rulers of the newly-restored and fragile democracy believed that bad memories should be erased. Their belief was enshrined in an altar to Lethe set up on the Acropolis. As lovers of Greece, it is time, I believe, for us to remember the many misfortunes that have befallen that country in its modern history and remember too that Greece has endured and overcome these crises. It is time to be a ?democrat? and not vote either for extremists or self-seeking politicians. They have done enough harm to Greece. There is a job to do that is far more important than the Olympic Games, and not so expensive. No Greek child should be hungry. No Greek should be forced to leap off the roof of his house with his children under his arms, or shoot himself in Syntagma Square because of poverty. It would be a great thing if one of the political candidates in these elections turned out to be a true democratic leader capable of leading Greece out of its misery. Meanwhile, Greeks in Greece and beyond its borders should be contributing to alleviate the misery of their fellow-Greeks, and the Greek crisis should be recognized as a humanitarian one. If Greece cannot feed its population, international aid agencies should be asked to intervene before the situation deteriorates any further.


* Gail Holst-Warhaft directs the Cornell Mediterranean Studies Initiative at Cornell University. She is also a poet, translator, and musician. In the 1970?s she played in the orchestras of Mikis Theodorakis and other well-known Greek composers. Her books include The Cue for Passion: Grief and its Political Uses (Harvard UP, 2000), Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature (Routledge, 2000), Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music (Hakkert 1980), Road to Rembetika (1975,1977,1983, 2006), Penelope?s Confession (2007). She is Poet Laureate of Tompkins County and is working on a new book about Mariza Koch.

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