Democracy, dictatorship, dementia

Just over a week ago, on July 24, Greece celebrated the 29th anniversary of the restoration of democracy after a seven-year dictatorship. Every year, President Costis Stephanopoulos hosts a party for representatives of the country’s institutions on the gracious grounds of the former Royal (now Presidential) Palace, and state television regularly airs a documentary in which victims of the junta’s torture narrate their always harrowing and instructive tales. For a few days, some commentators make some sweeping statements about the triumphs or failings of our democracy and then the great tide of everyday life closes over this small stone that falls into the calendar’s pond. Occasions like this always provide an interesting background (sometimes even a touchstone) for us to take stock of where we are. And at first glance, it would appear that we are indeed enjoying the fruits of unbridled democracy. But what is also evident is that democracy does not bring with it an automatic assurance that everything is as it should be. A selection of events that made news in the week around the annual commemoration provides a useful thrust into our national self, like the wedge the Gypsy roadside merchant cuts into a watermelon to give suspicious customers a taste of its deep red heart. (It is most often warm and delicious, but there’s no guarantee that the one you buy will be the same.) Perhaps the most interesting thing this year was the small amount of attention paid (one might even say that few paid any attention to them at all) to the extremes of our social and political life. On the one hand, the country’s former king toured Greece with members of his family, unaccompanied by the usual insults from political parties. On the other, the angry condemnations of our democracy by the defendants in the November 17 case, the extreme, self-proclaimed leftist fanatics who had tried so hard to impose their will on Greece, went almost unheard. And this is probably because the most entertaining story concerned the high jinks of a handful of young British tourists at the high-voltage beach resort of Kavos on Corfu. A videotape, apparently shot by some local Mother Grundy, showed what appeared to be a competition involving young women performing oral sex on three or four rather bemused young men on a raised platform, in front of an audience, outdoors, in daylight. This, of course, managed to provide large parts of our excitable news media with a heaven-sent opportunity to fill their bulletins or pages with sex while proclaiming themselves (and the pristine nation to which they pander) superior to all this. Five young «reps» of the company that organized the event lost their jobs, the cafeteria at which it was held was closed down by the local council, and there was much nodding of sage heads about the quality of British youth these days. Our national hypocrisy was on full display, even more so than the life force flowering in the young Brits. If the incident was what it appeared to be (and one can seldom be sure of these things), the drinks and sex ethos of these holidays appears to have loosened some inhibitions to an interesting degree. But, from what we can gather, very few people who take part in these package tours would have been as shocked as the general public was when the images were spread across the nation. So, apart from getting us all excited, what our national outrage seemed intent on doing was to create a lot of noise and then fade away again. Because if we don’t want this kind of tourism, or other kinds (after all, those who don’t want to take part in all the fun and games have a million other places in Greece that they can visit), then we can stop the flow of liquor on these premises at any time. Seeing as the point of many bars is to get people to drink as much as possible, it would seem a little two-faced to condemn the customers for getting drunk. But we weren’t finished with the British yet. In one of those remarkable cocktails of frivolity and self-congratulation, mixed with the self-importance and grand gestures which make life here so entertaining, the Athens Bar Association (DSA) took it upon itself to restore honor and decency in the world, by rushing to the newly constituted International Criminal Court to file suit for war crimes, etc., against British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon and others, for their part in the US-led invasion of Iraq. Despite commitments that Bar Association President Dimitris Paxinos made on a television program, saying his people would also investigate crimes allegedly committed by the long regime of Saddam Hussein, the dossier, including videotaped news reports, presented to the ICC at The Hague on July 28 suggested that only the British had dirtied their hands in Mesopotamia. A legal case can be made against any war and the board of Athenian lawyers probably feels that it is striking a blow for downtrodden humanity in trying to get Blair et al dragged in chains before a higher authority, seeing as the United States’ refusal to acknowledge the ICC has left it immune to such a risk (and given the Athenians’ zeal, American officials are no doubt gloating over their own prescience). But the ease with which the DSA is playing up to popular anti-war sentiment in Greece while at the same time having judiciously avoided condemnation of war crimes in Yugoslavia (perhaps because the Greek population was not informed of whom did what to whom), or the nature of Saddam’s regime, leaves our lawyers open to the charge of shameless grandstanding for their own aggrandizement. And in the end, even if one were to see this as a noble cause (the way the British government sees its own behavior in Iraq), one has to ask, «Is it the DSA’s business?» Have our lawyers solved all their problems here that they can go traipsing off to The Hague on a Harry Potteresque quest to rid the world of evil? Every day they see the horrors of Greece’s pretrial detention system, in which people (very often innocent ones, but that is not the point) are locked up in horrendous conditions, sometimes for up to the full 18-month maximum before their trial. Have they managed to stop this, and to force police to improve both their holding cells and their behavior? What have they done about the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have not yet received their residence permits because of the administration’s shortcomings? Did they press at all for these people, who have been living here legally for years, to be allowed to go home on holiday this year, before the government suddenly relaxed its prohibition? (In this illuminating episode, our sloppy democracy managed to achieve something akin to Albania’s late dictator, Enver Hoxha: His regime would not let anybody out of Albania, while we do not let Albanians, or others, living here go back home. Seeing as our ban is the opposite of what one of the harshest dictatorships of the past century achieved, surely it is a guarantee of how great a democracy we have.) But these are all minor matters. What is important is what the government is doing to set the country right and get it up to speed for the challenges of the future (forget the present, that’s taken care of). And here, for the last few weeks, we have seen Prime Minister Costas Simitis order his PASOK party’s MPs to flagellate themselves in public (by revealing their stock market transactions between 1998 and 2002) to prove that they are not thieves, and he has proposed to change the electoral law. These two proposals are aimed primarily at making the government look active while prompting a negative response from a defensive opposition. These aims have been achieved to a certain extent, but Simitis has found such resistance on both issues within his own party that his effort has backfired. But all this is truly the beauty of democracy: the workings of free people within the constraints of imperfect systems, seeking a way out of present problems. Despite the shouting in the runup to elections, it’s all very civilized and we’re all proud to be a part of this. But it is also very sad, because all this energy is being expended on issues that are not as urgent as those that we are ignoring. While Germany and France (who are Europe’s economic powers but whose workers are also very resistant to losing any of their benefits) have grasped the nettle and are reforming their labor, pension and health systems, in Greece we act as if the timid reforms of the past few years (which were curtailed because of union opposition) have solved our problems. While we play with electoral laws, which interest no one but those hoping to gain power, our future troubles pile up. Hovering above all this, our spiritual fathers, the leaders of our Church, are involved in a turf war with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over who will name a new bishop of Thessaloniki. It is a familiar pattern: We’re great at pontificating about other people’s problems, but when we have to deal with an immediate, urgent issue, the road to fratricide is too often the one we follow. But that’s us, fighting for our rights and for all that’s good. And we’re mad as hell when we don’t have our way. No wonder, one might say, that we should choose to stick our noses in the business of others – and to blame others when things go wrong here.