New players in an old plot

As a new generation prepares to take charge of Greece, we are entering an era in which very few of our leaders will have been involved in World War II or the civil war. Indeed, even the «Generation of the Polytechnic,» as those who came to maturity in the struggle against the 1967-74 military dictatorship like to be called, is now well into middle age. Like policemen, members of Parliament just keep getting younger as we grow older. Former Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis’s decision yesterday to retire from a Parliament that he entered in 1946 comes in neat juxtaposition to the fact that after the March 7 elections, either Costas Karamanlis, who is 47, or George Papandreou, who is 51, will be prime minister. Mitsotakis had first feuded with the former’s uncle, and then joined his party, New Democracy, in 1974, going on to lead it to electoral victory in 1990. With the latter’s father, Andreas, Mitsotakis had one of the greatest political feuds of the past century, managing even to have Andreas Papandreou tried for corruption before the latter returned to power in 1993 elections and it was Mitsotakis who was cast down by the wheel of fortune. Now, for perhaps the first time in modern Greece’s history, the government and opposition will be under the leadership of people who are not divided by great ideological differences or blood feuds. For the first time, we can demand that our parties not act like feudal armies conquering the castle of Parliament in order to loot the public till in order to grow rich, reward friends, buy new allies and punish enemies. The eight years of government by Costas Simitis have managed to make politics as boring as could be expected in Greece, and coincided with the passing of the great dinosaurs from Greek politics. So, the players strutting about on our national stage are new in their roles. But somehow, the clothes they wear do not appear to be entirely their own and they have to struggle to find their way around a plot that others have been writing for a very long time. Both Karamanlis and Papandreou have been dressed by the expectations of their followers. Both were plucked out of the midst of their respective armies to lead the charge when their side’s fortunes flagged. Whereas the elder Karamanlis and Papandreou had created New Democracy and PASOK as political vehicles for their outsize egos, those vehicles managed to survive (surprisingly) without them but, when they finally ran out of steam, they turned to the brand name that had given them birth. Costas Karamanlis was picked in 1997, George Papandreou in 2004. The vehicle now picks the driver to keep it going, in an odd victory of the (party) machines. And now that both new players are on the stage, we have to insist on a change of plot. Because, just as the machines have taken on lives of their own, so do the actions of the players affect the lives of their spectators – all of us. Let’s see where we are today. Greece stands on the brink of its biggest moment in its modern history. In August it will host the Olympic Games, in a homecoming that is intended to show the world that the Greeks invented much of Western civilization and that they are no longer stuck on bragging about what their ancestors did but can actually get their act together today as well. But this excitement is tempered, if not overshadowed, by the public’s fears of unemployment, economic problems and a general sense of insecurity. And it is not because we fear that the Olympics are too difficult for us or because we feel that we will not be ready for them, or just because we, or those who shape our opinions, are spoilsports. It is because, despite the Olympics, we, as a nation, are not ready for our own era. Despite the huge achievements of the past decades (which are, of course, all tied umbilically to our accession to what is now called the European Union and the huge infusions of funds that have changed much of Greece’s infrastructure), we feel that we are still not in a country in which the cogs and gears work smoothly. We know that we still have to grease a lot of palms to get those gears to work, in a system that is cruel and arbitrary, that offers us few guarantees of being treated like civilized human beings when the need arises. We, who can go on ad infinitum about how unmaterialistic we are, know that it is only money that get things done, and that those with the money are those with the power – the more money the more power and the more power the more money. How is it that we can see such beautiful images of plenty on our television screens and yet find ourselves in a police cell that is covered with lice and feces if we are detained for something like, say, a traffic accident or an expired residence permit? How is it that we can be driving along on a modern-looking highway and suddenly crash because of a bad gradient or faulty surface? Why do we have to waste so much time at the tax office, or any other government office, for things that we should not be doing? Why do we have to pay for our children’s private schooling when our taxes are wasted on public schools? Why do we pay high social security fees and then go to a private hospital? Why do we take it for granted that every holiday season garbage will pile up outside our homes because of a strike by municipal workers, or that we will be deprived of medical treatment because of a doctors’ strike? Why do those who work in the private sector accept more and more work, without recourse to complaint, while paying taxes that support those in the public sector who: do not work as much those in the private sector; treat private sector workers (and anyone else) as scum; and stage strikes with impunity, withholding even their meager services from those who pay their salaries? Why do public sector workers, or anyone else barricaded inside a profession that can get away with this, accept benefits at the expense of the general public? These are just some questions that we want to shout as we see our protagonists striking poses on the stage. Behind it all is the feeling that all Greeks acquire when they leave their mother’s breast, the sense that we are being had. This may be part of our national paranoia and love of conspiracies, but there is also enough evidence to keep the idea going. Because we keep hearing about how much more we are paying than we need to for construction projects. Because we are surprised when someone in the civil service actually serves us rather than insult us. Because we do not believe that what we are told is true, as we have been cheated so many times. But we are not innocent of all blame. Because we not only tolerate many things that we should not, but, because we feel that we have to be aggressive just to hold our own, we often push others out of our way – whether in reality, as in a queue, or metaphorically, as in dismissing the opinions of others or generalizing about whole nations (as I am doing here, of course). Why do we rant ineffectually (as I am doing here), without putting some order in our thoughts? Because seldom have we had an opportunity to see the roots of our problems as we can today. One of the legacies of eight years of government by Costas Simitis is that the forces that defeated him can perhaps be seen more clearly than ever before. The problem is basic. There is too much corruption and too much confusion. Simitis did not appear to lead the fight against powerful interests, and many of the policies that he and his government adopted were not applied by those who are supposed to make them work – the civil servants – because of laziness, lack of organization or plain stubborness. And they got away with it. Too little of what is done is effective and good for the public interest, too much is of benefit to small groups whose only interest is to defend their own interests. Corruption and confusion are a deadly duo who give each other strength and are the reason for each other’s existence. They need to be separated and defeated. Until then, we will live in a problem-making rather than a problem-solving culture, in a vicious circle in which incompetence perpetuates itself and a lack of accountability is at the root of corruption – both in material and moral terms. This lack of accountability (there isn’t even a precise Greek equivalent for the word) allows every bad seed to blossom. We may argue that the education system is at the root of our problems, with too many teachers not trying to shape responsible human beings. But, in it, it is the lack of accountability (of teachers) and discipline (of students) which allows this to happen. People are not judged and held responsible for their actions – whether they be police chiefs who do not care for the treatment of detainees, whether they be judges who do not try to dispense justice, whether they be archbishops who become unbalanced, or sports fans or demonstrators who feel that they can attack police with impunity. At another level, we cannot stop people being hired as political favors, but we should be able to demand that they do the work for which they are paid. As our protagonists joust, we should know that they look like actors but that what they do will change our lives, for good or ill. So if we want to begin preparing for our future we have to learn to develop what is good and punish the bad. It is as simple as that. And as revolutionary as that.

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