Words without meaning


Since the prime minister went ahead with a mini-reshuffle of his cabinet last week, we have repeatedly heard the phrase “Fotis Kouvelis is a decent man” used to describe one of the most controversial appointments.

Many people go on to say he is honest, dignified etc, in a condescending manner that usually means the hatchet job is about to start with an analysis of what the former leader of Democratic Left has and hasn’t done as a politician, what role he played during the crisis and especially in the three-party government of which he was a part, and what events led to SYRIZA coming to power in January 2015. 

Social media have been having a party since Thursday, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that Kovelis was to replace Dimitris Vitsas as deputy defense minister.

The appointment gave rise to a barrage of jokes and comments, some funny, some bitter, others sarcastic and angry.

Some of these, in fact, came from those who were previously his allies, such as a former MP with the small leftist party who said that Kouvelis’s “self-abasement is humiliating to us.”

Either way, Kouvelis’s comeback to government is a perfect opportunity to ponder what words like dignity and decency mean when it comes to politics.

The dilemma lies in the fact that the choice seems to lie between people who are low-key and hardworking, who resist cheap theatrics and malicious gossip, and people who are never heard of because of their insignificance.

They are neither hot nor cold, neither loved nor detested.

Their words are always vague and non-committal, they shy away from any initiative that may cost them political points or open them up to criticism, and their appearance is always one of restraint, albeit of a skeptical, parochial kind.

What kind of traits do we look for in order to define someone as dignified? Why do we confuse mildness with a lack of daring?

Why do we confuse the politician who steps back not to save his own skin but to save the country with the politician who never picks a side because he is afraid for his public image rather than devoted to his principles?

We seem to consider someone who simply doesn’t have the brains to think big as honest, while deeming a man whose “creative ambiguity” cost the country 200 billion euros to be brilliant.

Being dignified when it comes to running a country is not about tone, convention, appearance or demeanor. It is about how responsibility is understood and assumed, it is about positions and management, both in times of plenty and in strife.

Otherwise, dignity is just another word to describe dry political and social conservatism.