When the great Greek crisis broke in 2010, some of us entertained the hope that the fire – eternal metaphor of destruction – would wake us up, that it would prompt us to take a long, good look at ourselves, to decide who we are and what we want as a nation. Would the flames burn away the chaff that kept Greece tied to self-destructive behaviors? Would it temper the steel that lies under the surface and lead to something better? Eight years later, a deadly fire – the ferocious fire at Mati – has answered our question. Among the Greeks there is steel, there is courage, there is selflessness, adaptability, skill and perseverance; there is also vitriol, sloth, stupidity, suspicion and division undermining every effort to pull ourselves together. Very often, these weaknesses are taken as strengths, with those who exploit them most ruthlessly determining the political agenda and the country’s course.
One of the positive effects of the crisis has been to show the extent of Greece’s problems and the damage that must be repaired. In the same way that a fire will destroy the beauty of a place, leaving behind only the bare land and most basic infrastructure, like the ruins of houses and the town plan with all its weaknesses, an economic, political and social crisis can show the undercurrents that shape thinking and debate in a country. The crisis highlighted the national pursuit of division as the most successful way of gaining power but also as the most damaging blow to the country. When in late 2009 and early 2010 the PASOK government found itself trying to deal with the country’s huge debt and its inability to borrow more on the markets, the opposition parties refused to join in a national effort to avert disaster, but were instead unanimous in undermining every government effort. Of course, PASOK, in opposition, had done the same when New Democracy was in power (but one could argue that that government had done so much damage to public finances that it has abrogated the right to ask for support). Nevertheless, the damage in both cases was not to New Democracy nor to PASOK but to Greece. After 2012, when SYRIZA was the main opposition party to an ND-PASOK coalition, the radical left party, too, thrived by leading the charge of the “anti-memorandum” camp against the “system” which had adopted the bailout memorandums. The latest version of National Schism was between pro-memorandum and anti-memorandum forces, with the latter surging in popularity as (harsh and immediate) austerity and (half-hearted) reforms failed to set the country on its feet. The anti-memorandum forces exulted in the government’s discomfort, doing all they could to encourage verbal and sometimes physical violence against so-called “sellouts” who had violated the Greeks’ sovereignty by trying to keep the country from bankruptcy and subsequent expulsion from the eurozone.
SYRIZA exploited this anger to present itself as the moral arbiter of all things and as a viable alternative to the politics and politicians of the past. Drawing on a long tradition of victimhood, much of it justified in the harsh years after the Left’s defeat in the 1946-49 Civil War, the party has clung to this image of itself even as its politics have ricocheted all over the political spectrum – after three years in an alliance with an extreme-right, nationalist party. That is why, in the face of the catastrophe at Mati, the government is unable (and unwilling) to deal with the enormity of its inadequacy and chooses the time-honored tactic of blaming everyone but itself. Government officials and their propagandists in the news media and on Twitter and Facebook have blamed the victims, the opposition parties and critical news media for the disaster. They have not examined their selection of incompetent people in critical posts, nor the lack of any effective plan to deal with an admittedly very difficult situation: a ferocious fire driven by hurricane-force winds into a settlement built in a forest of parched pines. Whoever was to blame for past problems, this government, this provincial governor, these mayors and town councilors, these civil defense officials, and so on have been in position for years now. What did they do to prepare for such a fire? What did they do when the fire headed their way?
These questions must be answered, these weaknesses must be dealt with. Instead of focusing on solving chronic problems, however, the debate in the media and social networks has been toxic, stressing the depth of division in the country. Anti-government comments focus on the magnitude of the disaster, the lack of remorse, the lack of accountability of those who failed in their mission; the government and its apologists focus on the messengers and not on the message, seeing themselves as victims of circumstance and rivals’ propaganda. Some pro-government trolls have even tweeted witticisms, making light of the situation.
The Mati fire has shown that the delusional mentality that SYRIZA and Independent Greeks had shown before their election has not been cured by the clash with the reality of being in power. Instead, it has been emboldened. Whereas in the past Alexis Tsipras and his team declared that they would make the European Union and the international markets dance to their tune, today they try to depict reality as simply another unjustified attack on them by their enemies, as if the many dead are an inconvenience, not a tragic consequence of their incompetence. Whether this weakness is inherited from the past, is no longer relevant. Those who seek power must shoulder its burdens and ought to deal with the problems of the country that they seek to govern. Despite the heroic efforts of those – professional firefighters and volunteers – who fought the fire and helped others, despite the many citizens who gave blood, food, clothes, time and money, the poison being thrown about in the public debate is tragic confirmation of how ill and how divided this country has become. The crisis, the metaphorical fire, did not make us better; the real fire must wake us up.