Perennial ills

Perennial ills

A very senior Greek diplomat recently accosted me with the question: “Why do you hate my country?” Not a very diplomatic approach! I replied, “How could I possibly hate the country where I live?” The diplomat thought I was merely an occasional visitor to Greece and wrote my “Letter from Greece” for The Irish Times sitting in my nonexistent home in a Dublin suburb.

The question was, of course, provoked by what I write for Irish readers and also by my pieces for Kathimerini. I am certainly critical of bureaucracy and the political system, the graft and the lack of opportunity for young people, and I make no apology for that.

The diplomat continued: “Why do you say such bad things about Greece?” Luckily, a Greek friend who overheard this intervened with the remark: “Yes he does tell about bad things, but he tells the truth. The truth is often bad.” The diplomat didn’t see it that way, but the parting shot was masterly: “You can say these things in Kathimerini if you like, but you shouldn’t say them in The Irish Times.”

So it’s permissible to discuss negative aspects of Greek life with people who probably already know about them, but not acceptable to publicize them outside the country. It’s not the first time that a diplomat has objected to my comments. Some years ago the Greek ambassador to Ireland actually went into the office of The Irish Times to complain about my column. Not just a specific column, but the whole tone of my approach to Greek affairs. This was due partly to the fact that I had adopted the theme “this is a country I both love and mourn.” One is supposed to love, unreservedly, but to mourn? Oh dear no.

A 800-word column cannot hope to explain the weight of history that Greece has borne since independence, the place-seeking, self-serving clientelist system which can be traced very largely to the pervasive mind and power of the Ottoman occupation. But even if we express this as a partial exoneration of Greece’s current situation, an intolerant majority will argue that after almost two centuries of independence a state with a seat at the United Nations should be able to behave with probity and dignity alongside its peers.

But that, to adopt Yanis Varoufakis’s and Christine Lagarde’s term, is to assume that we are all “adults in the room,” when we know that the president of the United States recently made a laughing stock of himself and his country at that very same forum. We do not live in a room full of equal adults, and if Donald Trump is in the room it probably says “Playgroup” on the door.

But that does not excuse Greece’s political mistakes, nor does it excuse the intemperate behavior of its diplomatic corps when I mention them. The greatest problem is the lack of political vision and the greatest weakness is in denying access to power to those who could use it constructively.

With the greatest respect to Myrsini Zorba, the new culture minister, her appointment is merely a matter of political expediency, not a bold strategic move on the part of Alexis Tsipras. We need someone cultural in the Culture Ministry. Who do we have? Oh, yes, a professor of cultural theory, with a track record as an MEP. She has sat on committees. She’ll fit.

I am sure Zorba is brilliant in her field. But uprooting her from the thinking department and replanting her in the executive field is like asking a professor of economics to solve the country’s economic crisis – and look what happened in that case! I doubt if, for all his brilliance and perception as a scientist, Charles Darwin could have run a zoo, because that requires practical know-how.

Zorba’s inaugural speech as culture minister was as bland and anodyne as anything that the spin doctors in any government department could concoct. Nice words about nice things like books and children – not a word about action. She has taught cultural theory at university. Bravo. So have I. She has written a report on the European culture industry. So have I, but it doesn’t equip me to be minister of culture in Greece or Ireland or anywhere else.

What Greece needs right now is a government of toughies who know what to do and have track records in achieving their aims. Not a cabinet of obfuscators and prevaricators mouthing righteous platitudes. A journalist in Athens a few years ago told me that he could solve the whole economic problem by convening a conference of economists, statisticians, politicians, political scientists etc etc. I pointed out that he had omitted one vital ingredient: people who actually manage money – their own. There’s an old joke about what we owe to posterity, to which a cynic asks, “What has posterity ever done for us?” The same question could be asked about the Greek diaspora. Greek people who have been ultra-successful (and I mean billionaire successful) outside Greece – in centers like Toronto, Chicago, Melbourne and London – could put Greece into profit within a few years, not only financially but ethically, culturally and diplomatically. But that would upset some people, wouldn’t it?

Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu (where he lives) and author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.” The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Kathimerini.

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