Letter From Thessaloniki

It is not what you know but who you know when it comes to getting a transfer from one Greek university to another. Or at least that is the accusation flying around in this town following the disclosure that the student son of then Agricultural Minister Savvas Tsitouridis – from neighboring Kilkis – plus the daughter of PASOK’s spokesman Spyros Vougias – from Thessaloniki – had secured transfers (in the latter case, when Vougias was deputy transport minister) that ordinary students can ever hardly achieve. «Favoritism for all!» was the title yesterday on the main page of Sunday’s Angelioforos, in Thessaloniki, insinuating that politicians of all – repeat all – persuasions are involved in the intricate network of political favors and obligations. For such heroic all-party continence, canaille (French for «lowlifes» oblige. «Everybody is aware of this, although no one ever talks about it, since our whole system is based on a tacit mutual agreement,» the main article concluded. All right. There is political corruption all over the world. Politicians were – and are – expected to pay off their supporters, or at least the leaders of groups who voted for them: union leaders, leaders of ethnic organizations, even church leaders. In «The Golden Calf,» a satire in prose written in the 1920s by the Russians Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, that is before the period of Stalin’s terror, a rough partisan must be rewarded after the establishment of Soviet power. First, they assign him the lucrative position of director of an old people’s home. However, he is not friendly to the aged, who detest him. Therefore, worried party officials transfer him to a different job: They reward him with yet another executive post. Only this time they made him an orchestra director… Absurdly funny, you think? Not so. This constantly happens in modern Greece as well. Thessalonians still remember the case of a retired bank employee, a devoted PASOK member, who the locally elected minister of culture at the time, Evangelos Venizelos, entrusted with the post of the general director of Thessaloniki Cultural Capital of Europe in 1996. The result was disastrous. Worryingly, after the recent media outcry, Education Minister Marietta Giannakou announced plans to reform, any moment now, the transfer system. If the foreseeable future is not nuclear, and if satanic and atheistic religions do not destroy us in the night, we are bound to get a good education law. However, many feel that she should cast her net more widely than that. Because, studying our backward modern education system, any informed educator stands grinning on familiar ground. «Bread- Education-Freedom» has been a slogan since the 1960s-’70s. However, at the present time, Greece is a rich country on a low-calorie diet. Consequently, it is statistically certain that this rich country’s teenagers and university students, especially the poorest of them, could be made more self-reliant and happier with educational reforms that would be exciting and productive and cheap – for a rich country like Greece, which is so deep in debt after the Olympics. A paradox, indeed. The new education reform will shake not just the presently troubled transfer system, but – some whisper diffidently – the institution of free education as well. Which is not necessarily negative. Let us recall Adam Smith’s old-time cynical view that money thrown at non-fee-paying education would disappear down the plughole of a system «in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or, more properly speaking, for the ease, of the masters.» Yet, would any – repeat any – government ever dare to shake the existing educational system? Governments are run by politicians, and politicians are not criminals despite the fact that Bertolt Brecht, in one of his parable plays («The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,» written in the 1940s) commented that «the great politician criminals must be exposed, particularly to laughter. For they are by no means great political criminals, but perpetrators of political crimes, which is something altogether different.» However, Arturo Ui, a petty gangster leader from the Bronx who impersonates Hitler, succeeds through terror in making himself «protector» of the cauliflower trust in Chicago. Brecht exaggerated, of course. Thank God there are no Hitlers any more. No. There are just good-tempered Greek politicians around who are embarrassingly involved in nepotism scandals and thus exposed to the general hilarity. In addition, the city of Chicago, Illinois, is no longer the infamously corrupt city we know from black-and-white movies, the home of organized crime and the Mob, as in Brecht’s time. No. No one is «pork barreling» in Chicago any more, an expression meaning an inclination to favor some person or group. All the same, I am not quite sure whether there are any people in this country dispensing favors, as if they were politicians dipping in a barrel of salted pork and handing out the contents to various academic supporters, as the good newspaper Angelioforos alleged.

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