While snow fell on the capital, paralyzing Rome, piling up three to four feet in other areas of Italy, while 50 people froze to death, some trapped in cars, some in their homes without food, water, power, or heat - we followed the twitter feeds and internet news regarding another devastation: the situation in Athens preceding and during the riots of Feb. 12, 2012. Exemplary coverage was given by the Athens News, and the twitter feed of Diane Shugart (@dianalizia) on Twitter).
As an outside observer who knows very few words of Greek, has no training in economics or international politics, or no inside information about what’s going on there, yet loves the country and the spirit of its people, I would like to point out a few extraordinary facts randomly snatched from the maelstrom as it whirled.
The Athens news website embedded a video showing the debates of the parliamentary finance committee prior to the vote on bail out2. We see the finance minister Evangelos Venizelos fuming, sputtering, and spitting vindictive against an opposer of the bailout, Panayiotis Lafazanis, “accusing him of having nothing to contribute to Greek society.” For someone used to watching the antics of Italian politicians, the video was fascinating for what it revealed about the Greek character. One could feel the tension in the room, but the containment and dignity of all, except for Mr. Venizelos, overwhelmed by a sacred fury, was astonishing. In Italy, in a similar situation, at least ten people would have been jumping out of their seats, screaming their heads off and coming to blows. Those on the receiving end of Venizelos’ vituperation were as cool as they come, just letting him go on, observing his display, some deadpan, some with slight amusement – as if, in a way, it was part of a script, or maybe a ritual enactment, of which the outcome was known. The bailout was passed, as everyone knew it would be, with nearly one third of Parliament voting against it.
Shortly before the vote, one Italian newspaper reported that 70% of Greeks agreed to the bailout and wanted to stay in the Eurozone. But that’s not what it looked like when “tens of thousands” of people poured into Syntagma Square on Sunday to protest austerity measures. Headcounts vary from 80,000 to 500,000, but any way you look at it, it was an astounding turnout. The Italian journalist following the protest for Italy's leading newspaper, The Repubblica, underlined a couple of curious facts as the protest got underway. One was that the dance opened with protesters, amid whose ranks there were many moms with their kids, throwing oranges at the police in a concerted, symbolic gesture -- one would say -- ritual gesture. Then, when the black blocs, with their stones and molotovs, moved in to start the serious business, the people applauded before retreating from the teargas.
The Day After shows us a Merkel pleased by the outcome of the bailout vote, but wagging her finger all the same at Greece. These measures which will reduce Greece to its knees are still not enough to guarantee the release of bailout funds, and Greek politicians are promising the people more weeks of hell. In other words, get ready for ACT III of the tragedy.
Again this too seems to be part of a script for which the main actors know how things are going to go, while the poor spectators down in the pit can only hold their breath in anguish. Newspaper reports today are full of the scandalous damage to property. Reports range from 40 to 170 businesses torched or damaged. One can only deplore the destruction of property, but it’s another series of statistics that I find interesting. At the end of this massive demonstration fueled by such outrage, and the worst rioting ever, only 40 policemen and 25 protesters were injured, none seriously. And only 79 people were arrested. Despite use of clubs and tear gas, the containment of the police force and protesters was exceptional.
This may be due to the remarkable position assumed by the largest policeman’s union in Greece, which stated two days before the demonstration, that they would not fight against their brothers, and refusing to stand against "our parents, our brothers, our children or any citizen who protests and demands a change of policy." ( See reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/10/greece-police-idUSL5E8DA3ED20120210)
As the Greeks go about sweeping up ashes and shards, another interesting statement was issued by the National Confederation of Greek Commerce, while condemning the arson and vandalism, the confederation supports the protests, claiming that the austerity measures will cause widespread store closures. http://www.athensnews.gr/portal/1/53294 This suggests that they fear complete melt down of the system brought about by austerity will be far worse than a few buildings burned.
Meanwhile, the Germans also tell us that they are now better prepared to deal with the Grexit - Greek exit from the Euro. It’s only a matter of time. Perhaps that is even what they want, to make Greece grovel, sell all its assets, which may entail oil deposits in the gulf of Patras, and then default.
The Athens News homepage dedicates a section to links about articles dealing with Greece appearing in the international press. If you're interested in what's happening in Greece, check it out. Greeks are committing suicide. Greeks are emigrating if they can. Greeks are experimenting with barter and timebanks, and local currency. Greeks are giving up their children up for adoption because they cannot afford to keep them. Unemployed Greeks from all walks of life and education status are lining up at the soup kitchens for the homeless because they cannot feed their children and elderly parents. Other Greeks are still making sure their money is safe in Switzerland.
Reading between the lines, one feels strongly the ending of the tragedy is known to the main actors and author of the script while the rest of us are still darkly caught up in the events plotted by an evil demiurge. I think not so much of Greek tragedy, but of an Etruscan funeral game, Phersu, which may or may not be the origin of the Latin word Persona, and linked to the Greek word prosopon. In Phersu, a scantily clad man with his face covered by a sack, arms and legs bound by ropes, attempts to defend himself with a club from the attacks of a savage dog he cannot see. It’s not known if the man is a victim, slave, condemned prisoner, or simply and actor and dancer. But the cruel outcome is predictable. It seems to me that the Greeks have been put in this very position. It is a situation we need to keep watching with the sharpest attention we have. In this war of banks against people, we may all find ourselves with a sack over our head and a dog at our heels, be it Athens, NYC, or Rome.