Greece-ing the Skids

Sometimes the degree of obsessing over the past is in direct proportion to the degree of regressing in the present.  That’s what appears to be happening in Greece as it reluctantly faces the economic fallout from the folly of its ways.

In two of his most famous lines of poetry, Edgar Allen Poe referred to “The glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome. ”  But modern Greece is a far cry from the cradle of Western democracy anymore.

Yet many Greeks are behaving as though any international criticism of their country’s fiscal failures is tantamount to an affront by disrespectful, unappreciative EU upstarts against a nation far superior to theirs, historically and culturally.  Citizens of Greece are beginning to sound like the recalcitrant father in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who regarded his native land as the root of everything, including the English language.  The ancient Greek oracle of Delphi, after all, was considered the omphalos, the center (literally navel) of the world.

And so a headline in a widely circulated U.S. newspaper reads, “No Europe without Greece.”  The article includes quotes from a retired actress, reminding us that “Europe got its name from the beautiful princess Europa, a popular figure in Greek mythology.”  She added tartly, “They (the members of the E.U.) forget about it.”

I’ll leave the analysis of Greece’s fiscal woes to the economic experts, but the reaction of this bankrupt nation to the bailout proposals of its partners in the European Union was pretty telling in itself.  The recent plebiscite for a cash-for-cuts deal they offered was resoundingly rejected.  It seems the Greeks want to have their baklava and eat it, too!

It’s not that Greece wants – or even expects – to be banished from the EU.  Quite the contrary.  It recognizes the economic advantages of the organization and its common currency.  Polls consistently show that at least 75% of the Greek population prefers to remain a part of it.  Instead, the country’s reaction to the EU mandate simply typifies what is going on in the rest of the world: European threats no longer count for much.  The “do this, or else” philosophy doesn’t hold water anymore.  It hasn’t since the end of World War II, when America spearheaded the Marshall Plan to rebuild the nations of our enemies as well as those of our friends. 

The European countries are now experiencing the same finger-in-the-eye reaction from Greece as Kerry and his cohorts are getting from Iran.  The bargaining table has become the begging table.  And guess which side is wielding the upper hand.  Threats notwithstanding, the Greek government knows full well that it will not be expelled from the EU, any more than an uncooperative child will be abandoned by his exasperated parents.  Diplomacy seems to have become “dupe-lomacy,” with the offenders calling the shots.  And the good guys aren’t calling their bluff. 

Grant you, Greece remains a proud country, even if its pride goeth before an economic fall.  But it’s into believing its ancient press to the extent of resenting the more affluent European countries to which it is now tied.  And from that shortfall has grown a national sense of entitlement that seeks to level the economic playing field for all those on the team.  Maybe it has something to do with the long and tumultuous oppression Greece suffered before it finally gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829.

 Several years ago, when traveling in Greece, we happened to drive into the picturesque Peloponnesian town of Pylos on the Ionian Sea, where a celebration was underway to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Navarino Bay, a turning point in the Greek war for independence.

Moored in the bay were ships representing the three crucial allies of Greece in that historic effort: Britain, France, and Russia.  The entire hilly town was festooned with banners and jammed with celebrants.  In our small hotel, we made the acquaintance of a rather imperious diplomatic attaché who had come down, if reluctantly, from his embassy in Athens to observe the proceedings.

We spotted him on his balcony directly below ours, nursing a bottle of vodka by the dawn’s early light.  For whatever reason, he later felt compelled to explain to us that the Russian economy was unfortunately in such a state of austerity that only a bucket-of-bolts scow on the brink of mothballing could be shipped off for this auspicious occasion.  Still, he expressed deep disappointment that the town fathers had sent crates of wine to his country’s ship by way of a welcome.  The crew had expected vodka, at the very least.

The Greeks don’t seem to have much to celebrate under the present circumstances.  But they are doing so anyway.  After the results of the vote were announced, its citizens could be seen wildly Zorba-ing in the city streets and town squares.  They may not be able to withdraw much money from their ATMs, but they ‘re still banking on things working out to their advantage.  After all, nobody is going to tarnish the glory that was Greece.  The gods forbid it.