I should have written this article a long time ago. Selfishly, I have remained vaguely apathetic towards Greek politics in anticipation that the negative publicity and connotations of the Greek state and people would quickly dissipate. My assumption was wrong and now I realize that as an aspiring academic, I am, and have been, derelict.
My doctoral dissertation at York University examines Greek homeland politics during the 1960s and 1970s. Inevitably, I recently became an informal expert on the Greek crisis because of my education and perceived connection with the country of my parent’s birth. Simultaneously, I have become an audience for opinions that I have increasingly found to be quite startling and concerning.
Many Greek immigrants here reflect and perpetuate the unfounded prejudices disseminated by governments, media, and mainstream opinions of the Greek people. The profound bitterness I encounter among Greek immigrants is a clear indication that Greeks abroad feel that there is an obvious distinction between those who left Greece, particularly in the mass migrations of the 1960s and 1970s, and those “lazy” Greeks who stayed. It is definitely not just within the Greek diaspora that I encounter these often misinformed yet compellingly argued thoughts. In a public conference a few months ago, a man with a fading British accent approached the microphone during question period and began his statement/question with, “well, the Greeks don’t want to work…”
The insinuation that Greeks in Greece are somehow pathologically lazy is unfair and, I would argue, racist. Laziness is not part of the Greek or any human’s DNA. It is a socially constructed perception towards a people whose political system and everyday economic life are very misunderstood in more developed parts of the world.
Inside and especially outside of Greece, the nearly unfathomable amount of national debt is hurled around in an effort to emphasize Greek irresponsibility and justify the need for further austerity. The most common observation I hear from both Greek-Canadians and non-Greeks is, “Greeks don’t pay their taxes.” Although this may be true from the perspective of more developed nations, it is culturally insensitive and ignorant to insist that Greeks instantly develop a brand new perspective on their individual relationship with their state. Canada’s national revenue system is in its current form because of a long historical process. Because of this, our relationship with the Canadian state and our expectations of what we may receive from government is unique, as is the relationship between all other countries and their citizens. Greece’s national revenue system and government is no different.
A government’s inability to collect taxes or convince its citizens of the benefits they may receive from tax revenues does not indicate a population’s inherent laziness. Rather than seeing numbers that are demonstrative of fiscal and economic mismanagement, I’d like to see investigators working in government or in the media report on how individual Greeks perform in terms of productivity, comparatively speaking, with others in the world. In short, I hope that we can become far more cognizant of the distinction between a collection of people and their state. After all, to distinguish people from the actions of their government, I am told, is a perfectly acceptable argument for powerful countries who wage war in other parts of the world without international legal legitimacy. So I am left wondering, why the double standard?
I recently spent two fairly long stints in Greece. Behind the anger and frustration, I sensed that many people living in Greece feel criminalized, but they are unsure of what they have done wrong. Almost everyone I spoke with in Greece works just as much as people in Canada (this may be a reflection of my humble roots in the country). Yet, their earnings are meager. They have lived and worked within the law and conventions of the system for their entire lives. Recently, they have been told that they are somehow responsible for the country’s economic misery. This blame inevitably inspires anger and distrust in government. This is a situation and legacy that has few precedents in Canada.
As a historian, I do not offer any panaceas to Greece’s economic problems. However, the unjustified myths that exacerbate the bitterness of international onlookers and Greek nationals themselves do much harm to a country increasingly growing bankrupt in both economics and optimism.
This process may seem innocuous. But, the recent ascendancy to national significance of Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, a right-wing extremist organization, is particularly telling of why hope matters. The party touts severe anti-immigration rhetoric and proudly uses an emblem that is unmistakably related to the Nazi German swastika. The Golden Dawn has exploited an unfortunate episode in Greece’s history and, consequently, has built a foundation of support that reportedly runs deep into state institutions. The fact that extremist language has pervaded mainstream politics and resonates loudly within grassroots organizations in the country should be cause for concern.
As a Canadian of Greek heritage, I decided to write this article because my research experiences collided with the news that Golden Dawn had opened an office in Montreal. The historian in me inevitably began to draw parallels between the conditions existing in contemporary Greece and instances in the past where a dispirited population changed the trajectory of its path for the worse. I merely hope to illuminate and somehow inform a discussion surrounding a situation that I see to be in quick and continuous deterioration.
Christopher Grafos is a Ph.D. student and Co-Founder of the Greek Canadian History Project at York University. Christopher’s academic interests are Canadian immigration policy, ethnicity, diaspora, and transnational communities.