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.
Let’s be clear – little if any of the criticism of the Greek state or of the Greek people’s expectations of state benefits coming from mainstream sources has been racist by any reasonable definition of that term. None of it relies on coded traits in some kind of national DNA and none of it posits that Greeks have always been like this or always will.
Rather, people and governments outside Greece are justifiably furious about (1) lies the government told to the EU in reporting its finances and (2) the mass delusion among the Greek people as to what limited and laxly-paid taxes, low retirement ages, and generous benefit packages actually cost. I’m sorry that Greeks feel offended by the depth and tenor of international criticism. They shouldn’t.
DanMcD: Greece has a youth unemployment rate of 55%. The are stuck in a broken fiscal system that does not allow them to devalue their currency (reducing the public’s standard of living/real wages) to help restart their economy with more competitive wages. At the same time they’re facing crushing austerity enforced by the EU. It is really simplistic to suggest resistance to austerity is simply a cry to protect benefits and early retirement. A generation of Greek people are facing a bleak economic future and are worried about whether they’ll ever find work, not whether they’ll have great benefits.
So even if people are “justifiably furious” with past and present Greek governments/tax payers, what is the way forward? Destroying the economy to the point that the society crumbles?
Could someone please tell me what possible alternative exists for austerity? Are you suggesting that taxpayers of other countries fund Greece so their society does not crumble while the corrupt politicians, business leaders, government officials, the rich, and even doctor’s enjoy their wealth? THERE IS NO ETHICAL OR MORAL ALTERNATIVE TO AUSTERITY. If other countries want to help the suffering there are BILLIONS of people on this planet with less than Greeks. Millions of children in Africa suffer beyond belief. They have literally nothing. Millions have never even tasted chocolate including adults. Greece is a western, EU country that could have prevented their pain. Greeks are 100% responsible for their downfall. They have spent hundreds of billions of Euros that they don’t have to pay back. Much of that is sitting in Swiss bank accounts, expensive cars, and villas owned by the rich. Greeks are not lazy. They are corrupt. They lied to borrow more and more to fun the insanity of their literally useless country. They don’t believe in foreign investment for god’s sake. They prevent it. STOP BLAMING OTHERS! IT IS COWARDLY.
Thanks for responding. I think we’re making two different points – mine is about the causes of the international fury at Greece; yours is about the causes of the protests in Greece.
As for your ‘what is the way forward?’ question, I have no idea, and I’d be interested to hear if you do. But I think reasonable people can agree that any way forward should not involve the German government or Greece’s creditors across Europe (who have already endured massive write-downs) paying for a Greek state at anywhere near its pre-austerity levels.
After all, even at its bloated worst, over the last 15 years Greek government spending was only able to get the unemployment rate down to a low of 7.3% – and for most of that period it was above 10%. In other words, the pre-austerity status quo cannot fairly be considered a way forward.
I wonder why this happened? It looks a bit like joining the EU was not so good for Greece’s public debt? I wonder what the private debt picture for Greece looks like over the same timeframe? Was joining the EU a mistake for some countries? Did it create a false economy with apparently unlimited credit? Maybe Greece should leave the EU? Can Greece leave the EU? Argentina defaulted. Should Greece default? What would be the consequences?
However, Public debt in Japan is the highest in the world and it is also relatively high in USA and Singapore. It is relatively high in many Western Europe countries apart from Scandinavia and Spain (?) . It is non existent in Russia and extremely low in China. So the EU seems to suggest a relatively high public debt evolved over time? Even Germany is 82%.
Christopher, your article is excellent and overall cogent. However, as someone who was not in fact raised in Greece, and despite your long stints there, you may in fact not be fully cognizant of the extent of most Greeks’ collusion (in one way or another) in the culture of corruption and anomie plaguing the country. I know that anecdotal evidence of blatant instances of widespread corruption (e.g., whole villages collecting disability benefits for grave non-existent ailments, etc.) is paraded in the media in an unthinking and often prejudiced manner; the reality, however, is not much different, albeit not always as spectacular.
For instance, I don’t know how anyone can disregard the fact that Greece is a nation of small businesses, much more so than other western countries, and the concomitant generalized practice of small business-owners and self-employed professionals of not issuing receipts for their services, and thus not paying taxes. To this argument most Greeks furiously retort that it’s the “big fish” that have really bankrupted the state through tax evasion – but, apart from its inaccuracy (after all, even comparatively small individual instances of tax evasion by the “small fry” do add up!) this kind of response points exactly to the main problem plaguing modern Greece, i.e. most Greeks’ utter inability for self-criticism and the assumption of personal responsibility for their actions, as well as a peculiar short-sightedness in recognizing the repercussions of one’s actions beyond one’s immediate circle and in the long run. (In an article on Greece by Russel Shorto published about a year ago in the New York Times, there is a wonderful anecdote of a Greek multi-millionaire’s habitual practice of speeding through the toll booth on the highway, while he angrily accuses the government for having the audacity to expect him to pay for using the road…). For the average Greek, it’s always someone else’s fault: the corrupt politicians, the elites, etc. And yet these same people who now plead naivete and innocence were voting the same corrupt politicians into office time and time again for the last 30 years. The system was mutually beneficial, as long as anomie and corruption was widely tolerated by the state, and the bubble had not yet burst. I personally know of countless instances of people who were knowingly and repeatedly turning a blind eye to the tax-evading or otherwise fraudulent activities of their relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances, even if they themselves were not corrupt. Calling out someone for antisocial behavior is bad form in Greece, in the context of a perverse (and ultimately completely self-undermining) conception of social solidarity.
I am not in the least suggesting that these mental traits or attitudes are in any way innate to Greeks, somehow ‘encoded in their DNA’. They are obviously the end-product of certain long and complicated social processes unfolding over the past several decades, and probably having antecedents even further back in time. But by now this mentality of the majority of Greeks has become like second nature, and is deeply ingrained. Failing to recognize this and claiming that Greeks are blameless victims of circumstance can only reinforce the Manichaean, self-exonerating and short-sighted mentality of most Greeks, which is what got us here in the first place.