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Commentary: Greek Debt Crisis Has Its Roots In Culture

The real ancestor of today’s Greece, says Henriette Lazaridis Power, is Karagiozis, the main character in the traditional shadow theater that’s performed in Athens even now.

The real ancestor of today’s Greece, says Henriette Lazaridis Power, is Karagiozis, the main character in the traditional shadow theater that’s performed in Athens even now.

Discussions about the Greek debt crisis over the past several months have often compared the Greece of today to its ancient role as the birthplace of democracy. Henriette Lazaridis Power, editor of the online literary journal The Drum, says the ancients don’t provide a useful model:

The fact is — Modern-day Greece is not the descendant of Periclean Athens but the descendant of 500 years of Ottoman rule that created a taste for labyrinthine bureaucracy, a desire to outwit authority, and a disregard for civic society.

Here’s the problem: Even though it’s the birthplace of democracy, Greece has a poorly developed sense of civic responsibility.

– Henriette Lazaridis Power

Here’s how it works in modern Greece: A contractor encourages a home-owner to wall-in an outdoor space and signs off on the creation of an illegal room. A civil-servant volunteers to assess valuable items as old junk so a widow won’t pay a higher tax. A home-buyer wants to fabricate paperwork to evade the tax he’s supposed to pay. Events like these, from my own experience, are replicated all over the country every day.

While I do worry about how my Greek friends and family will cope with more and more austerity measures, I don’t worry that they’ll be upset by my accusations. Because like most Greeks, they agree. The nationwide refrain to any conversation about corruption is “You’re right. We Greeks are always looking for a scam.” Greeks consistently identify themselves as morally impaired in comparison to, say, the Germans — and this goes back decades before the current crisis.

Here’s the problem: Even though it’s the birthplace of democracy, Greece has a poorly developed sense of civic responsibility. If you volunteer for something, you’re a sucker. If you pick up your garbage, or, god forbid, anyone else’s, you’re a fool. With few exceptions, like the upsurge in volunteerism surrounding the Athens Olympics, the culture embraces the view that you take care of your immediate family and the rest of society be damned.

The real ancestor of today’s Greece is not some Athenian holding a scroll of philosophical wisdom. It’s Karagiozis, the main character in the traditional shadow theater that’s performed in Athens even now. Karagiozis is a poor Greek man living under the rule of an Ottoman Vizir. He has a long left arm, the better to slip into people’s pockets with. He’s always trying to outwit the Vizir, and he’s always being beaten for his pains. Karagiozis — conniving, downtrodden, miserable — is the model for Greece. And the fact that Greeks themselves embrace this tells us that Greece’s troubles are both larger and more essential than the press and the politicians have understood.

Henriette Lazaridis Power is the editor of the online audio literary magazine, The Drum, and the cofounder of Zip Code Stories, heard each month here on Radio Boston.

More:

  • “Lounge Lit”: Henriette Lazaridis Power and Anthony Brooks discuss Radio Boston’s “Zip Code Stories” on Thursday, February 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Think Tank in Cambridge.

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