Michael Herzfeld’s “Welcome to Greece (but not to Europe)” is a case of “great article, lousy editing”. When I read the strapline, “Europe’s efforts to exclude Athens aren’t about migration or debt, they’re about the continent’s deep-seated racism toward its southern frontier state,” a tabloid version instinctively flashed before my eyes: “Harvard prof says, racist Europeans are bullying the Greeks (again)”.
Despite my gut reaction, the article is well worth reading. But reading it set me on a stream-of-consciousness journey through recent cultural experiences, which I’d like to take you on to illustrate a real phenomenon: well-meaning attempts to sway European opinion in favour of Greece are unintentionally cultivating their own version of this “racism” outside Greece, while arming a strand of political rhetoric within Greece that is un-European in its values, anti-European in its orientation and profoundly disempowering. If this worldview is allowed to prevail (and arguably it is too late to stop it) it could bring about its own dire results for Greece without “Europe” having to dirty its hands.
But let’s start by restoring to the Foreign Policy article its original intent. Herzfeld, a Professor of Anthropology, argues that the EU countries might be tempted to exclude Greece from the Schengen free movement zone because historically they have never considered Greeks to be fully European. Herzfeld’s argument is directed primarily at the readers in the European “core”, urging them to overcome this bias and keep Greece “in” for everyone’s benefit.
Herzfeld’s scholarly writing is rich and nuanced, informed by years of study and anthropological fieldwork in Greece, and this short opinion piece does not really do it justice. While his main is thrust is to “call out” the Europeans on their “racism”, he knows enough about how Greece works not to treat the Greeks like helpless victims. It is a question of emphasis, but one that is easily missed in a hasty reading.
So how did I get from this to the imaginary tabloid version?
When I read the article I was reminded of a BBC travel programme that I had watched just a few days before. The premise of “Greece with Simon Reeve” is that an “avuncular herbert” (as the host is aptly described in one review) goes on a gap-year-style exploration of Greece, “one of the most beautiful and troubled countries in Europe”. You get the idea: spectacular scenery, picturesque locals, with a smattering of current affairs and a social conscience. Entertaining, but perhaps more enjoyable if you’re not that familiar with the subject matter.
In one memorable segment, a group of bearded gun-toting Cretan shepherds
are emboldened after a stint of target shooting and a few shots of raki to expound on their belief that “what (the Germans) didn’t achieve by killing millions of people in World War II, they’re trying to achieve now by financial warfare”. Those crazy Cretans, eh! The voiceover has already informed us that due to the island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean the Cretan worldview has been shaped by centuries of conflict against would-be invaders. Maybe the hirsute noble savages were speaking truth to power? So the script left us thinking, at any rate, as their statements were left hanging in the air.
“Greece with… ” has not yet been broadcast in Greece. But coincidentally, within a couple of days of watching it, I also happened to witness on Greek TV Lakis Lazopoulos, a popular comedian and self-proclaimed “modern Aristophanes”, walk his audience through a very similar scenario to that espoused by the Cretan mountain men. With the aid of a Fox-News-style 3-D rendering of Greece as a concentration camp overseen by Kommandant (German Finance Minister) Schäuble and his local Quislings, Lazopoulos proceeded to tell us that he knew for a fact from “two well informed sources” that Germany had threatened to cut off Greece’s water supplies during the fraught bailout negotiations in July 2015 “just like they did to the prisoners in the camps”. The programme attracted 40% of the TV audience on the evening it was broadcast – the episode generated plenty of complaints, but not about that segment.
So there we go – from the sublime to the ridiculous in two easy steps.
I found myself wondering, as I watched “Greece with…”, whether those Cretan noble savages were in any way related to the fierce rebels who, when European farming subsidies were flowing plentiful, were filing applications for fictional olive groves, that, if real, would have stretched across the wine-dark sea all the way to Santorini? Or those who were ploughing the same subsidies into building narco-cartels in the uplands and stockpiling the extraordinary numbers of unlicensed guns described in the programme (modern AK-47s in this case, rather than the heirloom Luger that the Cretan host claimed was taken from the fleeing WWII occupiers)? Would they say the Germans were trying to destroy them then too, I wondered? Would they ever question the flow of money and patronage from Europe via the local political grandees – or were they just happy to be compliant and complicit political clients?
None of this entered into the script, where the bearded mountain men along with the other colourful character vignettes went largely unchallenged in their assertions. One was left with an image of the Greek people as latter-day Zorbas, lovable rogues perhaps, but fleeced by their corrupt elites and embattled by the austerity-loving Europeans. Now, Michael Herzfeld literally wrote the book on Cretan mountain men (The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village), and the issues of complicity and patronage in EU-Greek relations are precisely the ones he raises his article, albeit focussing on the European side of the equation. (Our comedian friend of course, asks only the kind of leading questions that advance him along his conspiratorial narrative – “Coincidence?”).
I swing between the sublime and the ridiculous to illustrate a number of points. First, that the “racism” described in the Foreign Policy article is a much more subtle beast than the one that we can comfortably disown by associating it with a swastika tattoo on a snarling skinhead. The image of Greece at home and abroad is shaped as much by seemingly benign and well-intentioned popular entertainment products as it is by any European politician’s pronouncements – and arguably more so. I would hazard a guess that many more people watched “Greece with Simon Reeve” and talked about it round the watercooler than are ever likely to read the article in Foreign Policy beyond the strapline – even influential people. When the BBC informs us through the grinning floppy haired medium of Simon Reeve (or the husky Home Counties empathy of Joanna Lumley a couple of years ago) that Greece is a land of impulsive naïfs humiliated by the oppression of the phlegmatic Eurocrats and/or the Ottoman corruption of their own political masters, we tend to take it on authority – especially when it comes garnished with a smattering of quotable statistics on youth unemployment, road casualties and pollution.
This kind of representation can make everyone a “racist” of sorts, even if a “sympathetic” racist – it paints Greece as an exotic hinterland where “civilised” western norms don’t apply. Consider another moment in the programme, when Reeve casually mentions that, “a few rich people control almost all of Greece’s media”. Fair cop guv! But how about some context? One could perhaps state that in the host’s own country the media are largely dominated by an Australian/American tycoon with a bulldozer approach to journalistic ethics who once famously boasted of swinging an election, a porn baron, the “non-dom” (i.e. non-taxpaying) descendant of a Nazi sympathizer, a pair of reclusive twins living in their own private tax haven, and a hereditary Russian oligarch among others. This might allow the viewer to see a more familiar, less exotic picture – one that might encourage more critical thinking, the European and the Greek on an equal footing.
Second, this is a two-way street. Out of this surreal array of representations, I can state pretty categorically that many more Greek people will have watched the idiot’s version of Greco-German relations than are likely to consume either Herzfeld or Reeve without some form of mediation (translation, abridgement or most likely paraphrase – and I am only focusing on the English-language media, if my German were better I’m sure I would be having a field day). But foreign commentary does not go unnoticed in Greece; it is monitored obsessively and is often used in the media to stir up popular sentiment, so it doesn’t take much of a logical leap to arrive at my imaginary tabloid headline. It is not unusual to find statements originating in Greece returning like a mangled boomerang through the crisis porn news cycle (remember “sex for a tyropita”?). A gently paternalistic view of Greece informs a defensive self-image, while the Greek sense of persecution feeds back into “racist” stereotypes of the Greeks.
The motif of national humiliation and victimhood, that idea that Greece is prevented for achieving its rightful destiny by malicious foreign interference (“we are special, that’s why they hate us”) is not new, nor is it the preserve of fringe groups like the Golden Dawn party. It is a dark aspect of our modern historical identity to which Greeks turn reflexively, regardless of individual political beliefs, particularly in times of crisis (a rich topic in itself, deserving of a separate discussion). A recent survey suggested that “competitive victimhood” (“my suffering is bigger than yours”) explains why casual anti-Semitism is so widespread – hence, using the Holocaust as a prop in a heavy-handed “satire” to illustrate the persecution of the Greeks is broadly tolerated. Lazopoulos himself is not just a household name, he is a friend of the government: he was personally introduced to François Hollande on a state visit to Athens, and half the cabinet attended the premiere of his last stage show in December.
In the political mainstream, consider the emotive language used by Alexis Tsipras in his referendum address last July: “the aim of some of our Partners and the Institutions… is, perhaps, the humiliation of an entire people” through “punishing and humiliating austerity”; and his right-wing nationalist coalition partner Panos Kammenos in the aftermath of the negotiations which followed, describing the result in terms of a “coup” by Germany and its allies, and repeated and persistent “blackmail” (which we observed at the time sounds in Greek very much like “rape”); or of Yanis Varoufakis’s favourite trope, “fiscal waterboarding” – the Greek people always at the sharp end of a transitive verb. Then reflect on how this sense of victimhood was fuelled by the Keynsian sympathy of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (example: “Greece, the Sacificial Lamb”), and the “imported” social media meme of #thisisacoup.
Now, as Greece finds itself once again threatened with exclusion from Europe, this time with more than 20,000 people (and counting) corralled within its borders in truly desperate conditions, the victim reflex re-engages. The Prime Minister rallied the domestic audience with the same familiar motif: “[w]e cannot have any responsibility-shirking bureaucrat or xenophobic government wagging the finger at us. No attack will be left unanswered and no action will be without consequences”. It’s a great populist message, because it deflects attention onto Europe’s failings and away from our own government’s mishandling and political manoeuvring. But it is also self-limiting: the best outcome we can expect from this narrative is a poor compromise after an “honest struggle”; and worse outcomes are also possible. Push us, and we may be “driven to act unilaterally,” our Immigration Minister warned. Whatever that is intended to mean, it does not sound pleasant, and given the realities of the situation it is hard to imagine Greece coming out the winner.
Let’s be clear: pointing out the dangers in our own national discourse in no way absolves anyone in Europe of their own un-European parochialism. Nor does it mean that Greece could or should be expected to contain a human migration on such a historical scale from encroaching on its neighbours’ manicured backyards. But once you start to ask the difficult questions, you realise that there are not always clear victims and perpetrators, and no one owns to moral high ground, not even the “birthplace of democracy”. Herzfeld again:
“If Greece remains solidly within EU structures, it can more easily probe that history. It can ask disturbing questions [about its treatment by the Europeans]. Inside Schengen, moreover, Greece can directly answer charges that it is not doing enough to stem the refugee tide, rather than be treated as a lost cause.”
This is why it is worth reading his article in full and being wary of some of the more misty-eyed portrayals of Greece. European “racism” does not give Greece a free pass, but nor will staying “in” be an easy option. But we (Greeks, Europeans) must resist the temptation to let a politically expedient notion of victimhood become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
*with apologies again to the late Umberto Eco.