Monday, June 23, 2014

Historical Reckonings In Democracy's Birthplace

(This column ran last week in the newspapers. Didn't have time to post it while traveling.)

Flying over the Peloponnesus on the way to Athens from Rome, I was struck by how mountainous it was below me, much more so than New Hampshire or Maine. Zig-zagging switchback roads climbed even the biggest mountains. Some serviced the numerous windmills and cell phone towers up there, but others led to high villages on steep slopes. One of the smallest, called Magouliana, is the one from which my wife’s grandfather emigrated to America in 1902. More about Magouliana later. It needs its own column. “Wow!” I thought from the plane. “That’s rugged country.” This impression was confirmed when, two days later, we began our tour of the huge peninsula called Pelopponesus, the largest in Greece.

Roseann and Me at Parthenon
(That's a bra for the camera around my waist)

A small Mercedes bus met us at the airport near the sea on the outskirts of Athens. There were nine in our party, all members of my wife’s extended family making the trip. My first feeling was sadness because of the graffiti I saw defacing virtually every vertical surface as we drove to our hotel downtown near the Acropolis. The hotel was nice but a four-story building across the street was unoccupied and not well maintained either. Wherever I travel I notice how much graffiti there is because I see it as a barometer of civilizational decline. Thankfully, there was none visible at the Acropolis itself, a very impressive site, especially considering its antiquity going back three thousand years.
Parthenon from our hotel dining room in early evening

Impressive columned temples built up there by the Mycenean Greeks were destroyed by the Persians after the Battle of Thermopylae, then rebuilt during the Classical Period after 480 BC. I was impressed that people like Socrates, Plato and the Apostle Paul walked those same streets upon which I was strolling. I’d grown up reading and hearing about them over and over. It was from Socrates’ methods that I developed the teaching style I used for nearly my entire career.
People we met in Athens were friendly and most spoke English, a good thing since none of us spoke very much Greek. They made eye contact on the sidewalks, unusual for inhabitants of a big city in my limited traveling experience. Our tour guide was an older woman from the city named Dora, who had been doing that job more than forty years and spoke five languages. 
What happens when the EU closes the Euro spigot

After two days in the Athens, we headed for the Peloponnesus via Corinth, a city on the isthmus connecting to mainland Greece. All along the way were unfinished buildings: concrete skeletons with steel rebar sticking out, some with building materials stacked inside and bleaching in the sun. They were projects begun and never finished after European Union funds dried up. Many older buildings were abandoned too, some residences, but mostly businesses. Graffiti covered them. It was depressing to see it everywhere as we proceeded down the highway. Some evidently was political. Some was sprayed on in support of soccer teams. I recognized anarchy symbols and native Greeks I questioned explained symbols of soccer teams. Most, however, was mindless. Past Corinth, in rural areas of the Pelopponesus, there was considerably less of it.
Roseann, Christina, graffiti as we walk back to our hotel in Athens

My wife’s niece, Christina, who was living in Greece and visited us in Athens, told me the official unemployment rate there was 28%, but the real rate was double that. Our guide, Dora, said the economy had been depressed for about three years. As she explained it, the socialist government under Papandreou promised to eliminate poverty and for twenty years, it borrowed and spent. He knew the bill would come due eventually, but it wouldn’t be until after he was dead. I got the impression that her politics had morphed rightward as she apprehended the process Margaret Thatcher described: “Socialism works until you run out of other peoples’s money.”
Real markef forces are asserting themselves in Greece now as they inevitably must anywhere. The adjustment is quite painful, but necessary for a real economic recovery. It reminded me that we in the United States will soon run out of other people’s money as well. We’re putting off that reckoning with our “quantitative easing” policies of money-printing, but that cannot go on forever either. Postponing the inevitable only makes it more painful to bear when it finally comes. I used to think that would be after I was dead too, but now I’m thinking it will be here sooner, and I will have to watch as American decline accelerates. It will be a test of our polity. Can we withstand the crisis to come? Will the veneer of civilization keep hold over the seething mass of humanity?
Our guide was a scholar and offered perspective on Greek history though from Myceneans, to Dorians, to Persians, to Romans, to Byzantines, to Turks, to Nazis. After “periods of decadence” as she put it, come periods of decline and suffering. Greeks have endured it many times, but their history is so much longer than our own. As we toured Athens, Mycenae, Epidaurus, Olympia, Delphi, and Kalambaka, we were shown how, for millennia, people at each locale endured tumultuous reckonings after those “periods of decadence.”
Can we forestall that suffering here in the United States? In the face of mounting evidence that it may be too late for us, I continue to choose optimism. I don’t want to spend any more time than necessary in the state of mind produced by its opposite.


Unknown said...

If only more Americans could travel and see the rich history that proves to be a forecast of things to come. Perhaps if more of us listened and realized what is ahead, it could be softened a bit. Then I think that we need the full effect to drive home the lessons that need so desperately to be learned.

Anonymous said...

"George" I try to use Aesop's Fables and Brothers Grimm to teach folks who can't "get around" like I have in the past.
Italy, Greece,.....
Impressive places indeed. But I have become embittered by "The Grass seems greener on the other side of the fence". Yeah, I have rocks in MY back yard that are at LEAST as old as the ones paving the walkways in the once mighty Coliseum, or "theater" at Delphi(my personal favorite). I always thought simply moving to "somewhere else" would make things better. They only made things different, so I ended up back in the ole' family homestead to live out my days.
In fairness, I imagine it's easier to "settle down" from wanderlust if one has "been around" a bit.

Anonymous said...

Aaaaaagh...CaptDMO above