By Bob Gaydos
It has been quite a while since what happens in Greece has mattered in a grand-scheme-of-things sort of way. Heck, it’s been a couple of millennia, give or take a few hundred years here and there, since the birthplace of democracy has had superpower status. For a very long time, Greece has muddled through, more or less contentedly, on grapes and wine and nostalgia for its days of glory.
But apparently even classical ruins and beautiful Mediterranean scenery aren’t sufficient to keep tourists and history buffs visiting Greece often enough to offset the reality that when hardly anybody pays taxes, the stage is set for more ruins -- and these won’t be anywhere near as architecturally meaningful as the ones the world has come to know and love.
Greece today is a mess. A train wreck. It is a country on the verge of a financial meltdown and almost nobody -- even other European countries who are its partners in the Eurozone -- is saying it’s too big too fail. The deus ex machina that has come to its rescue before is on the verge of being turned off. Olympus is on hiatus.
“And so what?” we say in our typical American way. “I can still get baklava.”
Perhaps, but what if the baklava factory (just go with the metaphor)
goes belly up? And what’s a Greek salad without feta cheese? And, for the sake of serious argument, what about the Greeks themselves, especially the ones most vulnerable to a total economic collapse? That would be older Greeks, who face sizable cuts in their pensions and a serious lack of health care resources and the youngest, the ones who see no future in their country because the grownups have made a mess of it.
If you see some parallels with the situation in the United States today, you see where I’m going. But the threat goes beyond older folks having to tighten their belts and younger folks having to face an uncertain future. The threat -- and the lesson for Americans -- lies in what many members of those disaffected groups did recently when Greeks elected a new government.
They went nuts.
Sunday, Greek voters rejected what for them are centrist parties -- those whose leaders had agreed to a rigid fiscal bailout plan with Greece’s creditors -- in favor of, well, no party. Worse, in the parliamentary system with representatives of many political parties running, Greeks gave 15 percent of the seats in the Hellenic Parliament to communists and neo-Nazis, split pretty much evenly. Somehow, the two rejected political philosophies that clashed in Word War II are now expected to work together and with others to save Greece. Herodotus must be rolling in his grave.
The neo-Nazis, known as the Golden Dawn Party, are by far the scarier proposition because they believe what they believe fanatically. They do not believe the Holocaust happened. They do advocate placing land mines at Greece’s border to keep out immigrants. They have threatened reporters who wrote honestly about their meetings, their Nazi salutes, their swastika-like flag, their selling of Mein Kampf, their suspected links with the Greek secret service and police and the fact that they demanded reporters in the room stand up when their party leader entered.
Yes, we have communists and neo-Nazis in America, but these days, even with our fractured political system, they almost never get elected to public office. On Sunday, many Greeks didn’t seem to care who was elected. Many of them are still upset about waiting until 65 to retire and paying taxes. No party came close to a majority, leaving the government in chaos as different groups try to form coalitions.
Significantly, the votes for communists and neo-Nazis came heavily from the old and the young. The fearful and the fed up. The young, especially, having little sense of what Nazis, neo or otherwise, really stand for, seem to have decided that since the adults messed it up, it doesn’t matter who is in charge.
But it does. In every country.
On a less-frightening scale for now, one of America’s two major parties is finding out what happens when mainstream citizens, middle-of-the-road Americans, the people who pay their taxes and form a community, stop paying attention to who runs for office and don’t bother to vote. The angry and fearful go from being loud nuisances to taking over. They dominate the political debate. They run for office. They reject any thought of working with members of other parties and they threaten those in their party who don’t always agree with them with retribution -- well-financed campaigns to drive them out of office.
They also occasionally make outrageous claims that go unchallenged -- for example, that some 80 Democrats in the House of Representatives are actually members of the Communist Party.
Some might say this is a bridge too far, that what happened in Greece could never happen in the United States. I truly hope that is the case. But it has also been said by wiser men and women than I that the only thing necessary for the voices of fear and intolerance to succeed is for the voices of hope and reason to remain mute. I would add, and to discard their vote.