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Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Our Opinion

The Economist Surveys the Real Greece

The Greek government and various Greek American organizations and individuals have, over the last decades, spent – more accurately, prodigally misspent – millions of dollars on lobbying and public-relations firms in the United States in an attempt “to promote Greek interests” and “burnish” the country’s image. The stupefying failure of these efforts can be pointed to by most Greek Americans (all those, in other words, who are not part of the community’s self-serving “leadership”); nevertheless, a certain discretion compels us to the conclusion that, as far as Greece’s “image” during the last quarter of a century is concerned…the less said, the better.

Modern Greece remains a mystery to the average American, whose familiarity with the country continues to be mired in stereotypes (beautiful beaches, the Acropolis, bouzouki, mousaka, souvlaki, and, for the “politically astute,” the ever-constant “age-old ethnic hatred of Turkey”). The country’s economic, political, social, and geopolitical context is terra incognita to the vast majority of Americans. Worst of all, Greek Americans seem to be stuck in their own ideological morass, whose salient features are distorted and incomplete images of modern Greece, biased and inadequate coverage by the community’s press, and uninformed and incompetent leaders.

We should all be grateful to The Economist, therefore, for its extended survey of Greece in its current (October 12-18) issue, appropriately entitled Prometheus Unbound, which we unreservedly recommend to anyone who does not already read the most authoritative – and, by far, most intelligent – newsweekly in the English-speaking world. It goes infinitely farther in presenting a comprehensive and analytical image of modern Greece than all those endless years of the Greek American “lobby’s” kneejerk and lowest-common-denominator PR campaigns put together. The issue here is not whether the survey is negative or positive (although it is manifestly positive for the most part), but rather the fact that a real and to a large extent complete image of the country is presented in a mere – but perceptive, thoroughgoing, articulate, and utterly rational and methodical – 20 pages.

As such, it is puzzling in the extreme as to why the leadership of the Greek American community remains silent (complicit?) in the face of an image of modern Greece as that of a homogeneous country – not only ethnically but, especially, religiously – intolerant of foreigners and of immigrants in particular. Puzzling because Greece should be part of every debate on immigration. In the last 10 years, the country has successfully absorbed approximately one million immigrants into its workforce – a staggering figure by any objective measure. This proportion, in fact, is the highest in terms of P/I (population/immigrants) ratio in the European Union (EU).

At a time when the EU’s major populations (France, Germany, the United Kindgom) are strongly resisting the infusion of fresh blood into their rapidly aging workforces, Greece has become a role model showcasing the benefits to all countries of generous immigration policies. The Economist, of course, does (and should) not ignore issues of discrimination or more blatant phenomena of racism and intolerance against immigrants in Greece. (Indeed, it mentions the notorious example of the young aristouchos – essentially, the valedictorian – in a Greek high school who, because he was Albanian, was denied the expected right to be the simaioforos, the flag-bearer, at a school parade.) The reaction of most Greeks toward the influx of immigrants into their country, however, has been exemplary in comparison to many French, Germans, and British (not to mention Dutch, Danes, and other Europeans).

The essence of The Economist’s argument is to be found (strategically) in the last paragraph in the survey’s article entitled, “Roll out the welcome mat”:

The [Greek foreign] ministry is working with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank, to come up with ideas that a number of European countries might find useful. There is a political agenda here. If a moderate socialist government in a country that has rapidly moved from homogeneity to diversity can tackle migration successfully, that will deal a powerful blow to the extreme right everywhere.

This shatters any preperceptions developed over a long period of time of Greeks as xenophobic, and, very much to the contrary, presents a profoundly accurate image of modern Greece – and modern Greeks – that should be extensively promoted by all those enlightened “lobbyists” in Washington who are, in theory at least, working for Greece’s interests. More important, The Economist’s point is that Greece has, at this very moment, an enormous, pan-European role to play in combating the resurgence of racism, fascism, and historical denial that is at the heart of the crisis affecting European democracy today.

Overall, The Economist’s survey confirms a fact that Greeks, for inexplicable reasons, have been hesitant and slow to accept: namely, that Costas Simitis is the most effective prime minister that Greece has had in the last 30-40 years. Serious, fiercely anti-populist, and with a persistent – and consistent – economic, social, and foreign-policy vision, he has raised Greece to a level that many of us did not believe the country would attain in our lifetime. His foreign policy, in particular, especially in regard to Turkey and the rest of the Balkans, has given Greece a prominent role in all the relevant debates within the European Union. Credit should also be given here to Mr. Simitis’s foreign minister, George Papandreou. To quote The Economist again – which we would like to remind our readers is, of course, a famously conservative publication: “Few Greek foreign ministers of recent times have been as respected by their opposite numbers in NATO and European Union countries.”

Problems continue to exist, of course. Mr. Simitis might be a paragon of probity, political coherence, and democratic effectiveness, but he does not represent the Second Coming. Society and democracy are both, by definition, incubators of problems – which is exactly what they are supposed to be when they function properly. In the event, economic progress can easily fall apart due to unexpected global and local developments. As for relations with Turkey, they remain arbitrary and almost ad hoc. Nevertheless, to cite The Economist one last time, “Whoever forms the next government will be leading a country better placed than ever before to cope with the challenges of an integrated Europe and a potentially turbulent region.” 

In closing, would like to pose a question: Why is most Greek Americans’ perception of Greece fundamentally different – not to say diametrically opposed – to that of The Economist in its current survey of the country? Even more to the point, why is the Greek American press’s coverage of Greece – and of its government – so pathologically negative? We are all aware of (some) extreme anti-Americanism in Greece (much more on the right than on the left during the last few years, actually), as well as of the grotesque reaction of many Greeks – in addition to many other people around the world – to September 11. To artificially, and maliciously, construct an image of Greece based on these negative elements alone, however, is a gross – and intellectually dishonest and insulting – distortion of reality. Reading such “coverage,” one is reminded more of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – or, occasionally, George Bush’s America – than today’s modern, dynamic, and democratic Greece.

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