We Greeks have a reputation for being insufferable nationalists, most of whom genuinely believe that Greek culture is superior to that of other nations and peoples. We were even anointed the most culturally chauvinistic Europeans in a recent Pew survey. At the risk of confirming that stereotype, I shall blame it on… foreigners, with their immoderate praise of Greek culture and their superficial reading of their own silly surveys.
On 28 May, 1979, the occasion of Greece’s accession to the European Economic Community, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, then president of France delivered a speech in Athens and declared: “Europe without Greece would not be Europe… We are all, in our language and thought processes, children of Greek civilisation…” Today, he concluded, “Europe is rediscovering Europe.”
A century or so earlier, the Cambridge mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. Not to be outdone in philhellenism, commenting in 1941 on the Greek resistance to the Italian and German invaders, Winston Churchill famously added: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
Surely any people showered with such lavish praise by influential foreigners would be forgiven for taking a certain pride in their culture. For Greeks used to hearing folks like Giscard d’Estaing insist that Greece is Europe, and vice versa, telling a pollster that they do not believe their culture to be superior would be tantamount to questioning the superiority of European civilisation. In fact, from a Greek’s perspective, it is the equivalent of asking the French, German, Spanish or Dutch to respond, with a yes or no answer, to the silly question: “Is European civilisation better or worse than other civilisations?” In this sense, modern Greeks are neither more nor less culturally chauvinist than Europeans who celebrate European civilisation as if the horrors of European colonialism had never happened.
But ask us Greeks about modern Greek culture and you will get a very different response. Sure enough, we have our fair share of looney ultra-nationalists, some of whom believe that Darwinism applies to every human except the Greeks, who stem from some divine extra-terrestrial gene. Yet the vast majority of my countrymen and women think very little of our contemporary culture, ways and behaviours. The past decade, especially since our wholesale bankruptcy, has left us reeling, insecure and verging on self-loathing.
Yes, we still appreciate the glowing successes of Greeks who left Greece in search of a better life elsewhere. Yes, we celebrate the odd athletic victory and we appreciate the beauty of Greece’s land, sea and environment. Yes, we maintain some pride in uniquely Greek concepts like philotimia — a penchant for acting in a dignified way simply for the hell of it. But at the same time, we fear that these qualities, natural and spiritual, have been diluted terribly in recent decades; partly because we neglected and cannibalised them (our monstrous investment in tourism, for example), and partly because of a European Union that helped us lose our way.
When Giscard d’Estaing made his 1979 speech, a year before northern Europe formally admitted us to the EU, most Greeks rejoiced. Alas, we soon realised that a general loss of dignity was the hefty price we would end up paying for the privilege. I am often asked why Europe first let us Greeks into the Common Market and later into the euro. The correct answer sounds improbable today: because, back in 1979 when Giscard was waxing lyrical about Greek civilisation, the Greek state had one of the lowest levels of public debt in Europe and its citizens had next to none. Yes, we were a poor people but we managed within our modest means, living and breathing paradigms of parsimony. That’s what we brought into the EU: low debt and high levels of home ownership — a combination that was the Western banker’s wet dream.
Even in 1999, just before we were admitted to the euro, barely any Greeks had a mortgage, let alone a credit card. However, to enter Europe we had to lower our trade barriers and, later, to dismantle all capital controls. Immediately, a tsunami of imports, money and loans left northern Europe for Greece. Not that we resisted it, hungry as we were for the material trappings of modernity. Before we knew it, our factories were shut (and converted into warehouses for the imported washing machines and fridges that were once manufactured here); our bank accounts went from thin black to deep red; our dignity and philotimia were torn asunder.
It was only a matter of time before the global debt and banking bubble burst, before the same Europeans and Americans who once praised us as the pillars of Western civilisation turned on us. Conveniently ignoring that they had insisted we borrow mountains of their money — so we could buy their cars, washing machines and haute couture — they did not hesitate to call us all sorts of names unfit to print here.
Worse still, under our breath, we call ourselves similar names. When talking to each other, we have no qualms of being highly self-critical, often bordering on self-hatred. No Greek I know would, for instance, disagree with David Holden, the Times journalist who in 1972 depicted Greece as “rich in talent and poor in resources, developed in its tastes and underdeveloped in its capacities”. And so partly out of a false dedication to not disappointing those who talk up Greek civilisation, and partly due to our anger with ourselves and with a Europe that led us astray before treating us like cattle that lost their market price, we respond to idiotic survey questions with fake pride. Of course, we know it is fake — but, then again, fake pride is the last resort for those who have forfeited the real thing.