Greece’s long, painful suicide

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement (http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035)

There are many ways one can look upon Dimitris Christoulas’s decision to end his life in front of Parliament on Wednesday. Each has a different interpretation, each has different implications, but no matter which one you choose, they will all fill you with sorrow.

On a personal level, it is a tragedy that a 77-year-old man should feel so discouraged by what he saw around him, so appalled by his own financial misfortune and the prospect of scrounging from garbage cans to survive, that he should choose to shoot himself in the center of Athens.

One can feel nothing but despair that an active member of his community should feel so alone that he should opt to exit society in such a dramatic way. It tells us of the isolation and hopelessness that many around us feel. Lest we forget, it brings us face to face with the impact of the crisis and the flawed economic polices it has spawned. We see more clearly the people who have lost their jobs, businesses, homes and aspirations. It reminds us that the human cost of the so-called fiscal adjustment makes debates about the political cost irrelevant.

On a political level, Christoulas’s act and the suicide note he left in his pocket will reverberate for some time. His frustration at the apparent apathy of most Greeks is a sentiment that many can identify with. Twinges of guilt were felt throughout the country.

His decision to commit suicide in front of Parliament, the building that has been the subject of such scorn due to the fecklessness of many of the politicians that conduct their business there, was as painful a blow against the country’s political elite as a pensioner growing weaker by the day could hope to deliver.

A passionate leftist who took part in protests and attended last summer’s Aganaktizmenoi (Indignant) gatherings in Syntagma Square — where he drew his last breath on Wednesday — Christoulas made his disillusionment known to the world in the most tragic way. A man who had reportedly participated in neighborhood schemes to talk young people out of using drugs and who had supported the “I won’t pay” movement, finally gave up the fight. He seems to have felt that in death, and by this particular method of dying, he could have a much greater impact on public opinion than through the daily struggle he had engaged in.

“This final act was a conscious political act, entirely consistent with what he believed and did in his life,” his daughter Emy Christoula said in a statement.

Hearing friends and neighbors talk to the media about Christoulas, one gets the impression he could have led many stimulating conversations or even arguments about Greece’s economic and political problems. Nobody will have the opportunity to hear his views anymore. Instead, we are left with the pieces of the man, pieces that we will all try to put together to draw some kind of message.

His references to Kalashnikovs, governments of collaboration and young people hanging traitors in the same square that he shot himself was the language of a man who had snapped. But it is also similar to the language that has been adopted by some media commentators, politicians and anti-austerity protesters. In the confusion and exasperation of this debilitating crisis, these words of rage trip off the tongue. There are few Greeks who haven’t been at least momentarily overcome by a mood of destructive exasperation over the last couple of years.

However, there is a difference between feeling this fury and making it a guiding principle. Blind rage, vigilantism, kicking out at everything and everyone won’t get Greece anywhere. Targeted anger, the kind that generates determination to change things for the better, might bring progress.

Christoulas’s last words were reported to be: “Don’t leave debts to your children.” This is a much more fitting principle to be guided by as we seek to change our world. The idea of not passing on to the next generation the pathogenic sickness of the past few decades should be the goal of every Greek.

This language implies that removing a handful of people from the equation would solve Greece’s woes. For starters, Greeks will have the chance to do this via the ballot box in a few weeks’ time. If the value of this most ancient of democracies is to be restored, then voters must use the general elections due to take place next month to inject some purpose into the system. Rather this than nooses and firing squads.

But Greece’s problems go deeper than just a few undesirables. The reason that the next generation is inheriting such huge debt certainly has much to do with the greed and selfishness of the country’s political elite. They are qualities that allowed gross inefficiencies to be papered over by borrowing, a dangerous tendency that was indulged by Greece’s entry into the euro. The dynamics of the single currency also compounded Greek debt problems as politicians here and abroad failed to see the looming dangers. The response to the crisis at a domestic, European and international level has been woeful and has made the situation worse.

Greeks must strive to change the most negative elements of the policies being adopted as part of the country’s bailouts but even this won’t be enough. If we are not going to be condemned to repeat this nightmare, though, we have to accept that our society also has to take its share of the blame and has to find a way to reinvent itself.

Too many Greeks grew comfortable with a way of life that was not necessarily exorbitant but was certainly unsustainable. As has been proved, it was unsustainable economically because the Greek state spent more than it could afford and to keep up this expensive habit it became a credit junkie that the international markets could exploit. But, more importantly, this method of doing things was unsustainable socially. It created a society with gross inequalities and allowed too many people to become detached from reality and the damaging long-term effect this was having on the country.

It gave us the patron-client relationship, cash for contracts, political unaccountability, reckless policing, unchecked hirings, unevaluated civil servants, endless bureaucracy, illegal construction, postdated checks, closed professions, cartels, middlemen, high prices, poor service, corruption, tax evasion, impunity and many more pernicious phenomena. They all played their part in dividing a society in which some benefited from this fragmentation and others suffered.

While it is right that a pensioner’s decision to shoot himself in the center of Athens should shock us, we cannot hide from the fact that Greece has been committing a slow and painful suicide for some time. Recognizing this and doing more to combat each and every one of these insidious tendencies would be the most fitting tribute we could pay to Dimitris Christoulas.

Nick Malkoutzis

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7 responses to “Greece’s long, painful suicide

  1. Wise brave and generous words.

  2. If only your sober call on voters to ‘use the general elections due to take place next month to inject some purpose into the system’ went as viral as the highly charged calls for ‘nooses and firing squads’ in response to Dimitris Christoulas’s suicide.
    I’d gladly testify in court that the past and present government are guilty of many things that can only be described as crimes – and I’m far from alone in feeling this way. But I still think that blaming the suicide of Dimitris Christoulas exclusively on the government is yet another alarming outcome of the current crisis.
    Quite clearly, there is an enormous, amorphous mass of utterly justified and utterly necessary (if anything’s to change for the better) diffuse public anger out there and anything that promises to give it focus and shape functions like a magnet. The public suicide of a man who obviously intended to punish those politicians through his death has offered this mass of public anger a martyr on which to focus and an emblem through which to articulate frustration, fury, exasperation.
    The problem is, that in doing so, many of the people who voice this anger overlook what doesn’t fit their purpose – such as the fact that, according to all reports, Christoulas did not have debts, that he seemed to suffer from a serious illness, that he had a – presumably – caring family that would have hopefully looked after him, if he did run into debt.
    Even more alarmingly, all those who treat Christoulas as a martyr of the crisis glorify what organisations like Klimaka, which runs the suicide helpline in Greece, try hard to prevent. The view that almost 95% of suicides are preventable, as I read recently in a comment by Mr Katsadoros, who works with Klimaka, and that suicide is an equation of many factors – such as predisposition to depression, illness, family situation, as well as unemployment and financial hardship – may not grab headlines in the way that accusations of ‘murder!’ and ‘genocide!’ do, but it’s still perverse that so many people have given their entire attention to a suicide that’s been hailed as heroic, and none to the question of what can be done in the community to prevent suicides, to reassure those at risk.
    This attitude seems to suggest that the community is absolved of all responsibility towards the people that make it up; that all responsibility for a person’s well-being rests exclusively with the state. I don’t see how a society that doesn’t feel responsible to some degree for the well-being of its members and shifts all responsibility to the state it (rightfully!) criticises can hope to change anything for the better. Personally, I find this attitude as worrying as its extreme opposite, that is, the ease with which some politicians and some journalists dismissed entirely the state’s accountability for the decision of Dimitris Christoulas to kill himself.

    • “but it’s still perverse that so many people have given their entire attention to a suicide that’s been hailed as heroic”

      Finisterre67. As much as I agree that this is alarming, don’t forget that Greek history is full of suicides that’s been hailed as heroic. And blaming ‘the other’ is another fact of life here. And it is indeed highly worrying that big parts of Greek society (but not all. Never forget that!) do not feel responsible to some degree for the well-being of its members.

      What I find really worrying is that in 2008 people went to the streets, by means of the New Media, because youth unemployment was around 30(?) percent. And after the shooting of that boy it culminated in a couple of very violent days. Now we have more than 50% youth unemployment. Benefits are slashed, the future looks non-existent, but there is no mass movement like in 2008. Just the usual hoodies with their own agenda.

      Nick Malkoutzis is stating that people can change things at the election. And that is what I am hearing all around me. But if I then ask who they will vote for to get this change I either get no answer or people around here will vote ND… The same ND and the same people that bear a huge responsibility for the state we are in now. And as much as I can appreciate that people like to vote to express themselves, I just don’t hear what alternative they will be voting for.

      It is April 6. In 3 to 4 weeks the general elections will be upon us. But campaigning has not officially started. No, candidate lists have been publicized. There are no party programs with detailed alternatives for the policies that are pursued to date. And thus, after the elections, the same old guard will be in parliament, playing their old games. Awarding themselves another 50 million euro or so, because that is essential for the democracy we are living in… *sigh*

      So, tell me, anybody, who is kidding who here. Because I am at the end of any ability to come up with a logical answer or explanation. The only answer might be indeed that Greek society is slowly and painfully committing suicide in line with historical precedents.

  3. I agree. Targeted anger should be directed towards Merkel and Schaeuble.

    Their incredible amateurism is responsible for this mess and the loss of life of Dimitris Christoulas.

  4. “This language implies that removing a handful of people from the equation would solve Greece’s woes. For starters, Greeks will have the chance to do this via the ballot box in a few weeks’ time”.

    I wish that were true but who should Greeks who want a “new and better Greece” vote for? There is a point where a system can no longer reform itself in an evolutionary way. The simple fact that parliamentarians would try to cut corners by submitting over 90 amendments hoping that they would pass without being noticed is a very good case in point.

    There comes a point where tabula rasa is necessary, albeit in a peaceful way. Greece must find a way to reinvent itself similar to how Charles de Gaulle reinvented the French Republic in 1959. Perhaps a new Greek Republic needs to be put in place. All candidates for political office should be screened by a committee of “unquestionably decent Greeks” before they can stand for election.

    The present political leadership will, of course, not initiate this process and they will resist any movement to that effect. However, I doubt that they can resist when, one day, over one million Greeks are filling the streets of Athens in perfectly peaceful protest and with everyone carrying a sign stating that “You must leave office!”

    I would give everything to see that day!

    http://klauskastner.blogspot.com/2012/04/dont-forgive-them-for-they-know-what.html

  5. Please refer to the Executive Summary of this McKinsey report examining the debt and deleveraging of both mature economies and Euro-zone crisis countries.Exhibit 4 of Page #5 titled “The composition of debt varies widely across countries”.

    Total debt(defined as Household+Nonfinancial Corporations+ Financial Institutions+Government debt) to GDP ratio is as follows( Total Debt/GDP =):

    Japan @ 512%
    UK @ 507%
    Spain @ 363%
    France @ 346%
    Italy @ 314%
    South Korea @ 314%
    USA @ 279%
    Germany @ 278%
    Australia 277%
    Canada @ 276%
    Ireland @ 663%
    Portugal @ 356%
    Greece @ 267%

    So why this obsession with Greece from Schaeuble and shouldn’t he be looking himself in the mirror as the bigger sinner in need of reform?

    http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/MGI/Research/Financial_Markets/Uneven_progress_on_the_path_to_growth

    This is what we call hypocrisy:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7404310n&tag=contentBody;storyMediaBox

  6. Peter Koronaios, PA, USA

    Mr.Kastner,
    You have written a large number of very good comments, about how the current Greek politicians cannot be trusted to fix the country, and how having them checked by ‘unquestionably decent Greeks’ before they can stand to for election. The problem is both how to find those decent Greeks, and how or who are these people who can sort things out. After living in Greece for 10years, I have found a certain percentage of people who are ‘decent’, but the percentage is small, and usually one Greek will not believe his/her neighbor is decent.
    The problem is both that one Greek does not trust the other (even when BOTH are decent) and that almost ALL Greeks believe that ‘outsiders’ are ‘out to harm us’ (where I have not found any evidence).
    The real problem is that, after 30 years of living beyond out abilities, most of us have grown to believe that that is our ‘rights’.
    My only feeling is to divide the country into very small communities (cannot be done in cities), of maybe 20-50 people, and allow those communities to ‘have to’ work together, living on what they can produce, maybe for 12-24 months, for them to learn to work on what they are able to produce, and then allow them back into their old lives, for us to remember how we were forced to live when we were alone, so we can be happy about all the little things that we can then know we were getting ‘as a gift’

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