Reading the signs

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If there’s anything to be gained from being stuck in an interminable Athens traffic jam, it’s that we get an opportunity to pose ourselves existential questions like “Why do I do this to myself?” and “Why do we do this to each other?” The more immediate and practical answer becomes apparent when the amber lights on the matrix display above the street gleam, one after another, like cigarette lighters being thrust into the air at a soft-rock concert, spelling out: “Rally. Center closed.”

These are three words every Athenian is familiar with. They’ve been seared onto our retinas. In fact, they could be the perfect motto for Athens, the city where unrest never rests and where disquiet is never quiet.

“Rally. Center closed” flashed up more often than usual over the past few days, as several thousand people took to the streets to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos. The upheaval that followed his shooting last December was the crystallization of the turmoil that plays out on Athens’s streets with predictable regularity. It was, however, more direct, more potent and more devastating than the usual protests.

A year on though, as a Public Issue poll for last Sunday’s Kathimerini indicated, we are still struggling to understand what happened and what it means for this country’s future. We examine last December’s events hoping that by sifting through the protests, the riots, the vandalism and the general outpouring of anger and frustration, we can find the answers to some of the existential questions that trouble us.

But perhaps the answers lie not so much in what actually happened but in how we’ve interpreted what happened. Among the poll’s most significant findings are that 52 percent of those questioned believe last December’s events were a “social uprising” – but 45 percent disagree; 51 percent think only a minority was involved, whereas 45 percent believe it was a mass movement; 51 percent think the protesters were not being incited but 42 percent think they were.

In assessing last December’s events, we are in perfect disagreement, which is a dominant feature of our society. It’s a form of disharmony that means the right cannot agree on much and those on the left turn their backs on each other; that civil servants work against rather than for the citizens who pay their salaries; that students can protest about the same thing at the same time in the same city center but in groups that are not in contact with each other; that Greens cannot watch a soccer match in the same stadium as Reds; and which prompts each minority to pursue its niche demands at the expense of the rest of the population.

The Public Issue survey underlines that Greece is a society at odds with itself, where a common view is always beyond reach, where one group is pitted against another and where consensus is torn apart like a chew toy thrown to a pack of Dobermans. So, maybe it’s time for us to look at this pervasive division as the key factor behind last December’s events rather than trying to work out whether it was a “social uprising” or a “mass movement.”

It’s very tempting, as some have done, to look back on the unrest of 12 months ago as being the lovechild of France’s May of 1968 but such comparisons are rooted in nostalgia. The December 2008 protests had no common purpose, whereas in 1968 a key aim was to bring down the existing government, shift the political system to the left and create a new morality. Yes, New Democracy lost power after 10 months – but at its own hand rather than anyone else’s. In fact, the riots did not even force the resignation of then Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos, which would have been a given in most other European countries.

While the intensity and persistence of the protests last year were impressive, they did not have the broad appeal or participation that some would like to believe. In France, 11 million workers went on strike for two weeks in 1968, bringing the country – not just a city center – to its knees. Also, French workers and students united in their opposition to the government of Charles de Gaulle. Here, this solidarity was fleeting and it was not long before each group was protesting on its own. On the political front, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) isolated itself by adopting an equivocal stance on where the protests ended and vandalism began, PASOK and the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) exploited the situation as much as they could, while the Communist Party fulfilled the role of the sage elder of the tribe, urging for a more mature form of opposition.

That this movement, albeit not a mass one, should blossom out of nowhere last December and then split into various disparate branches was absolute confirmation that the country’s youth cannot help but be sucked into Greek society’s vicious circle. In simply raging against the system, they registered their presence on the landscape but did little to change it. By taking to the streets to vent their frustrations, they thought they were making a bold statement on behalf of a new generation but in fact they were speaking their parents’ language of selfishness and bloody-mindedness.

In a society as divided as Greece’s, the only way people know how to communicate is through conflict, by butting their heads against each other – we see it when we are in our cars, on our TV screens, at public service offices, in banks and at sports grounds. The philosophy of “I rage, therefore I am” is best manifested in our public protests, where either one man and his dog or tens of thousands of people voice their cause in the central Athens and demand that the rest of us listen.

There’s an average of more than two protests a day in Athens, as each group, no matter how small or large, attempts to take what it believes it’s entitled to by force, foregoing any opportunity of uniting with other aggrieved workers, establishing common positions, putting forward proposals. The fragmented nature of this opposition and the frequency of the rallies dilute their impact and undermine the moral basis they may have. The only thing they succeed in doing is to antagonize the majority that suffers from the constant protests and so, in turn, more grist is fed to the mill of discontent.

There is no doubt that last December was a landmark – not because it marked the dawn of a new era but because it saw a new generation fall into the whirlpool of self-destructiveness that is dragging Greece down. The only hope is that this generation will be quicker to understand its mistakes and to find different ways of communicating than those that went before it. If not, the country’s future is already written – we only have to look up and see it in bright lights right in front of us: “Rally. Center closed.”

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 11, 2009.

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