The rebirth of a nation

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

When learning of the death of fellow writer Truman Capote in 1984, Gore Vidal’s response was blunt: “Good career move,” he said. This is how many people have treated the reports of Greece’s untimely demise, believing that the unprecedented publicity makes it a perfect opportunity for the country to hit the reset button, to spruce up its image, to re-establish the brand.

With or without the media attention, Greece finds itself at a crossroads. European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn may have called the austerity measures announced on Wednesday a “turning point” for the country but the path Greece decides to follow isn’t about just tax and public spending — it’s more a question of how it defines itself and what its values are.

To get to this, we must first understand the circumstances of the current situation. Yes, Greece’s standing in the world has fallen so low that we would have to look up to see the bottom of the barrel, but this hasn’t happened simply because someone momentarily fiddled with economic statistics or failed to execute effective policies. As any marketing expert will tell you, people’s perception of a product, or in this case a country, is built up over time and is based on various factors. And the truth is that the recent trajectory of Greece’s image, except for a few shining moments, has been downward.

“For many years, Greece has been seen as a country that was attempting to stand alongside other European countries, sometimes more successfully than others,” Cleopatra Veloutsou, the head of the Marketing Research Unit at the Athens Institute of Education and Research and a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow told Athens Plus. “Some events, such as the 2004 Olympics, helped improve the country’s reputation. However, this improvement cannot last if there is no consistent signalling over a long time.”

This failure to consistently convince people is really what has undermined Greece’s image. It’s easy, and understandable, to take offense at the cover of Germany’s Focus magazine showing Aphrodite making a rude gesture and at other damning reports about Greece but responding to them does not address the issue. It’s a reaction to the symptom, not to the root cause; it’s a paracetamol when what we need is a panacea. To find that remedy, we have to look far beyond our bulging debt and deficit.

While the economic crisis may have put Greece in the spotlight, there are many other countries – countries that are much more mature and organized than our own – currently struggling with their identity and core values. The International Herald Tribune’s columnist John Vinocur recently underlined how Germany and France – Europe’s pillars – are both beset by social problems such as poverty, violence, crumbling social security and general discord. “In the background of Europe’s current afflictions – the headline malady of its suddenly shaky common currency or the sputtering of its notional economic recovery – there’s a painful subtext,” he wrote.

“It is the notion that in France and Germany, uniquely European pride, values and self-esteem are quivering as well. The core of the idea is that the economic crisis has exposed or emphasized existing areas where neither the language nor the creed that says general well-being, solidarity and generosity come first and continue to fully apply.”

There may be some comfort in seeing others also grappling with serious concerns but the significant aspect of Vinocur’s observation for Greece is that countries are defined by what happens at their core, which outsiders rarely see, not at its outer edges, which are visible to everyone. For too long, Greeks have failed to look inward to discover more about who they are, instead defining themselves in comparison to the others around them and enjoying being cooler than the French, more generous than the Germans, more hospitable than the British, more cultured than the Americans and so on. Ironically, this obsession with being different to the others and not conforming to their way of doing things is what has landed Greece in the current mess.

It’s clear now that making efforts to improve how other perceive us will only be a short-term fix and, like the reserves of goodwill built up thanks to the successful hosting of the Athens Olympics, they will soon be blown away to reveal little substance underneath. “Greece should consider how it could try to send consistently positive messages to the audiences of interest to try to improve its somewhat poor reputation,” said Veloutsou. “It is hard work, since even positive pieces of information are taken as a weak indication of potential improvement, rather than a confirmation of being reputable.”

There is only one way to do this and that’s to tap into the huge resources of determination and energy that see Greeks succeed in spite of the system, rather than fail because of it: the soccer and basketball players that can become European champions when the country’s facilities are non-existent; the academics that shine at foreign universities although our own have reached a dead-end; the mathematicians that excel even though our governments cannot add up; the civil servants on low wages, who perform their duties without protest; and the citizens who have no qualms about paying their taxes when others offer only excuses.

Greece now belongs to these people. Incompetent, self-serving politicians pretended for years to run the country while swindlers and egotists ran it into the ground — but Greece is still functioning because of this quiet, faithful majority. These are the people now have to make their voices heard, shaming into silence those who have wreaked untold damage.

The government is again turning to this trusted band of brothers and sisters to dig the country out of a hole by earning less but paying more. The question is not whether they will answer this call – they will, as they always have – but what Greece will do for them in return.

If their spirit and dedication is allowed to set the standard, then we can dispel the image of Greeks as loafers and cheats by holding them up as the true representation this country. Instead of billboards about living your myth in Greece, we can present these people to the world: “Hi, I’m Manolis and I pay my taxes,” “Hi, I’m Maria and I have a building permit for my house,” or “Hi, I’m Yiannis and I refuse to pay bribes.” We can allow them to transform people’s perceptions. Only then can today’s painful death become tomorrow’s wonderful rebirth.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on March 5, 2010.

2 responses to “The rebirth of a nation

  1. Nick: I’ve just arrived in Athens after an 18 absence. Listening to a cab driver, I hear how he’s wondering if perhaps communism is the way to turn. A pure sound of desperation. I’ve been married to a cuban women for the last 18 years, and I can tell you, if you think it’s bad now, try communism. Cubans have a saying, “Fidel come bistec todo los dias!” (Fidel eats steak everyday!). The system doesn’t work and remember one thing. The Greeks invented democracy! Cut taxes, invest in the private sector and within a short period Greece will rise again to its glory. Kill the corruption and decrease the size of government. Socialism is a great system until you run out of other peoples money! Good luck.
    Thomas from Miami!

    • Hi Thomas. Welcome back to Greece. You rejoin us at an interesting time. I would agree with you that Communism is not the answer but given the financial and economic crisis that the world has experienced over the last couple of years, it’s clear that Capitalism does not have all the answers either. I passionately believe that there is still a very important role for the state to play but I think our politicians are doing us a disservice by the way they treat the public sector and the unwillingness to use it as a tool to adapt to changing times. I also think the private sector has to be encouraged in Greece – there are so many talented, smart, energetic people here who are coming up against dead-ends all the time. It’s a waste. Please visit the blog again and keep us updated on how you are adapting to life in Greece.

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