Ask not

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy’s words have been repeated, relayed and reinterpreted so many times since he uttered them on a chilly January morning in Washington in 1961 that their inspiration and impact has been severely diluted. They remain, however, relevant — but in a very different way now than they were almost 50 years ago.

The man who helped Kennedy construct this memorable sentence — his adviser Ted Sorensen – died just over a week ago. Apart from signifying the passing of someone who had a deep understanding of public service, his death also comes as a timely reminder that we have entered an era when the essence of “ask not” is being turned on its head. The financial crisis that emanated from the United States followed by the debt crisis that has battered many European countries, like Greece, is creating a new dynamic in the relationship between people and their leaders. Politicians from Washington to Athens are discovering that voters who have seen their livelihoods threatened and their quality of life compromised feel they have done enough for their countries; they now want their countries, and the people that lead them, to start giving something back.

This was one of the messages evident from the walloping that President Barack Obama’s Democrats received in last week’s mid-term elections. It’s clear many of those who voted for Obama two years ago feel there has been too little progress in terms of addressing day-to-day problems that stem from the state of the economy. No matter that Obama, in the words of New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan, “saved capitalism.” After suffering the impact of the near-collapse of a system they helped build at the behest of their politicians and financiers, Americans aren’t concerned about theoretical arguments or long-term groundwork — they want the basics: jobs, prospects and security, or at least they want to be convinced that these basics are on the way. “Monetary stimulus is near exhausted; another big fiscal stimulus is now unthinkable. Obama has to stimulate something intangible: confidence,” writes the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen.

Although PASOK did not suffer the “shellacking,” as Obama termed it, that the Democrats did at Sunday’s local elections, in what was effectively Greece’s version of the mid-term, it did receive a strong buffeting. It seems the source of this backlash, which saw PASOK’s share of the vote on a national projection fall by 9.5 percent compared to the 2009 parliamentary polls, was very similar to the fatigue that undid the Democrats. Even before Sunday’s elections, Papandreou and his government had demanded a lot from Greeks: They had asked them to put up more of their salaries for taxation, to give up jobs they thought were secure and to shut up if they disagreed. But ahead of the local elections, Papandreou had one more request to make: that Greeks vote for PASOK to avoid creating political instability in the country. He was asking too much.
Having pushed through the Kallikratis program, a much-heralded groundbreaking overhaul of local government, Papandreou and his team did not have the courage to stand by it. They tried to cajole the Greek people into voting not based on local issues – such as who would ensure their streets are clean or even preventing corrupt and ineffective mayors from being voted back into power – but along the same old tired party political lines.

The prime minister said that an unfavorable result would trigger snap national elections. He no doubt expected this to appear a bold move but it ended up looking like a childish stunt. There was absolutely no basis for seeking a fresh mandate: Having signed a three-year agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the government had made a public commitment to see through a package of reforms that would secure the loans Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy. To put this at risk with a show of supposed bravado, when there was absolutely no evidence of a mass public movement against the government or the memorandum, was an idea mined from the same vein of irresponsibility and self-absorption that brought Greece to the brink of collapse in the first place.

Having leveled the threat of snap polls, Papandreou said Sunday’s result proved Greeks still had “the same will for change” as at last year’s general election. How he arrived at this conclusion when PASOK garnered a million less voters than in October 2009 was never explained. Nor did he go into the details of how he derived a fresh mandate from the outcome when, for roughly every one person who voted for PASOK’s candidates, two people stayed at home, as abstention reached almost 40 percent. The near-record disinterest in the local elections was confirmation that, burdened by concerns about their immediate future, such as whether they will have jobs next year, few had the time or appetite for Papandreou’s power games.

It was not just Papandreou that showed he was completely out of touch with public sentiment. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras also displayed a talent for getting carried away with trivialities. After campaigning on an ultra-populist anti-memorandum ticket supported by absurd claims such as being able to wipe out the public deficit in a year, Samaras suggested Sunday’s result, which helped the conservatives secure only a handful of municipalities and no regions, was a triumph. He said ND’s share of the national vote, which put the conservatives just 2 percent behind PASOK, was a “total reversal” of the conservatives’ fortunes since they hit rock bottom in last year’s general elections. Well, if Samaras thinks it was a total reversal, he should demand a total recount because the result shows that ND received about 550,000 fewer voters than it did last October and its share of the national vote was slightly beneath its record low.

At the end of a year of unprecedented austerity and abrupt reforms, rather than displaying respect for the electorate and regret for their part in leading Greece to the edge of oblivion, the country’s politicians had nothing to show but hubris and disinterest for people’s real concerns. The result of last Sunday’s local elections was the first sign that the public’s tolerance for making sacrifices when their leaders are not willing to give up their comfortable seats in the land of oblivion is being stretched to breaking point. Just as the Democrats’ defeat in the US mid-terms will focus Obama’s mind on achieving tangible results, so Greece’s local elections should force Papandreou and Samaras to concentrate on providing real solutions to real problems and not creating imaginary ones.
There is a closing line in the speech that Sorensen wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration that is rarely quoted, possibly because it is not in the interest of those in power. “… ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we ask of you.” Greeks have every right after being asked for months to do more for their country, to now ask what their country, its leaders and its political parties are doing for them.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 12, 2010.

7 responses to “Ask not

  1. After gleefully participating in the glutinous feast of tax evasion, sharing the spoils of countless defrauding of the fiscus and simple people of this country, securing thousands of meaningless public service jobs for their family, friends and their friends’ children, Greeks from all walks of life have little foot to stand on and demand that their (new) government deliver the good stuff after only one turbulent year in office. It reiterates my point that I made earlier on another piece in this blog, that the general populace have no idea of the financial state of affairs, and have little comprehension of the matters political and how it all fits together. The road ahead is very long, and paved with spikes that are going to make walking it very hard and painful, but unfortunately it is the only road that leads to salvation of the Greek nation. To try and vote their way out of this mess, is akin to trying to empty the Mediterranean with a fork.

    • Welcome back. As always, thanks for your comment – I love the line about it being like emptying the Mediterranean with a fork. Great stuff. As before, I would not argue with the main premise that tough times lie ahead for Greeks and that they have to accept that. I think a lot of people have accepted exactly that. Whether they are a minority or majority is something we could debate endlessly. But my piece does not focus on that, what I am concerned about is that Greece’s leaders are demanding sacrifices and seriousness from their people when they are not able to display these qualities themselves. I think the childish behaviour of the last few weeks sets a terrible example. At a time when you are asking people to change and do things differently, elected officials should be capable of following the same recommendations.

    • Valid rerort Nick, however, I believe it is unfair to expect the current goverment, immature as they may seem given present challenges, to fix all the ills created over many years of mis-management in one or even two, three years. I understand the general direction of your beef with their behaviour and performance (or lack thereof), but I distance myself from the emotional aspects of general politicking and playing political parties off again each other and believe it is more pertinent to concentrate on the task at hand, which neiter PASOK, nor the ND may be equipped to handle, which is perhaps why Greece will need a lot of handholding by the EU in the coming years. Hence my comment that Greeks cannot vote their way out of this mess, majority or minority of voters observed regardless.

      • It may indeed be the case that neither PASOK or New Democracy is up to the job but that’s one of the reasons that we have to keep up the pressure on them to live up to their responsibilities. I think it would be very damaging for Greece, in terms of general morale, in terms of controlling its destiny to whatever extent it can and in terms of its relationship with EU partners if we are always behind the curve and have to be told off for what we’re not doing. I think you are right in saying we cannot expect everything from this government or any government in a year, or even two or three, but that doesn’t mean they are doing enough – for instance, it is only now that PASOK is discussing the overhaul of the public transport companies, where great inequalities in terms of wages and conditions and gross inefficiencies mean that a large part of what we have made up over the last year from taxes and pension and wage cuts is being lost there. That’s why it’s vital there should be no time wasted on pointless political arguments and posturing.

  2. Fair enough, point taken. As I mentioned before, I am a novice in matters political, merely a bemused observer, not a learned analyst by any means. Yet I am also desperately hoping that Greece gets its act together, as my family’s future here is at stake too. My experiences with politics in environments where socio economic and moral decay are combined, is less than encouraging, but miracles have been known to happen all over, Greece is no exception. So lets get out those forks and start the process!

    • GreeceisOK?? you may be a novice but you clearly have good insight. Your previous experience must be very handy. It would be interesting to hear more about how Greece compares to these other countries you have seen fall into decay. Your hopes for Greece are shared by all of us, I’m sure.

  3. My experiences are mostly around what happened during the so called liberation of countless African states from the “perceived” imperialistic, fascist, capitalistic pigs who invaded them from the north, and when eventually kicked out, left them to rule their empires with the traditional top down approach. This has lead these liberated countries nowhere, with examples of collapsed economies and social structures everywhere in Africa. Perhaps not the stuff that a new democratic order will evolve from, and at best examples of failed attempts at democracy, so perhaps comparisons may be futile. Greece on the other hand, is at the verge of the developed world, and if it could cast aside its until now “us and them” or “we know better” attitudes, could be the bastion yet again, from where a new democratic dispensation rise to show the world the way forward, as it did a very long time ago when democracy was invented here. As I walk the streets of Athens this weekend, I am reminded of the long history embedded in the decaying walls of the inner city, and am convinced that somewhere amongst the cracks and peeling paint, there is a manuscript for democratic change that will one day be unearthed to heal the democracy of today.

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