If you've ever driven a car in my gorgeous birth country, you may have observed a truly fascinating phenomenon as you prepare to make a left turn: While you patiently wait in line for the left-turn light to turn green, those who arrive immediately after you at that same intersection don't actually line up behind you -- instead, they pass you on the right, cut in front of the entire queue of cars and proudly gain a few seconds at your expense. It doesn't matter that they cheated and trampled on your rights a tiny little bit -- that's standard practice in the busy streets of Athens, part of everyone's daily quest to get ahead. Literally.
That tiny little daily violation of each other's rights is perfectly symbolic of the prevailing national culture in Greece: My freedom does not end where yours begins; it extends indefinitely, unless I'm caught or stopped. It is considered perfectly normal to jump ahead of you at the traffic lights, to smoke where I'm not supposed to smoke, to cheat on my taxes, to cook the nation's books in order to qualify for a currency union, to renege on every single election promise. Those who insist on respecting the rules are considered a little less smart, a little less "Greek" -- and they're often told they are the losers.
That's exactly the country that became financially insolvent recently. My beautiful birth country continues to be the Eurozone's most adolescent, rebellious, blindly self-defeating society. Greece didn't get into all this trouble because its European partners took advantage of it; it went bankrupt because, after more than a generation as a member of a rules-driven, respect-based tight economic community, it never figured out how to play fair, how to fit in and how to build real value. It enjoyed the spoils of membership without ever trying to live up to its end of the bargain; it cheated, squandered, abused, begged for more... and the cycle continued until the financial crisis suddenly brought the entire country to the brink of bankruptcy. And even then, on the strength of charm and an endless stream of fake reform promises over the past half-dozen years, the money kept flowing in from its badly tricked Euro partners in the form of bailouts. And nobody was even humiliated or angry about that. Until now, of course.
When President Obama was first elected in the midst of the '08 financial crisis, his team coined the phrase "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste," as they spotted tremendous opportunities to bring about some healthy and significant change in American society. The existential crisis that Greece is now going through may also represent a similar opportunity for a fundamental cultural reset there. After this week's nasty reaction and xenophobic anger subsides, after the dust settles and the new "humiliating" programs are put in place, a new generation of Greeks may finally drive some solid reform of their society. The country that once upon a time birthed democracy might, at last, figure out how to be truly democratic, how to build instead of begging, how to co-exist instead of cheating and how to respect instead of demonizing.
But until that happens, Greece -- just like any angry, desperate and belligerent teenager -- needs a solid dose of tough love from its European family. It's not surprising that millions of my compatriots were offended and angered by the "humiliating" terms of their last-chance agreement over the weekend; their anger is no different and no more justified than what drug-addicted kids all over the world feel when they're caught repeatedly and their parents eventually cut off their allowances and privileges. Tough love doesn't feel good (for either side) but it usually produces better results than appeasement. Mercy on the Greek state, as a lot of bleeding hearts and newly minted euro-experts have been advocating these past few days, would have only fed a bad culture and perpetuated the problem.
Just like millions of other Greeks around the world, I have always been incredibly proud of my heritage and incurably confident in my compatriots' abilities. But unlike many of them right now, I am deeply embarrassed by their anger and xenophobia, disheartened by their resistance to change and deeply concerned by their inability to govern themselves.
It's time for an enormous dose of tough love, so we can finally turn the most beautiful country in the world into a viable, democratic, modern society.