Postcard From Greece: This Should Not Be About Austerity, It's About The Future Of Democracy

Given that the Greeks invented democracy, it's only fitting that they're now being given the chance to reinvent it. As I found out during my trip to Greece last week, those really are the stakes.
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Given that the Greeks invented democracy, it's only fitting that they're now being given the chance to reinvent it. And yes, I know we Greeks have a reputation for mythmaking and drama -- but, as I found out during my trip to Greece last week, those really are the stakes.

Until I went over and witnessed what's happening, I too had become convinced that the real issues were the ones the media were obsessively covering: the effects of a potential sovereign default on the Euro and worries about the crisis spreading to other European countries.

But here's the bigger issue: Can a truly democratic movement break the stranglehold of corrupt elites and powerful anti-democratic institutional forces that have come to characterize not just the politics of Greece, but most Western democracies, including our own? Greece is only an extreme example of an unfolding seismic social shift that is challenging democracies the world over.

What happens in Greece might very well tell us whether democracy will recover from the crisis of legitimacy exacerbated by the financial crisis or whether it will shrink -- undermined by the very forces that brought on the crisis in the first place.

It's way too early to tell whether the forces of democracy will prevail, but I came away extraordinarily moved and heartened by the courage, passion, engagement and dedication I witnessed during a trip in which three different perspectives converged.

First and foremost, there was The Square.

The happenings in Cairo's Tahrir Square led the news for weeks earlier this year, but from what we are being shown back in America, you wouldn't know that there's a remarkably similar scene unfolding in Athens. Not only are the physical setting, the demographics of the participants, and the way they're being organized similar to Tahrir Square, but so are the demands being made. In Athens, the place of the moment attracting thousands of people a day is Syntagma Square, situated directly across from the Greek parliament.

The movement has become a permanent encampment in Syntagma, with a growing number of people taking up residence in the square, vowing not to leave until their demands are met. Of course, the young are well-represented there -- no surprise when unemployment among Greek youth runs as high as 40 percent -- but I was struck by the wide range of participants. Young, old, activists, pensioners, unemployed, self-employed, they're all there, every day and every night. As you'd expect, various political parties and organized groups -- some resorting to violence -- are trying to co-opt the square. Indeed, on Tuesday, a demonstration of 20,000 protesters that started peacefully disintegrated when a group of mostly young people began hurling stones at the police.

As has recently been the case around the world, the protests are being fueled by social media. Given that the Greeks have always been all about connection, expansiveness and intimacy, it's no surprise that social media have combined with the Greek personality to create a perfect storm of expression, engagement and democracy. According to MRB Hellas, from 2008 to 2010, the number of Greeks using social networks grew by 350 percent. Currently, almost 92 percent have at least one social media account, making it much easier for protests to be coordinated via a Facebook page -- "Indignants at Syntagma" (the name taken from the Spanish protest, "los indignados") -- which more than 152,000 people have "liked."

Although social media are being used to connect the square to the rest of the country and help draw people in, once in the square itself, people are using good old face-to-face interaction to connect and organize. As Costas Douzinas, a law professor at the University of London's Birkbeck Institute, wrote in the Guardian, "the parallels with the classical Athenian agora, which met a few hundred metres away, are striking."

The way it works, explains Reuters' Renee Maltezou, is this:

Every night, the "people's assembly" gathers and decides, by a show of hands, what will be discussed. A volunteer and rotating "coordinating committee" then gives anybody who wants to speak a slip of paper with a number on it. Speakers speak for two minutes in the order numbers are drawn. The assembled then vote, with results quickly put up on a website. As Douzinas notes, "no issue is beyond proposal and disputation," and participants include not just students, activists and pensioners, but economists, professors and philosophers. When not debating and voting, they form teams to deal with first aid, garbage collection and communications -- there's even a "keep cool team" to settle disputes.

Everywhere I went I was stunned by the level of engagement -- it's not just those physically at the square who are all in. The sense I came away with was that they're all all in. Waiters, taxi drivers, storekeepers, salespeople, anybody sitting next to you at dinner -- they're all talking about the same thing.

"The experience of standing daily and confronting the parliament opposite has changed the politics of Greece for good and made the elites worried for the first time," writes Douzinas. "Their common demand is that the corrupt political elites who have ruled the country for some 30 years and brought it to the edge of collapse should go."

What happens in Greece is not so different from what has been happening in America: a few profit, but when the chickens come home to roost, the pain is not equally distributed -- and what happened is suddenly everybody's fault.

So, yes, there's a lot of anger and resentment in the square -- most of it very justified -- but there's also an incredible amount of hope, and, considering how hard things are for millions of people in Greece, an incredible lack of cynicism. This isn't just an "anti" protest -- there's a lot of "pro" in it, as well. "What I like about this square is that people discuss things, they express themselves without fear," said 18-year-old student Stavroula Koloverou. "We want the system to change and we want all traditional politicians out. We want young people suffering in this system who still have dreams to take over."

Still have dreams -- it's a testament to the Greek character when so much of what they're living through is a nightmare.

"They don't just represent the Greek people, they are the people," said Peter Bratsis, a lecturer in political theory at the UK's University of Salford. "It's beyond the control of the political parties and this is something different."

The second perspective I got on my trip came during dinner with the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou. Even those who don't follow Greek politics will likely recognize his name. That's because, as the Financial Times' Tony Barber explains, Papandreou is a member of the "politikos kosmos," the "entrenched semi-hereditary political caste that has ruled and misruled Greece for as long as anyone can remember." Not only was his father Andreas prime minister for two terms, his grandfather held the position for three terms.

And the task confronting the son/grandson is one worthy of the great Greek dramatists. As Barber writes, Papandreou must now rescue his country by "dismantling the system of gluttonous patronage and parasitism on the state that his father Andreas constructed." So far it's been a rocky road. Assuming office in the middle of the crisis, in 2009, Papandreou's tenure has been a precarious balancing act of trying to satisfy the draconian demands of the EU while dealing with the increasing unrest and economic misery of his people. The week before I met him, he'd just narrowly survived a vote of no confidence.

We met for dinner at Kastelorizo, a restaurant in Kifissia, a suburb of Athens where the prime minister lives and where, as it happens, I was born. We were joined by his wife, Ada, whom he met more than 20 years ago when he was campaigning in Patras in the Peloponnese, where she was born. Eating fresh fish followed by fresh fruit, we talked about the country's deep-seated problems, but also about all the incredible possibilities. The saying "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste" has never been more true than it is in today's Greece. The decay has been allowed to fester for so long, nothing short of a major crisis could have precipitated the widespread demands for reform.

And though many of the demonstrators camped out at Syntagma are clearly directing their frustrations toward his office, the prime minister spoke about them with understanding and a clear awareness not only of their power and authenticity, but also their potential. Can he harness their energy, idealism, ingenuity and passion?

"What they say is correct, we have to change," he told me. "Corruption is everywhere -- and even when we change our laws you cannot eradicate corruption overnight." He is, he said, trying to make the government more transparent by posting every bill online before it gets voted on by parliament. He's also posting job listings. "We posted 87 openings," he told me, "and received 28,000 applications, which created its own problems in the way we handled the avalanche."

But the big problem is that, as he told me, "Greece needs a new narrative." Whether he can provide that narrative is unclear, but this is clearly a man who chafes at the portrayal of his people that dominates the European media. "There is so much good being done, so much creativity and innovation, that are not getting any attention," he said, "while everyone is focusing just on what's dysfunctional."

He went on to talk about a woman who started a snail farm in Milatos that now exports snails around the world. He also told me about a farmer growing olive oil in Kritsa in Crete who branded it Lambda and now sells it at Harrods. "We have such an over-abundance of resources," he said.

The question he's facing is whether any politician remotely associated with the old guard -- however well-intentioned -- can be the one to tap into these resources and build on what has been awakened. Yes, Greece is corrupt, and the problems exist at all levels. It's a place where playing by the rules came to be seen as for suckers only, creating a system of clientelism, in which attaching yourself to a powerful individual or political machine for income was seen as the smart thing to do.

But now people are rushing, quite literally, to reengage in civic life. They want to start fresh and awaken the public good. They want a real democracy again. And my daily interactions with Greeks during my visit were a reminder of the incredible talents and abilities and resources that are being wasted.

Nevertheless, the media's focus is on the shrunken and pinched debate about austerity. Instead of a debate about how to tap into the human and natural resources Greece teems with, all we hear is about how deeply services should be cut. Well, the Greeks don't do pinched well. They're an expansive lot, and if any people can pry open this dangerously narrow debate with their humanity, it's the Greeks. Because this isn't just a policy debate -- it's a debate about what the big outlines of what we call democracy are going to be for the next century. The forces of the status quo would have you believe austerity is the answer -- that it's the answer in Greece, the answer in Spain, the answer in the UK and the answer in the U.S. But it's also clear that it's not just the Greeks who want something more out of civic life than they're currently getting.

In fact, austerity is not the answer even in the purely economic debate. As the Guardian's Michael Burke shows, the problem Greece is facing isn't due to too much spending. "Falling taxation revenues are the problem," he writes, "as the cuts themselves have sent the economy into a tailspin." He also explodes another Greek myth (the non-ancient kind) prevalent in Europe right now -- that the Greeks are lazy, and that's what brought their problems on. As he notes, Greeks work the second-longest weekly hours of any workers in Europe and have the highest level of weekend hours worked.

Which brings me to the third perspective of my trip -- inspired by the Special Olympics. I was privileged to attend the opening days of the group's World Summer Games as the guest of Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, who serves on the Special Olympics board. If you ever have the chance to go to a Special Olympics event, please do so, as your life will be much richer for it. I was especially struck by the words of His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In a small gathering he held with some of the athletes, he called the games "an extraordinary invitation to healing."

And watching the opening ceremonies, it was clear he wasn't talking just about the athletes. Sharing in the triumph of the human spirit overcoming adversity is indeed healing. And what's going on in Greece right now, to paraphrase the Patriarch, is an extraordinary invitation to reengage. It's a moment to tap into what's best about us, to connect those who, as the student in Syntagma Square said, "still have dreams," and, together, overcome massive challenges.

As Tim Shriver, who heads the Special Olympics, put it at the lighting of the Olympic torch at the 45,000-seat Kallimarmaro stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896: "Despite all the difficulties and challenges this country is facing, Greece did not fail us, and the athletes of Special Olympics will not fail Greece." He then called for a "dignity revolution where there's no more us and them" -- a sentiment that clearly has a wider resonance given all that is going on in Greece, as did his declaration the day before on the Parthenon: "There's a stiff wind out here, but we will prevail."

I hope with all my heart that Greece will, too. And not just because that's where I was born and raised, but because the Greeks' struggle -- the struggle to reclaim democracy -- is our struggle, too.

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