Ode on a Grecian Crisis

Johanna Hanink is the Robert Gale Noyes Assistant Professor of Humanities at Brown University and author of Lycurgan Athens and the Making of Classical Tragedy. She is an occasional contributor to the International edition of ThePressProject.

She wrote an article recently, published by the Paideia Institute, that takes an academic,  classical view of recent events in Greece. Here are some excerpts from that article:

Ode on a Grecian Crisis

(what can classicists really say about the Greek crisis?)

Since the crisis in Greece began, symbols of classical antiquity have framed the dialogue about it. The overplayed concept of the crisis as a long-running “Greek tragedy” was even the topic of a recent “Bad Metaphor Watch” column at foreignpolicy.com. While I understand the appeal of these references to the classical Greek past, they are often deployed in a way that is misinformed, paternalistic, and condescending — even by professional classicists, who ought to know better.

…….Back in November of 2011, as controversy and protest flared in Greece around a new package of austerity measures (sound familiar?), Saturday Night Live aired a sketch that imagined the gods meeting on Mount Olympus to discuss the Greek economic crisis.

With requisite beard, garland and regal staff, Zeus (Jason Sudeikis) calls the summit to order:

I, Zeus, King of the Gods, have summoned you all to Mount Olympus because, somehow, the Greek economy has collapsed!

The assembled gods react to the news with shock and uproar. Zeus continues:

I know! No, I know! I was as surprised as you are! I mean, after all, the Greeks are widely known as a hard-working, industrious people — you know, a people willing to labor week in and week out, three days a week, one hour a day until the age of 45. But today, we Gods must come to their aid. So, quick — let us hear from the Greek God of Finance! [the gods look around] Wait… there is a Greek God of Finance, right? There has to be! Surely, someone has been looking after the economy all these years!

Zeus’ opening sets the premise and tone for the rest of the sketch. There is no Greek god of finance, and the crisis, Zeus learns, is to blame on the ‘party god’ Dionysus. At the end of the bit salvation arrives in the guise of Klaus, the “German god of prudence and austerity” (Fred Armisen). He offers a bailout to the gods on the condition that they make economic cutbacks, which Zeus snortingly refuses:

No way! Sorry, Klaus. Now, either you give us the money, or we take ALL of Europe down with us. I mean, we started democracy, we can end it.

The sketch closes on an animation of a spinning newspaper with the headline: “Greece Gets Bailout: Vows to Spend it Unwisely.”

The situation in Greece has evolved, and worsened, a great deal since the autumn of 2011; the last month alone has seen daily and almost hourly radical developments. Yet I still use this sketch in the first lecture of my Greek mythology course. There’s no getting around that it’s pretty funny, and for students it works to make Greek myth seem entertaining and even a little bit ‘relevant’. More importantly, it’s smart about identifying and satirizing a number of pervasive and perplexing hallmarks of classical mythology. Why are there multiple gods of war? Why do the gods have so many affairs — often with their own relatives, disguised more often than not as animals? Showing the skit has proven an effective device for drawing students in and orienting them to some of Greek myth’s characteristic themes and narrative structures.

But the last time I started a new round of the course I encountered some surprising reactions. Students observed that the sketch calls attention to the fiscal recklessness and feeble decision-making inherent to Greek culture; others were amused by how the “poor work ethic” of today’s Greeks was retrojected onto the gods, while still others criticized the skit’s ethnic stereotyping. A handful had been unaware that anything was amiss in Greece, and for them the sketch was their introduction to a more than five year-old major news story.

This February, with Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA party newly in power, even The New York Times succumbed to the allure of bad metaphors when it ran this Op/Ed cartoon, after Germany refused to grant Greece a loan extension:

Back in May 2012, an Economist cover had taken still easier bait when it cast Greece as Europe’s “Achilles heel”.

Loose references to Greek proposals as “Trojan Horses” abound as well, though this metaphor rarely stands up to the slightest attempt at unpacking.

Iconic Greek monuments are also regularly pressed into similar service. This unflattering image of Angela Merkel doing duty as a caryatid propping up the Erechtheion (and, by extension, Greece and its economy) has been making exuberant rounds on Twitter these days:

But the most notorious example of this visual discourse appeared soon after the first package of austerity measures was accepted by vote of the Greek parliament in 2010. A few weeks later (On February 22, 2010) the German magazine Focus ran a cover that imagined this unlikely restoration for the world’s most celebrated armless lady (the title reads “Fraudsters in the Euro-family”).

The cover story was even worse than the cover: as George Zarkadakis put it in a Washington Post Op/Ed piece, “In the article, modern Greeks were described as indolent sloths, cheats and liars, masters of corruption, unworthy descendants of their glorious Hellenic past.” Predictably, uproar ensued in Greece. Focus magazine was sued for defamation and a Greek consumer group (INKA) called for a boycott of German products. The same group told Reuters, “The falsification of a statue of Greek history, beauty and civilization, from a time when there (in Germany) they were eating bananas on trees is impermissible and unforgivable.” This reaction is of course more unforgivable even than the provocation, but it offers a sense of just how charged these images of antiquity and their deployment can be.

Recent events in Greece have provided a pretense for many such ‘reminders’ to the Western world about its debt to the Hellenes. In advance of last January’s government elections, Alexis Tsipras — head of the leftist party SYRIZA and Greek prime minister (for the moment…) — wrote an open letter in English aimed at a global audience. In the letter Tsipras too used a bad metaphor: he claimed that the fear- and guilt-driven tactics of “the establishment” (read: Antonis Samaras and the Nea Demokratia party, Tsipras and SYRIZA’s opposition) had “led the Greek people to an unprecedented tragedy.” The letter continued: “And to those responsible for all this, if they know anything about ancient Greek tragedy, they have every reason to fear because after hubris comes nemesis and catharsis!”

Tsipras chose to strike the same note again at the end of his letter, where he argued that his own party and its “whatever it takes” strategy — a strategy defined by a willingness to think beyond established laws and structures — should prevail precisely “Because Greece is the country of Sophocles, who with ‘Antigone’ has taught us that there are moments where the supreme law is justice.” The letter marked an attempt to recalibrate the “crisis as tragedy” trope by closing with a nod to Antigone’s celebrated and stubborn fearlessness. The logical conclusion? If you see yourself, dear foreign reader, in the cultural tradition of Sophocles and Aristotle — if you have benefitted at all from the “gifts of the Greeks” — then you owe the Greek people of today your solidarity, in the form of support for Tsipras and SYRIZA.

As always, though, interpretations of the past are contestable. This past February, in a segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Oliver lampooned Yanis Varoufakis, the then-finance minister of Greece (“a country of and in ruins”) for displaying a dangerously shaky grasp of Greek mythology.

In the segment Oliver noted that, at a press conference about a recent loan extension, Varoufakis had “tried to reassure people in the Greekest possible way.” Oliver then rolled footage of Varoufakis explaining to journalists that “Sometimes, like Ulysses, you need to tie yourself on the mast in order to get where you’re going and to avoid the Sirens. We intend to do this.”

Like Tsipras’ own classically inflected statement, Varoufakis’ appeal to “Ulysses” (a Greek hero in his Latinate guise) angles to remind the world of what it owes to the Greeks. But in this case Oliver makes a smug counter-move. When the clip ends, he roars with mock-exasperation that Varoufakis’ remarks aren’t “reassuring, for two reasons: First, everybody in Ulysses’ crew dies in that story, and Ithaca falls to absolute shit in his absence.” (The second reason rests on a less learned observation: Varoufakis gave his press conference sporting a popped collar.) As satirical as the show may be, here Oliver’s sarcasm — particularly when paired with the fashion critique — amounts to version umpteen of the old “Greeks don’t deserve Greece” argument. The Greek might attempt to invoke the classical past, but it’s the Englishman who really knows best. Oliver’s showbiz ‘persona’ in this instance was perhaps more historically loaded and entrenched than he realized.

Behind all the blithe mythical references (Trojan horses, flights of Icarus, Achilles’ heels, etc.) lies a long and complex story, winding from the fraught process of modern Greek nation-building to the current crisis and through violently contested claims to proprietorship over some notion of a Greek classical past. Especially given the history of this discourse of Modern Greek “unworthiness,” academics should be particularly mindful about how (and whether they ought) to throw in their two cents.”

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About Peter Smith

A "foot-soldier" in the wider Post Capitalism Movement. First task - keep spreading the words of change, hope & inspiration.
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