Iphigenia, Jonah and the sacrifice of Greece

Mr. Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor and a columnist of Kathimerini, the leading Greek morning daily.  He is also a contributor to The BusinessThinker.com
So many foreign politicians, economists and commentators have raised the issue of Greece’s possible exit from the eurozone (perhaps even from the EU as well) that it now hangs over every discussion on our country’s future. This week’s talks between Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Eurogroup chairman Jean-Claude Juencker will be no exception, even if there is no direct mention of Greece’s “sacrifice.” It is worth looking at how each side understands the issue and its possible consequences.
It is clear that, as in so many other issues, we Greeks and the “harder” of our creditors (especially some German politicians and economists), look at each other across a cultural divide. Greeks speak of the “sacrifice of Iphigenia”, an act that will allow their partners to sail away in pursuit of their own interests, building their future on a gross injustice. Our partners, however, appear to see Greece the way the crew and fellow passengers of the sinking ship saw Jonah: judging him to be the cause of all their troubles, they threw him overboard in order to save themselves from a terrible storm.

We Greeks have a tendency to dwell on the tragic dimension of events within a framework of static characters and behavior. The issue of sacrifice is seen as the slaughter of an innocent victim in the interests of others: the victim plays no role and has no responsibility beyond that of being a victim. Our Calvinist partners, however, look at the collective effort as the sum of each member’s active contribution: roles are not predetermined, as they are in tragedy, but are evaluated on the basis of each one’s contribution. In the Greek world, the victim is defined as someone who for some reason, beyond his or her own responsibility, is destroyed so as to serve the dark interests of others; for our “pragmatist” partners, each is judged on the basis of his contribution to the interests of the whole.

But what is the result of the sacrifice of Iphigenia and of Jonah, and what will follow the possible ejection of Greece from the euro and any other European institution? Iphigenia’s sacrifice to Artemis, carried out so that the army of Greek tribes could sail for Troy, became the symbol of injustice and of the selfish needs of the many: it stained with innnocent blood the campaign against Troy and condemned to death its leader (Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s father) on his return home. Jonah’s adventure, which includes his being swallowed by a giant fish and then being vomited out on land so as to carry out the divine mission that he had tried to shirk, symbolizes the omnipotence of God (the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims) and the inability of man to avoid His will.

There are two versions of Iphigenia’s end – one that she was slaughtered on the altar, the other that, by divine intervention, she was spirited to a foreign land with barbarous rituals. Both reflect, more or less, what we fear will follow our ejection from the eurozone. Unfortunately for us Greeks, Jonah’s tale justifies those who threw him off the ship: suddenly the sea calmed, the crew and other passengers were saved and, in the end, God kept Jonah alive to serve Him. Maybe this is the reasoning of those who say they are not worried by Greece’s leaving the eurozone – that evicting Greece will end the continent-wide storm and all will be well.

Myths affect our conceptions and oversimplifying things often helps us to see the basics of complicated, contemporary problems – as long as we keep in mind the differences with reality. Today we must all consider the real cost of Greece’s possible exit from the eurozone – both for Greece and for our creditors. As long as we lament the fact that we are victims – new versions of Iphigenia – we will not shoulder the weight of responsibility for avoiding our sacrifice. Those who dream of “casting Greece into the sea” must understand that they are not following some divine plan and that the crisis will not suddenly end: most likely, all that they will achieve is to tell the world that on this ship people are being sacrificed. Many monsters will gather, not so that a micromanaging God can bring to heel his renegade prophet, but so that they can feed on other passengers and crew – devouring them one by one one until no one is left to save the ship.

Mars, Mario (European Central Bank President Mario Draghi ) and our place in the world

Mr. Nikos Konstandaras is managing editor and a columnist of Kathimerini, the leading Greek morning daily.  He is also a contributor to The BusinessThinker.com

Last Monday morning, at 8.32 our time, a mobile laboratory named Curiosity landed on Mars, on a mission that is said to be critical for the future of further exploration in our neighborhood. Wherever we were at that time, we could look into the southeastern sky and imagine the eight-wheeled platform, the size of a small van, raising a puff of ceramic colored dust as it touched down. Curiosity traveled about 300 million kilometers on a journey that began on November 26, 2011.

Why is this mission so important? Because NASA, the US space agency, has suffered serious budget cuts and if it loses this bit of hardware worth 2.5 billion dollars (and a decade’s worth of work), it will be a while before it recovers and continues with such research. About half the previous Mars missions have failed: some at launch, others in the landing phase, while others were lost in space. Another reason for us to hope for the mission’s success is that it may reveal what happened on Mars 3.5 billion years ago, what geological changes led to the planet’s losing its atmosphere, and with it the oceans that, like ours, covered part of its surface.

Above all, though, humanity’s adventure in space serves the need to escape our daily orbit, to explore the Universe, to learn about the past and the future, to understand the present and change it. Aiming high forces us to surpass ourselves; knowledge leads to new understanding: leaping into the void of space opens up new opportunities for growth and so helps us stand more firmly on Earth. A few weeks ago, a great leap inwards (into spheres small and invisible) confirmed the existence of Higgs’ boson, the particle that bridges the chasm between energy and mass.

So where do we stand? As living beings, we are a tiny speck in Space, somewhere between the dark matter of mystery and the absolute light of the Sun; in Time, we share a moment in infinity — like flies, or gods, indifferent to the fate of planets. We are, each one of us, what we are: individuals in our own matrix of relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors, fellow citizens, fellow Europeans; a momentary part of an ocean of humanity. In the past few years, we Greeks have also been insecure and dazed, having suffered repeated blows to our sense of self.

For three years, we stagger from one defeat to the next, our relations with others changed, our identity shaken, our expectations lost. We wait to see what our creditors demand, what new insult will come our way from yet another of our partners. Our hopes lie in whatever measures will be taken by those who run Europe, thinking that if they manage to save the euro maybe they will save us too. But we see precious time going to waste, difficulties accumulating to the point where it seems impossible that we — and others — will escape and find our way toward a dignified future.

However many structural problems and systemic weaknesses Greece may have, the past few years have shown that our greatest weakness is the lack of ideas and mental strength among our politicians and intellectuals. We did not have the imagination to see that we were headed for a collision with reality; then, when our ship was on the rocks, we could not work together, we could not look for our own solutions and initiatives — even when we saw that our EU partners and other significant officials were just as short of ideas. The suggestions, reversals and incomplete proposals of the European Central Bank President Mario Draghi are just the most recent evidence of this.

Stuck as we are, maybe we Greeks were not in a position to uncover the Universe’s secrets, nor could we imagine journeys through Space, but we could have done much more than quarrel with each other, stuck in our same, old, exhausted roles.

We have done nothing to set our own course, even as sullen salvage crews tow our ship to an unknown destination.

The challenges ahead for (Greek Prime Minister) Samaras

Mr. Alexis Papachelas is a guest editorial writer to The Business Thinker. He is currently the Executive Editor of the long standing and highly respected daily Greek newspaper “Kathimerini”.

Can Prime Minister Antonis Samaras save Greece by ensuring its place in the eurozone without causing a social explosion? So far his style of governance has come as something of a pleasant surprise to those disappointed by his two years of counterproductive opposition.
Samaras has shown that he is in touch with reality and that he has determination. He has chosen as his closest economic aides people who he would not have been associated with two years ago. He is cautious in gauging the mood of the country’s partners. And, most importantly, he appears prepared to take on the risk of strict fiscal adjustment rather than wasting time on half-measures and compromises.
Will his strategy work? It depends on various factors, many of which are out of his hands.
What he can do is stop political appointments across the breadth of the civil service. He can also be wary of any scandal, big or small, coming to the fore and threatening to blow the entire effort out of the water.
The prime minister also has two other big battles on his hands. The first is with the prices of commodities in Greece, which even troika inspectors have said are too high and are putting an additional burden on households. This is a battle against strong interest groups, some of which are affiliated with New Democracy, but it can also bring real results. The second battle is to revive liquidity. Checks are bouncing all over Greece, countless businesses are unable to pay their workers’ salaries, and everyone, throughout the economy, is deferring payments. The recapitalization of the country’s banks, the settlement of a part of the state’s debts to businesses and the promotion of big infrastructure projects can go some way toward restoring liquidity. If these measures are not in place by fall, however, the consequences will be devastating.
The other challenge for Samaras is to maintain the fragile balance of the coalition government. Samaras, PASOK’s Evangelos Venizelos and Fotis Kouvelis of Democratic Left know that if they stumble they will take the country down with them. Keeping the government on a steady path is a very difficult task, however, especially considering the pressure it will come under as of September.
The final and possibly biggest and most unreliable factor the prime minister needs to consider is Germany. If Berlin decides to write Greece off, then there is nothing Samaras will be able to do. This is why the two sides need to make a clear deal now: This is what Greece will do, this is how much it will get, and after that, no more talk about its future in the euro.