Sunday, June 03, 2012


"Wherever you look, you see beauty." These were the words of the official presiding over the civil wedding ceremony as he welcomed the guests to South Pelion.

Earlier the cavalcade of cars had wound up the hill, horns blaring, to a spectacular backdrop of mountains and sea. After the ceremony everyone emerged into the town square, shaded by giant plane trees, the tables laid out for a night of eating and drinking. The band was already in place, the bouzouki player tuning up against the sound of Euro pop standards from the loudspeakers. Milling around the flower display, picking their seats, were friends and acquaintances. A happy day and, yes, he was right. All I could see was beauty.

Greece is a lovely country, though there is ugliness as well. Much of this is being intensified by the crisis and the self-defeating response of the 'Troika' of lenders, described, as quoted in this article, by  Yanis Varoufakis as "the biggest idiots in the history of economics."

Later in the evening, fuelled by wine and tsipouro, I strolled over to the museum dedicated to the work of the local artist Thanasis Fampas. It was closed, but the sculptures outside were floodlit and the lights were on inside. Fampas' work is gorgeous. The on-line gallery doesn't do it justice. The eyes of his subjects are often blank, instead they express themselves through their hands and the shape of their bodies. They hold and they caress whilst the pictures caress you. As I peered through the windows the official dashed up with the caretaker and to my surprise unlocked the doors and ushered me in for my own private tour. This is so Greek, a spontaneous outburst of pride and generosity. He told me how the museum was run and maintained by volunteers and that though he was retired with a pension he would often work twelve hour days for no pay, simply for the good of the community. Beauty everywhere.

Yet despite this simple truth, Greece still struggles against the lies of the wealthy with their narrative of the chilly, industrious north pitted against the indolence of the feckless south with its Mediterranean sun. But perhaps the most pervasive self-deception that the rich endlessly trot out is the idea that their privilege is solely the result of their own merit, their intelligence and their hard work. It's never good luck, the legacy of previous generations, nor do they credit the support of family, friends or the institutions that gave them their education. And heaven forbid that there is any debt of gratitude to the work of those they employ. This attitude breeds a meanness of spirit, which suggests that the poverty of others is the result of their moral failures and that the solution lies in being more like them. Any proposal for aid to relieve suffering brings a horrified cry of 'moral hazard' - the fear that any help will only encourage the poor to continue in their unproductive ways and, thus, if it is not to be withheld entirely, it certainly has to be accompanied by proper strictures and hedged with conditions.

This seems to be the attitude of the German government with its insistence on austerity. But let's look again at what was the basis for the post-war German economic miracle. Was it the result of some inherent Calvinist work ethic as they often suggest? Or might it just have been because of the Marshall Plan? German debts were written off and investment flooded the country. It was an extraordinary act; a compound of generosity and self-interest. Help was understood to be far more likely to promote reform and prevent a repetition than punishment. And what was the sin that was forgiven? Had they sat around in bierkellers wasting borrowed money on idle luxuries? Not quite, they had launched the most destructive war in human history and committed genocide. And if that can be forgotten, surely the Greek crime of joining the Euro and spending too much buying German goods on cheap credit is worthy of a more generous response than the punishment of austerity.

So we come back to beauty. And perhaps one of the most beautiful of human qualities is generosity. You meet it here a lot. And as a moral underpinning to public policy it leads people to think that the proper response to those who are struggling is help, not punishment. And if that approach to the economic crisis had been tried three years ago it is clear that we would not be in the mess that we are in today.

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