In the current issue of Open Magazine, I have a more personal response to the killings in Oak Park, Wisconsin.
Beyond the lives tragically lost, it is the attack on this institution that I feel most deeply, for the gurdwara is not only a place of worship and service, but also one of real community and, for the children, of uninhibited play where the demands of parents are relaxed and the spectre of bullies a distant threat.
Last night, the conservative, pro-bailout and pro-austerity New Democracy party won the elections, but not decisively enough to have an outright majority. To be able to form a government, they will need to form a coalition with one of their opponents. The second vote-getter, and close second in the elections, was the upstart, radical left party Syriza. It’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, has ruled out any coalition with any pro-bailout party, and so a coalition will likely be formed with PASOK, and one of the other, smaller, leftist parties.
While the election of New Democracy averts the immediate crisis of Greece leaving the euro, it in no way changes the long-term picture. The requirements of Europe’s bailout haven’t been fully implemented, and some of the most severe cuts are yet to come. These will be very difficult to get passed into law, and if they are passed, will likely cause a violent reaction on the streets in the coming months. But the larger picture is more disturbing. Even if the cuts are implemented, Greece will still ultimately be unable to live up to its commitments. It will not be able to pay back its debts in full, even at the current levels where much have been forgiven, and it will not be able to grow its economy effectively under the burden of such severe austerity measures.
The reaction of international markets to the Greek election struck me as quite rational. An initial sense of optimism because the immediate crisis was averted, followed by a pullback and a dose of reality, because even with the election of the conservatives, there is no obvious way forward for Greece within the euro. We’ll be exactly here again a year or so from now, if not sooner, and between now and that time, Greece will continue to suffer. The only chance that a deeper crisis can be averted is if Germany and the rest of Europe acts proactively with real stimulus measures designed to actually grow Greece’s (and Europe’s) economy. I’m not holding my breath.
From last week’s issue of Open Magazine, my take on the (then) imminent Greek elections:
The highway from the airport is eerily empty. It’s mid-afternoon in the middle of the week, and there are fewer cars than on highways in a California desert at the quietest daylight hour. Another unsettling sight are the billboards. From the airport to the city, except one, all are blank. Some of them drip with papery fragments of old ads. It looks like a set for a zombie movie where everyone has died except me. Office parks and foreign factories line the highway’s edge, but most appear closed. The Ikea parking lot is empty.
It’s hard to avoid. Sooner or later, once you arrive in Greece, you’ll hear it. The first time for me was a few days ago in the port town of Chania on the island of Crete. I am sipping a coffee at a corner stand when the tourist shop kitty corner started blasting the tune through its speakers. It is the theme to Zorba the Greek, the 1960’s classic movie of repressed Englishness brought out of its shell by life-loving Greekness, and a little dancing. Hearing it makes me cringe. I cannot think of any other country on the planet whose history, culture, thought, and most fundamental life force has been reduced to the bars of a jingle.
A few days earlier, on another island, this time Tzia in the Cyclades, I sit at lunch with a Greek writer. “Zorba killed Greece,” she says bluntly. “That’s what half the people who come here are looking for, something to turn them inside out, take them out of themselves. But that’s not how he killed this country. It was the Greek men. You see, just like the English fell in love with the Englishman in that movie and all wanted to be him, the Greek men did the same, but with Zorba. All that life, all that drunkenness, all that macho… stupidity. They’ve spent their lives trying to be him, and look at where it’s got us.”
It was my first time in Greece, and I arrived not knowing what to expect. The May elections produced no parliament, and new elections are scheduled for this Sunday, June 17. These are widely considered to be a referendum on whether Greece will remain in the Eurozone or leave. If it votes for the socialists, the upstart Syriza party and its charismatic young leader, Alexis Tsirpas, then it votes to leave; and if it votes once again for the old guard, who have shuffled in and out of power for the last thirty years in ever more corrupt regimes, then it votes to stay. Staying means years of bone-crushing austerity measures, measures which have produced none of the promised results of financial growth, while leaving means a return to the drachma and the wiping out of property values and the savings of any Greeks who still have money in the country.
This is not a decision any rational person can make.
I’ve been here for two weeks now, following the elections, talking to locals when I can, and trying to understand the choices presented to the voters. And I’ve come to one conclusion. There is no way to reach a clear-headed decision on who to vote for.
I see this in the people I talk to, as even this close to the election, there are many who still don’t know how they will vote. Who can blame them? On one hand, disaster, and on the other, disaster. Who wouldn’t be paralyzed when faced with such choices?
Again and again, I see it in their faces. Greeks are exhausted. After five years of recession, and two years of devastating austerity cuts, cuts which still haven’t been fully implemented, few people have the energy to keep going. For Greece to rise above the current crisis, it needs something to look forward to, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Europe’s punishing caning of austerity certainly doesn’t offer that, and the muddle-headed, leftist policies of Syriza, which ignore basic economic realities, don’t either. It is extraordinary that at this time of real crisis, when the lives and futures of millions hang in the balance, no one is willing to step up and offer a real, workable solution.
A this point, such a solution could only come from Brussels and Berlin, and they have decided, in grand European tradition, to bury their heads firmly in the sand and let Greece suffer. With seventeen sovereign members of the Eurozone, its easy to pass the buck, or what may soon be left of the euro, and paralysis is almost guaranteed. By insisting on years more of austerity, Europe has already decided Greece’s fate. It will almost certainly leave the euro, the disaster will happen, the only question now is when.
In Athens, I eat dinner with a young, artistic couple who are considering plans to leave. There’s no future here for them, and likely none for their two young children.
They tell me they don’t blame the Germans, or the Europeans. The Greeks did this to themselves. Years of corruption, years of useless red tape, of a state overflowing with bureaucrats, and years of switching between the same two, pathetic parties. “When we joined the euro, everyone spent, credit was cheap, money was pouring in. No one thought the party would end.”
I hear this many times. It’s not the Germans, or not only the Germans, that the Greeks blame. Their responses are almost always more nuanced than that, and many lay the blame squarely on themselves. The deep corruption of the both major political parties, the lure of easy money, the lack of scrutiny given to the many international deals they entered into, etc.
Only one person I meet plans resolutely to stay, a depressed Scots woman I encounter on Crete who arrived in 1979 to free herself from the shackles of the repressed life of Scotland, searching, no doubt, for her own Zorba. “We had such parties,” she says wistfully, “before the crisis.” Now she keeps her claws in, she tells me, desperate to stay, and prays for a Syriza victory. “Everyone’s lost everything already, they’ve spent all their money. At least with the drachma, things will be cheaper.” I suspect she has euros abroad, and hopes for disaster just so she might be able to spend them at a discounted rate, and enjoy one last summer of partying in the sun.
At that lunch on Tzia where my friend the Greek writer told me how much she hated Zorba, she adds this. “If we’re going to survive this crisis, if we’re going to change, we have to kill Zorba, we have to kill that idea of ourselves, and learn to make ourselves modern.”
There are signs of hope. On a gorgeous, secluded beach one afternoon, a group of men and women in their teens and early twenties lie about in bathing shorts and bikinis, talking animatedly with each other. To me it sounds like they’re talking about what young people everywhere talk about: boys, girls, music, movies, clothes, etc. My friend tells me no, that’s not what they’re talking about at all. “They’re discussing the economics of growing peas,” she says. “How to grow them, how to market them, how to export them. A year ago, who would have thought of young people talking like this, but it means at least they are trying to take control of their future.”
At the end of November last year, I gave up taking the subway. A few reasons. I’d just returned from a six-month trip to India and being confronted with the same grim faces on that underground steel coffin brought home to me the fact that I was… well… home. And being back here, how profoundly not at home I felt again in New York City.
Of all the tedious rituals of city life to return to, the subway was the most dispiriting. It starts with the descent into those airless caverns, and only gets worse, at least for me. I hate waiting. In fact, hate is too mild a word. I abhor it, I vilify it, if I met Waiting in a dark alley in the middle of the night, I would do my best to snap its ugly neck. There is something deeply infantilizing about the long (or short) waits we have to endure before the train arrives, for here we become wards at the mercy of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the unloved orphans it consumes daily and who must always bow to its caprices, begging, “Can we please just get on your train, sir?” Maybe the train arrives within thirty seconds, and we find ourselves thankful for the wretched crumb of timeliness thrown at our feet, or maybe we wait a quarter hour, or even longer, staring down at the devastated concrete that floors these torture chambers of the modern world, if only so as not to look at the devastated faces surrounding us, in the mornings ejected unhappily from their beds, in the evenings ejected exhausted from offices.
In and of itself, the wait seems reasonable. The subway is a public good, it provides the infrastructure to move millions of people every day, and keeps a city like New York from grinding to a halt. And it’s good for the environment, and for health, and nominally, there’s a democratic spirit at work. We’re all in it together underground, a bit of London in the Blitz transported westward. But as one wait piles on another, as one line is added to another, those dreary, stifling minutes underground become intolerable. For the modern city, that compacted horizon of lives stratified, one on top of the other, each crushing the one below, finds its condensate on those lonely platforms and inside those deadening train cars. The city, if it is anything, is a dirge of choruses all of them memorializing “the wait.” The wait at the stop light, the wait for the elevator, the wait in the lunch queue, the wait on the phone for customer service, the wait for the delivery man, the super, the cable guy, the wait at the laundromat, the wait for a table for dinner, the wait at a bar for the barkeeps’ eye, the wait for the sorely underpaid cashier to acknowledge your existence, the endless wait for the city to do the same.
And once you’re on the train, it gets no better. For inside, you sit or stand, carried along powerlessly, literally shuttled back and forth underneath the city, not even blood in its arteries, for blood has a vivifying function as it pumps along. Inside the train, you become a null, a being waiting again to arrive, as if you have been murdered and await resurrection as a zombie. We become children once again, ruled by the whims of an unknowable and towering parent, powerless in its presence, and all around is the evidence, the faces of the fellow travelers reduced to ashen replicas, their nearest counterparts the democracy of bodies turned to stone in Pompeii. If this is democracy, it’s democracy of lives lived in hell, it’s democracy of the coming apocalypse, it’s democracy stripped of soul, of breath, of anything that might be imagined as human, a cudgeling, murderous reduction of city dwellers to cave dwellers, and cave dwellers to the newly dead.
Perhaps I’m laying it on a little thick. People do take the subway, sometimes they smile, sometimes they laugh, and most of them arrive on the other side apparently alive. And without it, the lives of the vast majority of people in this city would become intolerably difficult. But with it too, I believe, life becomes intolerable. When millions are forced, on a daily basis, through the meat grinder that is the subway, year in and year out, what else can it do but make ghosts of us, demoralized and hypnotized by an industrial ideal of the efficient city and its proper functioning.
There has always been something a little too perfect about Mitt Romney. He is a lifelong teetotaller, a non-smoker, the kind of fella who eschews salty language for an old-fashioned “aww shucks”, a dedicated family man with an overflowing brood of gorgeous children and grandchildren, and a successful Republican governor in one of the nation’s most liberal bastions, Massachusetts, the home of the notoriously drunken, cursing, womanising and bleeding heart Kennedys.
It’s hard to speak of such a genre-bending and multi-talented artist as Alasdair Gray returning to form (which form exactly would that be?), but for those of us who loved his early books and were sometimes disappointed by the slim efforts of recent years, Old Men In Love should be something to cheer about.
“Among the many symptoms of living in an age of a perpetual war on terrorism is amnesia. There are times we forget when it began, and for those growing up in this age, I can only imagine that it has the shopworn quality of grim permanency that those of us who came of age in the Cold War once felt. That war had no beginning, not in our lifetimes at least, and it sure felt like it never would have an end, except the most ugly, in nuclear annihilation. The fears must be different today. Instead of global extinction, the destruction children probably fear is localized and personal. A terrorist bomb will blow up their world.”