Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Perspective on Greece

The financial crisis in Greece has caught the attention of newsmakers and pundits. There is much uncertainty, as that nation moves toward bankruptcy and insolvency. At issue are the effects that this will have on the world financial markets, and especially the EURO—the common currency of Europe, as well as that nation’s continued participation within the European Community.

Blame and uncertainty abounds. For some, the collapse of the Greek economy signifies that socialism does not work; while for others the failure is due to a lack of commitment and dedication of the Greeks themselves, suggesting that the Greeks are lazy and unwilling to work.

Missing from most discussions, however,  is a recognition of the uniqueness of Greece and Greek culture. Though Greek civilization is among the world’s oldest and has greatly contributed to Western ideals, it has nonetheless remained seemingly on the periphery of modern Europe. It was not a major player in the great conflicts of the 20th century, nor has it provided leadership to its continental neighbors. Instead, it has  preferred to remain secluded, nestled, for much of the past century between the politically democratic and  open West, and the autocratic and closed East. 

Although the cold war is past, and the delineation between western capitalism and eastern socialism have become less visible Greece is still, largely on the outside. Despite the zeal to unify the economies of Europe through the creation of the Euro and the European Zone,  Greece  remains  culturally different, from the rest of Europe.  Three main aspects of Greek life together create and foster a nation that remains distinct from its continental neighbors.

One of the first things that most people notice about Greece is that their alphabet. All of its neighbors, though speaking different languages, use one of two transnational alphabets: the Roman or the Cyrillic. The Roman alphabet is among the most used in the world, and in Europe, where it was created, it has become the national alphabet for Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, and Polish among others. Likewise, for those travelling east, the Cyrillic alphabet, based in Russia, and used within its satellite nations is commonplace. Thus for most of Europe, rudimentary communication between nation is possible.

Not so in Greece. No other nation uses that alphabet except Cyprus—where it has dual national status with Turkish, another Roman-based language. This means that those who want to trade with or visit Greece must overcome this additional obstacle, for upon looking at Greek all they see are unreadable symbols. And although it creates unity within the Greek populace, it also makes it more difficult for Greek students to learn another language, for in addition to vocabulary and grammar, they must learn a new alphabet.

But language is only one problem. The physical terrain is also daunting. Eighty percent of the nation is mountainous. Less than 20% of land is arable, so large scale farming is, for the most part prohibitive. The undulating typography continues to the coast. Unlike France and Italy, the coastline of Greece is rocky, with few good harbors. Islands are numerous making it difficult to move freely throughout the nation.

In addition to language, Greece has a religious tradition that is different than most of its neighbors. Greece is the only nation in which Orthodox Christianity is the official religion. Eastern Orthodox though popular in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia reaches its eastern terminus in Greece. Italy just across the Ionian Sea, is the center of Roman Catholicism and, by extension, Western Christianity. Turkey to the west is predominantly Islamic, as well as those nations across the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Africa. Thus the Balkan Peninsula lies at the crossroad between not only the Islamic and Christian worlds, but also between the Eastern and Western Christian rite.

For the Greeks these distinctives have provided security and a shared community as it has kept most enemies and immigrants out. It has resulted in one of the most ethnically homogenous nations, with over 90% of its residents identifying themselves as Greek. So while Greek identity remains high the terrain makes it less accessible to others. It is easy to point out these differences, and, when coupled with political and economic problems, creates a perception that they are not like the rest of the European Union.