New Greek Myths

Alexis Tsipras: Telegenic leader of the radical-left Greek opposition

If love is seeing past someone’s faults, kinship means resigning yourself to them. Greek by partial but irremediable descent, and until recently resident in Athens, I’ve noticed myself starting to feel towards the Greeks the same mixture of unconditional affection and frustration previously reserved for my siblings. Despite their classical ancestry, modern Greeks tend to be romantics. Like their ancient countrymen, they do, however, still see the world in tragic and heroic terms.

Rebels and underdogs in particular catch the Hellenic national imagination — a sympathy the political scientist Nikiforos Diamandouros authoritatively put down to the collective memory of an Orthodox people that spent four centuries under the Ottoman yoke. This might strike one as mere stereotype, but what else to make of a country where every small town names a street after Lord Byron and the traditional everyman is the shadow puppet Karagiozis, an irrepressible Harlequin figure perpetually conspiring to best the Turks who lord it over him?

At their best, these romantic yearnings make for a line in irreverent, mercurial rebelliousness which is one of the nation’s most winning qualities. Indeed, the Greeks invented the word for it: charisma. But the character traits that make for swashbuckling company aren’t always conducive to a healthy body politic, not least after five years of economic pain. It’s not just that the Greeks have always been so fractious: Patrick Leigh Fermor called them “one-man splinter groups reluctantly forced into a series of temporary coalitions”. It’s also that they’re outright fantasists, with many clinging to memories of their EU-funded Arcadia, while others are drawn to the muscular dystopias of Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazis and the KKE’s unreconstructed Stalinists.

But the victor of the European elections was Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical-left opposition Syriza. This telegenic scourge of the austerity policies of the ruling coalition has a great story to tell. Those furious at the oligarchy who have brought the Hellenes to this pass thrill to his invocation to stand up to the sultans and beys of the EU and the IMF. Most voters don’t want a messy and traumatic Grexit (departure from the euro) with their savings redenominated as junk, but a return to halcyon days of subsidy with no questions asked. So Tsipras promises to deliver Europe’s money on Greece’s terms, and prophesies the imminent overthrow of “the neoliberal consensus” with a certainty unmatched even by the oracle at Delphi. “The will of the Greek people will sweep away those who are selling out our country,” he told an election rally in the dusty Cretan port of Heraklion. “Our people are going to make history!” Alas, a Greece led by Tsipras may dream of a new Marathon or Salamis, but he’s up against more daunting an enemy than Darius or Xerxes — Angela Merkel. The electoral triumph of Tsipras shows that Greeks haven’t lost their taste for myths.

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