Monday, 15 June 2009
Greece, my Neverland
I just got back from Greece. I've brought back several tons of olives and a passable tan; I managed to forget half my clothes and take, instead, summer clothes I haven't worn in decades (because 'you never know' whatever that means, sometimes I don't even make sense to myself). And here I am back in London, back at work. Missing my mum. Missing the sunshine. And realising that storylines matter. 'Once upon time' creates its own imperatives. Stories have power, they don't determine everything but they do open up some options while closing others. That's why so much of the randomness of Greek life can be taken for granted while you are actually in Greece.
Take zebra crossings. I will go out of my way in London to find one, law-abiding citizen that I am. In Greece it never crosses my mind to cross at one. It wouldn't make a difference even if it did. Because crossing at zebra crossings doesn't happen in Greece. It's not part of the story.
Everything comes with a storyline. The way people behave in public, the way they approach politics, what they expect from the economy.
Take the European elections.
I flew out to Athens on Friday night last week. Thursday was the European election in the UK, Sunday was election day in Greece. In England you could have missed the fact that there was a European election altogether. Advertising did not go much beyond a 'don't forget to vote/make sure your papers are in order so you can vote' campaign and some flyers from various candidates. The actual candidates. 'Vote for me' type flyers including a photo and a name. Of the candidates. Themselves.
And then I fly out to Greece. And during the sleepy drive (worry not faithful readers, I wasn't doing the driving) from Athens airport to the heart of Thessaly (that's half-way up the country, for the non-Greeks among you. a drive of just over 3 hours) I saw literally thousands of political posters. More per hundred yards of high-way than in the whole of West London put together. In fact, I lost count of the political posters lining the streets before I even lost sight of the airport.
Poster after poster after poster but no sight of a candidate.
The posters fell in two categories: the two big parties (PA.SO.K – nominally socialist but essentially value-neutral unless lining your own pocket counts as an ideology – and Nea Demokratia – nominally conservative but in reality focusing more on being the most corrupt and inefficient government in a series of corrupt and inefficient governments, regardless of hue and creed. It's hard work but they are doing it very well). Those posters look identical: leader looking wistfully into the middle distance, backdrop in the party colours (green and blue, respectively) and an inspirational, void logo along the lines of 'we vote for Europe, we decide for Greece' or 'focusing on the citizen'.
The second type of poster was fielded by the communists (yes, we still have those in Greece) and the Euro-Communists (aka 'Syriza'). These were in various shades of red and focused on encouraging people to vote against the big parties as a sign of rebellion. Hasta la victoria siempre.
No mention of the European Parliament.
No mention of the actual candidates.
The storyline was all about parties and expressions of loyalty to colour schemes.
And that's the story both politicians and journalists stuck to.The entire European parliament election shebang was couched in a party narrative. The journalists were using the exact same language as if they were covering a parliamentary election. As were the politicians.
This party did this, this party got that share of the vote, a great success for the leader of the opposition, a blow for the Prime Minister.
And as all narratives, this one built up its own momentum and everyone around me was speaking of the European elections the same way. They even joked about how poorly Gordon Brown did over here.
Naturally MEP election results are often read as a rough indication of how well big parties are doing at home. But no more than that. MEP elections are safe (because MEPs have no power whatsoever so a voter will never live to regret a poor choise) so people vote in ways that they wouldn't vote 'at home': they vote Green, they vote Liberal, they vote 'funky' because they can.
No-one suggests that the result doesn't reflect poorly on Labour in the UK (not least because the nationalists did so well in the UK MEP election) but here's the newsflash: Brown was not running in the European election. The Greek Premier and his arch rival were not running the European election. Their parties weren't even running in the European election as MEPs belong to EU-wide amalgamation parties with separate leaders and rather loose party discipline.
But the narrative was so over-powering, no-one questioned it in Greece.
The narrative of the European election as a national election means that the premier has to hang his head in shame and promise the voters that he will reflect on the message they sent him (in this election that had nothing to do with him). But this same narrative allowed him to dismiss parliament, hide a series of scandals under the carpet and literally get away with murder.
This narrative gave all political parties a breathing space of several months 'preparing' for an election that didn't affect them and basking in the glory of a victory that doesn't concern them.
'Once upon a time' sets the tone and we follow. It takes skill to spin a good story, to make sure things are understood a certain way, viewed a certain way, linked a certain way. Stories matter. Because we live in terms of stories and we understand our experiences in terms of the stories they fit into and we all assume our roles within the stories. And although we question events and people and facts, we rarely question the story.
Remember the Matrix? It's a bit like that minus the kicks and the leather coats.
Of course, I do realise that, in the grand scheme of things and in light of all our erstwhile leaders have put us through, this is small fry. In some ways, the European election gave our leaders something to play with that meant the economy, justice system and social structures were left in peace for a while. And yet this little game matters immensely. Because this story, as many others, was spun to perfection as far away from reality as it could possibly be without giving the game away.
And we swallowed it whole.
All I'm saying is that those who determine the 'once upon a time' also hold the 'happily ever after' and if we want a part of that, we'd better keep an eye on the storyline they are feeding us.