My wife and I just returned from three weeks in Greece, and while we tried to stay away from tear gas and demonstrations, it was hard to ignore the fact that the country was in crisis. Athens was crawling with police, heavily armored and many packing submachine guns. Rumor has it that a high percentage of the law enforcement there is allied or sympathetic to Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi style party we saw marching in the street near our hotel. There were not large numbers giving the “Hitler salute,” perhaps a couple of hundred that we saw. But one wonders how the fascists, with 18 seats in the current legislature, have become such a growing power in this country that has been ravaged so often by Germanic speaking peoples in the past, from King Otto of Austria (whose former palace is now the parliament building, adjacent to the extensive botanic gardens today open to all but once the private preserve of royalty), on to the Nazis who bombed Crete and occupied the mainland for most of the Second World War.
Old habits die hard. The synagogue in Crete’s old section of Chania, whose 300 Jews were on their way to Auschwitz before their boat was torpedoed (ending a Jewish presence there that dated back to 300 BCE) has been targeted by arsonists twice in the last two years. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras recently likened the situation in his native land to the declining days of the Weimar Republic—ripe for the forces of hatred and reaction as economic desperation invites more and more people to seek scapegoats for their troubles: immigrants, gays, women and other non-Aryan minorities.
The Greece we saw was a beautiful, modern nation where we enjoyed excellent public transportation, had no trouble accessing the internet, and everywhere we went encountered friendly, helpful people who despite their current hardships indicated no hostility toward foreigners. It would be hard to say where we saw more beggars or empty storefronts, in Athens or in the ragged neighborhoods adjacent JFK airport where we stopped overnight on our journey home. Indeed, the only snafus we ran into were on U.S. soil, where broken trams, bad connections, surly service providers and crumbling infrastructure were far more apparent than abroad.
Perhaps the danger to America is not that it will go the way of Greece due to deficit spending or overgrown government bureaucracy (as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have recently warned). The greater peril is that our nation, too, will allow racist, homophobic and nativist tendencies to gain ascendance in the search for culprits who can be blamed for our own economic meltdown. The greater danger is that we will continue to starve our trains, roads, schools, parks and other public amenities in the name of a financial austerity whose burdens fall mostly upon the poor. Should we allow that to happen, America too will one day be remembered for its glorious past, like Greece a civilization famous for its ruins.