Given that the Greeks invented democracy, it's only fitting that they're now being given the chance to reinvent it. And yes, I know we Greeks have a reputation for myth-making and drama -- but, as I found out during my trip to Greece last week, those really are the stakes.
Until I went over and witnessed what's happening, I too had become convinced that the real issues were the ones the media were obsessively covering: the effects of a potential sovereign default on the Euro and worries about the crisis spreading to other European countries.
But here's the bigger issue: Can a truly democratic movement break the stranglehold of corrupt elites and powerful anti-democratic institutional forces that have come to characterize not just the politics of Greece, but most Western democracies, including our own? Greece is only an extreme example of an unfolding seismic social shift that is challenging democracies the world over.
What happens in Greece might very well tell us whether democracy will recover from the crisis of legitimacy exacerbated by the financial crisis or whether it will shrink -- undermined by the very forces that brought on the crisis in the first place.
It's way too early to tell whether the forces of democracy will prevail, but I came away extraordinarily moved and heartened by the courage, passion, engagement and dedication I witnessed during a trip in which three different perspectives converged.
First and foremost, there was The Square.
The happenings in Cairo's Tahrir Square led the news for weeks earlier this year, but from what we are being shown back in America, you wouldn't know that there's a remarkably similar scene unfolding in Athens. Not only are the physical setting, the demographics of the participants, and the way they're being organized similar to Tahrir Square, but so are the demands being made. In Athens, the place of the moment attracting thousands of people a day is Syntagma Square, situated directly across from the Greek parliament.
The movement has become a permanent encampment in Syntagma, with a growing number of people taking up residence in the square, vowing not to leave until their demands are met. Of course, the young are well-represented there -- no surprise when unemployment among Greek youth runs as high as 40 percent -- but I was struck by the wide range of participants. Young, old, activists, pensioners, unemployed, self-employed, they're all there, every day and every night. As you'd expect, various political parties and organized groups -- some resorting to violence -- are trying to co-opt the square. Indeed, on Tuesday, a demonstration of 20,000 protesters that started peacefully disintegrated when a group of mostly young people began hurling stones at the police.
As has recently been the case around the world, the protests are being fueled by social media. Given that the Greeks have always been all about connection, expansiveness and intimacy, it's no surprise that social media have combined with the Greek personality to create a perfect storm of expression, engagement and democracy. According to MRB Hellas, from 2008 to 2010, the number of Greeks using social networks grew by 350 percent. Currently, almost 92 percent have at least one social media account, making it much easier for protests to be coordinated via a Facebook page -- "Indignants at Syntagma" (the name taken from the Spanish protest, "los indignados") -- which more than 152,000 people have "liked."
Although social media are being used to connect the square to the rest of the country and help draw people in, once in the square itself, people are using good old face-to-face interaction to connect and organize. As Costas Douzinas, a law professor at the University of London's Birkbeck Institute, wrote in the Guardian, "the parallels with the classical Athenian agora, which met a few hundred metres away, are striking."
The way it works, explains Reuters' Renee Maltezou, is this:
Every night, the "people's assembly" gathers and decides, by a show of hands, what will be discussed. A volunteer and rotating "coordinating committee" then gives anybody who wants to speak a slip of paper with a number on it. Speakers speak for two minutes in the order numbers are drawn. The assembled then vote, with results quickly put up on a website. As Douzinas notes, "no issue is beyond proposal and disputation," and participants include not just students, activists and pensioners, but economists, professors and philosophers. When not debating and voting, they form teams to deal with first aid, garbage collection and communications -- there's even a "keep cool team" to settle disputes.
Everywhere I went I was stunned by the level of engagement -- it's not just those physically at the square who are all in. The sense I came away with was that they're all all in. Waiters, taxi drivers, storekeepers, salespeople, anybody sitting next to you at dinner -- they're all talking about the same thing.
"The experience of standing daily and confronting the parliament opposite has changed the politics of Greece for good and made the elites worried for the first time," writes Douzinas. "Their common demand is that the corrupt political elites who have ruled the country for some 30 years and brought it to the edge of collapse should go."
What happens in Greece is not so different from what has been happening in America: a few profit, but when the chickens come home to roost, the pain is not equally distributed -- and what happened is suddenly everybody's fault.
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