Debt crisis: Iphigenia, Jonah and the sacrifice of Greece

21 August 2012 – I Kathimerini (Athens)

While Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras starts his European tour seeking an easing of the terms of the bail-out for Greece, columnist Nikos Konstandaras uses ancient myths to explain that throwing Athens overboard will not save the euro.

Many foreign politicians, economists and other observers have raised the issue of the possible exit of Greece from the eurozone and perhaps even from the EU, pushing the issue to the top of every discussion on the future of our country.

Talks that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is due to hold this week with Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Jean-Claude Juncker will be no exception. If we want to avoid speaking directly about “sacrificing” Greece, however, it has to be seen how each party envisages the idea of our country leaving the eurozone and the possible consequences.

It is obvious that the Greeks and the core ofour donors, including some German politicians and economists, demonstrate cultural differences in this area.

The Greeks speak of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, an act that will allow partners to set sail towards their own salvation – building their future, however, on the basis of an injustice.

Dumping Jonah

“Foreigners”, for their part, seem to see Greece as the crew and passengers saw Jonah before they decided to throw him overboard to save themselves from a terrible storm. We Greeks have a tendency to see the tragic dimension of events, yet remain passive.

The concept of sacrifice is identified with the sacrifice of the innocent for the benefit of all: the victim has no involvement or responsibility beyond his own existence.

Our Calvinist partners, however, perceive the collective effort as the very reason for the contribution of each member: the roles are not predefined, as in the world of tragedy, but are given out on the basis of each individual effort. In our world, the victim is the one who, for some reason he is not responsible for, is destroyed to serve the obscure interests of others; while our “pragmatic” partners judge everyone by their contribution to the whole.

What is the result of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, of Jonah, and what will follow the eventual expulsion of Greece from the eurozone or from another European institution? The sacrifice of Iphigenia has become a symbol of the injustice and cruelty of many: the expedition against Troy is stained with innocent blood, and the leader is condemned to death after his return.

The story of Jonah, who was saved when God sent a whale to swallow him up and, after three days in its belly, deposit him on dry ground, is the symbol of the omnipotence of God for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the inability of man to evade the will of the Almighty, as Jonah had tried, by fleeing a mission that had been entrusted to him.

There are two versions of the end of Iphigenia. In the first, she dies on the altar. In the second she is borne by divine intervention to a foreign country, Tabriz, where she lives out her life among barbarians.

Preventing the sacrifice

This is more or less what awaits us if we leave the euro. Unfortunately for us, the story of Jonah shows that passengers were right to throw him out of the boat: the sea suddenly calmed, and they were rescued by others.

And God kept his reluctant prophet alive to serve his designs. Perhaps this is what those who say they are not discouraged by the idea of Greece leaving the eurozone are thinking, believing as they do that such an exit would be tantamount to the death on the altar – that suddenly the crisis will stop, and everything will be fine.

Myths influence our perceptions, and simplification often helps us to see complex and modern problems with fresh eyes. It's enough, though, to see where the myths diverge from the reality.

Today, we are all taking into account the cost of a possible exit of Greece from the eurozone – for Greece, for our partners and for our lenders. Whining that we are victims – a sort of a new Iphigenia – will not free us from the burden of our responsibility to prevent our own sacrifice.

Those who dream that Greece will be “thrown into the sea” should know that the country will not be saved by the divine will, that the crisis will not end, and that the whole world will know that on this boat, people are sacrificed.

We are collecting a lot of monsters – not, however, to save some prophet gone astray, but to devour the other members of the crew. Until everyone is eaten.

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