As I follow the modern Greek tragedy unfolding in Europe, I flash back to the 18 years I spent in Athens, walking to school in Plaka (the old part of the city), on the same streets that have recently been filled with protesters and violent clashes.
When I was growing up, my family was a tiny microcosm of the current Greek economy. We were heavily in debt; my father’s repeated attempts to own a newspaper ended in failure and bankruptcy. Eventually, my mother took my sister and me and left him. We all lived in Athens and we continued to see my father, though we had our own one-bedroom apartment. (It wasn’t the bankruptcy that got to my mom in the end, but the philandering; “I don’t want you interfering in my private life,” my father had told her when she complained.)
Further austerity was coming, but my mother was clear about one thing: she would cut back on everything except our education and good, healthy food. She owned two dresses and never spent anything on herself. I remember her selling her last pair of little gold earrings. She borrowed from anyone she could, so that her two daughters could fulfill their dreams of a good education — me at Cambridge, and my sister at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. At the time, Greek girls still offered dowries to be married. My mother used to tell me, “Your education is your dowry.”
As I contemplate the statistics — especially the 54 percent unemployment rate among young Greeks — I think of all the stories behind this appalling data. All the dreams dashed. All the promise unfulfilled. And all the guilt, shame and fear that so often go hand in hand with intractable unemployment and little hope for a better future.
The punitive path of austerity and relentless economic contraction is, not surprisingly, likely to lead to further stagnation in 2013 and cannot be allowed to continue. And as last week’s election results show, the Greek people are not going to allow it to continue; they will instead demand change through either the ballot box or violence in the streets — or some combination of both.
The dangers of violent protest are obvious. But there are dangers in the ballot box, too: an extreme right-wing anti-immigration party received almost 7 percent of the vote, while Pasok, the establishment party of the left, lost 119 seats in Parliament in a humiliating third-place finish. If the European Central Bank does not abandon its destructive obsession with austerity, Greece will have few options but to leave the euro zone. This would be fraught with its own dangers, of course, but the European Union has left Greece with few sustainable alternatives.
Argentina, which defaulted and restructured beginning in 2001, offers a point of comparison. The austerity crowd warned that Argentina would collapse if it stopped pegging the peso to the dollar and defaulted on its debt. There are many differences between Argentina and Greece. But Argentina’s default was followed by a few short months of economic crisis and then many years of steady economic growth — a dramatically different direction than the one Greece is now taking toward a potentially endless path of contraction that is destroying millions of lives and crippling the indomitable Greek spirit.
Yes, the Greeks acted irresponsibly before the economic collapse — the same way my father had acted irresponsibly in his private and professional life. But that is not reason to punish the children, to destroy their future as part of a remedy for a past for which they bear no responsibility.
I spent many nights last summer in Syntagma Square, directly across from the Greek Parliament. The protesting crowd was mixed, full of young people and old, self-employed, unemployed, activists, pensioners. Millions of outraged Greeks — who famously relish connection, expansiveness, intimacy — used social media to connect with the rest of the country and the world; those in the square itself connected and organized the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.
Everywhere waiters, taxi drivers, salespeople, storekeepers, people at the table next to you at dinner, were talking about the same thing. They were — and still are — giving voice to a desire for more say in their own future, a future with more choices than those on offer from the European Central Bank.
When George Papandreou, who was prime minister at the time but resigned last November, visited The Huffington Post newsroom, he expressed the same feelings: “People think they’re being punished unjustly, because they feel they weren’t to blame for this crisis,” he said.
Greece, like my mother, has always been devoted above all else to its children. When the future of those children is diminished, the future — and life — of the country will be diminished, too.
My favorite picture from the protests shows a young man pumping his fist at a line of riot police officers while his mother stands beside him, holding his jacket, to make sure he doesn’t catch a cold. If Greece stays on its current dead-end path of austerity-fueled recession, the children will revolt, and the parents will be right there beside them, cheering them on and watching protectively over them.
And if having a future means leaving the euro, that’s most likely what the Greeks will choose. They invented democracy, and now it’s time to rekindle that Greek spirit of innovation and ingenuity — before economic trouble generates further despair and its dangerous progeny in the streets and in the ballot box.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor in chief of The Huffington Post Media Group and author, most recently, of Third World America.