Athens is burning. Street violence, riots and rebellion has erupted and escalated ahead of the fait accomplis of Greek MPs decision on proposed austerity measures, designed to at least partially wrench the country from even more severe economic decline. But for most of Greece, it’s far too little, far too late. Citizens have endured five years of recession and social and economic conditions have now deteriorated to anarchy.
But the world’s prototype for democracy was never going to go down without a fight. The future is unclear for Athens and Greece - but growing support for the KKE (communist) party suggest some clear parallels to a very similar chain of events experienced not that long ago, in a country that is, ironically, the self-styled White Knight of euro-economics.
Germany’s future was once kept on a tight leash by international powers, its economy crippled by war and oppressed by repayments it couldn’t afford. It too, saw unemployment and inflation rise exponentially, causing chaos on the streets. Their population also turned towards alternatives, any alternatives (and ultimately a very destructive alternative) due to the bleak existence they sought to escape. Support for communist ideologies rose, martial law prevailed and uprisings became a matter of course. The Weimar period saw unprecedented horrors in the lives of many Germans, centred around the political, cultural and financial epicentre Berlin.
As the situation in Athens disintegrates, will the parallels between these two disparate historic events continue or deviate? Only time will tell.
History has shown time and time again that despite the inevitability of political decisions, the people may have other ideas and are fiercely protective of their right to choose their own futures. Once given democratic freedom, we are reluctant to hand the reins back to the powers that be.
The only sliver of optimism I can detect in Greece’s tumultuous future is the hope that this ancient civilisation can call on its philosophical, cultural, social and political history to strengthen it during its fall. Yes, millions will suffer and I by no means mean to detract from that harsh reality. But, as we saw with Germany’s Weimar Period, the near-impossible conditions produced uniquely creative, expressive and in some ways divine responses to the surrounding terror. In the face of trauma and depression, Otto Dix produced his grotesquely divine masterpieces, Dadaism and Bauhaus were born, and countless other invaluable and unique cultural movements and artefacts came into being. So, in the bleakest of environments humanity has an amazing capacity to rally, to channel the dynamism of change and work with the unspeakable pain to think, make and create.
My hope is that in this period of change, devastating and challenging as it will be for Greece, that its people can take solace from the creativity and innovation that have littered their history. My hope is that the suffering will not be in vain, that creativity and strength will triumph to unite the nation, enabling it to build again.
I’m by no means the first, and I certainly won’t be the last, to comment on the recent Salman Rushdie-related kerfuffle at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF).
For those miraculously ignorant of this (rather sorry) state of affairs, here is the Wheeler Centre’s (my home city Melbourne’s Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas) neat summation of the events.
The point of my post is not to debate whether those actions constitute an impingement on freedom of speech (which is what I do think, incidentally) or are merely a rightful prevention of ‘hate speech’ - despite the fact that that discourse is fascinating. One of my favourite blogs - Chapati Mystery - has their own take on the Salman Affair. If you’re interested in that debate, here is an interesting article on recent events in France (ban on genocide denial). My point is to ask whether the ‘is it or isn’t it’ free speech discussion does not go far enough. Nor is it to debate whether The Satanic Verses incites hatred of Muslims.
Let me explain. Researching this issue further I was reading Hari Kunzru’s (one of the authors who protested at the JLF by reading passages from the Satanic Verses) blog post in defence of his actions. What intrigued me more than Kunzru’s erudite explanation was the comments below the post from the populace at large.
It is expected and to some extent understandable (although less than ideal) that extremist and fringe members of religious, political or social groups may have equally extremist and fringe viewpoints. However, what is more concerning (to me, at least) is the amount of ‘everyday citizens’ - in this case ‘everyday Indians’, as some indeed who share those viewpoints.
- India’s literacy rate is around 65% at last count (Ref: UNICEF). How does this statistic correllate with support of freedom of speech (particularly in this specific incident where the material under debate is not accessible to circa 35% of the population)?
- In a secular democracy, are secular ethics and values such as freedom of speech being effectively disseminated by the Indian Government?
- How much is private education (ie. religious, home etc) responsible for teaching/learning of moral and ethical values?
- Is that a problem, and if so how can Government counter-act this?
I am interested in not so much the fact that people condemn freedom of speech, but understanding why - and then ideas for how we can effect change to those values to promote better awareness of the benefits of societies that embrace the principles of freedom of speech and better support amongst all groups for those principles.
This article in The Economist discusses the Indian government’s proposed changes to foreign investment laws surrounding the consumer goods sector in cities over $1M people (of which, according to the article, there are 53 in India). The proposed policy changes will effectively make a much easier path for foreign-owned supermarkets to ‘set up shop’ in India, though as the article details, barriers such as available land, the fine-print of the reforms and cultural attitudes are still obstacles. Allowing increased FDI in this area is touted (pun intended) to improve food scarcity (obviously a massive problem in the country) by providing lower-cost options, reducing waste and improving hygiene/storage as well as stimulating the economy by boosting foreign investment. The potential effects of this on local shops (kiranas) is explored: the overall message from sources appears to be that the smaller, independent ‘traditional’ retailers could and should co-exist with larger chains. For reals?
This article and the proposed ‘pro-poor’ policy raised a host of questions (below) in my mind, some of these were echoed by the commenters, who were an interesting mix of Indians and ‘non-Indians’. I was at once surprised and nonplussed by the support/lack thereof that various individuals gave to the entry of foreign chains. What are your thoughts?
- Aside from the potential negative economic impact on small/independent consumer retailers (butchers, chai-wallahs, street stalls etc) that currently pervade Indian urban life, what social affects (negative, or, in my belief less likely, positive) could a shift to ‘big box’ retail have on Indian culture? When I visited in 2008, the retail culture was one of the most fascinating aspects. Much of the typical Indian’s social self is engaged with and revealed in retail encounters.
- Arguments about whether a foreign (Western?) model can be imposed on India’s retail space abound. Given that that retail precincts in India are organised in a cottage industry/guild layout (slower-moving goods) dotted with multi-layered vendors for faster-moving goods such as fruit and veg, ‘essentials’ etc - from a strictly geographic perspective, how would this fit?
- Economic and social benefits including food waste reduction, more jobs and better prices were cited. How can the real socio-cultural loss/gain be measured taking into consideration the current semi-traditional Indian retail habits/sector? Should socio-cultural factors take less precedence due to the urgency of food scarcity, poverty and malnutrition issues in this country?
- What other policies could be put in place to address the same issues? For instance: getting foreign consultants to assist with precinct supply chain, storage, hygiene, wastage issues (supported by Indian Government) for local retailers. I don’t profess to understand the viability of options such as this, I am just curious.