Fear and Loathing in Greece
“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”
Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The scene is this. Alghero, Sardegna. I am in town to give one of the keynote talks at a conference about protest movements and social media. I have a new book out on how social media network publics around bonds of sentiment. How they let movements tell their own story, on their own terms. Occupy, Arab Spring, Indignados. In the end, I say, technologies connect us, but it is our stories that connect us. Identify us. Or divide us. I have been spending the past few months in Greece on sabbatical. I was born and raised there; then left to study in the US. I have been living in the US for the past 22 years now. People, colleagues in Sardegna ask: How is it? I say: It is odd. Everyday is a roller coaster ride. In the morning, there’s good news. By evening time, it has either been spun into bad news or developed into bad news. Or vice versa. Negotiations since February have exhausted everyone. But there’s hope I say. We are close to a deal. It is Tuesday, June 23. The news is abuzz with the Greeks finally being close to a deal with their European partners. It will be ok, I say. Despite the fact that a negotiation that should have opened the doors to ending the politics of austerity within the EU ended up being framed into one about Grexiting or staying within the Eurozone.
Thursday, June 25. My obligations at the conference are over. I take some personal time and go on a sailing trip around the island. Cell reception on the boat is iffy. But really, who wants to look at their phone when sailing? I tell my students that it is important to know when to use tech, and to know when to unplug it, too. I do the same. We are back by sunset and I meet conference colleagues in town for dinner and drinks. A lot has happened during that serene sailing trip, it seems. ISIS has struck again — 3 different locations. Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states — my FB feed is all happy rainbow colors. And, a deal is no longer in sight for Greece. Around midnight, Prime Minister Tsipras goes live to announce that we will have a public referendum to decide whether we want the deal our partners are offering. My phone starts buzzing with calls, texts, alerts. My mother calls with the low down. A former executive for a big company, she speaks in short, precise terms. She is a lively, smart and educated woman. She has been working in the private sector since her 20s. She did not want to retire, but was forced into it, when she reached the retirement quota in years. Her lively group of friends and former colleagues had to do the same. She has diligently paid taxes, social welfare contributions and into her 401k and other equivalent retirement funds. Last year her pension was slashed in half. The value of her retirement investments tumbled. Some stock that she owns is performing poorly, while stock that she owned for a bank called Taxydromiko Tamieutirio simply disappeared when the bank was sliced and the lucrative parts sold off. None of the shareholders received any information on their holdings, which vanished. It comes down to this, she tells me: Bring back as much as you can withdraw in Euro before you fly back from Italy tomorrow.
Saturday, June 27, midnight. My mother is nice enough to pick me up from the airport. She lays it down for me in her typical matter of fact way. If you see an ATM that has no line of people attached to it, that ATM is dry. Alpha Bank is updating their software systems over the weekend, they are dry. Smaller banks are dry, too. The National Bank of Greece and Eurobank have assigned staff to go in periodically over the weekend and restock the cash, but in certain locations. We drive around Sunday morning. This is a two person operation, because, there’s no really formal parking in Greece. Most people park on the streets, and many double-park. The police used to ticket, but not since the crisis got deep. No one will pay the tickets anyway. In our ATM drive-by, we spot the dry ATMs right away. They stand alone, or are occupied by a single user, who leaves within seconds and with a visible look of disappointment. My mother thinks we will have better luck at the airport, and indeed she is right. Others had that brilliant idea also. I am greeted by a line of 20 or so people. None of them are flying out. They all went to the airport explicitly to use the ATM. Only one of three ATMs is still giving out cash. People in line are anxious but friendly — joking about how they expect it to run out of money any minute now. When it’s my turn, my US debit card does not work for some reason.
We move on. There’s an ATM by the IKEA store that does not get much traffic. We are greeted by a gloomy looking customer, who informs us that it is dry, too, but he works at a bank, he says, and he recommends trying the ATMs at the expensive private hospital across the street, the Diavalkaniko. That was our plan B. I wander the hallways of the hospital looking for the ATMs. The well air conditioned marble corridors of the pricey hospital are eerily quiet and empty. I locate the two ATMs and acquire an entourage of five in the process, folks who are also looking for the ATMs. Dry, as well. We head downtown, stopping where we see lines — a sure sign of a cash-dispensing ATMs. By now my social psychologist instincts have kicked in. I observe behaviors, I talk to the people in line. My US debit card is weirdly still not working, so I end up waiting in about 5 or 6 different lines, before I call the bank and they fix the snafu. In one line, the lady in front of me is waiting to pick up money for her son. It is afternoon, but he is still at home sleeping, and is headed out on a vacation trip tomorrow. Her daughter has headed to the beach already. A typical Greek family, suspended somewhere between chaos and opulence. I know it all too well. When I was studying in the US, and later, when I started teaching at a US university, I was often greeted by these perplexed words upon visiting for the Summer by similar folk: “But you do not want to work at a Greek University?” No, I work at a research 1 in the US, studying the internet, a medium that less than 5% of the US population used at the time. “And what about your parents, family, don’t you want to marry a Greek man?” I could not muster anything beyond a blank stare. I had dreams of writing the next big book, interesting research projects, traveling the world — none of them involved Greek husbands and kids. These days I no longer get these questions. What I get instead is this: “Thank God you got out young, and stayed out. Don’t come back.”
At another long line, at a bank with not one but three ATMs all dispensing cash, people are markedly more anxious. They watch those up at the ATM closely. Anybody walking away from the ATM with no cash in hand triggers an immediate alarm — has the ATM gone dry? Anybody taking too long is criticized. Deep in thought in another line, thinking about how I was born in a country that invented democracy but has the shortest track record with democracy, but now live in a country that has rebranded democracy and is successfully exporting that brand to the world, I am interrupted by yelling: One ATM user has spotted a lady using not one but three cards on a single ATM to withdraw cash from three bank accounts. “You are drying up the ATM!” he screams, and angrily walks away. 10 people behind me in line, a young woman is heard saying: “So what if we go back to the drachma! If you did it, we can. We can live off the basics!” She is addressing a group of middle-aged people waiting in line with her, with all the gusto and fearlessness of the young. They are moved but also let down by her naiveté, and they politely respond: “Yes, we lived like that. But we did it, and we fought for social welfare benefits so that our children, you, could have a different life. You don’t know what it feels like to see a life’s efforts disappear overnight.” I see my mother out of the corner of my eye, double-parked and never one to not have the last word, getting ready to jump into the argument. I jump in the car instead with my freshly dispensed cash and we drive off.
Back home my first cousin is speaking live on Sky News. He is a political scientist in the UK. The station wanted him to go live in an hour. They sent a van; I recognize the brown brick building in the English countryside behind him; he is speaking in front of his house. These days the news updates on Greece abound and are urgent, but the full story still escapes us all. The journalist asks about the long lines at ATM lines in Greece, about the Finance Minister Varoufakis’ earlier tweet that “Capital controls within a monetary union are a contradiction in terms. The Greek government opposes the very concepts.” Is there any possibility for capital controls, she asks? My cousin looks calm, angry, sad, hopeful. I know what he’s thinking. I have known him since he was born. He’s thinking what all of us are thinking. With lines this long for three days now, and no deal in sight, there’s no escaping capital controls. I smile. It’s 9pm. It has been announced that capital controls will be in effect in Greece for daily withdrawals of 60euro, and banks will be closed to the public effective Monday, June 29, and probably until the Tuesday after the referendum. A friend texts me. She had lost her ATM card and the new one has not arrived yet. She is wondering how she will withdraw her salary, deposited on Friday. Someone online tweets about the elderly, who do not use ATM cards and have the cute and quaint passtime of strolling by the bank, chatting with the tellers, and waiting in line to update their bank account booklets and withdraw cash. I know them all too well. My father is one of them. He is 81. I gave him a tutorial on how to use an ATM card a year ago, when we first started worrying about bank runs. He still does not use it. Neither do the three elderly gentlemen I helped use the ATM yesterday, during my own travails.
Prime Minister Tsipras on TV again. He tries to calm the public down, ending his speech with saying that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but not attributing the quote to FDR. He had used the same quote for his concluding remarks at the parliament the previous night, attributing it to “an American politician of the New Deal.” My friends are flying in from Manhattan in a week — we are going to Spetses. I tell them to bring lots of Euros with. Another friend from Chicago, meeting me here later in August texts — So, we can still use credit cards, right? Ask me in a week, I reply.
So, in a week, Greeks have to vote on a referendum choosing between two complex sets of reforms, the full text of which has not been made publicly available in an official manner or translated, and even if it were, I am not certain as to whether it would be read. Some of them are abroad on business or studying. Others cancelled business trips or saw business deals stalled. Many have moved abroad to work and cannot afford to get back to vote. Most do not understand why the negotiations have taken so long, and everyone at this point is very, very confused. Who will vote? Who is in a position to vote? Will they vote with their heads? With their hearts? With what information? I have always thought of logic and sentiment as two symbiotic processes. Reason helps us interpret our emotions. Our emotions trigger our reactions. One cannot exist without the other, but without information, reason has no fuel to run with. Walter Lippman doubted the ability of publics to act on reason, worrying that they will forever be swayed by elites. It is true. For the past few months, we have heard nothing but propaganda on the Greek crisis, from all sides and media. Events are turned into stories and they are turned into spin instantaneously. John Dewey famously disagreed with Lippmann, and had faith in the ability of the public to reason through the propaganda. Greeks want to vote with sentiment and reason. And they can. And they did in the parliamentary elections we had just a few months ago. They are sharp cats and think critically — sometimes too critically for their own good. And they have guts. Now it is time for the elected representatives to move forward, bear the weight of their decisions, and for them to fear nothing, but fear itself.
Zizi Papacharissi wrote about sentiment, reason, and social media in her latest book, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics, published by OUP. She is Professor and Head of Communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago.