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Is Athens Burning?

Yes, it is.  And German Chancellor Angela Merkel tweeted that she had “Upgraded Greece from Hellenic to Heroic.”  (Isn’t that clever!)  I can think of a number of reasons that she might want Greece to no longer be Hellenic.  Some of the arguments fall on one side of the debate about how to manage the Greek economy, for the Greeks had made social welfare into an art form and need reform on several levels.  And some of the arguments fall on the other side, for the EU policies are draconian and probably counter-productive while making the EU look more and more like Greater Germany.  So, what is it to be?  I’ve already alluded to the movie Is Paris Burning?, which tells how the German commander of Paris disobeyed Hitler’s order to destroy the city before it could be rescued by the Allied forces.  One also could imagine a variation on a scene from Chinatown: as Jack Nicholson slaps Faye Dunaway repeatedly, she answers with each blow: Hellenic – Heroic – Hellenic – Heroic – Hellenic – Heroic.  As in the movie, the answer isn’t quite what you were supposed to hear.

As the news broke in the US Sunday evening, the headline at the Huffington Post screamed, “Historic Buildings Torched by Rioters as Austerity Vote Passes.”  I immediately imagined the Acropolis in flames (which would take some doing).  Turns out the scale was well below that level of “historic.”  But the symbolism was there implicitly: Athens, the source of Democracy and Western Civilization was burning.  Somehow the West really is declining, collapsing into civil war, convulsed with deep antagonisms, incapable of resolving political and economic problems of its own making much less delivering on its promises and realizing its full potential.

The photos that first popped up on Twitter seemed to both confirm and complicate this story.  The image above lies outside the narrative, as we don’t think of Starbucks as a historic structure (even if it could be located in one), and yet I find it all the more disturbing.  I’m not one to cry for multinational chains, but there is something particularly martial and vicious about torching a familiar storefront.  There are times when protecting the present can be a much more serious business than preserving the past, and I’m not just referring to security operations.  The fact that the cameraman’s hat looks like a storm trooper’s helmet deepens the sense that something like war really is happening, and that a city and perhaps a civilization really is being burned rather than handed over to those who live there.

Analogies should only go so far, of course.  Merkel is not remotely like Hitler, and the demonstrators who are burning local businesses are not freedom fighters.  But one could rightly suspect that a great deal of damage may be done by bankers following orders.  Despite the warnings of those such as Paul Krugman who really do know better, political elites in both Europe and the US are more committed to dangerous neoliberal doctrines than they are making democracy work as it should.

And so we get to another image from last night.

Hellenic or Heroic?  A citadel of democratic aspirations or a city under fire?  The ominous shadows, lurid hues, and a tower of smoke that looks like a tactical nuclear explosion all give the scene an apocalyptic tone.  What truth will be revealed, and what rough beast is slouching towards Athens to be born?  Who really is destroying the city, and are the fires in Athens a symbol of collapse or a sign of the essential struggle between mass and elite come round again?

Photographs by Martin Geissier/Twitter and Nectar de Angel/Twitter.



Is Athens Burning?


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