December 3, 1998

Trip to Greece offers lesson in democracy



In the center of the city, near some of the most historical sites, a huge transportation project cuts a wide swath. Long-term residents face rising rents and displacement by new developments.

Education reform is controversial, with many teachers opposing the government's latest innovations. While nationally, the governing party suffered a setback in the recent election, prompting a shakeup in party leadership. These are all familiar news stories here in the Athens of the New World, Cambridge/Boston.

Recently, during a week in Athens, Greece, I compared some aspects of our public life with those in democracy's birthplace. The subway -- the first ever in Athens -- is under construction a mere few hundred yards from ruins dating to classical antiquity. This "big dig" is one of the most ambitious projects since Pericles oversaw the rebuilding of the ritual center on the Acropolis in the 5th century before the common era. Renters, such as one friend whose apartment building is to be razed to make way for the new Acropolis Museum, know not how they will continue to live in the city they love.

Meanwhile, government initiatives to address the nation's problems spark protest, as when the education minister warned teachers to get along with the current round of reform or get out of the profession. Dissatisfaction with prevailing policies yielded disappointment for the ruling Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in the recent election, prompting a change in Cabinet ministers while I was in Greece.


A free press for free citizens

These events in Greece, and the corresponding American events, were reported in detail in the newspapers, a free press being one of the glories of democracy, here as in Greece. Greeks take their newspapers seriously, more so than Americans, as witnessed by the morning television news programs, which consist of reports on what appeared in the day's printed news.

Another glory -- a greatly underrated glory -- of a free democracy is the extent to which government actions, those important stories reported in the newspapers, do not absolutely control people's lives. Whether PASOK or the Republicans gain or lose a few seats will not determine whether I am free to live in my house, go to my job, enjoy my loved ones, and otherwise live as I choose.

In America, as in modern Greece, the rise or fall of a political party will not mean that some must go into exile or prison, nor face privation or death. Democracy's promise that every citizen have a say in how he will be governed can be fulfilled only in a society that makes it safe to be on the losing side or to take no side.


Eating, drinking, smoking

Greeks, living under a form of democratic socialism, are accustomed to more state intervention in their economic life than most Americans can reconcile with freedom.

But the Greeks I met were equally surprised that Americans subject so much of their private lives to public scrutiny. When the late prime minister, then in his 70s, left his wife of 40 years for a woman half his age, one Athenian was quoted in the news saying, "I don't support Papandreou's politics, but the man is fantastic. For a man of that age, he has shown all his organs are still functioning." I heard this sentiment expressed time and again when Greeks asked me about the Clinton "I didn't have sex with her, she had sex with me" scandal.

Greeks enjoy good times, good food, good drinks, and cigarettes with friends. People I met were puzzled by Americans' puritanical self-denial of these carnal pleasures. Of course today's Puritans, as of old, are not content to deny themselves, they want control others' taste in food, drink, and smoking. My friends in Greece find that a disturbing, even undemocratic, attitude.

I think the birthplace of democracy still has something to teach us about freedom, at least in the area of personal choices.


Lee Street resident David Trumbull is chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.