Karaghioz, a very Greek hero

The recent death of Evgenios Spatharis, a master of Greece’s shadow theater named after its anti-hero Karaghioz, marks the end of a long cultural tradition. Spatharis was himself the son of a legendary karaghioz-player, Sotiris Spatharis, and, in his lifetime saw his loudmouthed, avaricious everyman move from the central stage of popular culture to a museum piece. Where once whole neighborhoods or villages would gather in a central square or vacant lot, the children seated on the dirt in front of the portable stage made up of light, painted wood and a sheet, Spatharis in his later years entertained societies that invited him to perform and he produced television shows. He also devoted himself to a museum on the shadow theater that he set up in the suburb of Maroussi.
Spatharis was not the last of the karaghioz-players as there are still some old hands putting on shows and some younger players have tried their hand at the art. But he was certainly the best known of the generation which had tried to survive the transition from the cultural mainstream to being a relic of a bygone era.
Spatharis himself had no illusions about his audience. “People who have not been barefoot and hungry cannot play Karaghioz and they can’t understand him,” he told me in an interview in 1991. We spoke as he was preparing his small stage for an afternoon performance for a women’s society in Kefalari’s plush Pentelikon Hotel. Spatharis was neither surprised nor bitter at his profession’s decline, he just noted that times had changed. And he changed with them.
Before the spread of cinemas, and the golden age of Greek popular movies in the 1960s, karaghioz players and, on the odd occasion, traveling theater troupes provided the only theater that most Greeks would ever see. The player would stand behind the white sheet with a bright lamp, maneuvering a cast of up to 10 characters as the handmade figures cut out of transparent, painted leather appeared in full color on the sheet. The player would put on all the distinctive voices of the stock characters himself while having them speak and fight, run and jump – all at the end of the sticks that he held – as the story progressed. Karaghioz, the protagonist of just about every scene, was easily distinguished by his humped back and a very long arm, which he would use in his tireless efforts to steal or beat up others. Invariably he would get his ass kicked for overreaching. (It says something about the Greek character that its popular hero would be a small-time conniver who received lusty beatings from his enemies – Greeks and Turks – before being bailed out by someone else). The catharsis in these playlets was not the result of fear and pity that one encounters in the ancient Greek tragedies, it was more the result of a good laugh at the expense of a likeable and indestructible rascal.
The plays would be rough-and-tumble affairs set around a classic theme such as Karaghioz’s attempt to steal something, to hide from someone, to seduce the Turkish grandee’s daughter. There were also grand “historical” tales, such as “Alexander the Great’s defeat of the damned serpent” and patriotic episodes from the war of liberation against the Ottoman Turks.
“The karaghioz player would always have his ear pricked to hear the audience’s reactions, and he would improvise accordingly,” Spatharis explained. The player was in intimate contact with his audience, and would milk a situation for laughs or pathos accordingly. In the same way, the karaghioz players moved with their times. One successful play, at the time of the Apollo lunar landings, concerned Karaghioz’s trip to the moon. When they lost their monopoly to movies and could not get crowds to attend performances in empty lots, they turned to radio, to vinyl records and, when the time came, to television. But, as Spatharis noted, the rise in living standards and the plethora of other means of entertainment had made karaghioz something of a curiosity.
Today, fewer and fewer people remember karaghioz performances in the open. Schoolchildren might still be treated to the occasional karaghioz performance by well-meaning adults, and they might even be entertained – but they are far more comfortable with the Mario Brothers of Nintendo fame. This does not mean that modern popular culture is to blame for the demise of the shadow theater, because karaghioz was the very personification of popular culture. It is more a reflection on the way that Greece has changed and on the fact that much that gave our nation its particular color is being lost. Karaghioz came to us via Turkey during the Ottoman occupation, his roots lost in the mist of time in the shadow theater of the Far East. It is tragic that we should attend the funeral of a hero who was born centuries – if not millennia – before us but whose death we were all witness to. Unless… Unless the Internet and video games inspire some young Greeks to grab the hand at the end of Karaghioz’s long arm and make the leap into the present. And, from there, into the future…

Milestones&Footnotes comment in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009


Quiet museums of the mind

Something is stirring in Athens’s relationship with its ancient past. The New Acropolis Museum will open its doors in a month, the National Archaeological Museum has been refurbished and now, due to the pressure of local residents and renewed interest from the Culture Ministry, the desolate ruins of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum will be added to the map of places worth visiting in the capital. All is not rosy, of course: Visitors to Athens still risk finding the crown jewel of Greek civilization, the Acropolis, closed because of a strike, while the National Archaeological Museum stands out like an island of a lost civilization in the decaying city center. Still, adding to Athens’s important archaeological sites is a triumph of a present that is all too often the scene of one defeat after another.

The Academy and Lyceum are, on the surface, empty lots with a few stone ruins and both are in highly developed parts of the capital. The Lyceum is more fortunate, so to speak, in being located in perhaps the most prestigious part of the capital, next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, in the open space between Rigillis Street on one side and the National Gallery and the Athens Hilton on the other. The site was intended for a new museum of contemporary art when archaeologists discovered (or, more likely, confirmed) that this was the location of Aristotle’s famous school of philosophy. From then on, the Lyceum appeared to be condemned to the fate of so many ancient sites: sealed to the public, abandoned to the elements. Now, according to the Culture Ministry’s plans, the grounds of the Lyceum will be joined to those of the Byzantine and Christian Museum and will be opened to the public.

The site of the Academy was identified in 1966, after which time the area was allowed to decay without hindrance. Residents are now trying to block a high-rise office block planned by Athens Prefecture. But today citizens have a much greater awareness of environmental and cultural concerns and they demand that business interests and their government contribute to the common good rather than make a bad situation worse.

Abandoning important sites is perhaps a sign of the embarrassment of archaeological riches that Athens possesses and a confession that perhaps these particular sites do not have something especially impressive to show in terms of ruins. Indeed, they are not much more than an outline of stones on the hard ground. But their importance has very little to do with their physical ruins and everything to do with what they symbolize: Plato taught in the Academy and Aristotle, his student, passed on his wisdom at the Lyceum. We know both philosophers through words – theirs and others’. Their names and the names of their institutions have come to us through the centuries, as foundation stones of western intellectual civilization. The world, and its languages, is full of academies and lyceums. Anyone who studies the history of civilization knows Plato and Aristotle, and their great teachers and students. Their greatest achievements – their eternal presence – is in the mind, in the world of ideas.

It really does not matter if the Academy and the Lyceum are not great monuments of stone, something to inspire awe on a par with the Parthenon. Their glory lies in their very simplicity, in the fact that they are the sites where sparks of thought, in an unprecedented intellectual ferment, set the world on fire. There can be no greater museum – in the mind and on the ground – than the quiet spaces that helped shape the concepts that govern how we think and how we see our world.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 22 May 2009

A vote for the future

Since signing up to join the European Economic Community 30 years ago, Greece has had the honor and the responsibility of being part of the growing unification of Europe. The benefits and obligations are a two-way street. The EEC “acquired” a member very different from the others – all of whom, at the time, were far more “Western” than Greece both geographically and historically. From Greece’s problems, demands and obsessions, Europe learned how to embrace new members with different needs and modes of behavior. It learned, also, how to enforce its will when necessary (as in imposing environmental directives, for example). Without the thorns in the initial relationship with Greece, it is doubtful whether subsequent European “enlargement” would have gone as smoothly as it did. On the other hand, Greece won the longest period of political stability and social well-being in its history, along with huge amounts of money for modernization and its people’s advancement.

Europe and Greece both gained from this osmosis. But, just three weeks from the June 4-7 European Parliament elections, there is a strong sense that both Europe and Greece are in a quagmire in their relationship but also in their separate development. Europe suffers from a lack of vision and a dearth of self-confidence on the part of its leaders, while Greece is trapped by the structural dysfunctions that no politicians dare tackle.

This problem is expressed by lack of interest in the Euro elections. Whereas 63 percent of EEC members’ citizens voted in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, by 2004 this had dropped to 45.7 percent (with participation in Greece dropping from 79 percent to 62.8 percent over the same period). For these elections, Eurobarometer found that 53 percent of European citizens are not interested in voting, reflecting perhaps a wider disconnect with politics.

In Greece, according to a Public Issue poll published by Kathimerini yesterday, only 39 percent of voters are interested in these elections, although 80 percent plan to vote. Their mood is dark: With 8 percent still undecided, the major parties show a dramatic drop in support. The opposition PASOK party leads, with 26.5 percent saying they will vote for it – a drop from 38.1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and from 34 percent in the euroelections of 2004. Ruling New Democracy is supported by 21 percent – a dramatic halving of the vote it got in 2007 (41.8 percent) and 2004 (43 percent). The Communist Party has the support of 6 percent (down from 9.5 percent in 2004), while the extreme right-wing LAOS is floundering at 3 percent (from 4.1 percent in 2004). Synaspismos shows a small rise, at 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 2004. Out of nowhere, the unknown and untested Ecologist Greens party has the third-largest group of voters: 6.5 percent.

The percentage that the main parties will get will most likely be larger on election day, but it is already obvious that our politicians’ inability to do anything about the country’s problems is leading to an impasse. The lack of policy leads to problems growing so big that no one can deal with them. The result is that the dysfunctional economy and society lead to a combination of apathy and rage at the lack of choice for voters. Of course, protest votes are not exclusive to Greece, as throughout the EU governments are expected to feel citizens’ anger through abstention or votes for small parties.

In Greece, though, we are worse off because we are trapped in a vicious cycle. Our politicians do not tackle corruption and other systemic problems in our economy and society. This is a permanent handicap, but the most severe consequence is that young people who might have made the difference in our politics, civil service and other spheres of public life see that any effort to help out will be in vain. And so, as mediocrity and expedience smother a country, it becomes more urgent for Europe to become stronger and more representative, so that citizens can hope for an end to their own country’s impasse. The challenges that the EU faces today are common to all its members to a greater or lesser degree – whether in the fields of the economy, security, migrant policy, energy or the environment. The parties which show that they are capable of taking Europe seriously, and which present candidates capable of playing a role in Europe’s development, are the parties that we should support. Not only in these elections but in the national ones as well. Because what is good for Europe is good for us. And vice versa.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 18 May 2009

Loopholes and nooses

In a little-noticed drama, played out in the wings of our political soap opera, publishers are struggling to renew a decades-old amendment that allows them to spend two percent of their turnover in whichever way they see fit. This means that they can pocket the money or use it to pay for expenses that do not have receipts (as when a correspondent is on assignment) or to make payments that they want no one to know about. Seeing as publishing is a legitimate business that has been around for a very long time it would seem rather unnecessary to open a black hole in a company’s books for “unorthodox” payments. Anyhow, the issue of how publishing works in this country needs much greater scrutiny than this short comment.
What is striking about the “two percent” issue, though, is the passion with which its supporters (namely those very few who benefit from it) are fighting to keep it. One would argue that two percent of turnover is not such a big deal, seeing as the other 98 percent is on the books with no great disturbance to operations. But that’s the point: the two percent works as a loophole, allowing all kinds of behavior that would not be tolerated if all dealings had to be above board. This is an instance in which one and one do not make two, but instead make anything that we want it to. For example, if you have a black bag in a bank, into which no one but its owner is allowed to peek, how do you know that what is in that bag is what he says it is? The two-percent loophole is, very simply, a trapdoor into a forbidden world.
And these loopholes are part of one of the greatest problems in Greece’s economy, politics and society. The so-called “parathyrakia” – “little windows” in laws and regulations – permit all kinds of favoritism and exploitation of the situation. Laws are passed or amended to favor specific groups or even individuals – laws are bent to give specific groups or individuals a free pass when they are caught breaking them. This is almost always done for the political expedience of the “lawmakers” who want to pander to their supporters or to buy the support of others. This is always done at the expense of society as a whole.
A prime example of this can be seen in our everyday travails on the roads. In an unashamed effort to curry favor with taxi drivers, the Transport Minister allowed them to raise their fares while also permitting them to use bus lanes outside Athens’s restricted center. In no time, all bus lanes, including those in the center, were choked with taxis. And, very soon after, with private cars. You see, once the bus lanes had been eviscerated, what was the point of anyone staying out of them?
These little loopholes accumulate to form the noose that strangles our society.

Milestones&Footnotes column in AthensPlus, 15 May 2009

A sinister turn in our immigration problems

In the last few weeks, Athens took a serious fall down the slippery slope of xenophobia and intolerance. Not that it was unexpected: For over a year, anyone who cared about the capital city and its center – as well as anyone who cared about the fate of illegal immigrants – warned that abandoning migrants to their own devices would lead to trouble. And so, last Saturday, members of the extreme right-wing Chryssi Avgi group (Golden Dawn) gathered to hurl abuse and objects at migrants squatting in the former appeals court building on Socratous Street, a block away from Omonia Square. Chryssi Avgi has been around a lot longer than the immigrants and its members need no excuse for vile and violent outbursts. But the immigration problem has become so serious that we run the risk of Chryssi Avgi’s message of hatred gaining a foothold in the mainstream.

Of course racists are not the only vocal citizens. At the same time that Chryssi Avgi was demanding the expulsion of migrants, extreme left-wing and migrant support groups were staging a counter-demonstration – with the police keeping the two sides away from each other. But it is hardly comforting that the “antidote” to the skinheads should be streetfighting gangs from the other end of the political spectrum. We have repeatedly seen what happens when a state is so weakened and its extremists so self-confident that left and right are locked in civil war. The almost daily shootings and occasional massacres in Turkey in the 1970s – as a variety of leftist and rightist groupings fought each other – is a chilling reminder of how easily things can spin out of control.
Greece has been a member of the European Union for nearly 30 years now and runs no danger of collapsing into civil war – but the economic crisis and growing number of desperate migrants will push society to the brink. Some places are already affected worse than others; the most acutely affected part of Greece is the center of the capital, especially around Omonia Square and in the nearby working-class district of Aghios Panteleimonas. There are many factors which have contributed to this state of affairs, but the government must shoulder the greatest blame for having allowed the problem of illegal immigration to fester.

A serious policy would have allowed long-term migrants to be absorbed into Greek society while keeping control over new arrivals through registration and the provision of food and lodging until they either received asylum, were absorbed into the work force through a need for labor or were deported. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people have been abandoned to their own devices in a society woefully unequipped to deal with them. The fact that hardworking, law-abiding migrants have been denied rights creates a gray area ideal for new arrivals and people prone to crime into which they can slip. In limbo, migrants fall victim to exploitation by unscrupulous Greeks and fellow migrants – from slumlords to ethnic gangsters.

The old appeals court building (the former Ambassador Hotel) was already a monument to squalor during its years as a court. Its abandonment is a metaphor of the collapse of the capital’s center – to the detriment of the area and its citizens (Greeks and immigrants).

It is now obvious to all that ignoring the problem will not make it to go away. In the past, the lack of a future in Greece forced migrants to keep moving westward. Now that the future in other EU countries no longer looks any rosier, many have been forced to stay here. The government is scrambling to forge a policy and is appealing to its EU partners for help. But, in addition to trying to stop migrants at sea or at the border, it is imperative that a comprehensive policy be adopted to deal with those who are now part of us, to provide asylum to those who need it and to arrange the safe return to their home country for those who have no future here. The problem is too dangerous for further excuses to do nothing.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 15 May 2009

Character is destiny

On Saturday, Jacob Zuma was sworn in as the third president of post-apartheid South Africa, following the legendary Nelson Mandela and the bookish Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa, with a population of about 50 million people, is Africa’s economic and industrial powerhouse. Its future will have a decisive effect on the stability and welfare of the entire continent.

In the past two decades, South Africa achieved a miracle: It passed bloodlessly from a regime of institutional racism to a noisy, multicultural and exemplary democracy.

The nation has shown great progress since the first free elections of 1994, but major problems remain unsolved: inequality among rich and poor (not necessarily always on the white/black axis), violent crime and 5 million people infected with HIV.

Zuma has now been called upon to solve these problems at a time when the global economic crisis is rocking South Africa – reducing demand for its industrial products as well as its gold, platinum and other resources. The new president’s character, however, is another cause of concern, as he is as different as one can be from Mandela and Mbeki.

His predecessors were men of learning and persuasiveness, who managed to combine their anti-apartheid struggle with a decidedly Western image: Mandela, a member of the Xhosa aristocracy, was a lawyer before his 27-year imprisonment, during which time he continued to read and learn. Pipe-smoking Mbeki has a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex.

Zuma is a self-educated, polygamous former cowherd and firebrand trade unionist who stokes up crowds with his trademark guerrilla song: “Bring me my machine gun.” He won the presidency after a long struggle against corruption and rape charges, for which he has been cleared.

So it is natural that many in South Africa and abroad should worry that after the “gentlemen” Mandela and Mbeki, the populist Zuma could destabilize the economy and upset the delicate racial balance in the country. The recent troubles in which poor black South Africans carried out a pogrom against even poorer Zimbabwean immigrants (accusing them of taking their jobs), showed how fragile the situation is and how little patience remains for a more just distribution of national wealth.

And this is precisely where one might hope that Zuma’s election could be cause for optimism: Only someone like Zuma, who appears to be closer to the people than to the governing elite, could carry on with the prudent, conservative economic policy that Mandela and Mbeki followed without provoking a revolution. Because the ruling African National Congress has not lived up to expectations of solving all the country’s problems, it has to appear to change itself radically in order to remain in power.

In Zuma’s case, we might say that we have proof of Heraclitus’ view that “character is destiny.” If Zuma were not so popular nor so determined to pursue power, he would not have endured the war declared on him by the establishment under Mbeki in the past few years. He not only won, but there is even the possibility that, because of this character, he may be just the person his country needs in order to secure a peaceful continuation. Time will tell.

If we look at the character of a number of leaders with regard to their career and the course of their country, we may find reasons both for hope and for despair. For example, Barack Obama, with his seriousness, patience, academic achievements and desire for consensus, may be just the person the United States need to lead them out of economic crisis and two wars. In Russia, the low-key Dmitry Medvedev and strongman Vladimir Putin appear to be finding a balance with each other; at the same time, they are keeping a tight hold on the reins of power, while gradually developing their country and its institutions. In Britain, Gordon Brown, on a burning deck, is trying doggedly to steer through the economic storm that his government did not see coming.

If we turn to Greece and look at the people who are in power or in pursuit of it, then we see why we are in so much trouble. It appears that here it is not leaders’ characters that are their destiny but their name. And a name – whether it be Karamanlis or Papandreou – means very little if it is not accompanied by the character of a leader.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 11 May, 2009

School for scandal

The past week has been something of a fire sale in terms of getting long-simmering scandals out of the way as the country heads for European Parliament elections in a month’s time. There was the vote early Tuesday on whether to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the allegation that former Aegean Minister Aristotelis Pavlidis extorted money from a shipowner; on Thursday, Parliament debated the Siemens bribery scandal; in the early hours of Friday morning, Parliament was to vote on whether to hold an inquiry into how Pavlidis awarded lucrative subsidized contracts for ferries serving remote islands.

Three debates and three after-midnight votes in five days had MPs feeling something like priests during Holy Week: exhausted by an excess of what they usually do in carefully measured doses. Holy Week, however, culminates in the annual, symbolic resurrection of Christ, with its message of hope for humankind. The Passions of our Parliament offer no such hope of redemption, culminating as they do in nothing more than confirmation that our political system is an empty ritual devoid of any meaning or any hope that our politicians will be held accountable for failure or mendacity. It’s a refresher course in cynicism.

After years of practice, every wing in the Parliament played its role in the ritual to perfection. The government – whichever of the two main parties is in power – professes to pursue truth but has to allow some higher principle to get in the way of the parliamentary process. New Democracy had two arguments this time: that Pavlidis had been cleared by an earlier inquiry (by a committee on which ND was in the majority) and, with regard to the Siemens scandal, that the issue was still being investigated by the judiciary and so should not have been sent to Parliament at this stage. The opposition parties, in self-righteous frenzy as always, portrayed themselves as paragons of virtue who need only be voted into office to clean up politics once and for all. The smaller the party and the less chance it has of ever being in power, the more unequivocal it is in its demand to “hang the bastards.”

This time, though, the stakes were higher than usual. The government, with 151 members in the 300-seat Parliament, is hostage to every single one of its MPs. Pavlidis had every reason to bring down the government if he appeared in danger of being abandoned by his party. Under the grotesque law on government ministers’ accountability, if this Parliament were dissolved without Pavlidis being indicted, then he would be free of all charges. So the government was obliged to give him a free ticket, whether it suspected him of wrongdoing or not and despite angry demands by some ND members that Pavlidis simply “do the right thing” and resign. Pavlidis, an old hand in politics, did nothing of the sort, knowing very well that the only way he could be lead to the gallows would be if he himself made things easy for the government.

Fearing that enough ND MPs would vote for an inquiry into Pavlidis, thereby giving the opposition motion a majority, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, was preparing himself for early national elections to coincide with the European Parliament poll. In the end, the motion did not get the necessary 151 votes, so the government will keep on its day-to-day struggle, not daring to tackle any of the very serious problems that the country faces in case it loses its one-seat majority.

The worst legacy of scandals that lead to loads of bluster but nothing else, though, is that the charade instills a sense of futility, anger and cynicism in citizens who see politicians making a mockery of justice. When their representatives are so shameless, how can we expect citizens to adopt a higher moral code? Any delay in subjecting politicians to the same justice as the rest of us is, very simply, an incitement to crime – in places high and low.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 8 May, 2009

A prince among men

In times of crisis true leaders stand out. It is natural, then, that in this wretched age, Giorgos Karatzaferis should emerge from the daily sludge like some shiny creature from the lost lagoon of an idealized past. Where others hum, haw, bluster and equivocate on every issue, his moral clarity radiates like the sun on a bronze statue of Alexander at noon; where other politicians pay lip service to the law, he does what he likes whenever he likes, knowing that in Greece the “political” dimension of things is more important than any temporal collective illusion of absolutes. In this case, the political dimension is his personal pursuit of truth, justice and the superiority of all things Greek. In this he is truly a great Greek: because he knows better than anyone else what the fatherland needs, everything that he does in pursuit of his further advancement is justified because he himself is dedicated to a higher cause.
His whole life has been devoted to creating a mythical persona that is no less splendid for being real, for his generous willingness to be one of us, one of the people. He has been a bodybuilder, a disc jockey, the owner of a school for models, a journalist, owner of a television channel (dedicated solely to the Karatzaferis personality cult) and, now, a politician. Throughout his political career (first as a New Democracy gadfly, now as a party leader), the charismatic chief of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS, an acronym which stands neatly for “the people”) is perfectly in tune with a society that is built on the precarious foundation that people are what they say they are – not necessarily what they are trained to be.
So gorgeous Giorgos is the Greek everyman. Not only is he made up of something from everyone and something for everyone, but his political opportunism, too, is based on feeding on the luxuriant bottom of the social and political barrel. His extreme right-wing opinions are peppered with statements that make the extreme left look like pro-capitalism, pro-banking cheerleaders. His piety leads him to Church on Sundays but does not get in the way of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and wild conspiracy theories. The issue is not whether Karatzaferis believes in everything that he does or says – or trusts in his alliances with even more extremist groups – the issue is that his lack of any seriousness, of any questioning of his beliefs, works wonderfully with a growing segment of the electorate.
And this is where Karatzaferis’s moral clarity comes in: he wastes no time pretending to be something other than what he is; and in doing so he shows up the Greek political system for what it is – a stage full of sound and fury signifying nothing, simply reflecting the opportunistic gropings of the day. Giorgos did not need to waste his time or ours instructing his party’s MPs how to vote after Monday’s debate on whether former minister Aristotelis Pavlidis should face a parliamentary inquiry. The Constitution says parliamentary ballots are secret and a matter of personal conscience. So, Giorgos marked all the ballot papers of his MPs according to his personal conscience. He then sealed them in envelopes and handed them to his deputies. Even they did not know which way they were voting. Perfect secrecy. What his MPs learned was no secret, as they had known it from the moment they climbed aboard Karatzaferis’s personal vehicle: it’s his party, and they can cry if they want to.

Milestones&Footnotes comment in AthensPlus, 8 May, 2009

Newspapers have a future

We are in the middle of an information revolution and one of the great ironies of our age is that newspapers are in danger of extinction – because they are seen as extraneous to our wired world – at precisely the moment that they are more necessary than ever.

The very overabundance of other information media, the spread of the Internet and digital communities, and the economic crisis make it imperative to have serious investigation and analysis of a world with no certainties.

Until now, only newspapers (with educated and experienced journalists) have appeared capable of providing such a service.

Newspaper people – with a combination of narcissism, fatalism and rubber-necking – each day record the minutiae of their profession’s woes. Reading newspapers, one would believe that their demise is a matter of just a few years if not months.

Indeed, the chronicles of newspaper deaths are impressive.

Great newspapers in the United States have closed or are in danger of closing.

Just last Friday we read that Britain’s Independent and Independent on Sunday are headed toward sale or slaughter because of debts that exceed 1 billion euros (so, of course, no one will want to buy them).

The great New York Times and Washington Post are firing people and trying to cut costs in whichever way they can.

In this climate of uncertainty, the 10th annual European Newspaper Congress in Vienna last week provided an opportunity to discuss the challenges that newspapers face and proposals for their future.

We went expecting obituaries and lame jokes about rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Instead, for two days, press people from many countries discussed their problems with great seriousness but also with optimism, exchanging ideas as to how newspapers can make the great leap forward.

Whether world-famous gurus of design, such as Mario Garcia and Juan Antonio Giner, media analysts or editors of newspapers large and small (for sale and free), everyone was part of a single world with common problems: Newspapers are precious but expensive products that will have to embrace the possibilities provided by new technologies and not sink under the weight of inertia or the waves caused by the competition. One conclusion that everyone appeared to share was that design and reorganization of content can renew an existing newspaper and attract readers who have grown up using the Internet, mobile phones, Twitter, and so on. As Garcia noted, “in 2012, people who have no recollection of life before Google or the Internet will turn 21.” For Garcia, the newspaper is now one with its online edition, mobile services, messages etc. “You are news people, not newspaper people,” he told the audience in Vienna City Hall’s grand ballroom. He explained that journalists have to review their content according to the medium that they will use to get it to the public, as what works in print may not work online, and vice versa. “Invest in the Internet,” he advised. “And nurture your weekend print editions.”

In this new world, journalists work for their newspaper’s print and online editions and they adapt their work according to the medium. Design plays a great role in attracting readers – people who will pay for something that they can ostensibly get for free on the Internet or in free papers. But, as all speakers noted or took for granted, the greatest weapon that newspapers have is serious journalism – not with news that will already be known via electronic media, but through the analyses, investigations and commentary which will give a particular newspaper’s readers an advantage.

The crisis will pass. The need for good information is permanent. The challenge for newspapers is not to be first with the news but to be the best at what they do with it in terms of analysis and getting the big story right. The best newspapers will survive.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 4 May, 2009

Empire and the law

The impassioned debate currently taking place in the United States as to whether to hold an inquiry into the revelations that captives in the “war on terror” were tortured, indicates that America is at a turning point that will determine the image and substance of its democracy.

The United States has not left any physical marks that will allow the people of the future to grasp the power and influence of the mightiest military and economic power the Earth has seen. It did not build pyramids nor Parthenons nor great roads and aqueducts, like so many empires before it. The great achievements of the Americans have been mostly intangible: the development of technology that empowered the individual, the spread of open markets and the globalization of trade and affluence. Above all, though, the United States was the driving force in the spread of democracy and human rights in countries whose citizens were suffering. Even though US governments cooperated with brutal, autocratic regimes and took part in regional wars, the image of justice that they radiated created a standard that every nation wanted to reach.

With the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989, it appeared that the model represented by the United States – that of democracy and capitalism – had triumphed. This illusion did not last long: The terrorist attacks of 2001, the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003, the collapse of the global credit system, the widespread recession and the rapid climate changes shook the new order.

The United States found itself facing an unprecedented challenge: How could it protect its people and its interests without endangering the ideals on which the Americans’ global influence depended? It was a great misfortune for the United States – and the rest of the world – that George W. Bush was president at this critical time.

He did not waste time before deciding that what was good for America was good for the world. He adopted the dogma of “preemptive war,” along with extrajudicial killings, the kidnapping of suspects in foreign lands and harsh interrogation tactics (i. e. torture). Not only did these violate US and international laws but, in the eyes of the world, the American model lost the precious sense of its moral superiority. What once took place in the dungeons of dark regimes was now being carried out by Americans.

Beyond its moral decline, however, the Bush government’s greatest crime was its violation of the law. Scrapping punishment for those who break the law leads directly to arbitrary behavior, corruption and widespread cynicism. It destroys the fabric of society.

It’s irrelevant whether torture helped gain valuable information (as its supporters claim) or whether it lead simply to forced and useless confessions born of fear and despair (as others counter). Nor can we know whether the fear of torture dissuaded anyone from committing a terrorist act. What we do know is that undermining civil society is far more dangerous than the threat of terrorism – both for the United States and the countries whose governments might like to do the same.

In his desire for political consensus, President Barack Obama would like to avoid a confrontation with Bush administration officials and the CIA. But this is not a matter of personal choice. Just as the administration officials and CIA agents had no right to break the law, the president has no right not to order an investigation and the possible punishment of those responsible. (Let’s not forget that the revelation by US newspapers of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, painful though they were, saved the reputation of the American media and, to a great extent, cleansed their country’s name of the taint.)

Only the imposition of the law – however belatedly – can heal the wounds of its violation. And only by adhering to the law can a society show its true face.

Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 27 April, 2009