Blog Post

Corruption and Orientalism

The hacking and bribery scandal in the UK shows that Greece is not the only country in default.

The two crises unreel themselves in front of my screen, like two unrelated narratives. At first glance both seem unreal. A closer look reveals a common feature – the way both have been portrayed in the media.

For nearly two years now the channels of communication in western Europe and North America have routinely cast the economic calamity in Greece as expressive of Greek character. The disaster reveals a hidden truth about the country itself, some primordial, atomic essence. Every example of political malfeasance, each story of economic distress provides additional proof of national pathology, weighing the country down and pushing it away from the Aegean towards its unreliable middle Eastern brethren where it supposedly belongs.

Greeks have routinely been characterized as lazy, opportunistic, corrupt, violent, free-loaders, leeching the vitality of northern Europe. Regularly grouped in the category of PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), every type of orientalist slur has been thrown on them. And on this dark sludge have been stuck feathers of ridicule.

What is common to this portrayal is manifest destiny. The images coming out of Athens fulfill the preconceived stereotype of the southerner who is not fit for Europe, modernity, or the West.

Now let’s compare how the hacking scandal has played itself out in the media. Last week the Guardian revealed that the News of the World (NoW) had illegally hacked into the phone of a murdered girl, giving the impression to her family and the police that she was still alive. This unthinkable act brought attention to allegations about the newspaper’s previous practices.

Here are the sordid details: NoW, recently closed by Murdoch’s News International, had a list of 4,000 people whose phones it monitored, people ranging from members of the royal family, to soldiers, to crime victims. A police inquiry in 2006 into the hacking was inconclusive yet the police chose not to relaunch an inquiry in 2009. Police officers now allege that NoW tried to thwart their investigations and the full inquiry. On top of this, the newspaper had regularly paid officers for information on the private lives of public figures. Finally, Andy Coulson, an editor at NoW when the first hacking scandal broke out, resigned from the newspaper only to be hired as the Prime Minister’s media adviser. He was arrested last week.

O tempora, o mores! Here we have corruption of simultaneous galactic and minute scale, binding together readers’ unending desire for gossip about the Royals, celebrities, crime victims, and soldiers’ families, the press’ glee at breaking the law to fulfill this appetite, and the politicians’ shameless reliance on the media to negotiate between themselves and the public. Hovering above is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which until last week enjoyed the power to pick prime ministers. The system seems so nauseatingly fraudulent that it can only be comprehended as fiction.

I have a simple, perhaps naïve question. Why has no one—who has navigated the piles of dishonesty and illegality without soiling their shoes—ever said that this is typically British? Why is this crisis not made indicative of some deep British character flaw? Why does it not reveal the inner ontology of Britain, some hidden impulse towards corruption?

We know the answer as we know how such a crisis would be characterized if it happened in Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, or Greece.

The British are portrayed as rational actors whose actions are isolated and not endowed with an essential Britishness. The Greeks and the rest, on the other hand, are seen as irrational, motivated by their national identities. The British are rewarded with their future while the Greeks are damned to their past.

I raise this argument of double standards not to protect Greeks from outside criticism or self-criticism. The Greek people have to engage in collective soul searching for tolerating corrupt politicians, for engaging in petty corruption on a daily scale, and for being co-opted into a numbing consumerism.

It seems this is beginning to happen in Syntagma Square where the outlines of a new democratic movement is taking place. For the last six weeks a group of people have taken over a part of this square, just below the Parliament, and converted it into an unofficial national assembly. Reports suggest that discussions take place nightly, with speakers chosen by lot and limited to a couple of minutes. Deliberations are posted on the site’s webpage.

There is some indication that the crisis in Britain may usher in similar self-questioning. Belatedly an Arab spring may waft into the English summer. Politicians themselves have finally mustered the courage to criticize Rupert Murdoch, a move that in the past would have invited an instantaneous thunderbolt. The British people may finally know the truth about the unseemly connections among the press, the police, and the politicians.

Something refreshing is in the air: a bow of optimism has touched on Tahrir, Syntagma, and Trafalgar Squares binding them together. We are all PIIGS now.

Gregory Jusdanis's picture
Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is currently working on a biography of C. P. Cavafy.