Thursday, July 9, 2015

Context is Everything

Well, this whole Greece-vs.-EU fight is fun to watch from the sidelines, isn't it?

I've encountered some commentary talking about the concept of a referendum called by government in which government so obviously sought a "No!" outcome. In the U.S. leaders normally call for referendums when they are rooting for a "Yes!" But other commentary shows me that "No!" has powerful resonance in Greek popular memory. In 1940, Germany apparently issued a nasty ultimatum demanding Greece's surrender.

And so they were invaded.

And so they were conquered.

But they said "No!" And that is a point of national pride.

(It would seem that my memory is fuzzy or that what I read elided some historical details. Here's what has to say on it. Here's another reading about how they stood up to the Italians.)

It reminds me of a favorite historical yarn, of the American general at Bastogne receiving a German demand that he avoid further bloodshed by surrendering his troops. That general's response: "Nuts!"

I think I can identify the Greek position better when I consider another yarn, that of Jay's Treaty. In the 1790s, President Washington was desperate to avoid war with Britain and he sent John Jay to Britain with orders to avoid war at all cost. So Jay did what he was told, and returned to the U.S. with a demeaning treaty that led to some memorable expressions of outrage and a widening of the partisan splits between some of our founding politicians. Really, that might be the moment in our history where we came closest to capitulating or appeasing a bully.

Now that's graffiti!
And only a leader with the posture of Washington could pull off the maneuver.

Jay was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when dispatched by the President to negotiate an undesirable treaty. I guess the C.J. of the SCOTUS really had nothing better to do. 

For much of our history Britain was the bully, or seemed to be the bully. We stood up to them on several occasions. And on the one where it provoked war in 1812 we were lucky Britain was too distracted and exhausted from protracted war with France to finish the job against us. Standing up to Britain over a dispute in Venezuela about 120 years ago may just be the crucial event in convincing Britain that they should work harder to cement our friendship.

Whether or not the Greeks are right in their dispute with Europe is up to interpretation. What I find fascinating, though, is that we might not be too different from them when we perceive that we are on the receiving end of some international bullying. We loathe capitulation. And if in their spot, we might just vote No! too.

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