Second-hand smoke, closed-society and low collective standards: the root causes of the crisis in Greece

Doing the rounds catching up with my friends in Athens, I met up with Andreas, a buddy from an improv comedy group we were in last year. We sat on a side-street in the gritty and lively historic center, enjoying the bright Attic sun and simultaneously also the fumes of second-hand smoke from the table next to us. I asked Andreas, hoping for a miracle since my last visit in September, “this ban on smoking in public places still isn’t being enforced in Greece, is it?”

He took the opportunity to enlighten me on a observation that has more substance than any New York Times editorial I have read about the Greek financial-political situation, “The day you come to Athens and the ban on public smoking is being observed, will be one small step for Greek man, one giant step for Greek mankind,” he said as I observed inquisitively the two puffing Neanderthals next to us and wondered what their brain-processing capabilities were.

“This attitude of me-first, I don’t care, it’s my right to impose my attitude on others, I’m a special exemption.  This behavior of imposing yourself on others, is the very cause of why we have political, financial instability and chaos in this country,” he exclaimed, as the heirs to Pericles and Aristotle next to us, continued rolling, licking and smoking another round of the hand-made ubiquitous rolled cigarettes across Athens.

I reflected what is it that makes this behavior acceptable here, in Greece, and thought about the common rhetorical question many Greek emigrants abroad lament, “Why do Greeks prosper everywhere, from Sydney to San Francisco, but not within Greece’s borders?” I would reckon and generalize it’s because we, Greeks among Greeks, have collectively set low standards for ourselves, we don’t hold ourselves accountable, and many of our compatriots thinks he or she is a special exemption and can get away with doing what they feel like, in a delusional sense of freedom.

Creating an incentive to ban public smoking: So what would it take to change this behavior and enter 21st century norms?   If the police try to enforce this law throughout Athens, they’ll be seen as the bad guys, the ‘bad state’ imposing its power on the freedom of people. If the café owners are expected to enforce it, they’ll say they can’t chase their customers out the door if they want to light a cigarette.

Here is my proposal and incentive: the current places that defy the public smoking ban (and customers who enjoy increasing their chances of lung cancer) can continue to pay the 23% sales tax VAT on their food and drinks, but places that voluntarily go all non-smoking and enforce the ban, can pay a reduced 10% sales tax VAT to create an incentive for places to go all non-smoking.

Andreas reminded me of another related example, where cultural behavior reforms simply by the presence of mixed genders, “When you did your military service, did you have any females on the base?” I thought, yes we actually did in Kalamata. “Did you notice the difference of how young men behave more eloquently, talk with cleaner language, and have better etiquette in the presence of a Penelope or a Christina? And on the bases where there aren’t any females, the behavior quickly evolves into fraternity-style vulgarity with bathroom hygiene, language and manners from the Neolithic Age, as there are no females to be ashamed in front of?”

I wonder, in other areas, if a little bit more demographic diversity would create an incentive to set behavior and expectations to a higher standard in Greece’s closed, insular society. When I walk past a huddled group of police officers on their motorbikes in Athens, it feels like they are posing for the Mykonos 2015 GQ summer calendar. Would a mix-up of a couple brown and black faces and some females, give them a friendlier and more engaging face to the public they are meant to protect and also be a more reflective image of the on-the-ground demographics of 2015 Athens?

What about the thousands of Greek-born, fluent-Greek speaking second-generation offspring of immigrants who only know Greece as their country, but happen to be of Asian or African ancestry? If we fast-track and integrate them through the bureaucratic hurdles into society, might these be future business leaders, educators, entrepreneurs who create jobs and form business and cultural links with the dynamic, emerging countries their parents hail from?

There are thousands of Greek diaspora, from America, Australia, Europe and throughout the world, who want to stay engaged, work, do business in Greece and there will be many more in the next generation from the offspring of the current Greek wave that migrated out the past few years. Might an objective analysis of how to bring these people into Greece to do business, invest, work (even nomadically) raise the work standards and ethics of the Greek professional class?

I’ve heard many theories on Athens trolleys and taxis about why Greece has hit rock bottom: “it’s the banks fault, it’s capitalism, the foreigners want to devastate us and buy our islands, it’s the Nazis fault, the dictatorship, we’re backwards because of the Ottoman Empire occupation.”   Perhaps some of these events have a historical context, but in the year 2015, I think Greeks can hold only one group accountable for our collective future: ourselves! As long as we continue to smoke where we want to, park where we want to, demand special treatment because we are more special than our fellow-citizen next to us, then snap-elections and financial crisis will be as ubiquitous in Athens as the tobacco-pouch rolling, filter-in-the mouth buffoons blowing their smoke in our face next to us.