BERLIN, Germany — Running away with stereotypes, politicians and headline-writers have been committing Greek character assassination in the coverage of the Greek financial crisis. The image of the "profligate Greek" has helped muster public support for the dismantling of the Greek social safety net while muddling the trail of "aid" money.
The simplistic message readers might have taken away from some of the coverage of the Greek financial crisis is: Thrifty Germans are footing the bill for wasteful Greeks who need to “tighten their belts.” One Greek scholar warned that the nationalistic mud fight takes away from what readers and citizens might understand about the issue's complexity and how the Draconian austerity measures will hurt his country's recovery.
Greece has been lampooned in the press in insulting terms that play to ethnic stereotypes. Greece "behaves like an alcoholic who is always given another bottle of schnapps and who promises to sober up after his 'last' bottle," said German Free Democrat Finance Minister Frank Schäffler in February. Earlier the New York Times characterized the Greek economic behavior as "debt-fueled profligacy."
Much of the story trumpeted by the headline "Big Fat Greek Bailout" pitted Germans against Greeks.
Focus Magazine featured Venus de Milo giving the finger to the European Union with the headline:"Fraud in the EU Family: Is Greece deceiving us about money — and what's with Spain, Portugal and Italy?"
The mud-slinging played to stereotypes of Greeks as a sneaky people with money problems, and was all too familiar for Greek scholar Costas Panayotakis. The social science professor at the City University of New York spoke to GlobalPostabout the press coverage of the crisis.
'Opposite of a fiscal stimulus'
This is a struggle over how the negative sentiments will be "funneled," Panayotakis said. When Greeks are spoken of in a derogatory manner as "an increasing racialized" southern European people, it's easier to swallow punitive measures — in this case, austerity measures. One Bild headline read: "Greeks ready to cut back? They would rather strike!"
Austerity measures are the opposite of what the Greek people need to fix their economy, said Panayotakis. Austerity measures to cut Greece's social safety services and wages were part of the EU-IMF bailout deal and will directly affect working-class Greeks — mostly for the worst, he said. "What is happening in Greece is the opposite of a fiscal stimulus," Panayotakis said.
Average pension benefits will be cut 11 percent, government workers' wages by 14 percent, and the basic rate for value-added tax will rise from 21 to 23 percent. Robert J. Samuelson of theWashington Post called it the "welfare state's death spiral." People without jobs don't contribute much to a national economy, Panayotakis said. "How can you tax anyone when the economic activity of a country has been frozen?"
'These misconceptions are not accidental'
As Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantiou put it, the austerity measures plan hurts everybody. “It hurts people that are not even responsible for what happened,” he said. “But, it's this program or a dead end."
The idea that Greeks are living la dolce vita makes it easier for Germans to swallow the proposed cuts, Panayotakis said. The Bildran articles entitled: "Sunny, 20 degrees, no money: Here the Greeks beg for our billions.”
"These misconceptions are not accidental, they are cultivated," Panayotakis said. "It makes it easier to push policies that have the same conservative neo-liberal philosophy that creates the problems that the Greeks — and the world — are facing."
"The name of Greece and every Greek is tainted"
In late April, the New York Times picked up an op-ed originally written by managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini. Full of pity and self-degradation, Nikos Kostandaras wrote, "We arrived at a dead end because of our own weaknesses, our own inability to handle our independence and fulfill our international obligations." He wrote that his country "muddled on with our weaknesses," until realizing we would have "a moment of absolute surrender" and have to "bow our head and accept the charity of others."
He concluded: "The true cost of what we will pay is not so much in the wages lost and expectations dashed, but rather in the fact that the name of Greece and every Greek is tainted."
"The first thing you learn about Greece is that it's the cradle of democracy — now all that's left is just the IMF and the EU," Panayotakis said. "It's basically a blow to democracy."