Europe Really is Different than the United States

in line for donations in Athens by Crete farmers

Thessaloniki   The point is so obvious that it almost seems trivial.  Of course, Europe is different from the United States and every country within the European Union is also different from the others in history, culture, and often language.  No visitor fails to remark about the feeling in Europe of walking in ancient footsteps. Walking by a Greek column that is not a replica but an artifact is as common as remnants of construction during this Roman emperor or another.

Yet, the differences I notice are so much more than that the longer I stay and the more I travel.  If the wealth of an England or France seems eye to eye with the United States, Greece seems more like Mexico or even Paraguay.  Here people grudgingly say that the economy is slightly improving, but still talk of “the crisis” in Greece as the daily occurrence that they still feel everywhere.  University professors’ shop at the co-op store, not just because of a political persuasion but also because with their salaries have been cut to shreds, it is what they can afford.  Students who once enjoyed free education are now having to cobble together money to stay in school.  A sign in the men’s washroom, written in English, said perhaps too much about the situation, as the letters shouted “We Need Toilet Paper!”

The social welfare system is an entitlement for the unemployed in a way that US workers would find unimaginable.  Talking by Skype last week to a young man in Frankfurt, Germany about organizing a tenants’ union there, it was not a surprise that he was on public assistance while he tried to pull these pieces together.  For students the same is true and reduces the panic of joblessness and opens the door to opportunity to find a place whether in Greece or Scotland or France.

The political diversity of multi-party experience may seem fractured, but is actually invigorating.  Casual introductions that include the fact that so-and-so was a former Communist city councilman or that this one or that were key activists in the anarchist community or that this tavern owner or landlord or even neighborhood were well-known as anarchist strongholds.  In the United States such a comment would seem extraordinary, possibly subversive, and the subject of a special feature on Fox News, but in Greece it is so commonplace that it hardly bears mentioning.  Politics of almost all persuasions seems mainstream rather than marginal.  In a multi-party politics rather than a two-party system one has to cultivate a certain tolerance because it is impossible to predict where the party slightly left or right might end up your coalition partner in government or opposition.  The choices can both make or break politicians and parties, raising some up, and destroying others.

The nuances are almost impossible for a stranger visiting from afar, as I am, to navigate without constant guides who prove their worth by the paths they point both away from trouble and to the company of friends.  Being accused of having an “American perspective” is an insult and a caution.  Listening and watching for the clues is constant, because the lessons are everywhere and the learning curve is steep.  To assume something is the same in Europe as in America is a guarantee of falling over the cliff.


Can Ideology Save an Organization?

Thessaloniki    The twenty people watching “The Organizer” documentary screening in the classroom at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, were all either PhD candidates in political science or professors.  They began with a good, open-minded attitude and were friendly and tolerant as we worked to get the pieces together at the last minute.  We had experienced our usual snafus at the airport of missing each other in the waiting area for several hours, so by the time I taxied to the university with help from a mutual friend in Brussels transcribing the location for me from the flyer, we hardly rendezvoused at the stated start time.

Though the script had been translated into Greek, the technical transfer of captions into the documentary didn’t really get done, so everyone had to make their way through the film in English.  The professor was convinced this would not be a huge issue, and perhaps it was not at least for some.  One woman before the meeting said she was actually from Bennington, Vermont though she had been in Greece for years.  Another, surprisingly, had spent a year in high school in Shreveport, Louisiana, and had traveled in Texas, and she thought it likely in Arkansas as well.

Nonetheless, the Q&A section that I live for was difficult.  No small part of it was likely on me.  Having been up for almost 36 hours straight, I was likely less patient than usual and certainly not at the top of my game.

The political science students were earnest.  They wanted to believe that there might have been a magic bullet that could have saved ACORN when it was under attack in the United States eight and nine years ago.

One asked whether we were familiar with other kinds of currency systems that might have allowed ACORN to avoid the “capitalist” system and cited various small-scale examples of experiments with alternative cash-credit programs.  In answering I said I was familiar with some of the trials, and even nodded knowingly to the woman from Vermont that I thought some of them were in that state, but that, frankly, that had been outside the scope of an organization like ACORN, regardless of its size.

This was a sophisticated crew so there were no questions about social media, but there was a detailed question about anarchism and the structure of ACORN, which I weathered.  There was another lengthy question that seemed to hope that the problem was that ACORN was an NGO and wanted a detailed list of how we distinguished ourselves, that I was happy to provide though left the questioner unconvinced from what I could tell.

Then there were a number of questions that firmly believed that if ACORN leaders and staff had a more committed and traditional ideological framework then the organization might have survived even though they had been “duped by Clinton and Obama,” as the questioner argued.  I made the case for the organization’s own internal ideology, but could tell I had not convinced the crowd, perhaps because the very demise of ACORN in the United States likely proved the weakness of my argument.  I was probably simply lucky that the students did not press home that point to my embarrassment, and finally left so I could find my way to my sleeping pad and get some rest to fight the wars another day.