Monthly Archives: August 2015

Next act

Very late on Saturday, we came back from a two week holiday, to a country and a house which I had missed and a fridge which had missed me filling it. Having lived in England for years, I’ve gotten used to the fact that most shops are open on Sunday. And even in countries where as a rule they aren’t, there are at least some places selling fresh food, typically in tourist areas or transport hubs.

Not so in Greece. While some corner shops are open, there isn’t a supermarket in all of Greater Athens (population: 3.7m) open on a Sunday. Such is the law, a law that has long been defended by many on the political right (mostly for religious reasons) and on the left (mostly for anti-capitalist reasons). When “the institutions” are accused of micromanaging the Greek economy, it’s worth keeping in mind that in many cases, they actually ask for micromanagement to be ended.

I had decided to continue writing about Greece, even as the country ceased to be the main item in news bulletins around the world. But then, while I was away, things got interesting once again: prime minster Alexis Tsipras handed in his resignation and new elections will be held next month.

For the very short term, this isn’t good news: the last thing a country still affected by capital controls and a crumbling economy needs is instability. For the slightly longer term, it is probably a good thing though: while the government easily got some tough measures through parliament, it had to rely on the support of the three sensible opposition parties, as a large number SYRIZA members voted against.

Those people have now left SYRIZA to form a the new Popular Unity (La├»ki Enotita), headed by former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis. He and his party believe that No in the referendum should mean No and that the country should leave the euro and go back to the drachma. Something Lafazanis allegedly wanted (and for all I know still wants) to fund by robbing the Greek Mint and using the euros stored there to pay civil servants’ salaries.

Lafazanis and his party are unlikely going to be a significant factor in the elections though. The far most likely outcome is that SYRIZA yet again becomes the biggest party and that Tsipras returns as prime minister and is able to implement those measures he agreed to at the very last minute last month. But then, this is Greece. The ancient Greeks didn’t just invent democracy. They invented drama too.

Go Set a Watchman

Spoiler alert: some of the book’s main themes are discussed below. I don’t think there’s anything that would spoil the story.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanWhen I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird eight years ago, I was surprised by how much of it wasn’t about race. It’s a novel about judging people — including, but not limited to, judging people based on their race — and about growing up in general, and growing up in the 1930s Deep South in particular.

Of course, the most famous part of the book is the defence, by the protagonist’s father Atticus Finch, of a black man who was unjustly accused of raping a white girl. It’s part of what makes the book great and part of why I think it’s one of the best books ever written. When it comes to heroism in literature, it is hard to outdo Atticus Finch.

Or at least it was, until first-draft-turned-second-novel Go Set a Watchman was published last month and it turned out that Atticus did hold some views that can only be described as plain racist.

If you find this shocking, and it seems many people did, you may actually want to read the book: this shock is one of its main themes.

I don’t think the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is any different from the character in To Kill a Mockingbird though. It’s just that twenty years later (this novel is set in the early 1950s) we see a different side of him.

To me, it seems clear that if he were again to be appointed to defend a black man (as he was that of Tom Robinson; perhaps crucially, he didn’t choose to take on the defence) he would do so just as passionately and with as much reverence for the law and for justice as he had done twenty years previously. But now we know that he also did think blacks were inferior to whites and that the federal government shouldn’t force the southern states to desegregate for that reason.

Atticus’s views were wrong, but they were also very common in his time, even among intelligent people. One of the most famous quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird is that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them”. Given that I never walked in the shoes of Atticus’s contemporaries, I shouldn’t really pretend that, had I lived in his time, my views would have been different.

That realisation makes me glad I live today and that the percentage of people who hold such views has significantly decreased (even if we all know too well it hasn’t enough). That’s progress. Just as it’s progress that I now hold some views that future generations will find despicable. And I hope that people of that generation “hold ground for what [they think] is right — stand up to me first of all” as Atticus tells his daughter in the book’s closing scene.

I still feel a bit uncomfortable about whether Harper Lee meant for this book to be published. I guess we’ll never really know whether she did. But now that it did get published, I’m very glad I read it. And it made me admire her as a writer even more.