Árpád W. Tóta and the crisis in Greece: Let the Greeks drown!

In almost any country, except Hungary, publicist Árpád W. Tóta would likely be considered an ultraconservative for his rigid economic views. In Hungary, he’s a prominent opinion-maker of the left-centre opposition establishment. He sometimes reminds me of an enthusiastic member of an Ayn Rand college fan club, comprised of anxious freshmen who haven’t seen much of the world, beyond their suburban backyards, yet are quite self-assured and have a one-size-fits-all answer to any crisis, usually involving less government and less government regulation. I strongly suspect that Mr. Tóta’s harshly-worded black and white views, his lack of nuance and his irreverence is part of his public personality as a publicist. In private, I expect that he may be more measured. North America too has its fair share of fiery media personalities, perhaps most notably Nancy Grace, the queen of cable TV vigilantism or Tea Party guru Glenn Beck.

What all of these media personalities have in common is a total lack of compassion. I was disappointed (though not entirely surprised) to read Mr. Tóta’s piece on the landslide, 61% “no” victory in Greece’s Sunday referendum on austerity and bailout packages.

“Greece is terribly resentful of the fact that their creditors’ confidence has run dry. Greece even voted, with great pomp and ceremony, that it won’t pay, but still desires further loans…The problem with socialism is that eventually other people’s money runs out–said Margaret Thatcher. And Syriza is loyally following this recipe. It’s not Europe that needs Greece, but the other way around. Every empire must weigh how far and to what extent it is worth to keep one of its provinces,” writes Mr. Tóta.

To perceive and portray the European Union as an imperial power dominating its hapless provinces–and then to imply that this is a normal and salutary state of affairs–is disconcerting, especially when it comes from a respected liberal publicist.

“If we need beaches, then we’ve got Croatia and, in fact, the entire Mediterreanean. The Poles, Slovaks and Danes make feta cheese too. We can find ancient ruins in Rome. And we’ve already downloaded Sophocles, so we don’t need to go there for that. Those who really want to travel can go to Egypt or Tunesia. And we’ll manage, even if Ouzo becomes more expensive–it’s a pretty disgusting drink anyway. And Greece will finally free itself of the horrors of austerity, and will be able to find the funds for pensions and paid vacations in a way that it knows and likes best. And to the extent that its vaunted national sovereignty will allow.  We’ll talk later. If life doesn’t work out for them as they had hoped, then they can try again. It your business,”quipped Mr. Tóta.

And herein lies the problem with much of the Hungarian left, and why extremist parties like Fidesz and Jobbik have been able to attract people, who are otherwise not fanatics and fascists, with their populist messaging. There is not a dekagram of solidarity and of compassion for the other, nor a realization that the individual can only flourish within some type of community. That community doesn’t have to be national, ethnic, religious or family-based. But the gifts of individuals flourish when they are met with interest, compassion and solidarity from others.

Árpád W. Tóta

Árpád W. Tóta

And whatever the sins of Greek tax evaders, prior corrupt Greek administrations, who fudged their financial data (somewhat like Hungarian governments did as well), and regardless of whether we are enamoured by the negotiating style of the likes of outgoing finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, what’s been happening in Greece is a modern day tragedy. Fifty percent of youth are unemployed, while one out of every four working age Greeks are out of a job. Greece’s 50% youth unemployment rate compares to 7% in Germany, 16% in the United Kingdom, 24% in France and 22% in the Euro zone in general. The average household income in Greece today is at levels last seen in 2003. Over 40% of Greek children live in poverty.

It is against this bleak backdrop that Greeks, especially youth, voted against bail-outs that focused on austerity. As ATMs run dry, medicine, imported products, petrol and even paper runs out (Greek newspapers will have enough paper to print their publications until Sunday, and book publishers are being asked halt printing), Greeks are facing the terrible prospect of either losing their life savings, if Greek banks fold and accounts are converted to devalued New Drachmas, or an endless, grey future of austerity, continued staggering rates unemployment, falling household incomes, pension and social service cuts.

Both pills are incredibly bitter to swallow. I’m not sure which poison I would take, if I ever found myself in this awful predicament. Eastern Europe has been through similar hardship in the nineties, following the collapse of one party rule, though local populations were not asked to vote on the pain of economic shock therapy.

Of course, politicians like Angela Merkel must face her own voters, who are understandably tired of the endless drama with Athens and bailouts. (Though it is worth remembering that much of this money never went to Greece, but rather to service the loans.) But publicists like Mr. Tóta need not worry about irate voters and being booted from office. They could play a role in forming public opinion on the Hungarian left, and in liberal circles. Compassion for those on the margins, giving a voice to the disenchanted and disenfranchised is part of that role and if media leads the way, and applies pressure, those who formulate policy proposals in left-centre parties may follow.

Perhaps that way, there might actually be a reason for former Socialist and left-leaning voters who have fled to Jobbik out of socio-economic considerations to think again. A little more solidarity and a little less neoliberal dogmatism on the part of Hungarian liberals could go a long way.

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