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Selling democracy to its birthplace

Part legacy-tour, part pilgrimage, Obama's visit to Athens had the country high with excitement. Was it justifiable?

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US President Barack Obama tours Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. Photo: AAP via AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

21/11/16

Ya sas, kalispera, filoxenia, filotimo, foustanella, spanakopita, ouzo. Every time Barack Obama uttered a Greek word, he easily brought the house down with applause. The house was, of course, the new National Opera Hall, in the newly-established Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. The audience was a roomful of Greeks doing what they do best: respond well to flattery, especially when it is delivered by foreign people of power. And the US president did deliver. Arguably the most captivating and inspiring orator of our times, he effortlessly charmed his audience with his unparalleled charisma and star power, in this stop to Athens that had the country put its troubles on hold for a moment and feel a rash of excitement, for the high-profile guest who was "determined", as he said on his last international trip as President of the United States, "to come to Greece" and express his "gratitude for all that Greece − this small, great world − has given to humanity through the ages".

On the same day, he further illustrated this on his official Facebook account, posting a video of his visit to the Parthenon, with the comment: "On my last overseas trip as president, I finally had the opportunity to visit Greece and take in the beautiful history of this country. Standing at the Acropolis, in the birthplace of democracy and the democratic values we hold dear as Americans, you gain perspective on the importance of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people − and how people, no matter what nation we belong to, will decide the kind of countries we will be, the ideals we'll keep reaching for, and the values that will define us."

It was another typical example of this common, yet strange form of pilgrimage. Acknowledging Greece's role in coming up with the idea of democracy has become almost a cliche among international leaders, thinkers and politicians. But the way US presidents − Obama being just the latest example − tour the world, affirming their status as 'leaders of the free world' and champions of democracy, bears some other connotations. Whenever a US president visits Greece, it's almost like the salesman who made 'employee of the year' giving a keynote speech at the company AGM, with a respectful nod to the elderly company's founder, who is now a revered figure, a mascot even, but left with little more than a small share. Yes, it was the Greeks who invented democracy, they appear to be saying, but it was America that patented the product and is now selling it around the world (often by force), and made a fortune out of it. Obama did not deviate far from this. So mesmerised and charmed were Greeks all over the world by Obama's mere presence in the country, that few pointed out his speech was actually, for the most part, a lecture that could have been delivered in any civics class for beginners. Breaking down the meaning of 'democracy', the US president explained to the audience that 'kratos', the power to rule, comes from 'demos' and everyone applauded, as if they heard it for the very first time.

There was something heard for the first time in Obama's speech; his mention of rising inequality, as a side effect of globalisation, constituting "one of the greatest challenges" to democracy: "In our countries, in America and in most advanced market economies, we want people to be rewarded for their achievement. We think that people should be rewarded if they come up with a new product or a new service that is popular and helps a lot of people. But when a CEO of a company now makes more money in a single day than a typical worker does in an entire year, when it's harder for workers to climb their way up the economic ladder, when they see a factory close that used to support an entire city or town, it fuels the feeling that globalisation only benefits those at the top."

This was one of the most political − and inspiring − moments of the speech. That the leader of one of the pillars of capitalism addresses this pressing issue − in his 'farewell tour' to the world, outlining his legacy − is not without meaning. Faced with the daunting task of dealing with the Global Financial Crisis, Obama managed to save his country's economy, bailing out the contaminated banks and creating jobs. Even if he did not address the cause of the crisis − the distorted logic that rules the banking system − he did manage to heal some of the middle and lower classes' wounds and he rightfully takes credit for this. He did this by applying the exact Keynesian economics approach denied to Greece by the austerity dogmatists of the European ruling elites. None in the audience seemed to notice this. They were mostly preoccupied with the fact that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was not wearing a necktie when he met with the US president, that his posture was not appropriate, that he often seemed bored, rude or shabby, not up to par with the elegant statesman, the global superstar he welcomed to the country. It is telling of the state of public discourse in Greece that, when it's time to discuss policies, people focus on wardrobe.

Semiotic studies is a fascinating subject, but one would think that Greece faces more pressing problems than what to wear. For one part, this is an indication of the complete failure of the Greek political establishment; the government of Alexis Tsipras has been on the receiving end of criticism from both the left and the right side of the spectrum. Interestingly enough, the most acute form of criticism, political, harsh and to the point comes from the left; after all, it is socialist values Tsipras betrayed by abandoning his anti-austerity mandate and fully succumbing to the demands of the country's lenders, further crushing the working and middle classes. Given that this is exactly the kind of policy that the main opposition champions and will continue, once in power, the government's critics from the right are left with semantics and etiquette. If there is a change of power in the next elections − and this is doubtful, as long as Tsipras continues to distract his opponents with his lack of neckties − it is certain that this will not mean a change in policy. That in itself is a failure of democracy, but Obama did not address this.

This was not surprising. Neither was the fact that he did not address the role of his government in creating the wave of refugees he praised Greece for welcoming with inspiring generosity. "You should not be left on your own," he said, getting wild applause, "and only a truly collective response by Europe and the world can ensure that these desperate people receive the support that they need." What about engaging in warfare that gets people to flee their countries, seeking asylum in the developed world? The Nobel Peace prize holder had no words for this, in his quest to cement his legacy.

It is still too soon to say exactly what Barack Obama's legacy will be. For his people, it is creating an inclusive and universal, but admittedly still flawed, healthcare system. For the world, it will probably be championing for the Paris agreement to fight climate change. For Greece, not much. Buried deep in an endless crisis, the country could not possibly hold any realistic hopes that an outgoing US president could offer much more than a friendly pat on the back, an expression of support and wishes for the best, in the form of debt relief, sometime in the future, if the lenders agree on it.

At least his Facebook endorsement of the Acropolis might prove to be the kind of advertisement that will attract more tourists, helping the birthplace of democracy make some more profit from the copyrights.

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