New form of Greek tragedy

A supporter of the No vote waves a Greek flag in front of the parliament after the results of the referendum at Syntagma square in Athens, Sunday, July 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The ancient Greeks invented the tragedy as an art form. The modern Greeks are acting it out in their politics. Sunday’s “No” vote moves the developing drama into a new phase.

Aristotle tells us the purpose of tragedy is to intensely arouse in viewers the conflicting emotions of pity and fear, and provide a catharsis through an emotional resolution. Well, there is plenty to pity in the Greek situation.

Since its European creditors and the International Monetary Fund first demanded austerity in exchange for loans, the Greek economy has fallen by 25 percent and youth unemployment hovers around 50 percent.

There is also plenty to fear. Not just another shock to the world economy if Greece fails to find its footing. Nor just a huge shock to NATO if Greece turns to Russia. The fear should be shared by every heavily indebted country, beginning with the United States. When creditors call the shots, there is bound to be pain and suffering.

It is too soon in the developing drama for catharsis, unless one counts the cleaning out of Greek bank accounts as money flees to safer havens. Greek banks will remain closed in the early part of this week.

But the character flaws that drive Greek tragedy are already well established on both sides of the action in the hubris with which Greek Premier Alex Tsipras and his government have rejected the inevitable concessions they will have to make to get debt relief, and the equal rigidity displayed on the European side, particularly by the German government. Real values are in conflict: spending other people’s money versus forcing people into poverty.

Monday’s “No” vote, although largely symbolic, shows Europe that Mr. Tsipras is strongly backed in his demands. But the Northern European politicians who keep saying “No” to Greece also have strong popular backing.

In classic Greek tragedy, heroes take actions that have the opposite of the intended effect and bring on a catastrophe. Only then, when it is too late, do they recognize what has happened.

Barring an unforeseen solution, Greece and Europe face major economic damage and no real resolution to the underlying problem. That foreshadows an even greater tragedy.