Bad Metaphor Watch: The Tragedy of the Greek Crisis Edition

As the Greek crisis nears its end, everything is a Greek tragedy.


Beware of Greeks bearing a Greek tragedy in the midst of a Greek myth that brings to mind Acropalypse Now.

Wait. That sentence didn’t really make sense, did it? It seems to have gotten lost somewhere in the tangle of Greece-related metaphors currently populating the Internet.  

In the aftermath of the Greek vote to reject a package of austerity measures, Greece’s membership in the eurozone may be over. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister are in Brussels for last-minute meetings to forge a deal to secure some debt relief from their creditors in exchange for accepting austerity measures, but powerful European Union leaders are warning that it may be too late to prevent a so-called “Grexit.”

It’s admittedly a major crisis, and to make sense of it all, journalists and commentators have been reaching for their best clichés. The crisis is a tragedy, they say, and since it’s happening in Greece, why not just call it a Greek tragedy? Perhaps because it does little to actually shed light on the nature of the crisis, its causes, or its probable outcome.

But no matter, these cliches make for halfway decent headlines, and so we are left with videos such as this one from the Guardian, titled — you guessed it! — “In Athens’ street markets, a Greek tragedy plays out.”

The Guardian, of course, was not alone. On Tuesday, the Wire explained “why the Greek tragedy is just the opening act” to a broader economic reckoning. Steen Jakobsen, an economist at Saxo Bank, deemed the crisis “officially a Greek tragedy,” while leaving his readers desperately wondering what would constitute an unofficial Greek tragedy. Blogging enfant terrible Zero Hedge, a caustic observer of high finance, pondered who is the winner of the “Greek tragedy,” concluding it’s probably European Central Bank head Mario Draghi because of his central role in the crisis and previous experience working for Goldman Sachs, which helped Greece hide the extent of its debts to gain entry to the eurozone.

Meanwhile, writer Umair Haque took to Medium to develop a new theory of what constitutes a true and great tragedy. “What is happening in Greece is not just a travesty. It is a tragedy,” Haque writes. “Not of the naive kind: where a character flaw causes a downfall. But a true and great tragedy. One that is as unjustifiable as it is needless.”

Speaking of great tragedies, for a brief moment on Monday, Tsipras was himself the author of one — at least according to Wikipedia. “The most important authors of Greek tragedies are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Tsipras,” the Wikipedia page for “Greek tragedy” read Monday.

The unrelenting focus on Greek tragedies wasn’t all tongue in cheek. The New York Review of Books got in on the action as well, contributing an article about the staging of an Aeschylus play dealing with refugees. That essay ends with a plea:

What lesson do we suppose we can teach these people by forcing an elderly Greek man to collapse to the ground and weep because “Europe” is unwilling to find some different way to get him his pension or relieve his suffering? What is this continent about? What is its greater contribution to humanity at large: Greek theater or double-entry bookkeeping? Aeschylus or Keynes? What does Europe want to say for itself? Liberi!, or “In the name of God and of profit”?

All this talk of tragedy got scholar Lawrence Freedman wondering when it would all be over.

But don’t be fooled: This talk of Greek tragedy isn’t unique to the last few days of coverage. In May, the New York Times Magazine wondered whether Yanis Varoufakis — recently fired this month — was a “finance minister fit for a Greek tragedy.” In 2011, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis titled a study, “Sovereign Debt: A Modern Greek Tragedy.”

Leaving the category of the Greek tragedy, Greg Palkot, a Fox News foreign affairs correspondent, contributes a bad film pun.

In the category of the unexpected, columnist Michael Lewis believes the relationship between Germany and Greece can be illuminated by the fraught relationship between Berkeley hippies and the California city’s drivers. That column isn’t Lewis’s first foray in covering the Greek crisis, and the headline for his famous 2010 Vanity Fair article on Greece’s epidemic of tax evasion — “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds” — and its allusions to the Trojan horse is now reappearing in the press. “Beware of Greeks Casting Blame,” John Fund warns in the National Review.

Meanwhile, dear reader, beware of bad Greek metaphors.

Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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