The politics of blame shifting

In News on June 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Governments are known to use tactics in order to circumvent public opposition. It is often the case that politics elites withhold important information from the public or delay the release of information to the media, with the aim of manipulating public opinion and tone down opposition and reactions. This manipulation of public information by elites is sometimes well-intentioned. It is not always the case that the public knows best, and citizens can be emotional about issues, where a rational approach is needed (see foreign policy). However, more often than not, governments exploit their strategic position as agenda-setters and regulators of information, and tamper with it to promote their own political agenda. This is exactly the game which  Deputy Prime Minister of Greece, Theodoros Pangalos had been playing for past eighteen months.

Ever since the magnitude of the Greek debt was revealed in October 2009, Mr. Pangalos has been making increasingly provocative public statements, referring to the Greek citizens’ responsibility for Greece’s debt crisis and current state of the economy. In a very characteristic statement, which has become an anecdote in the Greek media and blogs, he said “We ate it together”, where “it” refers to public money and “ate” is  slang for “spent”. The message which Mr. Pangalos is trying to convey is that Greek citizens have greatly benefited from a corrupt state and have thus contributed to the geometrical increase of Greece’s public debt. As he mentioned in the beginning of this week, if you can “find me a Greek public servant citizen who did not receive undeserved wages, benefits, and pay increases or a Greek who asked for a receipt each time he bought a product or used a service, I will make him a statue”.

What is infuriating about Mr. Pangalos’s public statements is not only his sarcastic tone and the fact that he completely dismisses the public and media outcry his comments provoke. It is that he systematically attempts to place the Greek citizen and the politician on an equal footing, vis-a-vis Greece’s present debt crisis. And as it seems, this motto is now being taken on by others who talk about the need of Greeks to accept some “responsibility for the causes of the crisis”.

Let’s make one thing clear: Greek citizens are not to be blamed for the state of the Greek economy and the magnitude of the debt. Not because they are model citizens. Far from it. Many Greeks have received overblown public wages, by virtue of being a member of the Socialist or the New Democracy party, rather than their merit and their qualifications. And as many, if not more, do ask for receipts and do not offer one when they provide their professional services. However, the Greek civic culture and the behaviour of the Greeks is not at trial here. It is government policy. Citizens do not issue government bonds. Citizens do not decide how many job vacancies will open in the public sector. The Greeks did not decide on the level of defence expenditure and the number of submarines and war planes to be bought from France and Germany. They did not contract companies in the name of the Greek state to build roads five times up the cost of European highways. Politicians did.

Of course, the aim of this blame-shifting, scare campaign is to spread fear and guilt to the majority of the population, so that austerity measures are accepted. However, when a quarter of civil servants have seen their salaries being reduced by 20% and may lose their jobs, when the number of Greeks out of work has increased by 40% from a year earlier (16% in total), while the political elite remains unpunished for well-known cases of corruption, these are dangerous games. Very dangerous indeed.


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