PIGS: Only the Ruins Remain

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As I write this, I am in Rome. From this city, an empire once ruled a large part of the world. During its intellectually better days, Rome, building on the achievements of Greece, provided a way of perceiving the universe that distinguished human beings from animals and raised them from barbaric life to civilization. Greece and Rome showed humanity a way to reason and to understand causality.

Greece and Rome started an approach that could release humanity from quivering before the unknown, mysterious, and unpredictable forces of nature and the priest. In the late middle ages, Italy contributed enormously to the Renaissance and thus to the succeeding eras of massive, unprecedented material progress in the history of humanity. Geniuses such as Leonardo and Michelangelo lived here.

Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right.

In today’s world, a common narrative is that Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain — acronymically known as the PIGS — are freewheeling societies that provide a lot of personal freedom. They may not be rolling in money, but according to the narrative, their people seem actually to enjoy their lives, as compared with the workaholic North Americans. Their fashions attract people from around the world. Their public squares attract crowds of young people early in the evenings, arriving after their siestas and still partying in the mornings. PIGS countries are known for their deep social cohesion and close-knit families. It is believed that people there are social, and care for one another.

Scratch the surface, and the reality is very different.

Greece just voted “no” to reducing its dependence on free stuff. Decades of easy life and freebies have hardwired many people in PIGS countries to expect free stuff as their right. After many talks with people over the month since my arrival in Italy, I am struggling to recall anyone who may have suggested that it was not his right to expect Germans to keep on paying his bills.

PIGS are third-world countries in many ways and would be considered so, were they not proximal to northern Europe. Graffiti is everywhere. Public spaces are extremely dirty. There are always long line-ups at train stations and banks to get service, which is usually impolite and unhelpful. If you annoy an Italian auntie — who somehow assumes a superior position — every issue will be blown out of proportion. Even non-issues will crop up and then blow up.

A situation that is created by emotions cannot be undone by reason. You must know how to de-escalate, emotionally.

When I arrived late at night to the sprawling airport of Milan, there was no one at the information counters. In fact there was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up. Why weren’t they manning service counters? There was no ATM machine available — all were locked behind walls for the night.

Two millennia after the construction of the Coliseum, it gets far more visitors every day than it did when it was built. Cities are packed with tourists of all kinds, from museum visitors to northern Europeans on beach vacations. Museums, heritage sites, and so forth collect huge amounts of money. But what I experienced when I arrived at Milan airport — with no one to help — stood true even during daytime visits to historical sites. I usually saw no one monitoring the safety of historically precious things at the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, and the museums I visited. People who were supposed to act as guards mostly stood outside the buildings, smoking and chatting away.

There was no one of any kind to answer questions. With 41% unemployment among young people, something just didn’t add up.

People in PIGS countries suffer from a massive victim mentality, which by itself is enough of a vice to undo any civilization. On Bloomberg they seem to blame their plight on Germany, but if you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor; Germany is too far away. Italians express displeasure about all things Spanish and Greek, Greeks about all things Turkish, Turks about things Armenian, and vice versa. The individual here is never wrong. Even questions about who created which kind of art, who invented the alcoholic drink Anis or the Greek-Turkish desserts can lead to disturbing confrontations and embarrassed faces among people who look well educated. An outsider shudders at their small-minded nationalism.

Pickpocketing is rampant in PIGS countries. Two weeks ago, my passport, money, camera, etc. were stolen from my bag while I watched the allocation of the platform of my train, right under CCTV cameras. Within minutes I was at the police station to complain. The people there all kept their seats, made me fill out a form, and waved me off. They had no interest in wasting time by going through the CCTV recording. Of course I missed my train, and the officials to whom I showed my ticket and the police report had no interest in helping me take the next one, despite knowing full well that all my money was gone.

In my subsequent conversations with people, they always assumed that the thieves were gypsies. If you are an African, a gypsy, or a Muslim you should not expect to get a job in these places. I have absolutely no sympathy for people who, having been given a better chance, should have exploited it, but did not. Where these particular people came from was far worse than the PIGS countries are. They should have been more grateful. Still, I find it strange that these groups cannot be granted opportunities and must always be looked down upon. Most people who would have been assimilated in North America remain outsiders and get blamed by those with a victim mentality. In my case, the thieves were likely white, Italian males; I saw one of them, and that was what he was.

If you encounter them in the street, they — not unlike Shias and Sunnis — blame all their problems on their nearest neighbor.

Compared with people in the US and Canada, people in Latin countries tend to be more apathetic toward their work (and more keen on partying), to spend more of what they have (and hence be more prone to indebtedness), and to be more tribal (and hence not really to care much about others, outside the tribe). Utter lack of respect for basic rules (as in driving, for example) does not necessarily translate into more freedom in society.

I am not sure how close PIGS families are, but how they do their jobs and how they look after their public spaces demonstrates a total lack of social cohesion. Rampant smoking and dislike for work does not show much about happy lives. It must be hard to spend your waking hours doing what you hate. Often pleasure-centeredness and neverending partying are nothing but an escape from what is regarded as the drudgery of normal existence.

So I am not sure whether the people of PIGS are as happy as the common narrative indicates. On the contrary, I believe that those who think the problems of the PIGS are merely about their debt look only at the surface. The problem of PIGS is the problem of their culture. They have lost reason. Leonardo da Vinci and the great Greco-Roman philosophers would feel completely out of place in their homelands today.




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Who are the Real PIGS?

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As Europe continues to flounder, and as people continue to wonder whether (or more likely, when) Greece is going to default on its sovereign debt, various commentators have bandied the epithet “PIGS” (or “PIIGS”, depending on which nations a commentator wants to include).

By this acronym they refer to a group of countries — Portugal, Ireland, (Italy), Greece, and Spain — that have borrowed profligately, unlike such disciplined places as France, Germany, and the United States. What the miserable PIIGS need to do is start getting their snouts out of the troughlearn to manage their economies efficiently, as their betters do.

It’s obvious that the PIIGS need to liberalize their economies and better manage their fiscal houses. But the morally supercilious tone of the commentary annoys me. I don’t think the US or the major European states are in any position to be giving lectures. Their own levels of debt are outrageous, too.

A recent report brings the point home. If you don’t look at sovereign debt by sheer amount, but look instead at per capita debt — that is, take the aggregate national debt and divide it by the number of citizens in a country — you will see that the PIIGS aren’t as piggish as we are.

Spain’s per capita debt is $18,395. Portugal’s is slightly more, at $19,989. But France’s per capita debt exceeds these two by a wide margin. It’s $33,491.

Again, Greece is outrageous at $38,937, Italy at an amazing $40,475, and Ireland — Erin go Bragh!—at a staggering $43,887.

But the US, the paragon of fiscal rectitude, already stands at $44,215 per capita — more porcine than any of the PIIGS. And under Obama’s latest budget plan, that debt will reach $75,000 per capita (in current dollars) within a decade.

Americans can truly join the PIIGS as they squeal “Oink! Oink!”




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Parents and Children

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The Way is a quiet film with a quiet soundtrack that emphasizes the quiet introspection of its main character, Tom (Martin Sheen). But do not equate “quiet” with “boring.” This is a compelling film with a compelling story, told against the backdrop of the beautiful Pyrenees.

Tom is an ophthalmologist who has trouble seeing things clearly. He has chosen a traditional path for his life: He attended a respectable college, entered a respectable career, and reared what he thought would be a respectable family. His son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), has taken a different way. “I want to see Spain, Palau, Tibet!” he exclaims to his father during what will be their last day together. “Come with me,” he pleads. But Tom is too practical. He has his ophthalmology practice to consider. Leave for two months or more? Just to wander along a mountain trail? When he shouts back about choice and accountability, Daniel responds tersely, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

The two part angrily, but it is abundantly clear that Tom loves and misses his son. In one early scene, Tom’s receptionist informs him that Daniel has left a message while Tom was busy with a patient. Tom’s disappointment is palpable. “Did he leave a number this time?” he asks anxiously. “Do you know where he is?” Any parent who has been estranged from an adult child knows this feeling and can relate to Tom’s despair.

The next phone call is the one no parent ever wants to receive: Daniel is dead. While setting off to walk across the Pyrenees along the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage also known as “The Way of Saint James,” Daniel was caught in a freak storm. Tom must fly to Spain to identify the body and bring Daniel home. When the coroner suggests that cremation is an easier way to transport the body back to America, Tom decides that he will help Daniel complete the journey by walking the path himself and depositing a handful of Daniel’s ashes at each way station.

Along the way Tom meets several other pilgrims, each traveling The Way for seemingly practical reasons. Joost (Yorick van Wagengingen) is a jovial Dutchman who simply wants to lose weight for his brother’s wedding. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a flirtatious cougar who wants to quit smoking at the end of the journey. Jack (James Nesbitt) is a journalist looking for a good story.

All these characters have deeper spiritual conflicts that they have avoided facing. The film becomes a journey of introspection, self-discovery, and companionship as they travel not together, exactly, but side by side. Tom’s self-deception is perhaps the most pronounced, and he makes the deepest discoveries. Several times Tom sees Daniel, or imagines he sees him, in a crowd or on a hill, encouraging him and urging him forward. Daniel’s great desire was for Tom to accompany him on this journey. By dying, Daniel has found a way to make it happen.

The Way is a film about the relationship between a father and a son, made by a father and a son. Emilio Estevez, who wrote, directed, produced, and performs in The Way, seems to be Sheen’s less wayward offspring. One can’t help but think about the heartache Sheen must be experiencing in real life as he has watched his more celebrated son, Charlie Sheen, blow up in public over the past year. The younger Sheen was finally fired from his successful TV show, “Two and a Half Men,” because of problems associated with accusations about drugs, alcohol, and extramarital sex. The elder Sheen’s own heartache as a father is apparent in his portrayal of Tom, a man tortured by the way he said his last goodbye to a son whose way of life he did not approve. He plays the role with restraint, but his body language and facial expressions effectively convey his character’s deep emotions.

Tom tells himself he is walking The Way for Daniel, but as one pilgrim wisely tells him, “You walk The Way for yourself. Only yourself.” This is true of life, of course. We make the life we live. Another character tells Tom, “I wanted to be a bullfighter. My father wanted me to be a lawyer.” He blames his father for his failure to choose a more satisfying path, but it was his own choice to put his father’s approval ahead of his own happiness. The essence of good parenting is to provide protection and opportunity without forcing children into a way that is not their way. And above all—never say goodbye in anger.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Way," directed by Emilio Estevez. Filmax, 2010, 121 minutes.



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