PRINCETON – The euro crisis and Queen Elizabeth’s recent Jubilee seem to have nothing in common. In fact, together they impart an important lesson: the power of a positive narrative – and the impossibility of winning without one.
Commenting on the Jubilee’s river pageant and horse parade, historian Simon Schama talked to the BBC about “little boats and big ideas.” The biggest idea was that Britain’s monarchy serves to connect the country’s past to its future in ways that transcend the pettiness and ugliness of quotidian politics. The heritage of kings and queens stretching back across more than a millennium – the enduring symbolism of crowns and coaches, and the literal embodiment of the English and now the British state – binds Britons together in a common journey.
Cynics might call this the old bread-and-circuses routine. But the point is to fix eyes and hearts on a narrative of hope and purpose – to uplift, rather than distract, the public. Are Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and other Europeans really supposed to embrace an austerity program imposed on them because prevailing wisdom in Germany and other northern countries considers them profligate and lazy? Those are fighting words, creating resentment and division just when unity and burden-sharing are most needed.
Greece, in particular, now needs a way to connect its past with its future, but no monarch is forthcoming. And, as the cradle of the world’s first democracy, Greece needs other symbols of national renewal than scepters and robes. It is through Homer that virtually all Western readers first encounter the Mediterranean world: its islands and shores and peoples knit together by diplomacy, trade, marriage, oil, wine, and long ships. Greece could once again be a pillar of such a world, using its current crisis to craft a new future.