ATHENS, Greece — It is easy to throw a rock, and there have been plenty thrown here lately, a common ritual, almost not newsworthy, with the anarchists and hooligans smashing big pieces of marble and throwing the chunks at police, at the government, at each other.
They live in a beautiful country struggling with economic chaos, the result of decades of fiscal insanity and huge bureaucracy, the political left having bribed the public with the public's own money until all the money was gone.
In America, we're not at the rock-throwing stage yet, but our politicians are working overtime to make Greeks of us, also bribing us with our own money, borrowing and borrowing, using the federal, state and local bureaucracies to reward themselves and their friends while setting groups against each other to maintain power.
Rocks are thrown by only a powerless few. A rock is a thing of anger in the hands of a stupid man. But there is something that stupid men can't hope to pick up: solutions.
And to find some I went to an amazing bookstore in Athens.
Free Thinking Zone.
"I'm really not trying to push books, I'm trying to push ideas," said Areti Georgili, who opened her bookstore several months ago as an experiment.
"Freedom," she said. "You're American. You've heard of this concept, 'freedom'? There is this thing there, called freedom?"
She smiled and I liked her immediately. She didn't have to tell me that irony is a Greek word.
There are bookstores all over the city, and I mean books on paper, with people browsing and reading and talking about ideas. I didn't want to think about all the bookstores that have vanished in Chicago.
But here, where the rock throwers make news, the booksellers are busy without making headlines. Walk along any street downtown and you'll see books sold on outdoor tables, books with no pictures, and of course the bookstores. Some are huge. And others are just right.
People flock to Areti's store to talk of ideas, of developing new and constructive ways to cope with the economic crisis. They don't waste time shrieking epithets at the Germans or the Turks, or blaming the immigrants who flood the country almost unchecked. These are goads used by cynical men to incite the mob.
Instead, at Free Thinking Zone, folks talk about challenging the corrupt bureaucracy and nepotism, to push for meritocracy.
The discussions are quite animated, but not frivolous, because what's happening here — and what could happen in America — isn't frivolous.
When I visited the bookstore the other day, I noticed titles by Friedrich Hayek and John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin and Pyotr Kropotkin. On the wall outside her store is a small poster of Dionysios Solomos, who wrote the "Hymn to Liberty," which was used for the Greek National Anthem.
"But you're not here to talk of books alone," she said. "You're here to talk about freedom. Would you like some coffee?"
Yes. Greek coffee. Medium sweet.
She sent out a clerk for the coffee.
"I'd like to offer you coffee from my store, but I can't. And why is this? Because I don't have a coffee permit," she said.
A coffee permit?
"Someday, an inspector will come. And he'll say whether I can have a coffee permit or not," she said. "So we wait. And wait."
Can't you just plug in a coffee pot or a hot plate to prepare Greek coffee in your own store?
"No," she said. "I need a coffee permit and a coffee inspector, otherwise I am in violation of the law," she said as the clerk arrived with our coffee.
"Actually, by giving you this coffee I am a lawbreaker, for we don't have a permit to give you coffee. And the coffee place down the street is also in violation, because he's given the coffee. He's a lawbreaker. We are a nation of coffee-drinking lawbreakers."
You can't be serious.
"Welcome to Greece," she said.
It's not just the coffee. The tax collection is remarkably inefficient, although if you're familiar with Chicago politics, you'd know that might not be a coincidence after all. And all the bureaucracies involve one thing: Who do you know?
Every small business owner here can tell a story. Everybody has to have a guy. Actually, many guys. Or you hire the main guy's son-in-law to lower your taxes. If you don't, you might never have that coffee.
One thing I'd recommend. More prosecuting attorneys and real anti-corruption laws. Political crooks don't go to prison here. They're exempt.
Only the little fish go away, but senior ministers embroiled in huge corruption scandals somehow have repaved the Chicago Way and made it the Athenian Way.
"So much bureaucracy isn't freedom," said Areti. "It kills the heart of freedom."
Rocks might seem heavy to the weak-minded, but Greeks (and Americans) should know that there's a weapon far more weighty and powerful.
A bookstore.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun