There are a number of things in life that you are generally rather certain won’t or couldn’t really happen. For my part, I am pretty sure I’ll never (yes, I know, never say never) be German chancellor or Canadian prime minister. The odds that men will ever bear children are nano-scule, to say the least. And atheists will in all likelihood not go to heaven. Watching the Great Debate two days before the Brexit referendum, I felt increasingly worried, but still quite sure that people wouldn’t use the referendum to give voice to their personal, non-EU-related grievances (some of which were indeed legitimate) and that, surely, reason would prevail in the face of lies, misogyny, bigotry and fear mongering, in short, a leave majority couldn’t really happen. And then it did. I was stunned.
The brief relief, about the fact that the “Boris Johnson couldn’t possibly become prime minister” scenario turned out to be something that indeed couldn’t, shouldn’t and didn’t happen, was follow by incredulity at his appointment as foreign minister. Someone was having us on, surely, this was a cruel joke, and anytime soon this too would turn out to be something that was not really within the realm of the thinkable. Alas, it wasn’t a dream. It happened. The man who was operational in making Brexit happen chickened out and was rewarded with the post that makes him head of MI6. How could this happen?
Next the stuff of nightmares, from which you usually wake up with the relived thought “that couldn’t really happen” happened. Shootings, random bombs, ax and knife wielding, killer trucks, more shootings, a beheading. I started feeling unsettled, thinking about what else couldn’t really happen, but maybe would. Meanwhile more unthinkables – Turkey’s coup and subsequent crack-and-shut-downs and incarcerations, Russia’s hole-in-the-wall doping scandal – kept popping up, the world seeming to come to what it couldn’t really be coming to.
Towards the end of last year, we visited friends in California. One evening, at a BBQ, there were about 50 of us, American citizens and residents, recent and long-time immigrants, the American kids of non-Americans, teenagers, middle-aged people and everything in between. Inevitably, we talked about Trump, and laughed, although already a bit rueful, about the man with the weird hairdo and impossible attitudes. Crazy, yeah, horrible, despicable even, but no way was he going to become a presidential candidate. Whatever would happen, that really couldn’t happen. But it did.
Despite the many differences between the Brexit referendum and the presidential elections, there are some striking parallels, a pattern repeating itself. An angry populace finds heroes in those who offer a scapegoat for grievances, who decry diversity and advocate division, who find lies to be an easier tool than facing the truth and promise instant salvation and greatness. Their voices are loud, boisterous and full of conviction and battle cries. The other side tries to reason, to warn of false promises and easy solutions, appeals to the spirit of community and humanity. Their voices are urgent, concerned, convinced. One side appears united in their quest to divide the world, the other advocates unity but shows signs of being divided within. The former lash out, preach exclusion, thrive on self-righteousness . The latter reach out, call for inclusion, but somehow fail to spark widespread enthusiasm. If the odds that something could happen went from almost nil to a 51.3% majority in the UK, who or what can still be sure that “it” isn’t going to happen in the US. There is hope yet, at least for a couple more months, that “it couldn’t possibly happen” turns out to be the truth, that we can, with relief, say “it didn’t happen”. Despite all the things that we seem to have no control over and that are happening, it would be reassuring to be left with at least a few instances that show that we haven’t lost our humanity, our reason and the belief that we can still ensure that some things “just couldn’t happen”.
…. 4 months later …
How wrong we were. What couldn’t really happen happened. And now we are all waiting for something to happen to reassure us that this is just an error, a momentary aberration, and that we have indeed not lost the plot.