Thoughts on 2016 so far
[If you only care for the political analysis, jump straight to the second half of this piece. If you only care for me, read just this first half. Ideally, read both.]
Given the date I am writing this, you probably think this is going to be a post about Trump. Well, I am sorry to disappoint you, but not really. Not exclusively and not primarily so, at the very least. I just want to write a general reflection on what I make of 2016 up to today. As a political scientist, to be sure. And, since this is my personal blog, I will be using my life as timeline and reference point to my wider analysis.
The year started off pretty well. While Spain was trying to form a government after its first election, I was enjoying a well-deserved two-month holiday before starting work at the European Parliament, in Brussels, on the 1st of March. Well-deserved because I had been working non-stop for a year and half on my Master's degree, and because I had just experienced the terrorists attacks in Paris.
I travelled to the United States on a solo holiday in February, in which a lot of good things happened to me. In case you are wondering, these were things like experiencing temperatures of -32*C (-26F) and reconnecting with people from earlier in my life. Anyways, when I came back, I went straight to Brussels.
When you feel European first and foremost, have studied Politics and have a passion for communication, working for the Spokesman of the European Parliament is one of the best things that can happen to you. So even if you are traumatised from your recent experience in Paris, the world becomes your oyster pretty quickly. You meet a lot of VIPs on a daily basis, you are doing what you love, and everyone around you values you. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, say that three weeks into your new life, boom. Quite literally, terrorist attacks round the corner from your office. A sense of déjà-vu accompanies you throughout the adrenaline-injected day, together with the inopportune jokes of 'this shit follows you, don't come over here' from your friends in other places.
Anyways, you spend the next day and night with people who have also experienced both attacks, and you find yourself again. Two weeks later you go on your first business trip, all expenses paid, courtesy of the taxpayer, and that cheers you up. Throughout the next weeks, you plan some trips with your new friends, and then, the amazing happens: you get offered a job that will give you stability till 2019.
The job is a fully-funded PhD scholarship from a British university that will have you study the integration of Molenbeek Moroccans into Belgium from an EU perspective. You fly over, meet your future advisors, get a feel for the place, like it, and sign it. You sort out accommodation too. At the same time, Spain calls for a second election and, since you have always voted abroad, you get yourself a flight home - to see the atmosphere in polling stations. The world is your oyster and Brussels is cold in June, why would you not?
So I did. I flew home on EU referendum day. I went to bed in my childhood room, and thought of how privileged I was, how far I had come. And I woke up to disaster: the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. After a campaign full of blatant lies, Leaver vocals backed out on their promises during the course of the same morning in which results were given.
I was mourning all day. I just could not understand. How, how the hell? How is this possible? I was depressed, in denial, and I cried. I am grateful I got to spend the day with my family, who cried with me. Suddenly my future looked grey: I was a Spanish national who, after having worked for an EU institution, was about to get quite a few dozens of thousands of pounds to study the integration of Muslim migrants in one of Europe's most radicalised neighbourhoods (according to the media, at least) from an EU perspective. Great from all angles indeed.
So after a few weeks of careful meditation, and having taken all practical factors into account, I realised there was no way I could bear with it all. I was barely starting to emerge from my terrorism-induced trauma and three years of bigotry in the Midlands could not be in the cards for me. So after a failed attempt at deferring entry, I refused the scholarship and helped my to-be advisors to find a new candidate. I had come to like them, and this is probably the toughest decision I have ever had to take in my life.
I left Brussels halfway through July and immediately flew over to Morocco, where I spent about a month improving my Arabic skills. In Morocco, I disconnected from politics, from finding a job, from the media and the news, from my traumas and my problems - I led a very simple life in which choosing a bar in the morning and a restaurant in the evenings, together with intricate Arabic grammar, were my biggest challenges.
And I found inner peace. It was perfect. I could have extended it forever. But one's gotta do what one's gotta do, so I came back to Barcelona and started the job hunt just as we were getting into September. And all hell broke loose.
Now, for those who do not know what it is like to come back home and live with your parents (and grandmother) after five years living on your own: let me assure you, it is far from easy. I will not go into the details, but let us agree that such a situation requires some adjusting, and adjusting needs time.
But time, I have. I must have sent well over a hundred CVs by now, and apart from a couple of (very) short-term jobs, I have found nothing. Rather than in falling into a depression, and aside from the little travelling I have done to meet friends, I have been dedicating my time to following current affairs, and reflecting on everything that is going on.
And I mean, we have been seeing the signs for some time now: take UKIP's and the FN's results in the 2014 EP elections, the treatment given to refugees by the EU, Narendra Modi's victory in India, to name but a few. But in 2016, everything that we considered normal is just gone.
Brexit, for instance: it is not just the fact that 'Leave' won it, it is that, after all that has happened ever since, 47 per cent of Britons would vote for the Conservatives if there were an election now. Compare that to 35 per cent in 2015. In other words, institutional bigotry is rewarded with a higher rate of approval.
But there are many, many other examples. Poland and Hungary would each deserve an article of its own, as would Austria's presidential election or Italian politics. We could talk about Rodrigo Duterte's rise into power in the Philippines, about the ousting of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil or about Turnbull's government in Australia.
We could talk about the polarisation of Israeli politics, and about the sham coup in Turkey, or about AfD's mild success in German state legislatures. Or about the Icelandic Pirate Party and the rise of Islamism across the Arab world. Or, indeed, about many other signs.
But two examples come to mind as more striking than the rest: firstly, Colombia's rejection of a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas after decades of a bloody war, which happened via referendum after an agreement had been made between the leader of FARC and the President of Colombia, who, incidentally, has won this year's Nobel Peace Prize over this.
And secondly, of course, the election of Donald Trump, an inexperienced and outlandish man who also happens to be a confess racist, misogynist and sexual assailant, to the world's highest public office.
When I went to bed on EU referendum night, I was pretty much certain that the Remains would have it. And I hoped to be right. And I was wrong. Last night, I went to bed being pretty much certain that Trump would win. And I hoped to be wrong. And I was right.
[First half ends. Second half starts.]
I would lie if I said that I have felt shocked or in disbelief today. I have not. This is the missing element to an idea that has been developing in my mind over the last few months. That these are outcry votes, against the elites, against globalisation, escapes no one's minds.
But the reality is that we are living in a post-truth world and conventional candidates have not been speaking post-truth language. Facts do not matter in an era where all the world's information is in your pocket and two clicks away. This spread of ludicrous political events all have one element in common, and just one: elites can be hurt.
The more you prove it, the more it expands. And because news from everywhere reaches everywhere in seconds, people in America have been exposed to Brexit, much like people in Austria and Poland have been exposed to Hungary. So why not give it a go themselves?
This is not a worldwide phenomenon... yet. Countries like Canada and Spain prove that conventional politics and dialogue are still possible. For the Spaniards reading this: do not even try to compare our political landscape to what is going on elsewhere. Granted it is not ripe yet, but we seem to be going in the appropriate direction.
I very much fear that Trump's victory will give wings to populists around the world: most especially so, because of electoral timings, cultural similarities, and because it is an example I hold dear to my heart, France. Unless we change our strategies, we cannot rule out a Le Pen presidency come next year.
So how do we do it? Well, I am no expert, and I do not want to claim that I have all the answers. These are, after all, just my personal reflections, but I invite each and every one of you to reflect on this coldly and calmly. But this is what I have found.
First of all, I know very few people who voted for Brexit, no one who voted for Hofer in Austria, no one who voted against the Colombian peace deal, and I believe that no one who has voted for Trump. Then again, I am probably a part of the elite that this electorate is looking to destroy: I have received top international education and have been a part of the Brussels bubble, working for the EU's only directly-elected institution.
I have carried my life in a suitcase and a carry-on since I turned eighteen. This means that most of the people I have met as an adult are also within that atmosphere. The offspring of the accommodated classes from around the world, progressive, interconnected, multilingual. We are the by-product of globalisation, so we do not even question the phenomenon.
No one ever chooses where they are born: we are generally not bad people, most of us are not spoiled brats. But this is who we are, and us is who we socialise with for the most part. On top of that, my social environment is made up of people who have chosen to devote their life to politics. So obviously, on top of all of the above, we are politically active and politically aware.
For us, voting for Trump or voting against peace is fantasy. I mean, why the hell would anyone do that? So whenever it happens, we post a bunch of complaints on social media, we encourage each other, and we move on with our lives. We may be outraged, but a weekend getaway every now and again helps.
I have to let you on a little secret here: I am definitely one of these people, but the environment in which I grew up, here in Barcelona, is not. My family is not like that, my childhood friends are mostly not like that, and people around me are generally not like that. What I am trying to tell you is that, if Spain had a Trump-like candidate, many people around me would vote for him.
Indeed, Catalonia has its own anti-establishment agenda, the independence movement, and a majority of my town is for secession - this includes members of my family and a majority of childhood friends. I have seen friends take part in pro-independence marches and then fail to vote in elections, as I have seen friends look at me suspiciously for what I have made of my life.
And I will let you on a second little secret: over the last few weeks, I have grown a bit depressed. I have sent over a hundred applications and have had fewer than 10 returns, all of them negative. I have had people ignore my e-mails and people reject my e-mails asking a couple of questions as if they were full-fledged applications, which shows that they did not even read them in the first place.
I have seen employers ask for two years of experience, four languages and an international experience (all of which costs money) to qualify for a four-month unpaid internship in one of the world's most expensive cities. The barriers to entry into the market are huge because there are so many qualified candidates that they can afford to offer modern slavery: worst-case scenario, their daughter or nephew will take it.
I have felt scammed, betrayed, despised. I started off the year at the very top, being paid extremely well for a startlingly interesting traineeship at the core of this continent's ruling elite, where I had a real role and where my job made a difference. And now, here I am: wearing some PJs in front of my computer, in my childhood room, stuffed with books, looking for lousy jobs and willing to take anything just because I need to feel productive, active, do something.
I have managed to find a couple of things that will keep me busy until Christmas, both of which carry decent pays, so I am not complaining or moaning. I am just sharing, because I need to share this for you to understand what I am going to say next.
Imagine for a second that you have not had access to top-tier education, that you have never been able to afford travel, that you have seen your loved ones out of work, that you are or have been out of work yourself, and not because of super high competition, but because there are barely any jobs for which you are wanted.
And I say "imagine" because most of the people that I know who are going to read this have never had such limitations. Imagine that you need help to feed your family: I volunteer in my local food bank and I see it every day. Imagine that no one around you remembers feeling useful to society.
Now, imagine someone comes along and they say they will change things. Imagine that person is different, that person is like you or tells you they are like you, and that person promises to kick out ruling elites from where they are. Wall Street bankers, out. City investors, out.
You have nothing to lose. So you may very well go along with it. And now imagine this happens after you have seen people like you fight in other countries and win, and have seen other countries' elites shattered by the common folk. Well, you obviously go along with it. Whatever they do, whatever they promise, it cannot be worse than now, and it could be better, because it is too soon to tell.
I do not mean to justify bigotry, racism or xenophobia. Hatred fuels hatred and that is just wrong and leads to losses for all. As a Westerner who has lived through the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, speaks sort of fluent Arabic and sympathises with Muslims, I know very well what I am talking about.
All I am saying is: if we are to win this fight, if we are to stop post-truth politics from invading us all and, consequently, from avoiding a world war in a decade or two, we need to stop our actions. We need to take a step back, stop looking over the shoulder at people voting for unconventional winning choices, and dialogue.
This is hard for one main reason: we do not know them, and they do not know us. Our leaders talk to us and their leaders talk to them; we do not read their media and they do not read ours. We naturally distrust someone from 'the other side' if we meet one by chance, and try not to get too close.
Which is why I encourage you to do two things: first, shut yourself somewhere quiet and try to think of the reasons that may have taken someone to choose what you consider illogical. Think of what it would take for you to make the same choices. And second, try to find someone who you know is from the other side, open your mind, ask them to open theirs, sit down, and talk.
You will not agree with each other, neither of you will convince the other one, but at least you will both see things from a different perspective. And if we all do this, especially those of us close to the so-called elites, then perhaps we still have a chance to stop this madness before it is too late. This is particularly relevant if you are French: the world is looking at you now.
As for me, now that I have this off my chest, I am going back to my job hunt - where I came to be because of post-truth in the first place. Had Britain voted Remain, I would be in the Midlands leading an academic life right now. But it did not. And you know what? I do not regret for a single second having said no to the scholarship. What is life but a learning process, after all.