I saw this coming.
Well, at least, I felt this coming. Throughout the final months of this election cycle, I’ve had a bad feeling about things. I am devastated by the results, but not completely stupefied or shocked.
This reaction is slightly unexpected because I am, deep down, an optimist. Really. I believe that things will work out for the best – that good intentions eventually bear fruit, that good will prevails, that love triumphs over hate. I was hopeful until the end, but still, I hedged my bets and tried to lower expectations.
I don’t know where this inherent reticence and caution comes from. My everyday existence is a battle between heart and head – I am instinctively exuberant, enthusiastic, emotional, empathetic. I like to think these are positive qualities, though I have learned that they also set me up for disappointment. I set expectations high, and (optimistically and/or foolishly) feel let down when reality strikes. Despite knowing this rationally, I still seem unable to fully control the impulse, so have developed a logical check, or maybe just a skeptical inner voice, that constantly tells me that, in general, things are too good to be true, and the bubble has to burst at some point.
Last night was the third time I’ve found myself awake in the middle of the night watching as things fall apart.
The first time was the Greek referendum in July 2015, where I stayed up until 4am refreshing Twitter and livestreaming Parliament until they eventually decided to put EU membership to a popular vote.
The second instance was Brexit – friends assured me there was no need to stay up all night to find out how the country voted, since the polls assured all of us that ‘Remain’ would win the day. Some internal uneasiness woke me up at around 5am, when again I refreshed BBC in disbelief.
This morning was the third time I’ve had that feeling – glued to the news as it feels like the rest of the world is asleep/oblivious (because at 6am this morning in Athens, of course they were), with a sinking feeling in my stomach that the unimaginable is actually happening.
I voted in two out of three of these contests – both times for the losing side. (The Greek referendum was basically ignored, but the feeling of unreality and uncertainty is familiar.) It does raise the question of whether there is something wrong with democracy or if I’m just out of touch. I think it’s neither and both, at the same time. Obviously claiming that democracy doesn’t work because I disagree with the opinion of the majority is no argument at all, but when the majority is swayed by emotional appeals and entrapped and entranced by empty rhetoric something else is amiss.
Thought I personally agree with this passionate editorial in today’s New Yorker, the assertion that ‘It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety’ seems like a step too far. It seems unlikely that the people who chose to vote Trump into office are feeling anything akin to revulsion right now.
Globalisation’s side effects cannot be ignored – and the growing inequality in the developed world is a clear problem that needs to be addressed – but we know this and others have said it much better than I can.
What I can say is that it feels like the earth has moved under my feet.
Brexit didn’t hit me right away, but as Friday, 24 June progressed, and I found myself out of Athens near the sea (which always helps clear my head), I realized why my stomach was in knots. Somehow I had finally understood that everything I had been raised to expect, aim for, and frankly take for granted was actually not a given. The great gift of growing up in America – in a prosperous family living the ‘American dream’ – was that I was unconditionally raised to believe that if I studied, worked hard, and tried to be a decent person, everything would work out well.
The two halves of my family exemplify the two complimentary (in my mind) pieces of the American dream. My mother’s family came to the English colonies (pre-America, in other words), to find religious freedom after persecution in Europe. Hard work, frugality and stability are engrained in that DNA (with the unfortunate result that I have to finish whatever food is on my plate, regardless of hunger cues).
My dad represents the other side of the best America has to offer – he came to the US to study, on a scholarship, from a Greece that was then under military dictatorship. Hard work, more hard work and of course some luck transformed that American dream into a reality.
Growing up with this background, I benefited both from incredible opportunities and a classic ‘American dream’ mind-set: the idea that if you set your mind to it and work hard, things will be fine.
The naiveté of this is apparent enough, and over the years I have learned enough about privilege and systematic inequality to know how lucky I am. The fact that I even felt I could hope for an eventual return on my hard work is an opportunity afforded to far too few, including within the United States.
Of course, it’s given me the luxury to choose to live outside the United States – and it’s also made me wonder whether I am so out of touch or even have the right to comment. I got into my very first political Facebook spat on Monday, when a friend of an old family friend criticised me out for posting a pro-Hillary article:
The words hurt, though I told myself that this was just one guy with a fringe opinion, and I wrote it off. Friends from all over the world came to my defense, calling him out for hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. Rather than get too deeply upset about the whole thing, I felt affirmed and impressed by my remarkable friends, and indeed encouraged that no matter what might happen in the election, those people were on the ground spreading acceptance, diversity and love.
The question of my right to comment is not, in my opinion, such an open one – we’re all entitled to an opinion – but being abroad gives me the luxury of avoiding the day-to-day consequences of Trump-style rhetoric, and in general being white means I don’t actually have to fear for my safety like so many of those Trump has identified as ‘Other.’ At the same time, being abroad thrust me into the position of being an awkward representative of the United States, which I have always been uncomfortable with.
Nearly every time I meet someone new here in Athens – the inevitable question comes up: ‘Why are you here?’ People assume that because I have two passports, including one in that globally-coveted blue, I must be crazy not to be taking advantage of my right to live and work in the United States, especially when the alternative is crisis-stricken Greece.
When I first went to England to study, Bush was still in the White House and Americans were not especially popular abroad. I was still in my adolescent phase of infatuation with the UK, and felt self-conscious and conspicuous about my accent. In my first year at Cambridge, I often deliberately lowered my voice to avoid the immediate judgement that came as soon as people heard how I spoke.
In my second year of university, I voted in my first election and felt incredibly proud to be from Ohio. Students gathered at the Cambridge Union to watch events unfold on the big screen, and when Ohio was called for Obama and everyone cheered, I screamed along with everyone else, adding ‘That’s where I’m from!! That’s my state!!’
Being labelled as an American abroad is complicated by my own weird understanding of my identity – when I was younger I was always proud to be half-Greek, feeling like this made me ‘more special’ and interesting than the ‘average’ American. I have certainly understood the obnoxiousness of this, but I haven’t fully resolved the problem. I don’t feel like I identify as 100% American (just like I’m definitely not 100% Greek), and this crisis of diaspora identity is only compounded when I try to comment on either one place or the other.
In non-election years, the rest of the world forgot about Ohio, and America’s image abroad slowly began to recover, thanks to our endlessly charismatic and classy new President. I still didn’t broadcast my origins with pride, but America’s rebranding coincided nicely with my growing up, and (beginning to) come to terms with my own relationship with the US.
At a party just this weekend, multiple people commented on how ‘sweet’ my American pronunciation is – and I smiled and took the compliment, rather than squirming and feeling awkward. Just on Monday in the queue at the supermarket, a fellow shopper asked me about my accent, and then said ‘America is great though right? What state are you from? Oh, Ohio, I don’t know much about it. But America is really great.’
Talking to my best friend in the states this morning, I realised that living in Greece has already prepared me, to some extent, for the feeling of having the rug pulled out from underneath me. As she told me she now doesn’t feel like her future is secure, I realised I’m well-acquainted with what that feels like. At the same time, I realised that having the option of going back to the US – if worst comes to worst – has helped me deal with the utter unpredictability of trying to make a life in Greece today. Brexit, and now this result, have made it clear that there is no real ‘safe haven’ to retreat to anymore – the idea of moving (immigration restrictions aside) anywhere in order to find that safe future I thought I could expect is fading very quickly indeed, as it becomes more and more clear that this is the world we’re living in, and it’s not going anywhere soon.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure if I’m more angry, scared or disappointed. Angry that the next four years could have incredibly negative and irreversible repercussions, reaching far beyond the borders of the United States and far beyond just the presidential term.
Disappointed that the best of America just wasn’t good enough to overcome narrow-mindedness, intolerance and distrust, and indeed disappointed that we’ve allowed the situation get so bad that so many felt this was their best option.
I’m scared because I don’t know what’s coming. I want to grow up, have a family, explore the world and make it a better place for everyone. I’m scared because the future I thought could be mine if I wanted it badly enough, might not actually exist.
Where to now? I have no idea. I’m trying to gather myself, and my loved ones, and put my faith in the incredible people I know who work, and will continue to work, ceaselessly to make this world a better place for everyone.
After the referendum result was announced, I shared this:
While last night at around 4.30am ( 9.30 EST), that feeling in my gut was back with a vengeance, and I started to despair, I shared this:
Both seem appropriate now.
Moving forward, I hope with all my heart that Dr King was right:
‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.’
Martin Luther King, Jr.