“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: an experiment in literary investigation

Annecy, France, 20 June 2021

This isn’t my story, I tried to console myself as I passed the (sparsely-attended) voting stations this Sunday morning, where (some) French people were exercising their right to vote in regional elections. But it is also my story, and so I felt a tugging sense of desolation: Why are so few people voting?

Over the years, the bureaucracy of immigration has dulled my own suffragist will. Far from home, I’ve submitted to simply paying the taxes that support the system that keeps us living in our haven of privilege and calm. I am fortunate enough to be able to choose this exclusion; if one day overpowered by a desire to fulfil my political franchise, I’d just go back to where I’ve come from.

Yet once we’ve crossed certain frontiers, going back is no longer an option. As Alice experiences in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Through the Looking-Glass, some crossings are so transformative that old logics become too peculiar to sustain.

Having made it through the uncertainty, heartache and loss of this pandemic season, we must not now squander the perspective we were given on the strangeness of all that we had come to accept. Rather, for those of us fortunate enough to have made it this far, we have the duty to reflect on who we are, and to envision who we could collectively become.

What do we see in this mirror?

These days I see fear, masked in political vitriol around ‘protection’ and ‘security’. Such words promise to soothe visceral distress resulting from rising precarity and economic insecurity. These raw, searing concerns are painfully real for growing numbers of people falling off the receding  edges of prosperity and plenty.

Breath-choking, heart-gripping, stomach-churning, fist-clenching… Fear needs a place to go and searches for courage to help it find its way. But courage can be hard to find sometimes, and easier alternatives often emerge, like blame. Blame offers an apparent bulwark to protect us from that which we do not wish to see in ourselves.

These days the blame falls on the migrant (in search of dignity), but in the not-so-long-ago past it fell on someone else, and in the not-too-distant future, it will fall on yet another category of faceless unknown.

We have been here before. We will keep coming back to this place (mise en abyme) until we are willing to show up on behalf of our shared humanity.