I ate sushi with the enemy, and got my hope back

Getting locked out on the coldest night of the year lead Laurie Penny to an unexpected encounter with two Brexiteers.

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It was the darkest, coldest night of the year, and I ran out of milk halfway through writing a serious column about terrorist violence and the machinery of populist hate. I require copious amounts of tea when writing about that sort of thing, so I popped out to the shops. And that, friends and readers, is how I ended up having sushi with the enemy.

I had, of course, remembered my keys, but forgotten to remember that I no longer live behind the door those particular keys open. I was locked out, and it would be hours before anyone else was home, and I had a pint of milk, a roll of lavatory paper and a dead phone. I decided to go to the Japanese restaurant down the road to see how long I could string out a bowl of noodles.

The place was almost empty. At the next table, three men in their late thirties were eating a stunning amount of fish and shouting at one another about Hillary Clinton. Two seemed to be Brexiteers who believed Donald Trump would save the world; their friend was shaking his head. Cold and bored, I asked if I could join their table. This is the sort of thing you get to do when you're a small, nosy, white woman with an underdeveloped sense of social propriety. I told them I was a journalist, a lefty, and locked out of my house, and they still pulled out a chair. “I get the feeling you'll be on my side,” said the Head Shaker, who had been living abroad for a year — the three were old university pals, and this was their Christmas get-together.

His friend, who I shall call Libertarian Joe, had left an IT career to develop a spiritual self-help website, and was holding forth about George Soros. In his opinion, Hillary Clinton was evil, in the pockets of a crooked establishment that was running the planet according to its own lights. Trump, at least, was an outsider; America had to pick him for the same reason that Britain had to leave the EU — to break the power of corrupt bureaucracy. Even if millions of people might die as a result of war, poverty, climate change? Joe pointed out that millions had already died in the Middle East. I found his whataboutery alarming, though I couldn’t fault his maths.

We had hours to kill. The conversation went deep — to the role and purpose of nation states, the difference between anarchism and anarcho-capitalism, with a break for “which fish are too intelligent to eat?” (Libertarian Joe was a strict vegetarian).  

These men were not the dispossessed, though all had had their own struggles. One was out of work, another out of rehab, but they could still afford to spend an evening drinking in a far-from-terrible sushi restaurant on the south coast; all were white and well-dressed. They were neither blinded by rage nor uneducated, though the two Brexiteers had both stopped reading the “mainstream media”. Joe vowed allegiance to Bernie Sanders and then tried to convince me that 9/11 was an inside job — “let’s just not go there,” said Head Shaker, desolately spearing another crab roll.

It was curious to hear them talk so casually about the chaos to come. Because they knew that there would be chaos — they were expecting a great unravelling, the cracking of the social contract across the world.

What they were, instead, was angry, bored and sick of being lied to. They were convinced that they had been magnificently lied to, that “the elites” deserved to be humiliated as they felt they had been. They were not convinced that Trump and Brexit would usher in an era of prosperity — if anything, the opposite. They wanted to see it all burn down, no matter the cost. They explained this over green tea, which they poured out for me.

Didn't it make them uncomfortable to support a man like Trump, a man who had said such dreadful things about women and immigrants? There was some foot shuffling. “Well, there was no actual evidence — just things he said. You’ve got to realise, that’s just what we say to each other,” said Joe. He meant men.

The f-word had been mentioned. "I don't agree with feminism — I'm an equalist", said Head Shaker, who had previously been on my side. I took a deep breath. I explained that in my view, it wasn't enough to want men and women to be equal in an unequal system. I explained that the people who are the problem are exactly the people Libertarian Joe was complaining about — the wealthy elites, most of them men, who control the rest of the world with violence on a personal and intimate level. I explained that it's that same system that makes men fear each other, that makes it so hard for them to express emotion. My new friend went quiet, and I prepared to have a half-bottle of fine Asian lager dumped all over me.

Instead, all three of them agreed entirely — ”yeah, that’s right!” — and started talking about male suicide rates and how awful it was to deal with anxiety all alone.

I don't often get to talk — really, truly talk — to the “other side”. I fight with them on social media, and sometimes on television, but the debates are leached of humanity, staged to leave blood on the floor. You can only be so nasty with friendly strangers over serendipity sushi.  "We'll never agree," said Libertarian Joe, laughing at his sceptic friend. "Never ever, ever." This truth was delivered in the tones of one who knows he can count on his friends to still come through for him no matter what conspiracy theories he comes out with. For so many others, these are not matters to spar about over dinner. These are matters of immediate survival. I told Joe that, although I’m a radical, I would be far more comfortable if the venal bastards running the world were not also hysterical man-babies with hair-trigger tempers and hearts full of hate.

Then you’re not a real anarchist,” he told me. I thought about it. And I told him something I rarely say even to my closest friends on the left: that I am prepared to pay any cost for a future which would, I believe, be fairer and more free. But I'm not prepared to insist that millions of strangers suffer and die for that same future. That I believe any revolution that does not shelter the most vulnerable and allow for difference of thought and belief is no revolution worth having. That I don't believe greater freedom for some individuals — individuals, for instance, who might eat sushi with their old friends at Christmas — should come at a cost of fear and misery for others. I told him that that's that’s not a cost I want on my conscience. Did he want it on his?

It’s easy to call for a world on fire when you don’t believe the flames will reach your front door. It’s easy to have friendly disagreements in a warm restaurant with a nice waitress bringing you beers. It’s easy to agree to disagree when your freedom is not at stake. I left that place wondering what kind of concord can be reached — whether, if mutual agreement is impossible, mutual understanding might yet be achieved.  At the end of this evil year, looking down the barrel of 12 months that will doubtless bring more horror and heartache, I believe a narrow strip of common ground still stands. Whether there’s room for any of us to live there remains to be seen.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.