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While walking into the Athenaeum on Wednesday, Oct. 4, we agreed upon a mutual goal: to become so notorious and so revered that Ath speakers would cower in our presence and cater to us for a good review. How we plan to garner this reputation, however, remained unknown to us both.

Nevertheless, we entered the room sans press credentials and business attire. We sat at the back, hiding behind a lady falling asleep, on two orange chairs — a reality far from our “infamous reviewer duo” fantasy.

Minutes after sitting down, we refreshed the Ath’s website to quickly read Patrick A. Chamorel’s bio and summary of his talk. We looked forward to an in-depth examination of Europe and the change in transatlantic relations as a result of Brexit, U.S. President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron.  

As the talk commenced, Chamorel began a thorough explanation of Europe’s political situation and current events. He introduced four main European crises: economic, geo-political, refugee, and terrorism. These, he stated, have all worked to feed a larger populist sentiment across the continent. He used Brexit and the recent elections in the U.S. and France to demonstrate what he called the “cyclical nature” of populism.

Chamorel also discussed the notion of “multi-speed” Europe. He argued that some European countries move at a faster pace than others, particularly when analyzing the eurozone. Occasionally digressing onto tangents, Chamorel successfully maintained a conversational tone and never came across as haughty or academically pretentious. He described the political context that is redefining European politics with a clear objective and appropriate standpoint.

At this point, we were beginning to grow restless. When would the “newsreel” end, and the talk begin? Slowly we began to realize that this was the crux of Chamorel’s talk. In other words, we had been waiting for something that had already commenced. Chamorel’s insight was certainly informative, but what his presentation lacked was a set of personal opinions — a distinct voice. It felt as if we were sitting amid a contemporary history class when, in reality, we had gone to the Ath to hear an intellectual’s perspective and analysis.

It was frustrating, too, that “populism” served as more or less of a panacea for all his answers. Chamorel posed interesting questions regarding the recent elections in France, Germany, and the U.S., but when presented with the opportunity to explain the origins of this populist sentiment, he faltered, and ultimately retreated. Aware that “populism” has played an enormous role in shaping current political events, we were eager for Chamorel to explain why this is so, how this sentiment might differ in respective countries, and how experts account for populism’s increasing popularity. Yet, none of these probing questions were answered. What’s worse is that Chamorel himself would allude precisely to this kind of dialogue, and then revert back to the blanketed generalization of “populism.”

As we walked out of the Ath discussing how to shape this article, we were confronted with our sense of privilege. That is, we were numb to Chamorel’s explanation of populism because we already had the opportunities to be exposed to this phenomenon. Chamorel’s talk was not incomplete or lacking content, but rather the issue was that we were already familiar with these ideas prior to the talk. As CMC students, our privilege to engage with these concepts, attend Ath talks, and debate with professors ultimately made us indifferent to Chamorel’s discussion of populism.

Tune in next week for another edition of the Henna and Sofia Ath Chronicles as we come one more step closer to our destiny of becoming revered reviewers.