Three years ago, a very famous economist was meant to come and give an open lecture at my then university. A big deal. It sounds like I am being facetious when I say that, but it’s true. Tickets were sold out weeks in advance. It’s a bit amazing now to recall how excited we all were about it. What did we think was going to happen? How much time would the famous economist need in order to vaguely address even one of the issues relevant to a university in the most consistently unequal country in the world? Six hours? Ten years? He did not have ten years. In an ideal scenario, he had an hour, tops. It’s hard to say what people were expecting. Whatever it was, they did not get it.
Mainly, the famous economist wasn’t there. On the day of the talk, it was announced that there had been some kind of issue with his passport, and he hadn’t even been able to board his flight. So that was bad. The hastily concocted Plan B, whereby he would deliver his lecture via live-stream, fell through. Technical issues. All the people who had gathered in order to see the famous economist say his famous ideas should have just packed it in at that point. Just go home, everyone. Instead, they remained in place for Plan C, whereby some reluctant panellists were going to give their unprepared responses to what they understood to be the gist of the famous economist’s speech, which nobody had heard. Plan C, already a frail and tragic thing, collapsed in the face of an intervention by students from Rhodes Must Fall, who were at this time protesting the university’s policy of outsourcing service workers. Everyone confirmed that this was by far the best bit of the whole event, which was not necessarily saying much, obviously.
A friend was there, and when I pressed him for details as to exactly how bad it had been, he said, “It was a fiasco. I don’t know if I’ve ever described something in those terms before, but that’s what it was. That’s what the word is for.” I was incredibly impressed by that at the time, and I remain dazzled by it still, three years later. A fiasco. A perfect, unbeatable word. A fuck-up, but not one with any real long-lasting consequences. A thing with many moving parts shatters on the floor, and it absolutely sucks, but really it’s fine. It turns into an okay anecdote quite quickly, even for the people at the centre of it. No one dies from a fiasco.
It’s such a perfect word, and I haven’t heard it in conversational use since Thomas Piketty failed to materialise three years ago at my university. Why aren’t we using it all the time? Maybe it is different where you are, and all your friends are using fiasco when appropriate, and you walk away from them thinking Jesus, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what was going on there. I don’t know, though. It feels like it has fallen out of use, and I would like to suggest that we rectify this.
Last week, I went to another public lecture. The chair was one of the most visibly agitated people I have ever come across. I don’t know how to explain it except to say she talked like she had at least two mouths. She talked like there were vehement conflicting statements issuing from at least two different parts of her face. The woman didn’t have any index cards that I could see but she moved her hands like she was a shuffling a deck of them. She wasn’t kicking her legs all around the place, but when I close my eyes for a bit, even now, I picture her doing Irish dancing in her chair. When she actually did get up to help fix one of the panellists’ microphones, I heard that noise that happens just before a fast runner in a cartoon sets off – like two hollow pieces of wood being clattered together. She was so stressful to look at, and the questions she asked were so bad, and the panel ended in all kinds of passionate yelling. A lady cried. No one was happy. I imagine some people wrote letters to the editor about it. Someone asked me afterwards what it was like and I felt the words “it was a total, total disaster” forming on my tongue. I say this kind of stuff all the time, even when it is not called for. I say stuff was a disaster even when the worst thing that happened was that an extremely highly-strung woman failed to rise to the occasion, and afterwards everyone went home and no one died. I started saying it, and then I remembered that fiasco exists, and I said that instead. It was so good. It was exactly what happened, and exactly what I meant. The person I was talking to actually said Wow. We both nodded for a while after I said it, pleased, standing in the warm glow of specificity.