Hilarious, literal, preciously simple: Big Boat Stuck in the Suez Canal was the narrative we needed

As the Ever Given was freed from the Suez Canal on Monday — just under a week after it jammed itself in there like a husky gentleman in a waterslide — the prevailing attitude online was not one of relief or celebration.

The hashtag #putitback started trending as people, with varying degrees of sincerity, immediately became nostalgic for the time when the whole world’s attention was fixed on huge oaf of a boat gunking up 200km of canal.

I consider myself among those people who took a strange kind of comfort in this spectacle, and as ships once again start to move through the Suez, I’ve started to wonder why.

First, it’s just novel for there to be a big news event that is affecting several global markets concurrently which I can explain to my two-year-old son without a lot of difficulty: Big Boat Stuck. You can get into the whys and wherefores and really drill down into steering systems and the consistency of the silt at the bottom of the canal, but all of this is ultimately window dressing to “Big Boat Stuck”.

And yet, despite this simplicity, for far longer than anyone really thought possible, the combined efforts of the entire planet could not Unstick Big Boat.

There’s something strangely calming about a huge, global problem, the essentials of which you grasp immediately and instinctively.

Writer Brandy Jensen put it well on Twitter last week:

But it wasn’t just the simplicity of the problem, it was its precious literality. Big Boat Stuck was not emblematic of a deeper, thornier issue that We Really Ought Be Talking About. There was no subtext with which to grapple. I mean, there absolutely was, but happily these little distress calls were pretty much all drowned out by the cheerful foghorn of Big Boat Stuck. There was, to put it another way, not a huge deal of “Is there not, when one considers it, a big boat of malice stuck in the canal of society?” kicking around the discourse.

In addition to and perhaps because of this, we had a news story that captured the world’s attention that it was virtually impossible to get mad at each other about. There were factions, to be sure — Team Why Aren’t We Exploding The Boat; Team Simply Push It With A Bigger Boat; Team Boat Lives In Canal Now — but none of these were in disagreement about the central problem: Big Boat Stuck.

And so while the Ever Given’s own predicament was unremittingly literal, I don’t think the same can be said of the attendant fixation on it. There is something deeper going in our response. It’s become so rare to find ourselves with a problem that we fully grasp, that doesn’t divide us along political lines and, crucially, where the solution has absolutely nothing to do with us. There’s no attendant personal guilt in relation to Big Boat Stuck. We aren’t called upon to change our behaviour in any way, or to reflect on our choices, or to scold our coworkers. It was an unfathomably Big Boat, and it was Stuck, and there was nothing that anyone outside of 11 tugboats and a handful of excavators could do about it. Take the afternoon off, everyone, and have a look at how stuck this big boat is.

And while that may all sound terribly depressing, there was a perversely empowering aspect too. At the risk of mangling Adam Curtis, we find ourselves in a time where the importance of the individual is endlessly emphasised, while the actual power of the individual is gradually being revealed to us as virtually nil. In times such as these, there’s a kind of dizzying, paradoxical feeling of power to be found when the stuff up from a handful of people aboard one ship can bring 12% of global trade to a standstill, instantly.

Which is, in its own way, kind of beautiful.

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