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Has the great experiment run its course?

February 10, 2014

Our response to this question will be the struggle of the 21st century. Over the past 100 years, Western industrialized nations have been significant beneficiaries of a great experiment. This experiment saw participation in politics (through the vote) and in the economy (through property ownership) skyrocket to levels never imagined by the framers of our societies. In the beginning, these two phenomena, the vote and property ownership, were handcuffed to each other, restricting participation to a very select few. This was true across all budding Western democracies, in some cases with less than 10% of the population participating in the vote. It was well into the 20th century before women acquired the right to vote, in one Canadian province, as late as 1940. It was even later than that before women could independently borrow from banks. When we look down our noses at societies of oppressed women, our noses should not lead too far from the mirror on our own wall.
Initially, New World creations in the 18th and 19th centuries were copycats of European models, in which the wealthy elite ran the show. Notwithstanding the blinkered propaganda in today's market, it was a long time before universal participation was an accurate description. These systems were not created for the masses in any egalitarian sense we now take for granted. Like their antecedents, Western democracies were created to enable a very small minority of people to legitimately assume control over government and the economy.
Very gradually, rights to participate in all of these nations filtered down to lower levels, class by class, until property ownership, gender, race and religion, and literacy were no longer impediments… or maybe we're not quite there just yet.
Again, enhanced participation was not an on-off switch that someone flipped. It has been a continuous, but slow and painful process over more than two centuries. The process continues even today. Efforts to disenfranchise entire classes of people, both from the vote and from participation in the economy, are steaming ahead with full force. Life is a meandering journey. So, it seems, is our expedition toward full participation.
Society is a complex and dynamic collection of relationships. What it is and what we'd like it to be should constantly be subjected to examination, experimentation, negotiation, and change. It's not fixed, and never was. Nor was it intended as fixed by the original framers. Once fixed in place, a system can do only one thing, and that is to decay. Though mythical in stature, the unexamined society is not worth keeping.
Hopes for success in this great experiment rest squarely on the hopes for full participation across all classes of people. Such participation may be measured by access to the voting booth and by appropriate dispersion of a nation's wealth and income, but these are only residual measures. The real keys to success in participation will be found in health and education.
I am not a fan of government intervention when it destroys initiative and penalizes those who make an active contribution. At the same time, I consider entitlement as reasonable to include universal access to health care and education. Beyond these two is up for grabs, but universal health care and education are untouchable in my book. Health and education are the great enablers. Only the healthy and educated can aspire to raise themselves and their families. Only the healthy and educated can fully participate in society. Only the healthy and educated can fully benefit from modern advances. Only the healthy and educated can make contributions to these modern advances. The sooner we recognize and embrace the great and diverse potential of people from all walks of life to be net contributors, the sooner the pie can become much bigger and society as a whole can become the beneficiary.
And yet, we stand our ground.
As creators and collectors of myth, we almost always hold on beyond the point of reason to myths easily recognized as such from the view of an unattached casual observer. How often we look in from the outside and ask, "what could they have been thinking?" How often we say, "I would never do that." And yet, how often do others say the same about us? The closer we get to a mythical phenomenon, the longer we've been emotionally engaged, the more we've invested in an idea… the harder it is to recognize when the theory has run its course and it's time to move on.
We stand our mythical ground because it's easier. We stand our ground because to do otherwise would assign too much energy to doubting everything we think and say and do. It's functional to adopt a simplified position because our attention can be freed up to concentrate on other things. If we were to occupy ourselves constantly challenging everything we see and hear and believe, we'd soon be paralyzed and unable to function on any acceptable level. So… we accept imperfection in our models and frameworks. We all do it. We have to do it to survive.
Every compromise, however, has a price. Standing our ground enables us to survive the day-to-day challenges of life… but only to a point. Here is that point. When standing our ground precludes taking new information, new circumstances, new players, or new and dynamic relationships into consideration, the ground on which we stand may very well crumble and disappear.
I feel the earth move, under my feet. How about you?

Kevin Graham

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