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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Give me your heart, make it real

… or let’s forget about it.

Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas aside, I’m two parts through Yuval Noah Harari’s trilogy, awaiting my wife’s completion of the third. There are many nuggets in Harari’s work, informing many conversations and a continuing exploration for me. I will focus here on just one of these nuggets, as I see it bearing profound relevance to my understanding of the world around me, as well as my small place in it.

Myth, Harari contends, is necessary for collective cooperation, a.k.a. society as we know it. When he describes the basis for society as mythical, he does not mean it as a bad thing, just that this is how it works. Without myth, it would be impossible to mobilize large numbers of people. In fact, he argues, even small numbers would be difficult to join together in common purpose without a shared myth. He offers the example of early Sapiens gathered in the battle for food, shelter, and survival. He extends this concept all the way to present day nationalism, founded on the myth that ‘we are the best and everyone else is not’.

Success in marriage, family, team, army, race, culture, religion, political parties, and nation… all of these, and more, depend on a shared belief that they are each real and good. This belief, according to Harari, is in a myth. Reality is a myth, but the myth is not reality. Myth is real only in our hearts and minds. As soon as belief in the myth and commitment to the myth fail, reality disappears. As soon as we stop believing that we belong to something larger than ourselves, with a common purpose, just like that, it’s gone.

While embracing a myth can be empowering for a collective with shared purpose, a number of things can go very wrong. Think of the Crusades. Think of world wars.

Think of ‘divide and conquer’ as a political strategy. When that strategy runs counter to the overarching myth, only bad things can happen. When myth as a positive aspirational unifying force is called into doubt, internal collapse of the whole may be close at hand. Every dominant society has experienced this mythical collapse. History assures us of many things, most often that it repeats itself. Every new myth presents itself as unique, as a new perfection, having learned enough from history so as to remain immune from the inevitability of history itself. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Democracy is a myth. Think of democracy as a notion, aspirational but unrealized. Our task, as believers in this myth, is to continually strive to narrow the gap between myth and reality. As long as we believe in the myth, it exists as a goal on the horizon. This myth needs to be singular, emotional, and clearly distinct from all other choices. This myth needs to be as unambiguous as a shining light on a hill.

The myth of democracy is that, when I mark my ‘x’ on an election ballot, I am an equal participant in society, and that my participation makes a difference. When I feel that I am structurally disenfranchised from the vote, however, the myth is in doubt. When available choices consistently fail to deliver on promise, the myth is in doubt. When it becomes clear to me that outside forces inconsistent with my myth exert undue influence on reality, the myth is truly in doubt.

When the myth of democracy passes Gladwell’s Tipping Point of failure in our minds, it will quickly be discarded in favour of a new myth. Some new actor will enter the stage and lead us in a completely different direction. Naively, I hope for Mr. Rogers (exit stage left), but deeply, I fear the Joker (enter stage far right). Such a chaotic transformation in the prevailing myth is always accompanied by violence. This would not be a peaceful transition of power.

Around the world, there are numerous signs of open and festering wounds in our myth of democracy. It remains to be seen whether these wounds can be treated and healed or if they will go viral and bring total collapse and death to society as we have enjoyed it. There is hope shining from that light on the hill, but it is a flickering light. Time judges all.

Give me your heart, make it real. Let’s don’t forget about it.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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