By Medicine Hat News Opinon on February 10, 2018.
On Oct. 31, 1517, a writer nailed a sheet of paper on a church door, inviting anyone interested to come and speak with him about the ideas listed on the paper. There was some initial interest but things soon turned sour, and then they got worse. All the young writer had wanted was for people to read his list of ideas and come and hear a debate. But his life was suddenly in danger. He had to flee the city, and the province. Lucky for him he avoided becoming a human candle through the support of a prince who let him hide in one of his castles.
While in hiding our writer continued to churn out pamphlets (editorials, we might call them today). The printing press had recently been invented so his ideas spread rapidly. Everyone, rich or poor, was talking about his ideas. The ideas travelled across the land, even into neighbouring countries. Wars and general unrest erupted but nothing could put these new ideas back into the bottle.
These ideas were intended to simply reform the church of the time and to correct some abuses that had flourished within the hierarchy over the centuries. One revolutionary idea was his new concept of “the priesthood of all believers.” This phrase, obviously a religious reference, was also political dynamite. It blew Christendom into a hundred pieces and shattered the centuries-old monopoly of the dominant church at the time. It was the key that unleashed Individualism upon the modern world. It declared that every person mattered, every individual had worth, every soul had personal responsibility for his or her own well being, spiritually and temporally.
This so-called Protestant Reformation was western culture’s first baby steps toward modern democracy. It would take another 160 years and many wars and revolutions before France and the United States began to stumble towards “We the peopleÉ”
It is good to remind ourselves occasionally that this thing we call democracy, so potentially powerful in its ability to dramatically guarantee individual rights and freedoms, is, ironically, an extremely vulnerable little creature, depending as it does on the voluntary and informed participation of all the citizens who, instead, so often neglect and take it for granted.
Citizen participation must involve much more than just voting occasionally. Sadly, voting is the one thing many people do just to make themselves feel a little like citizens. But voting is often little more than a token activity that allows us to shirk our actual responsibilities as citizens.
Voting, without the requisite knowledge and preparation, is little more than a sideshow put on for us every few years. Voting, without the requisite effort to keep a watchful eye on those who serve us is also a danger to democracy. Voting on the basis of personality, hairdo, gender, language, tradition and other peripheral qualities, is just plain childish. And also dangerous, as we can see in the U.S. right now.
And this is where the editorialist comes in. Like the young writer nailing his list of ideas on the church door above, the modern-day editorialist is still posting and hoping for readers to join him in exploring ideas and participating in democracy. And also like the writer above, the modern editorialist often has to run for cover, figuratively at least, as there will always be readers who are annoyed, insulted, or otherwise angered by what he has said.
Nevertheless, in the interests of defending this fragile democracy of ours, where only 65 per cent of voters bothered to do the very least they could do in last federal election, editorialists of all stripes — liberal and conservative, professional and hobbyists, and those who write letters to the editor occasionally — all extend invitations to readers of newspapers to engage in the democratic project.
What matters to the editorial writer is that the reader has experienced at least one new thought, one new perspective, one new argument, convincing or not. The writer is not hoping that the reader has been shown the error of his ways and has come to the light. That is never the goal. Rather, the writer simply wants to pass on an insight, an interpretation, or some new information, which, hopefully, will engender a little more thoughtfulness. And democracy grows.
The writer is like a person standing beside a still, deep pond. He picks up a pebble and throws it out into the water. He watches the concentric ripples come back to him. And that makes the writer happy, even if his shoes get wet.
Peter Mueller is a long-time resident of Medicine Hat who, in spite of all the evidence, continues to believe we can build a better world.
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