The children’s stories we read are often about getting lost. Out walking, the heroine and her little brother see something interesting off in the distance, in a direction they have never tried and telling each other to be brave they take a turn they have not taken before and enter into a strange new lost world where their strategies for return just don’t work.
We are not children, but we are lost. And we have neither interest in, nor strategy for return.
What was the wrong turn we took? We left the collaborative function of universal military service and turned to the divisiveness of an economics driven “volunteer” army. The middle and upper class young men (women were not yet part of that universe) were excused from any obligation to defend the country that provided them with education and opportunity while young men of lesser means were offered the chance at a better life if they were willing to risk their own.
We can find shelves full of justification and rationale which refuse to name that simple basic truth.
And we can find, since then, even more psychological, sociological, and economic research to explain the inequity of educational and economic opportunity, and the virulent political antagonisms that today have become common fare.
Track the timeline from the early 1970’s to now. That simple turn has taken us to where we are today. Everything else is the haunted woods of our childhood stories.
Experience trumps cognition. When I depend upon someone from a different class to help me survive, I learn something no book can teach me. When I embrace and am embraced as a trusted friend by someone from a neighborhood that would view me with suspicion, I understand the consequences of inequality of opportunity in a way no political speech can tell me. When I sit with comrades joking about our different accents and telling family stories from every part of this country, I find myself wanting to visit those friends in their homes, and discover more about what their life is like. And I am touched to realize how happy they would be to welcome me.
When I know, because of my shared experiences, that we really are all in this together, than the differences do not frighten me, as long as I know that everyone else knows it too.
But we are now in a land where that is no longer true, we are not all in it together, and thus, of course, we no longer trust each other. That is the unavoidable consequence of choosing to eliminate the shared burden of service to our country.
Instead we serve our sub groups and pledge allegiance to our alma mata, our current job, our family, but no longer to each other, and no longer to this country.
We cannot fix the problems we face because we do not recognize those who are suffering as friends, and family of friends, of the people we have loved and trusted. And the problems, like the midnight screaming of witches and ghosts, are all the problems of perceived inequality of personhood manifested as inequality of opportunity. Unless we recognize the fundamental injustice of our mistaken turn the ghosts of what might have been will continue to haunt us every day.