The Hypotenuse

We may as well keep on our theme of “The genius of Tom Kohler”…

When I first heard Tom speak, someone in the audience asked him what we should be doing in the future.  He answered something along these lines (I’m paraphrasing):  “The 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s were the era of rights…Civil Rights, disability rights, women’s rights, gay rights, etc.  This time that we live in now should be the era of doing right.  Our democracy is a vertical democracy, where we look up for our solutions.  We should be creating a horizontal democracy, where we look to each other for the answers to our problems.” 

I thought that was so incisive.  Our leaders, who by all accounts are mostly intelligent, reasonably competent, and fairly well-educated, are completely impotent in many ways at solving our problems.  Politicians, CEO’s, and the like don’t have the answers for the oil spill and other environmental issues.  They can’t prevent or cure economic despair.  They can’t fix the injustices that people on the margins of society suffer.  But we can do all of that.

We can vote both at the ballot box and the cash register how we want this world to work.  And we can care about each other enough to raise our children to be good citizens and take care of our neighborhoods.  We don’t need our salvation to come from on high.  It’s all around us.

I recently re-connected with an old friend and she was telling me about her work in the past as a lobbyist in the pharmaceutical industry (Talk about your double whammies!  I backed away, in case of lightning.  She assured me that she’s out of the biz, though, so we were safe.)  As we caught up, I mentioned Tom’s vision for the present and future to her and we talked about how her work as a lobbyist felt like the vertical democracy.  I said something dismissive about that vertical world and my desire to get as far away from it as possible.   

Then my friend whipped out a geometrical comparison.  She said she didn’t see the vertical democracies and horizontal democracies as separate or antithetical to each other.  She saw them as a perpendicular.  Then she said that she saw power in advocating to our elected officials for social issues, while working to build and support the associations that build communities.  She said we should try to become the hypotenuse!


I didn’t have much to say after that, and it’s stuck with me since.  Do I know anyone who can navigate the vertical and horizontal democracies?  I would say Al Etmanski is a great example of a hypotenuse.   He does the work, brings people together in innovative ways, and advocates at the highest levels of Canadian government for positive change and helpful policies.  Do you know others?

(By the way, can you tell that I’m a sucker for metaphors?  Even mathematical ones!)