In preparing for our Global Perspectives Program visit to Switzerland this summer, our cohort had the opportunity to learn from two Swiss graduate students who came to Blacksburg to present. While there presentations focused on higher education, I learned some interesting things about Swiss culture and political life as well.
First, I was surprised to learn that traditional gender roles have changed little in the past few hundred years, in Switzerland. While women participate in the work-force at higher-rates, a number of traditional 'values' remain. Foremost, all and only men have an obligation to serve in the military. While deferments and alternative forms of service are an option, it is incumbent upon every man to serve the Swiss state or pay a recurring fee for not doing so. This fee applies even if people are disqualified on medical grounds. In an age of increasingly technologically sophisticated warfare, this is an interesting anachronism, to me. Israel, for example, includes women in compulsory service duties. Likewise, the United States has increasingly opened its military-ranks, as women serve in a number of combat roles. Similarly, I learned that debates about women's suffrage - and efforts to rescind women's right to vote - continued into the 1990s. Evidently, social progress has not been achieved uniformly in Switzerland.
Second, the rate of political participation and direct involvement in affairs of state is astounding. The Swiss regularly participate in genuine national referendums. The people directly and collectively decide on issues range from voting rights (as in the above case), immigration, and gun control. This direct democracy is an interesting contrast to the US federal system, with its many points of mediation to direct or quell the 'voice of the people.' While each has it's own advantage and I am not going to defend one model over the other here, the contrast is interesting. I cannot imagine the entire US collectively, and in one day, deciding whether assault-weapons can be sold to teenagers at department stores, for example.
Finally, the Swiss take great pride in their country. In another interesting contrast to the US, the Swiss willingly enact increased regulations and pay more to buy local, thereby preserve their cultural heritage and local economy. Big Macs cost nearly $15 (USD) in Switzerland as a result. Retaining local industry and cultural standards leads people to be willing to pay much more for goods. While Americans tend to suggest that the bottom-dollar deal will always prevail (irrespective of the social or ecological effects), the Swiss show that this economic prerogative is not a feature of human nature, but a cultural artifact. This, in particular, is an important lesson for Americans as the state, public life and civic all recede in the face of 'bottom-dollar' rationales.