Frank Bruni has written in the New York Times (9.30.12) about the lamentable absence of sacrifice in today’s America. He notes that scant mention was made of it in the acceptance speeches of Obama and Romney, and that the only president who talked about it – Jimmy Carter – was lambasted for asking Americans to turn down their thermostats and said in 1979 “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption”.
Dwight Eisenhower, ridiculed by the Left while he was in office because he was a do-nothing president is now being increasingly revered by these same critics because of his perspicacity and wisdom because of his warning about the dangers of the ‘military-industrial complex’. In his farewell address in January 1961, the speech in which he made this reference, he also said something else very visionary and wise:
As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
Sacrifice is at the heart of most religions and is an important element of family and society. Every family has a story of personal sacrifice – the immigrant grandmother who scrimped and save to give her promising son a college education; the brother who donated a kidney to his sibling; the mother who worked two shit jobs to make ends meet. In many ways sacrifice is the glue which holds us all together.
Bruni says that lack of sacrifice is what is wrong with America today. In this hyper-individualistic world we now risk losing our moorings. Maybe we are willing to sacrifice for our children, Bruni implies, but not for anything larger. The concept of financial or economic sacrifice for the good of the country is ignored. Raising taxes is an anathema, and if it is mentioned at all, it is in reference to the filthy rich – i.e., no sacrifice required there.
Bruni cites Ronald Reagan’s famous ‘Morning in America’ speech as a watershed moment when we once and for all jettisoned the wimpy, defeatist sentiments of Jimmy Carter and got our mojo back. Reagan’s constant upbeat message that America is great and all’s right with the world was just what we wanted to hear. No sacrifice needed here. Work, enterprise, and a positive attitude would generate wealth and prosperity for all.
In this worldview no one is required to sacrifice. Everyone is, in fact, entitled to enjoy the bounties that America can provide without pain or strain. Now that America has temporarily failed in that promise, and most of us are feeling some pain, isn’t it time for sacrifice once again, for each one of us to contribute to the common weal as our Founding Fathers envisaged? Not exactly.
What is seen in this time of constraint is another expression of NIMBY. Sure, say most Americans, sacrifice is exactly what we need, but from HIM, not me. I didn’t get us into this mess, goddamit, so it is not my problem. Every possible excuse is given for not raising taxes – they are unwisely spent; government programs are cesspools of waste, fraud, and inefficiency or are unnecessary entitlements to people who should be working for a living; etc.
Most Americans are happy with the all-volunteer army. If young people want to join the military, we say, that’s great. Get trained, good benefits, pull these kids out of the projects, no sacrifice required because they want serve.
As we baby boomers became adults, less than 1 percent of the population served in the military,” wrote Matthew Paull and Steve Krause in an article in The New Republic last year. It was titled, “Why Are the Children of the ‘Greatest Generation’ So Selfish?”
“In World War II, that figure was over 10 percent,” the authors continued, later adding: “With relatively few of us sharing the bonds, lessons and sacrifices of military service, perhaps there is little widespread experiential counterbalance to each of us pursuing only our self-interest.”
Not mentioned is the fact that if there were a national draft, much fairer than the one in force during the Vietnam War (mainly the poor were called up), then we most certainly would not enter wars of questionable purpose.
Harping on the loss of the moral integrity that sacrifice implies, however, is missing the point. It is fairness which matters most to Americans, and there would certainly be more willingness to pay taxes or to serve in the military if citizens felt that no one was getting a cushy ride while others were being screwed. Hyper-individualism might be the result of unfairness rather than the cause. A fair tax system may be impossible today because of many reasons. The tax code is labyrinthine and impossibly complex with direct and indirect benefits so buried that any individual would be hard-pressed to discover that his taxes are going for a road-to-nowhere or to protect the Flecked Nuthatch let alone sort out the pros and cons of the subsidy. Most of us who live in DC and many other big cities are incensed at the way our taxes are raised, wasted by a corrupt, patronage-driven, and venal politicians.
The same can be said of military service. If the wars were just, then we would be willing to sacrifice for them. As it is, all but World War II have been of dubious value. Who can forget the famous words of Muhammad Ali – “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong…(No Viet Cong ever called me nigger)”
Bruni, however, misses perhaps the central issue in the sacrifice debate. Most people contribute to the common good without thinking about sacrifice; and that is the most important and central concept of American democracy – through individual enterprise, done for itself, the many will benefit. Most people work hard and through this employment give others employment. Their wages are spent on food, clothes, housing, entertainment all of which are important cogs in the engine of America’s economy. Wall Street bankers, no matter how much they are vilified, contribute to the country’s wealth. By making companies profitable they not only increase shareholders’ revenue, but expand their operations, adding jobs and wealth.
Sacrifice is not required, therefore, if everyone does their job to the best of their ability and within moral and ethical boundaries.
In short, a focus on sacrifice may be misleading. Fairness and living according to a moral and ethical code may be even more fundamental and important.