Are Americans Ready For A Depression-Era Sense Of Sacrifice?

by on December 18th, 2008

It’s been observed that a voluntary sacrifice is the height of virtue but produces lessons with an abbreviated half-life. In contrast, a forced sacrifice requires little virtue but its lessons are nearly eternal, written as they are in our psyche with indelible ink. With those caveats in mind, we examine Gregory Rodriguez’ recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, which makes the remarkable case that Americans are eager to prove themselves as worthy as the generation that struggled its way through the Depression.

Citing A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as the timeless transformational artworks that pressed the angels of our better nature into service, Rodriguez argues that our current economic woes offer a unique opportunity for us to “retrieve some moral clarity.” He also quotes Barack Obama, who, correctly recognizing a seminal political moment, has stated that “This country needs a sense of national purpose,” and that “it’s time for a new Greatest Generation.”

All of this rhetorical hyperventilating, as any political exercise aficionado would tell you, can be hazardous for your civic health. But before we run the forensics on whether or not Americans are up to a voluntary sacrifice of any magnitude, let’s first look at what Obama has proffered. Nothing in his campaign rhetoric, nor anything since he won the election, would suggest he subscribes to the civic virtues of sacrifice that was so in evidence in the 30s. Indeed, one could argue that our era and the one some seven decades earlier are so different in degree as to constitute a different civic species.

To wit, beyond the fact that today’s middle class enjoys a quality of life that would stun those who suffered the staggering penury of the 30s, those poor souls could only dream of the multi-tiered safety net that we take for granted, and, that gives rise to a misguided civic complacency regarding risk and economic misfortune. And, isn’t it the case that the nearly $1 trillion that Congress, our president, and president-elect are proposing to spend, is evidence that suffering has been consensually redacted from our civic lexicon?

Has Obama–or Bush, for that matter–outlined the contours of this collective sacrifice that Rodriquez apparently believes we’re about to embark on? Given his sense of political theater, which is admittedly uncanny, it’s arguably the case that Obama correctly sees the Greco-Roman motif that’s developed, one with obvious tragic dimensions, and is setting the stage for his own entrance next month. But, consistent with the ‘less is more’ formula he so artfully developed during his campaign, his diagnosis of our economic challenges seems determined to leave us–the patient–out of the treatment plan.

That brings us to Obama’s calculated motivation for effectively relieving us of the burden of sacrifice. It’s a dual-edged explanation, beginning with the fact that despite their policy differences, no presidential candidate, save Ron Paul, made any demands of the electorate. Indeed, this election cycle has dramatically highlighted the grim fact that ours is the most unadultlike generation in modern history, so why should we expect our candidates to sternly lecture us about the virtue of sacrifice?

In truth, sacrifice for the modern sensibility amounts to a dial-up fate in a DSL universe, a cable menu with fewer than 100 channels, kids deprived of cell phones, or a house that’s not Internet wired. It’s a view of life where failure and accountability have been rendered obsolete, where victims are omnipresent, and where excuses are minted at a brisk clip to ensure the rewards for phantom efforts keep coming.

Succinctly stated, Obama has lowered expectations for a Kennedyesque revival of sacrifice for a greater good, for kindling a national interest beyond the parochial self-interest that’s as predictable as the lengthening queue, all of them waiting for their tax payer-funded handout.

We reap what we sow, so we best get used to it.

Mella is editor of

Philip Mella