Why won’t a large swath of society make a sacrifice proven to save lives?
History provides insights. Although the language of collective sacrifice worked to mobilize the country for war and to tackle the 1918 influenza pandemic, more recently our language has shifted. For the past half-century, politicians have suggested that what makes good citizens is Americans’ willingness to carry on in their daily lives, in particular, continuing to work and spend money, even in times of crisis. Normalcy has come to be viewed as a sign of strength in the face of adversity. The United States has lost the language and practice of collective sacrifice for the common good.
When the United States mobilized for World War I, getting people on board was a hard sell, because the war was far from American shores, and to many it did not seem in the nation’s vital interests. To address this, President Woodrow Wilson built up the nation’s first modern propaganda machine. The Committee on Public Information (CPI) headed by muckraking journalist George Creel aimed to generate public support through modern advertising know-how and new technologies — pamphlets, posters, films, records, the iconic image of the crusading “Uncle Sam.”
It was a unique moment in U.S. history. The nation’s first war in Europe seemed to signal a sea change in the United States’ role in the world. The symbols and tropes of patriotism, including the eagle and the notion of the citizen-soldier, were found everywhere. Promulgated by the CPI and with the added exigence of the wartime state (the draft, war work, rationing), Americans came together in church groups, clubs, schools, workplaces and a host of other local and state organizations and locations nationwide to back the war effort. They gathered supplies, planted war gardens, marched in support of the troops, competed to raise money, developed lesson plans and made speeches, organized “loyalty leagues,” bundled neatly under the banner “Americans All!”
There was a dark side to this effort: The unprecedented new federal reach compelled regular citizens to “stress duty, obligation, and responsibility over rights and freedoms,” as historian Christopher Capozzola explains. There was a rise of surveillance of citizens, suppression of dissent, increasing anti-German sentiment and an astonishing ascent of hyper-patriotic groups seeking to enforce sacrifice on fellow citizens, often through coercive violence. This, in turn, led to “slacker raids,” in which vigilante groups sought to round up those they thought had dodged the draft or were acting unpatriotically.
More dangerous than war, however, was the flu pandemic that arrived in 1918, including the second deadly wave that fall, which killed nearly 675,000 Americans (almost six times as many as died in the war). The federal response was woefully slow, but eventually wartime martial language and patriotism were redeployed to rally citizens to fight the flu — to cover coughs and sneezes, to wear masks, not to congregate and to close schools, churches and businesses. Arrests and scorn for “mask slackers” took the place of hyperpatriotic activities to curtail draft slacking.
In both instances, federal and state government worked to unite people by encouraging certain behavior — saving a loaf of bread, rationing fuel, walking instead of riding or driving — and an array of inconvenient, sometimes difficult actions for the greater good, “to help win the war.” Many of these collectivist efforts fell unequally, with more demands on people of color, women and the working class — and yet large swaths rallied to the cause nevertheless, by volition as well as coercion.
Sacrifice is not easy and natural, but it can happen. And yet, the language of sacrifice faded in the aftermath of a more popular, more total and more demanding conflict for Americans. Following World War II, the “good war,” politicians, business leaders, unions and many Americans embraced the idea that mass consumption would drive economic prosperity. Even in the midst of the burgeoning Cold War, such a notion supplanted more collectivist notions of community and sacrifice, in part because those were increasingly stigmatized as “socialist” or “communist.” This offered an individualist reaffirmation of the nation’s democratic values and became central to American identity. Mass consumption and participation in the economy, not sacrifice, increasingly came to signal one’s patriotism.
The last military draft in the United States ended in 1973, and since then, service and sacrifice have been voluntary and borne unevenly. The fractures of national unity that came at the end of the Vietnam War and the distrust of government in the wake of Watergate helped to propel these changes. In their wake, collective sacrifice has been extolled by politicians but never urged, much less required. Instead, market logics and consumer-citizenship has been the default setting for how to practice engaged models of citizenship.
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this ethos was epitomized by George W. Bush, who exhorted Americans to have “continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” Bush said, “I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children.” He insisted, “It is my hope that in the months and years ahead, life will return almost to normal. We’ll go back to our lives and routines, and that is good.” He continued: “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots.”
Shopping, traveling and showing confidence in the economy have come to define American citizenship and even responses to collective existential threats such as terrorism and emergencies, including deadly viral outbreaks. President Trump’s response to the coronavirus represents the apotheosis of this new American ethos: handling crisis through individualism — living as “normal” to show “resolve” in the face of threats. But this simply doesn’t work when the threat is a tiny virus that thrives in gatherings and when far too much of the population continues to travel, work and congregate as usual.
The challenges the nation now faces are dire and require sacrifice, not consumption. The problem is that Americans have been actively discouraged by their leaders from making sacrifices in support of larger efforts — including wars, fossil fuel consumption, global warming, the Great Recession and the current pandemic. Confronting the looming public health, economic and climate challenges today requires a wholesale change in how citizens and the state conceive and construct a rhetoric as well as a practice of collective sacrifice.
Despite the many problems of martial language designed to promote the community over the individual, World War I and the 1918 pandemic showed that such celebration of sacrifice can be inspiring. It can help to make more concrete the dangerous threats that loom and illuminate the best paths forward to conquer them.
Individual efforts will be crucial to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but individual actions alone won’t be sufficient. Collective adoption of safe practices is required. Robust federal actions can support, cajole and promote Americans to do so. To win the current fight means not traveling, not gathering, adhering to closure policies, practicing good hand hygiene and wearing masks.
These are relatively modest behaviors to adopt. Yet they have been stubbornly opposed by those all too used to citizenship defined only as individualist normalcy. The same dynamic has shaped the insufficient federal response to the pandemic. Crucial businesses across the nation, such as restaurants, bars and shops have effectively been forced to remain open unsafely in keeping with the mistaken logic of “business as usual.” Endangering workers and customers alike, while not more fully prioritizing schools or those most at risk, directly reflects collective values. We’ve lost the language and practice of sacrifice but that doesn’t mean we can’t find and remake it.
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