From The Archives -- Americans Rediscover Shared Sacrifice

[ Posted Monday, March 29th, 2021 – 17:05 UTC ]

I wrote the following column almost exactly one year ago today. I've been thinking about where we all were back then for a while now, and decided it was time to take a look back. Also, I had crucial errands to run and other time commitments which ate up my afternoon, so I really didn't have any time to write a new column today. My apologies, and I will try to answer some comments tonight to make up for it. In any case, here's where I thought we were -- and where we were headed -- a year ago. It is pretty relentlessly optimistic, overall, but then again it hadn't really sunk in yet how long a haul this was really going to be, how only getting vaccinated was ever going to return us to normal, and how much needless and criminally-negligent politics (all the anti-mask stuff and more) was going to come from our president at the time. Still, I found it an interesting look backwards and hope you do too. And I promise that new columns will resume tomorrow.


Originally published April 2, 2020

Americans are newly discovering their ability for shared sacrifice in the name of the good of all. Now, this isn't universal -- disasters tend to bring out both the best and the worst in us, it seems -- but it is pretty close to universal in the areas hardest hit. Life has changed, in major ways. Daily routines have been obliterated. We all have to protect ourselves and in doing so protect each other as well. This has meant radical changes in the way we interact with each other which will likely be with us for months, if not years. What I find interesting is that we're shouldering the burdens -- so far -- about as well as can be expected.

I'm not talking about the politicians and the other people in charge of the response -- for once, this isn't a political column. I'm talking instead about average people and how they've been reacting and changing as a result of the pandemic. Because America just hasn't seen this sort of widespread change in attitude for a very long time -- perhaps since World War II.

We have had to make sacrifices and change some behaviors as a result of changing events over the past few decades, but these changes haven't been nearly as far-reaching. After 9/11 we all changed our outlook and adapted to the "if you see something, say something" mindset, but that didn't really require much in the way of sacrificing day-to-day activities. America has also been changing due to the repeated instances of mass shootings -- I certainly never had to go through a "live shooter drill" when I was a schoolchild. But again, these things tend to kind of recede into the past after they're gone from the headlines.

America changed its sexual behaviors en masse during the AIDS crisis, which (like the current crisis) was fighting a medical foe that absolutely demanded changes in personal behavior. But it didn't reach into every aspect of daily life in quite the same way.

The oil shortages of the 1970s come close to the universal shift in behavior we're experiencing now, at least for one aspect of life. Gasoline was rationed, and long lines at the pumps were something that had to be dealt with. There were even days and odd days and everyone had to deal with the new rules. But again, gasoline is just one aspect of life, although a very important one (transportation is involved in many other aspects of life, to put this another way).

America's soldiers and sailors have sacrificed in each of our wars, but you have to go back to Vietnam for when this sacrifice was not merely asked but demanded. The all-volunteer army has changed the dynamics of war in this country, and even after 9/11 we still have never had to resort to a draft. That wasn't true in Vietnam -- the government told you to go fight, and you either had to or you were going to go to jail (or you moved to Canada). That is a level of sacrifice that was a lot more universal and a lot more life-changing (at times, it was even life-ending). The draft was used in the Korean War as well, as any episode of M*A*S*H plainly shows.

But back in World War II, the entire country was on a war footing which involved daily sacrifices by just about everyone. Food was rationed. Cars weren't being made, because the factories were making warplanes and tanks instead. Gasoline was severely rationed. Beaches were treated as possible invasion sites, and were patrolled and militarily hardened. Everyday people were told things like "loose lips sink ships" to get them to alter their pre-war behavior. We had an enemy to fight, nothing was too good for our boys in uniform, and the civilian population just had to take a back seat to the war's needs, in hundreds of ways both great and small.

There is always an aspect of herd mentality to shared sacrifice, of course. Public shaming of incorrect behavior becomes a strong incentive for people who might not be willing to change over to the new way of life. It's peer pressure on a gigantic scale, in fact. This is one reason why I reach back to World War II for an adequate comparison for the mental shift the American people are going through now. No other crisis we've faced since then has led to such an overwhelming and abrupt shift in the way we deal with each other in daily interactions.

While so far things have been going fairly well, fatigue is almost certain to set in at some point. Anyone can put up with just about anything for a few weeks, but when that stretches into months it's going to be a lot harder to maintain. Already some are developing a kind of cabin fever from staying at home with their families -- or, alternatively, all by themselves. This is only going to get worse as more time passes without a clear end of the road in sight.

What's going to be more frustrating is if we're eventually given a sort of "all clear" signal, and life begins to return to some semblance of normality -- and then the coronavirus comes back again. We'll have been given a taste of where we all want to be, safe and secure enough to reopen what has been closed and get back to where we were previously -- and then it'll be snatched away, as we all have to pivot once again to staying at home and limiting our interactions with each other.

But perhaps this is being too pessimistic. The American people do have a reserve of shared sacrifice we haven't dipped into in a long time, which could see us through this. Multiple generations are learning for the first time just what universal shared sacrifice truly means when our nation is facing an uncertain future and we've all got to cooperate in order to fight off the unseen enemy. We've been through worse times and survived, so perhaps we'll weather this storm better than expected too. I certainly hope so. One thing about the coronavirus pandemic that seems certain is that everyone alive today will eventually wind up telling their grandchildren about what life was like during the time of the disease. We haven't faced such a serious medical threat in over 100 years, and hopefully we won't face another one quite so bad for many decades to come. Hopefully we'll all get to the point where our memories of the current day-to-day life will become nostalgic stories to bore our future generations with. Stories of panic-buying toilet paper probably won't even be believed.

In the meantime, we've all got to stick together. Or, more literally, stand at least six feet apart at all times. The more everyone sacrifices for the good of all right now, the better off we'll all be in a month's time. That's a pretty powerful motivator, you've got to admit.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “From The Archives -- Americans Rediscover Shared Sacrifice”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    very interesting look back, indeed. i've read a few wishful righties in the past few days, hoping against hope that biden's presidency parallels that of jimmy carter. at the moment LBJ is looking like the better comparison, and they're scared out of their minds over it.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    And, that is how it should be ... the part about being scared out of their minds, I mean. Heh.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:
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    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


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    Elizabeth Miller wrote:
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