Dec
24

The American dispirit

By

The notion that “we’re all in this together” became popular during World War II as Americans on the home front sacrificed for the war effort. That snippet of information drifted in over the mental transom the other day, perhaps in reference to a video for students produced at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “We’re All in This Together!” debuted last month. It focuses on how American families and kids “scrapped” and saved dimes to buy war bonds.

As it turns out, there is a recent Monopoly edition based on the theme. Monopoly: America’s WWII: We’re All in This Together features key corner spaces common to all Monopoly versions: Jail, free parking, collect $200 and go to jail, McClatchy reported:

Most of the rest, though, has a WWII theme. The game pieces are an airplane, combat boots, helmet, radio, ship and Sherman tank. Spaces on the board and corresponding deed cards feature significant WWII events. Railroads are replaced with supply routes, and houses and hotels became camps and headquarters.

The “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards are replaced with cards for allies and home front.

Historian Stephen Ambrose described how the war changed the country:

World War II “strengthened us as a country,” said Ambrose. “We were much more committed to the idea of country, rather than region. People didn’t speak of themselves any more as being, ‘Well, I’m a rebel, I’m from Mississippi.’ ‘I’m a Yankee, I’m from Wisconsin.’ [It was], ‘I’m an American.’ That would always spring first to their lips.”

From the time when Japanese fighters dropped the first bombs, it was an American fight. And as the first troops were shipped off to battle, it became an American effort.

According to Ambrose, the widely acclaimed “American spirit” began in World War II. When there is a genuine threat to a democracy, “We’re all in this together, and we will fight it out together,” he said.

Seventy years, a Cold War, and a Great Recession later, the idea is out of fashion in the U.S. of A. Cold Warriors die hard. You say community; they hear communism.

I mentioned that fading American spirit over drinks with a friend last night. His parents are Korean. A similar community spirit swept Korea during the economic crisis of the late 1990s, he said. Millions of Koreans sacrificed family heirlooms to help the recovery effort:

It’s an extraordinary sight: South Koreans queuing for hours to donate their best-loved treasures in a gesture of support for their beleaguered economy.

Housewives gave up their wedding rings; athletes donated medals and trophies; many gave away gold “luck” keys, a traditional present on the opening of a new business or a 60th birthday.

The campaign has exceeded the organisers’ expectations, with people from all walks of life rallying around in a spirit of self-sacrifice. According to the organisers ten tons of gold were collected in the first two days of the campaign.

But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the campaign is not the sums involved, but the willingness of the Korean people to make personal sacrifices to help save their economy. The managing director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, who has just completed a visit to Seoul, was clearly moved by the campaign, calling it “admirable”.

But of course, Mr. IMF would. The relative merits aside, the very idea is unthinkable in the United States today.

Former senator Gary Hart wrote in 2012 (perhaps not giving Bernie Sanders enough credit):

The communitarian instinct prevails in times of peril. Neighbors rally around individuals or families who suffer tragedy. A school bus monitor bullied by uncivilized students received hundreds of thousands in unsolicited donations. Television networks feature stories about those who are “making a difference.” The apparent theory behind “a thousand points of light” was that massive social ills could be solved by private charity. In the Western frontier even distant neighbors collected to care for the widow, repair a fire-damaged cabin, or round up a herd.

Even before the Depression-inspired social safety net, earlier Progressives (mostly young reform-minded Republicans) rallied the nation against predatory corporations and in support of those left out. Since no one has yet devised self-administering health and retirement programs, the size of government increased during and beyond the Franklin Roosevelt era. Predictably, individualist ideologues railed against “big government” but shied away from voting to eliminate the popular and necessary safety net. “Privatization” has been the most recent variation. And after our economy began to plateau following enactment of Great Society programs for the poor, anti-big government arguments found new support among individualists. The Big Government we were against was that part of government concerned with poverty. Both parties now compete for the middle class. There are no Robert Kennedys reminding us of the one-in-five children in poverty. Out of sight; out of mind.

There may be liberal media and political figures advocating socialism. If so, I don’t know who they are. But there are clearly voices and political figures on the right who want to do away with the institutions that make us a civilized society in the interest of rugged individualism. Concern for the poor is not socialism. Nor is the search for a fair health system available to all.

Then there is this from Shamus Khan, a sociologist at Columbia University. He writes to address rising inequality in the country:

As a worldview, there’s something seductive in imagining that what’s good for me is good for everyone. Realizing my own advantage, then, doesn’t only feel good; it’s the moral thing to do. But sadly there isn’t much evidence that greed is good.

This leaves us with two lessons. The first is that just as political alliances brought us out of our golden age, they can also return us to it. This will not be easy. The nation has often come together in response to shared threats, but a political project like this is tougher. Those who want the lion’s share of the national wealth will threaten to leave our shores. Let them. There are plenty of civic-minded members of the elite who recognize that absent major changes, our future is clear: more and more for the richest and a society where the mass of the citizenry idles. This is democracy in decline.

The second lesson is harder. We are not in this together. We need to get back to what made America great, when the many and not the few were winning. To do so we must stop conflating moral arguments with economic ones. Instead of operating under the fiction that we will all benefit from a proposed change in economic direction, let’s be honest. If a few of us are better off, then many are not. If many are better off, then the few will be constrained. Which world would you rather live in? To me the answer is obvious.

Representing the American “dispirit” and pushing back against “we’re all in this together” are of course the few. Cato Institute founder Ed Crane called the choice “between in-thistogether sheep and atomistic indi – vidualism” a false dichotomy, yet views any modulation of individualism of the Randian kind the equivalent of communism or fascism. Roger Pilon (also of Cato) writes, “We’re not all in this together, Mr. President. We want out of Obamacare – and out of so much else that has come to constitute the modern “economy-asphyxiating” welfare state.” American Enterprise’s Tyler Castle thinks that answer to an unraveling democracy is more community, an “actual, healthy society.” Just the self-organizing kind, and less of the icky, Big Government kind that rallied an entire economy to defeat fascism in World War II.

What’s a better representative of the American spirit: the “we’re all in this together” ethos that won WWII, or the philosophy of selfishness espoused by a philandering, Russian atheist who admired the audacity of an axe murderer for flouting convention and inviting the opprobrium of society?


(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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