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David Sirota
David Sirota
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From Shared Sacrifice to Hedonism


After Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a national address making eight references to the "sacrifice" that would be needed in the impending war and three mentions of the "self-denial" we would have to endure.

"Every single person in the United States is going to be affected," Roosevelt said. "(Business) profits are going to be cut down to a reasonably low level by taxation ... (Americans) will have to forgo higher wages ... All of us are used to spending money for things that we want, things, however, which are not absolutely essential. We will all have to forgo that kind of spending."

For its honesty and purpose, the speech remains the shining example of leadership. For its bravery in telling painful truths the country needed to hear and for Americans' subsequent rise to the challenge, the address today stands as a sad commemoration of a tragically lost ethos.

That is the only conclusion to draw when comparing Roosevelt's clarion call to those following the last decade's Pearl Harbor-like calamities. Rather than being encouraged to sacrifice or accept self-denial in the face of emergency, we are now instructed to simply embrace our inner hedonist.

That's no exaggeration. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush told us not to prepare for austerity measures in the name of the common good. Instead, he exhorted citizens to "do your business around the country, fly and enjoy America's great destination spots — go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed." Then he gave us tax cuts and wars whose costs were rung up on the national credit card and passed on to future generations.

The same aversion to sacrifice now defines the response to the ecological Pearl Harbor on America's Gulf Coast.

In his first press conference since the oil spill, President Obama only briefly noted that the drilling at the center of the disaster highlights "the urgent need for this nation to develop clean, renewable sources of energy" and get off petroleum. But he avoided suggesting that this need requires any collective effort, abstinence or forfeiture.

"Americans can help," he said, "by continuing to visit the communities and beaches of the Gulf Coast."

Put in bumper-sticker terms, FDR's "Profits are Going to Be Cut" and "Forgo Higher Wages" have become Bush's "Go Shopping" and Obama's "Go Sunbathing" — and the question is why?

One obvious answer is presidential shortsightedness.

Bush characteristically refused to believe sacrifice is ever necessary, even during war. Obama, meanwhile, surely knows the Gulf disaster warrants sacrifice, but he cravenly refuses to discuss that fact for fear of being lampooned as a sweater-clad Jimmy Carter.

But, then, let's be honest — when it comes to difficult lifestyle changes that Pearl Harbor-sized crises demand, many of us are as willfully ignorant and plagued by denial as Dubya. And truth be told, had Obama asked us to do something — anything! — more than have fun in the sun, many Americans wouldn't have praised him as a new FDR; many indeed would have berated him as Carter incarnate.

Thus, as easy as it is to blame two flawed presidents for eschewing FDR-style leadership, we haven't seen that leadership, in part, because we don't seem to want it. And we don't want it because we've stopped valuing the concept of shared sacrifice.

That's the true change since the original Pearl Harbor attack — and it's a crying shame because while trips to Disney World or the beach are certainly fun, history suggests that genuine sacrifice will be the only way to solve our most pressing problems.

David Sirota is the author of the best-selling books "Hostile Takeover" and "The Uprising." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado and blogs at E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.



8 Comments | Post Comment
The comparison is not the same.

World War 2 was total war, meant to use the full resources (human or otherwise) of the US military and industry. America has not fought a total war since WW2, and both Iraq and Afghanistan have used a fairly small portion of the US Army; most soldiers still remain in their bases in Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other places.

I wouldn't go too far praising FDR's "shared sacrifice" either. The man had never so much as lifted a rifle in his life, though he dared to ask his nation's youth to do the same. As Patrick J. Buchanan rightly said in "Remembering Wars and Warriors", most American Presidents, who actually did fight as soldiers in a war, never led their nation into a war. Would FDR have asked the same if he himself ever were a soldier and understood the horrors of the war? Or was he an armchair ivory tower personality who did not understand or care about the lives he was going to throw away?

We have to ask ourselves if FDR really had any sense of solidarity in mind when he demanded such things - Murray Rothbard once did point out that US entry into WW2 concentrated much power into "Big Business and Big Government", helping fuel a large military-industrial complex. Could it be that selfish interests were also at stake, and the burden of it was to be put on the common American citizen?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Prateek Sanjay
Fri Jun 4, 2010 4:10 AM
My focus here is on the socio-economic impact of repealing the New Deal, and the results of reversing the perspective that "we're all in this together."
An entire generation has grown up with the conviction that one's human worth is determined by his income. I'm not hopeful. Consider how America reacted to government's decision to end welfare, using those public dollars instead to cover the costs of ongoing, massive "tax relief" for the rich. Even our progressive media, which should have had some concept of the impact of this transference of wealth (not to mention, of creating a massive, bottom wage, replacement workforce called "workfare"), shows flat disinterest. America's poor now have an infant mortality rate that surpasses that of most Third World countries, and the life expectancy of our poor has fallen below the age of 60. America's response: "So?" We've become two distinct nations in one, to the degree that people don't understand how what happens to one has an impact on the other. With no sense of unity, no shared interest in rebuilding the country, there really is no future for the US. Another empire bites the dust.
Comment: #2
Posted by: DHFabian
Fri Jun 4, 2010 8:20 AM
Sacrifice? Have you looked at our collective waistlines? This is a nation that consumes more calories than it burns (by a large amount) and buys more than it makes. Such a nation cannot last for long, all to the world's ultimate benefit.
Comment: #3
Posted by: michael nola
Fri Jun 4, 2010 11:31 AM
Why don't you right wingnuts stick to listening to Rush and Glenn instead of trying (and failing) to refute David Sirota (the only columnis to approach the style of the late, great Molly Ivens!
Comment: #4
Posted by: Ken Bachtold
Sat Jun 5, 2010 12:20 AM
David Sirota's insightful article in Saturday's Denver Post entitled "From sacrifice to hedonism" really hit home to me.
As a 50-something, relatively well-off person financially (thankfully), I believe the element of "shared sacrifice" is a key piece missing in addressing the many daunting financial problems our nation faces currently and tomorrow.
I believe the vast majority of Americans know in their hearts we can't have everything we desire (not "needs" mind you---but what we believe we are entitled) without very significant shared sacrifice. It's pretty simple really---the more we all want, the more shared sacrifice.
Wouldn't it make perfect sense for our country's leaders---starting with Barack Obama---to actually talk to the American public like adults as to what's needed by ALL of us to address the ruinous issues we face from right and left?
I believe the majority of adults---including us senior folks---know well that nothing comes for free---and common sense dictates "shared sacrifice" from rich, middle class, and poor folks to fix our nation's financial albatross.
Higher taxes for all, delayed, reduced and/or foregone entitlement benefits (i.e., Social Security/Medicare)---especially for those at higher income levels, and reducing/shortening unemployment and welfare benefits via requiring much needed community service projects in exchange for specific short-term financial aid would be a good start.
I'm lovin' the idea of shared sacrifice---sooner rather than later, and I believe that I'm not alone.
Comment: #5
Posted by: martin ruffalo
Sat Jun 5, 2010 12:29 PM
Re: Prateek Sanjay
Did you ever serve our nation by enlisting in the military? Have you ever left your home and family and carried a rifle thousands of miles from home to stand up for what you believe in? You don't offer anything constructive here. You just sit back and sit back in your armchair complaining that we didn't do it right. What have you sacrificed?
Comment: #6
Posted by: Rich Lindsley
Tue Jun 8, 2010 8:55 AM
Re: Rich

Well, that's exactly it. I am totally anti-war. And I don't see WW2 as a good war. It was another rotten war, with bastards on both sides.

I think you need to settle your patriotic idealism about war. It is a terrible thing. Killing another person is outright murder, and we need not pretend it is anything better than that. Allied firebombing of European cities like Dresden was mass murder, and are you actually going to call that serving a nation? Do you feel you stand up for what you believe in, when you have aerial bombers reduced Dresden to rubble? Is that the same pride you have in wiping out two Japanese cities?

No war, not even WW2, has been good for either civilian populace back home, for soldiers abroad, or for civilians and soldiers on the other side of the enemy lines. It's a lose-lose deal for most people, but the gain was of politicians like FDR and the miliary industrial complex he served.

Impoverishing citizens back home to mass murder people abroad is not a sacrifice you Americans should cherish. It is not in your interests or of the people your soldiers murder.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Prateek Sanjay
Thu Jun 10, 2010 10:30 AM
I'm with you on the 'War is 'no good and no good in many ways' theme.
Bottom line ---there is no good war.
One line up from that bottom is that survival trumps all other choices.
WWII was about survival. And it was about selectively unfair
consequences which did not need to be done, such as putting Japanese
Americans into cages and not doing the same to the German Americans.
That we as americns did that started us the road to deminishing others
(not acknowledging it was a road already well traveled, by our indigenous tribes)
and that road has no led us to an Illegal Invsion which has trampled on the basic
consepts which we somehow delude ourselves into think we stand for.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Cole...
Thu Jul 8, 2010 3:37 PM
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