What the Greatest Generation had that the Covid Generation Lacks

tags: COVID-19, collective action

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History." 

An unchecked pandemic is about to run smack into what has traditionally been the busiest travel weekend of the year. And though airports and highways won't be as packed as years past, many Americans are heading into the holiday without the appropriate concern about Covid-19, despite warnings from public health officials that Thanksgiving celebrations could become superspreader events.

Health care workers continue to cite the persistence of what can only be called "Covid denialism" among patients they see, even those in grave peril from the disease. That same attitude can be found in those Americans who remain doggedly determined not to change their holiday plans because of Covid, despite the objectively undeniable risks.

Such widespread opposition to necessary public health measures is cause for alarm. But much of that alarm has been combined with a sort of hectoring nostalgia, handwringing over an America that no longer seems willing to suffer for the good of others. "This generation of Americans has trouble with the concept of sacrifice," wrote Deseret News columnist Jay Evensen as he implored people to keep their gatherings small. He worried that too many of the Americans who survived the Depression and World War II had passed, and with them, the spirit of selflessness. "We could use their wisdom right now, as well as their memories of ration books, chocolate shortages and having to drive on bald tires because rubber was needed for the war effort."

That same call for the sacrificial spirit of the Greatest Generation has echoed across the media landscape, as both a rallying cry and a censure: urging Americans to sacrifice to save lives and deploring how selfish we have become. Yet this appeal to the past misunderstands just how reluctant Americans in the 1940s were to abide by the new restrictions of the wartime economy. Understanding today's self-centered, rule-breaking, comfort-craving Americans in accurate relation with our past matters, because it reveals that the problems we're facing now reflect a failure not of American spirit but of American leadership.

During World War II, Americans dealt with government rationing for the first time. World War I had relied on voluntary restrictions. Meatless Tuesdays and Wheatless Wednesdays encouraged Americans to conserve supplies but did not require them to do so. But in the 1940s, volunteerism was not enough, and soon shoppers needed ration coupons to acquire meat, sugar, gasoline and other basic goods.

That is, if they were playing by the rules. But not everyone was eager to sacrifice. A bustling black market emerged, so robust that an estimated 20% of meat ended up there. Even the legal market was flooded with counterfeit and stolen ration coupons, or coupons used improperly. Hoarding, too, was common, as households with the right resources and connections stocked up whenever goods like butter and sugar could be found. What was true for groceries was true for gasoline: A reporter for Collier's Magazine drove across the country without ever dipping into his fuel rations, so easy was it to get bootleg gas.


We can empathize with those Americans who yearned for creature comforts and chafed against restrictions, who felt they had already sacrificed so much for dangers that seemed so abstract or far away. And we can envy them, too, because while they weren't naturally braver or more restrained or altruistic, they had something Americans today do not: a clear message about common good and shared goals. Instead we have a President who stopped governing weeks ago, a Republican Senate who refuses to move on relief legislation and a presidential health adviser who, when asked about Thanksgiving, shrugged and said, essentially, party like it's your last Thanksgiving ever.


Read entire article at CNN

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