We can’t fix our problems if we don’t face their consequences
In April, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the American people via radio broadcast. He acknowledged that Americans had been through terrible times already — a decade of economic depression, followed by five months of a war that threatened to stretch into the foreseeable future.
Notably, Roosevelt didn’t sugar coat things — he told people their lives were going to get harder before they got easier. After laying out his plan for the next phase of the war, he warned:
The blunt fact is that every single person in the United States is going to be affected by this program…
Are you a business man, or do you own stock in a business corporation? Well, your profits are going to be cut down to a reasonably low level by taxation…. Do you work for wages? You will have to forego higher wages for your particular job for the duration of the war.
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 forego that kind of spending…
As I told the Congress yesterday, “sacrifice” is not exactly the proper word with which to describe this program of self-denial. When, at the end of this great struggle we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no “ sacrifice.”
Roosevelt’s rhetoric was optimistic, but clear-eyed; he made sure that the American people understood exactly what the war would require of them. Americans made an informed choice to enter the war despite its costs because they were willing to face the consequences of their choices
Contrast this to our society in the year of our Lord 2022. We’re sleepwalking into disaster on a number of fronts. Most significantly, our democracy is crumbling and the natural world that keeps us alive is dying. Our problems are not easy ones, but they’re solvable. The problem is that we’re not doing much to solve them. How is it that we can know that these problems exist and decide to do nothing? Part of the explanation is that we’ve become an insulated society.
What do I mean by this? Our society has found a way to keep a large number of Americans — most importantly, the people with the social, economic, and cultural capital to influence the direction of the country — packed away in soft comfort, far away from the consequences of their actions.
We’ve restructured our political and economic systems to reinforce the idea that we can do whatever we want with no ill effects.
Americans have found a way to insulate themselves from the consequences of almost every aspect of modern life, but we can use meat, war, and climate change as examples to illustrate the larger phenomenon.
Most Americans eat a lot of meat; the average American consumed 264 pounds of it in 2020. Almost all of this meat is produced in a system that is environmentally unsustainable, cruel to workers, and unspeakably brutal to the animals. But it makes chicken sandwiches cheap, so we’ve found ways to avoid seeing the consequences of the way we produce and consume meat.
Rather than face the awful system that produces our meat, we’ve insulated ourselves. The degrading, physically and psychologically traumatic work of slaughtering animals is largely done by immigrants who have little political clout. The unions that once made the job safer and better-paying (and could bring attention to the conditions in slaughterhouses) have long since been crushed.
In many states, there are actually laws that prevent activists from taking video footage inside slaughterhouses, lest consumers see what is going on inside their food-processing facilities. These “Ag-Gag” laws serve no purpose other than to cover up what is happening in slaughterhouses, in order to keep Americans in blissful ignorance about what has to happen to get bacon onto their breakfast plates.
These conditions insulate Americans from the moral and environmental consequences of meat-eating — you’re not eating an animal, just a shrink-wrapped burger that magically appeared in the grocery store! — and, most importantly, they insulate the wealthy people who profit from this awful system.
We’ve also insulated ourselves from the wars we’ve fought over the last two decades. Unlike in the Second World War and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, we didn’t hold a draft in our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fighting was done far away, largely by people without much power in our society. The modern military is dispr
oportionately made up of members of the lower-middle class, and people of color are overrepresented in several service branches.
The fact that few Americans serve in the military — and that many of them come from demographic groups who are not often listened to by the powerful in our society — has allowed our political class, and the voters that elected them, to talk tough about war without ever having to directly face the effects of these wars. George W. Bush famously told people that we wouldn’t have to sacrifice at all for the wars he started; instead, we got a tax cut and were advised to keep shopping. It’s not a coincidence that Bush himself pulled strings as privileged young men to avoid the draft.
Sure, we clap for the veterans at baseball games and awkwardly thank them for their service, but otherwise we’d prefer not to think too much about them. The thousands of soldiers that died, the thousands more that came home with life-altering injuries, and — especially — the foreigners whose lives were destroyed by American wars have been tucked neatly away. We’ve insulated ourselves from the wars that have devastated the lives of our veterans and the people in the places where the fighting happened.
We’ve insulated ourselves from the climate crisis, as well. Climate change is here, and it’s getting worse. The last few years have seen a number of disasters — wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, heat waves — that are at least partially attributable to climate change. The planetary crisis will cost us money whether or not we want it to — we can either invest up front in solar farms and mass transit, or we can pay later to clean up after hurricanes and resettle climate refugees.
It’s well past time to take action, but we don’t seem to be working very hard to make that happen. Again, it’s because most Americans don’t have to face the effects of climate change very directly. Most of the pain from climate change will happen outside the borders of this country. The Americans who are creating the most climate change (it will not surprise you to discover that wealthy Americans have vastly larger carbon footprints than the rest of the country) will likely be just fine. They’re not the people who will die in a heat wave — as Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health professor says, “heat waves are for the poor.” Theirs aren’t the homes in the low-lying areas that will flood more and more often. These are things that will happen to other people, in other places. And if it gets hot, they can just crank up the air conditioning or go on vacation someplace cooler.
We’ve insulated ourselves from the consequences of lots of other decisions, as well. One of the reasons that folks can rant and rave about the ways in which their freedoms are threatened by public-health mandates for COVID is that they don’t have to watch people struggle for their last breaths in intensive-care units. Suburbanites don’t get too wound up by voting restrictions because most of the long lines and inconveniences will take place elsewhere — for wealthy white Americans, voting will still be easy.
Most Americans have found ways to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions, but it’s especially bad among the wealthiest among us. It’s important to understand that, to politicians, all voters are not created equal. In fact, politicians don’t really listen to average voters. Widespread support for a policy among average voters has no significant effect on whether Congress passes that policy. But when the wealthy support a policy — you guessed it! — Congress jumps into action. And, of course, politicians have found that it’s easier to sell a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too set of promises to voters rather than confront Americans with the hard truths that we face.
Americans — especially the wealthy — have swaddled themselves in thick, comfortable blankets of privilege. They don’t have to face the effects of their selfishness. They don’t have to understand that there are real consequences for real people at the other end of their decisions. Until Americans — and the politicians who lead us — can face reality more directly, we’re in real trouble.