The United States is in the early stages of what may well be the longest period of widespread disruption and sacrifice since World War II. That’s not to say losses and pain caused by the coronavirus will equal those of the Second World War. It is to say that not since the 1940s will such large proportions of Americans be expected to so significantly rearrange, voluntarily or not, their everyday lives for the greater good.
What time spans over the last 80 years might compare? We’ve lived through many crises, manmade and natural, but none has ever caused so many students to be sent home from school, for weeks or maybe months and across the continent. Where so many men and women have been sent home from work either as a short-term precaution or more lastingly. Most amazingly, there has never been a time when virtually every sports team and league in the country, as well other types of entertainment, all commanding immense emotional investment by many, have had their seasons end in a flash.
The Korean War? The Berlin Airlift? The Cuban missile crisis? The Cold War overall? Assassinations? All of them frightening, yes, but were they main determinants of people’s daily routines? No.
What about the aftermath of 9/11? Needing to get to airports an hour earlier for TSA screenings continues to be an irritating, sometimes hated imposition, as does needing to show IDs more frequently there and elsewhere. But neither led to intrusions that markedly shifted regular life for people — with the very large exception of the lives of men and women in the military.
What about various recessions? They’ve certainly upended individuals and families when jobs evaporated, but most employees remained employed. And while many businesses went under, schools overwhelmingly stayed open, enabling parents, particularly mothers, to be places other than home for much of the day if they needed to make money.
The degree to which the Great Recession in 2008, the worst economic cratering since the Great Depression, demanded abridged sacrifice, all things considered, was captured in an urgent email I received in 2009 from Binghamton University in New York, my undergraduate alma mater. Students there were faced with a possible tuition increase of $620 a year, and campus officials urged alumni to vigorously protest the unfairness of it all to legislators in Albany.
I sent an email back to Binghamton saying I didn’t think that a tuition hike of $310 a semester (the price of a semi-gaudy pair of sneakers) was unfair given that the state of New York faced a nearly $14 billion deficit. But rather than expecting students to sacrifice relatively modestly, officials coddled them. Not attractive, but in keeping with the temper of the times, campus and nation both.
Returning to 9/11, I remember calls for Americans to sacrifice in waging the subsequent war, but it was never clear to me what citizens, other than men and women in the armed forces and their families, were expected to do. Pay more in taxes? Plausibly, but the appetite for that was slim. It likewise was unclear to me if we would, in fact, have adequately delivered if President George W. Bush had asked us to do other painfully sacrificial things, whatever they might have been, as we were out of habit.
Let the record show, and as I have acknowledged in the past, I indict myself on charges like these. Along with two dogs, my wife Diane and I live in a reasonably roomy house, just the two of us, and I like it that way. But multiple generations used to live together in much smaller homes and apartments during truly tough times, doing so with gratitude and often joy. Think of the long Great Depression followed by a long and hideous world war. Could I do that? I suspect I could but probably not joyously.
Some observers say our current crisis might not lift for a long time. I can’t speak to that. But I do know, as a nation, we are miles out of practice when it comes to sacrificing in substantial ways over long stretches.
Reassuringly, though, as measured by generally impressive cooperation and minimal moaning in recent weeks, we’ve been doing well in fighting a virus that sickens and kills. Question is — not that we have any choice in the matter — can we persist in doing so for what might be an excruciating haul?
Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and president emeritus of the Center of the American Experiment (AmericanExperiment.org), which is based in Golden Valley, Minn. He wrote this for the News Tribune.