Blood, sweat and discomfort
We'd rather embrace lies than the discomfort of the change that is needed to meet today's challenges
Candor may be a mark of a great leader, but it’s a quality in short supply among today’s candidates. (Photo by Robert Linder on Unsplash)
We’ve got to take our lessons where we find them, so while there’s a lot going on in America these days, let’s not turn away too quickly from Liz Truss, whose tenure as the United Kingdom’s prime minister flopped after 44 days. This has given weary Americans a touch of glee because, you know, at least our leaders can outlast a lettuce.
Did you miss that memorable comparison of a prime minister to a leafy vegetable? It emerged first in The Economist, a usually sober institution, which cheekily suggested a couple of weeks back that a head of iceberg would have a longer shelf life than Truss. A London tabloid soon began to livestream a bewigged lettuce next to a photo of Truss, and, sure enough, she wilted before it did. Right again, indeed, you smart-aleck journalists!
Maybe it’s just as unfair to compare Truss to some of her predecessors, such as, say, Winston Churchill, one of the great figures of 20th century history. Yet it’s hard to resist noting what Churchill asked of citizens, and what he honestly told them, alongside the contrary (if fleeting) record left by Truss — and weighing, what’s more, whether we Yanks really have any right to be smug, given the similarity of the U.K.’s reckoning with what’s happening on this side of the drink.
Churchill, as we all know, rallied his people in the face of the Nazi onslaught at the outset of World War II, winning overwhelming support as he warned, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He wasn’t exaggerating. As bombs rained from the sky, destroying neighborhoods and killing more than 60,000 civilians, and as food, fuel and clothing were rationed to support the war effort, Britons resolutely stuck with the goal laid out by their leader: “Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”
That’s not the way of Conservatives (the party) or of conservatism (the movement) these days. Facing a nation exhausted by scandal, pandemic and inflation, Truss came into office with less Churchillian candor than Trumpian embellishment. No blood, toil or tears — in fact, no sweat, folks. Promising a cushier future for those at the top, she put in motion huge tax cuts for the highest earners and biggest corporations, with no plan to pay for them. That sent the pound plummeting in value, ratcheting up inflation and leading to sharp interest rate hikes, which made mortgages and car loans unaffordable for anybody not getting those big tax cuts. The economic chaos quickly undercut her political standing and forced her resignation. Thus was Truss a bust.
Here's where we see a parallel on the west side of the Atlantic alliance. Truss made a political calculation that nobody was in the mood for further hardship, and she apparently figured the rhetoric surrounding tax cuts would make her popular. You can’t blame her, because that has worked for years in America. We’ve become patsies for myth and fabrication, and increasingly intolerant of calls to sacrifice for the greater good.
Notably, we buy into simplistic (read: fraudulent) arguments about how economics works. The national debt rose by $7.8 trillion during Donald Trump’s four years in office, and servicing that debt robs us of tax dollars that could literally rebuild our society. A lot of that Trump-era debt ran up to provide tax cuts that mostly boosted corporate profits rather than workers’ paychecks — tax cuts, that is, that made the rich richer and that we didn’t cover by reducing spending. Republicans claimed, as they have for 40-plus years, that tax cuts pay for themselves by giving people more to spend, bringing growth that will, in turn, actually increase tax revenues — an appealing myth without an iota of evidence in its support.
Now, with polls suggesting that Republicans are likely to win control of the House next month, California’s Kevin McCarthy seems to be channeling his inner Liz Truss, and talking about more big tax cuts if he becomes Speaker of the House — which will only fuel the inflation. that Republican candidates blame on Democrats.
Truth-telling doesn’t win elections, it seems; in fact, it makes us quite uncomfortable. And 21st-century Americans are fixated on comfort, even if it costs our personal integrity and our society’s guiding principles. Plenty of Americans are willing to put democracy itself at risk and accept as morally decrepit a character as Donald Trump if it keeps them from having to face the discomfort of the changes that would be required to create a truly just society.
It’s as though we imagine our share of the American dream can be realized only if we have unfettered consumption and comfort, and figure that society’s challenges — even big ones, like threats to our health, security and economic well-being — ought to be handled without any upset or sacrifice on our part. For a people so eager to embrace the myth of how the nation’s rough-hewn frontier was tamed by courage and industry, we’ve grown extraordinarily uncomfortable with discomfort.
You need examples? Remember, then, not so long ago, when Covid-19 was just taking hold, and a whole political movement took shape around resistance to even putting a mask over our nose and mouth — as though that was a grave affront to freedom. More outrage greeted restrictions on travel and public assembly aimed at saving lives during the worst of the pandemic, or on requiring vaccinations to protect our neighbors and ourselves. Didn’t our Founding Fathers promise us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Nobody can tell me to put on a mask!
Discomfort avoidance has become one of the driving forces of our time. Psychologists say avoidance is an unhealthy coping mechanism for us as individuals, but it’s just as problematic for a society. We see it all around us.
More proof of that: As global events push up the price of gasoline, the idea of driving less or switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles is less attractive than finding somebody to blame — like, say, the Democrats who have a slender hold on power in Washington. Or this: As climate changes pushes us toward a time when there won’t be enough water to support cities in arid regions, we shun even tiny steps that could help fight what’s really an existential threat. (Anybody willing to give up a noisy, polluting leaf blower and pick up a rake?) And this: As our infrastructure crumbles, notions often advanced for a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps — that is, a requirement of national service for all Americans, that might finance and deliver some essential rebuilding — never get serious attention, because the project would ask too much of our citizens. And as sensibilities about sexuality and gender evolve, enabling more people to be honest about who they are, there is partisan-fueled pushback — book bans and limits on what can be said in classrooms, for instance — revealing our discomfort with the notion of trying to understand people unlike ourselves.
There have been times when Americans were willing to make shared sacrifices, or take up tasks that made them uncomfortable. During World War II, a lot of commodities were rationed — meat, sugar, tires and penicillin — and wage and price controls took hold. Not everybody was happy about it, but most Americans stepped forward to embrace what they agreed was needed to win the war. A leading expert on that period of American history, Robert Citino, told The New York Times in 2020, “It’s a big country, so there’s always going to be anomalies, but most Americans realized these things were probably necessary for the war effort and were willing to go along.”
Coming together to win a just war may seem, at first, to be unlike the effort we need now. It’s true that embracing rationing in wartime is a simpler goal than forging a shared commitment to find honest solutions to today’s economic, social and environmental challenges. But we’re beset by candidates in this political season who aren’t even trying to be honest with us — who would rather make us comfortable with vague promises of well-being than give us the truth of the sacrifices that surely lie ahead. We desperately need a latter-day Churchill, but seem likely to get only a Trump here and a Truss there, or a lot of their ilk.
Lying to make us feel good, and assuring us that we’ll be fine if we turn away from change, is endemic in this campaign season. But we deserve better than politicians who tell us not to sweat it.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Indianapolis, Ind. (Indianapolis Star, indystar.com)
Monroe, La. (Monroe News-Star, thenewsstar.com)
Taunton, Mass. (Taunton Daily Gazette, tauntongazette.com)
Teton County, Mont. (Great Falls Tribune, greatfallstribune.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Workplace safety lagged during pandemic
An investigation by the Indianapolis Star has found that the state agency charged with protecting workers repeatedly failed to act on serious allegations during the height of the pandemic. According to reporting by Binghui Huang and Kristine Phillips, some of the most significant complaints came from the recreational vehicle industry that is big in northern Indiana, but the state agency rarely opened investigations on the hundreds of complaints it received. And now workers and critics are raising concerns about the safety of some RVs built during the pandemic.
Honoring a pol who sang his way into office
Jimmie Davis served two terms as governor of Louisiana, but he’s better known from the 1930s to the 1960s as a country and gospel music star. That’s according to coverage in the Monroe News-Star by Ian Robinson, which notes that the governor’s recording of “You Are My Sunshine” was a hit single in 1940. It was adopted as the state song in 1977. Now Davis is being honored in his hometown, Monroe, with a marker along the Northern Louisiana Music Trail. Davis, a staunch opponent of desegregation, would often perform on campaign stops, and after he was elected in 1944, he was known as “The Singing Governor.”
Playground injury leads to threats against school
A second grader was injured on an elementary school playground last week, which her mother found out about when she came home with rope burns around her neck. According to reporting in the Taunton Daily Gazette by Daniel Schemer, the school said the incident involved four children playing, and there was “no intent to injure” the child. Since she is under age 12, there was no involvement by the police department — but the resulting “threats toward staff” of the school involving the incident are being “actively investigated (and) taken seriously,” police say.
Hunter bowled over, grizzly euthanized
A terrified bird hunter from Washington state was knocked over and trampled by a 700-pound brown bear who charged out of the brush at him, as the man’s wife and dogs watched. But the hunter escaped serious injury when the bear turned around and returned into the woods. Yet fearing for his life, the hunter fired both a handgun and his shotgun at the bear. “Then the couple grabbed their dogs and got the heck out of there.” wrote David Murray in the Great Falls Tribune. The bear was subsequently euthanized by game officials. Murray quotes an expert as noting that the huckleberry crop failed on both sides of the Continental Divide in Montana this year, pushing hungry bears into more contact with humans.
Avoiding what we don’t want to know
This week’s column on discomfort avoidance arose from personal experience: I have found that I’m avoiding certain news stories because the headlines suggest they carry reporting that will make me feel angry and anxious. It’s not a fact that I’m proud to note.
That wasn’t an option for me during my decades as a newspaper reporter and editor; my task then was to absorb as much information as I could and present to readers a true picture of what lay beyond their own view. I also tried to avoid letting my personal feelings about news developments build up too much, even in my own mind, lest that affect my reporting.
Now, as an opinion writer, I’m less restrained in what I allow myself to think and more selective in what I read. But that change also is surely a result of the nature of what’s now going on in American politics, which has been my fascination since I was a child. These days we see intentional distortion of reality at a level unprecedented in my lifetime, and efforts to subvert the will of voters by people participating in the democratic process. It ought to alarm every patriotic American.
This isn’t a phenomenon that either citizens or journalists can dismiss with a “both sides do it” shrug. No, the assault on democratic norms has been embraced by the Republican Party under the malevolent influence of Donald Trump, and it is evident in the refusal of more than half the major office candidates on Republican tickets this year to even acknowledge that the 2020 presidential election was fair. In fact, of course, it was. Candidates who claim otherwise are lying, and they know they are lying. The fact that many of them are likely to win, despite this anti-democratic perversion of the electoral system, not to mention their own integrity, is what upsets me — and leads me to turn away from some of the stories that show up in my news feed.
I’m sure it’s a temporary affliction on my part. I care about the news too much to avoid it. But sometimes my mind is more calmed, I think, by pretending, ever so briefly, that some of the most troubling developments that are reported aren’t actually taking place. Regardless of the election outcome in November, some tough years lie ahead for America, and thus for the world. We will all need to be well-informed citizens — not avoiding the news, but embracing it — if we are to sustain American democracy and bring our country back together. It will be uncomfortable, but the need for our involvement is clear. So, please, read on!
Thank you for reading this edition of The Upstate American, and for joining me on *our common ground, this great country.