My grandmother, the family provider in World War II’s market of scarcity, pleaded — or was it flirted? — with the butcher for meat. My father, who couldn’t hit his hat with a hammer, volunteered for military service and wound up in Boston army ordinance helping “our boys” make munitions. On “the home front,” my mother taught my sister and me to paste savings stamps in a book to buy war bonds.
Abroad, my Polish cousin, a secret agent, did underground duty in Paris. My uncle, a bombardier, flew the B-17s of “Bloody Hundredth” fame, while his wife worried and wrote and volunteered and his sister sent her sewing machine to the Red Cross. That was the war on the home front.
In the larger nation, Rosie became a riveter and anybody who wanted just a little bit of butter with their bread got white margarine accompanied by a coloring tube. Conservation of rubber, metal, and gas was the order of the day. And this (no need to say) was small potatoes compared to those in the trenches dreaming of a white — or maybe just a safe — Christmas.
So here we are at holiday time on a home front, now called the “homeland,” and today’s commanding general is exhorting us all to consume. Since the World Trade Center collapsed and the economy hit the skids, the call to buy, buy, buy could power enough hot air to send Santa into orbit. In the culminating moment, the president and the ex-president joined hands across the mall over Thanksgiving. George and Bill, Together at Last! Uniting jingos and jingoism, the two plumped for anything but abstinence, seeking salvation far from their ancestor’s axiom –“use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” as they urged patriots to shop, not save, for victory.
Not that World War II’s “greatest generation” was all that great. The post-World War II heroes came home to trash the cities and spread houses and concrete over fields and wetlands. Via Veteran Administration mortgages to 10 million vets and mortgage insurance to the entire nation, via highways and more highways, they celebrated victory with profligacy. While that made us fat and happy, it launched the worst human degradation of the continent in history — and with it, the envy and anger of the world, where absolute poverty is the lot of 1 billion, hunger of 3 billion, and death through starvation of 60 million every year.
Now I don’t want to cool the passion to “keep America rolling,” as the GM ad puts it. But I, like many others adrift in the media tales of shattered lives at home and throughout the globe, wonder what this buy-first bromide can bring us. Where exactly are we rolling to in this freedom-through-capitalism (never mind spiritualism) post-Sept.11 era? The great American marketplace has left an immense footprint on the Earth and made us prey to oil-mongers. And still we continue to push for more nuclear plants and filthy fuels to fabricate the artifacts of affluence.
Enough, as the magazine for the Center for the New American Dream puts it.
was fought to make the world safe for democracy; World War II for ourselves and our allies. Is this new breed of war being fought simply to make the world safer for consumption? We have been spending and spending and wheeling and dealing, and whimpering that nobody likes us any more. And now, as we bail out the airlines and bust their workers; as we subsidize the oil imperialists and slice the environmental budget, some of us find that we don’t like ourselves or our government anymore, either.
At home in a state of suspended anxiety, some are beginning to question the voraciousness behind our “buy-first” presidential prayer. Instead of taking our supersized SUVs to our mammoth malls, spinning down our sprawl-breeding superhighways, scrimping on saving, and spending on swallowing the landscape, wouldn’t it be better to shine the headlights on the dangers of this quest for “victory” abroad through gluttony at home? Isn’t it time to inscribe Jack Kerouac’s classic question on our holiday cards this year: “Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
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