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Monday, April 22, 2024

Column: Service and sacrifice

A “New American Century” is a phrase often heard bandied about by both the Obama and Romney campaigns. What it entails is somewhat vague, but it is not difficult to guess the contours of such an idea. A New American Century would involve global dominance with regards to the economy, military and the standard of living. Such a century would be an affirmation of our highest vanity and deepest ego — to be the biggest, baddest kid on the block, the readily acknowledged king of the global jungle. Well, too bad that is probably not going to happen.

I am moving onto shaky ground here theoretically, but I believe that the reason for the coming Great American Decline has to do with a loss of the American ideal of service to others and sacrifice for the collective good.

Here, you might sputter rather irritatedly that, well, of course America is going to be number one forever and ever, Amen. To believe otherwise is to be almost heretical in thought. After all, we are the eternal shining light on the hill! My god, to not be the king of this hill would be to permit the world to slip into utter darkness, right?

Unfortunately, last time I checked, there is no sacred covenant explicating America’s greatness. Our country is great only because previous generations worked, served and sacrificed to make it great and because they, and we, were the lucky recipients of good fortune. We escaped the wounds of WWll, allowing the U.S. to be the ascendent nation for decades.

On an individual level, the collapse of service clubs and organizations is an example of the breakdown of our willingness to serve others. Our politicians’ acrimony, lack of compromise and complete short-sightedness in policy also point to such a collapse on a collective level.

I could give example after example of this in politics. One is when the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the Republicans’ primary goal is to make Barack Obama’s presidency a failure. Another is the ineffectual effort of Congress to pass a climate-change bill. Doing so would admittedly involve sacrifice through higher prices of energy in the present, but such a bill would ensure a better country for future generations. A third would be the collapse of deficit reduction talks last summer between President Obama and Speaker Boehner that would have involved major sacrifice, both politically and economically, but would have dramatically strengthened the country’s fiscal standing down the road.

Lacking a strong service-sacrifice mindset, our country shows daily signs of malaise that point to a grimmer future. Our politicians seemingly cannot compromise. Our economic system has deep structural weaknesses. We are in debt up to our future grandchildren’s eyeballs. It is a complete mess.

What would a society look like if everyone was willing to sacrifice more, to compromise more, to act in a way that puts future generations ahead of the present? There would be less certainty in thought, less “I am right; you are wrong,” because such a posture kills any chance of the most important ingredient in democracy — compromise. There would be more legislation that involves sacrifice. Spending cuts, higher taxes and lower entitlements would be acceptable because they would again be putting future generations first.

A service-sacrifice mentality will never take hold in our macro-society unless it begins in the micro — in your life and mine. For me, the best example of such a mindset are my parents. They have adopted 16 children, most with mental and physical disabilities. They did so because they could not stomach knowing that children, through no fault of their own, were being shoved into the dark corners of orphanages and institutions, unloved, left to rot.

It is a life of sacrifice. They have never had a new car. They have never been on vacation. Yet they have gained far more than they have given.

As an individual and as a nation, we should adopt a similar mentality. We should all sacrifice more, volunteer more and give more. In politics, our nation’s leaders should avoid the comfortable embrace of certainty in thought and instead be willing to accept different viewpoints, to compromise daily and avoid gimmicks and expedient solutions.

To do otherwise is to invite decline. So yes, there will be a New American Century, but only through service and sacrifice will we make the next one hundred years a century we can be proud of.

JONATHAN NELSON is going to miss writing these columns. E-mail any last opinions, ideas or spastic rants to jdnelson@ucdavis.edu.

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