Restraint

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood KolischRestraint

by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’m fascinated by this historical snippet from the New York Times’ “On This Day” feature:

“On October 5, 1947, in the first televised White House address, President Truman asked Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays to help stockpile grain for starving people in Europe.”

The first televised White House address — that’s interesting. Imagine a world in which a president speaks to the people on the radio, or can speak only to a physically present audience, like Lincoln at Gettysburg. How quaint, how primitive, how different from us, were those simple folk of olden days!

But that’s not what fascinates me in this item. What I’m working hard to imagine or remember is a country whose president asked his people not to eat beef on Tuesdays or chicken on Thursdays, because there were people starving in Europe. The Second World War had left the European economy as well as its cities pretty well in ruins, and this president thought Americans would a) see the connection between meat and grain, and b) be willing to forego a luxury element of their diet in order to give away a more essential food to hungry foreigners on another continent, some of whom we’d been killing, and some of whom had been killing us, two years earlier.

At the time, the request was laughed or sneered at by some and ignored by most. But still: Can you imagine any president, now, asking the American people to deprive themselves of meat once or twice a week in order to stockpile grain to ship to hungry foreigners on another continent, some of them no doubt terrorists?

Or asking us to refrain from meat now and then to provide more grain to programs and Food Banks for the 20,000,000 Americans living in “extreme poverty” (which means malnutrition and hunger) right now?

Or, actually, asking us to do without anything for any reason?

Something has changed.

Since our betrayed public schools can no longer teach much history or reading, people may find everyone and everything before about 25 years ago unimaginably remote and incomprehensibly different from themselves. They defend their discomfort by dismissing people before their time as simple, quaint, naïve, etc. But I know Americans 65 years ago were nothing of the sort; and still, that speech of Harry Truman’s tells me something has indeed changed. What is the difference?

Being very old, I remember a little about the Depression, and a lot about the Second World War and its aftermath, and some things about Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” and so on. This experience doesn’t allow me ever take prosperity for all as a fact — only an ideal. But the success of the New Deal and the socio-economic network set in place after 1945 allowed a lot of people to assume almost unthinkingly that The American Dream had come to pass and would go on forever. Only now is a whole generation maturing that didn’t grow up in the alluring stability of steady inflation, but has seen growth capitalism return to its origins, providing security for none but the strongest profiteers. In this respect, the experience of my grandchildren is and will be very different from that of their parents, or mine. I wish I could live to see what they’re going to do about it.

But this still doesn’t quite take me to whatever it is about that request of old Harry’s that intrigues me so, and that, when I think about it, makes me feel as if the America I’m living in is somebody else’s country.

An education that gave me a sense of the continuity of human life and thought keeps me from dividing time into Now (Us — the last few years) and Then (Them — history). A glimmer of the anthropological outlook keeps me from believing that life was ever simple for anybody, anywhere, at any time. All old people are nostalgic for certain things they knew that are gone, but I live in the past very little. So why am I feeling like an exile?

I have watched my country accept, mostly quite complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising. That hard-minded man Saul Bellow wrote that democracy is propaganda. It gets harder to argue with him when, for instance, during a campaign, not only aspirants to the presidency but the president himself hides or misrepresents known facts, lies deliberately and repeatedly. And only the opposition objects.

Sure, politicians always lied, but Adolf Hitler was the first one who made it into a policy. American politicians didn’t use to lie as if they knew that nobody cared whether they lied or not, though Nixon and Reagan began testing those waters of moral indifference. Now we’re deep in them. What was appalling to me about Obama’s false figures and false promises in the first debate was that they were unnecessary. If he’d told the truth he would have supported his candidacy better, as well as putting Romney’s faked figures and evasive vagueness to shame. He would have given us a moral choice instead of a fudge-throwing match.

Can America go on living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash, and still be my country? I don’t know.

I guess it’s become improbable even to me that a president should ever have asked Americans not to eat chicken on Thursday. Maybe it is quaint, after all. “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Yeah, uh-huh. Oh boy! That one did some fancy lying too. Still, he talked to us as adults, citizens capable of asking difficult questions and deciding what to do about them — not as mere consumers capable of hearing only what we want to hear, incapable of judgment, indifferent to fact.

What if some president asked those of us who can afford to eat chicken not to eat chicken on Thursdays so the government could distribute more food to those 20,000,000 members of our community who live way under the poverty line? Come off it. Goodygoody stuff. Anyhow no president could get that past the corporations of which Congress is an almost wholly-owned subsidiary.

What if some president asked us (one did, once) to accept a 55 mph speed limit in order to save fuel, roads, and lives? Chorus of derisive laughter.

When did it become impossible for our government to ask its citizens to refrain from short-term gratification in order to serve a greater good? Was it around the time we first began hearing about how no red-blooded freedom-loving American should have to pay taxes?

I was certainly never in love with the mere idea of “doing without,” as Puritans are. But I admit I’m depressed by the idea that we can’t even be asked to consider doing without in order to give or leave enough for people who need it or will need it, including, possibly, ourselves. Is the red-blooded freedom-loving American so infantile that he has to be promised whatever he wants right now this moment? Or, to put it less fancifully: If citizens can’t be asked to refrain from steak on Tuesdays, how can industries and corporations be asked to refrain from the vast and immediate profits they make from destabilizing the climate and destroying the environment?

It appears that we’ve given up on the long range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences — about cause and effect. Maybe that’s why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.

If and when we finish degrading the environment till we run out of meat and the rest of the luxury foods, we’ll learn to do without them. People do. The president won’t even need to ask. But if and when we run out of things that are not a luxury, like water, will we be able to use less, to do without, to ration, to share?

I wish we were getting a little practice in such things. I wish our president would respect us enough to give us a chance to practice at least thinking about them.

I wish the ideals of respecting truth and sharing the goods hadn’t become so foreign to my country that my country begins to seem foreign to me.

— UKL

8 October 2012


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About Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her recent books include The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories and Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems: 1960-2010. King Dog: A Screenplay for the Mind's Eye, Music and Poetry of the Kesh, music by Todd Barton, words by Ursula K. Le Guin, an MP3 collection, and “The New Atlantis” are available in the Book View Cafe ebookstore.
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17 Responses to Restraint

  1. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    Sadly, meat consumption went up.

    See Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America.

  2. Philippa Chapman says:

    One of the unforseen consequences to fracking *might* be disturbance and/or incurable pollution to water supplies. [As I understand things, I'm not a geoligist]. Heck, if the San Andreas fault throws a major wobbly, as it’s expected to, the West coast could be in serious trouble.

    The cult of instant gratification has dulled us to considering long term problems, possibly until it’s too late.

    I pray not.

  3. This is true, Ursula. It’s astonishing. There seems to be no recognition that saying anything one wants and tearing down the “other guy” is anything but “leadership.” By default, however, people are “doing without” – more and more of them. We are switching to part-time jobs with no benefits in nearly all areas of work.

  4. Foxessa says:

    It happened most certainly in the time of Reagan. But what – who laid the ground work for Reagan’s wildly successful appeal to our more or most selfish and short-sighted interests — and simultaneously winking and smirking, “Selfishness is good!”

    Love, C.

  5. Foxessa says:

    I guess it was Gordon Gecko, in the movie, Wall Street, who made “Greed is good,” the mantra of the 80′s.

    This is also when our economy turned over, and everyone who could went into banking or other aspects of the financial industry.

    When most people make a living in these ways, there is a lot of reinforcement for selfishness and short-sightedness — it’s all about the bottom line. the fastest return on investment and everything must be corporatized.

    Love, C.

  6. The Raven says:

    The public is being asked, as well as pressured, to go without quite a lot (decent homes, decent jobs), in order to fatten the wallets of rich old white guys. Matters are even worse in Europe.

    It is part of the vast reaction against national unity which started when various despised groups gained so many rights. If we are not all one country, then there is no common good, and no reason to undertake austerities for the common good. Rich old white guys feel threatened, and they have gigaphones to tell use why we should feel threatened, too. And so now we are having an identity crisis election. Are we one people or many?

    Sometimes I hear the voice of an old wizard, saying that ancient rights of person and property which have stood since before the founding of our Republic are routinely abrogated. Like you, I wonder when we will stop having our identity crisis and face our real problems of environment and global economics, for which there are valid reasons to undertake austerity. Who will persuade the next generation that it is not rich old white guys lying?

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  8. The only time that the US was restrained was when it was on a war footing (or the equivalent) and could draw on nationalistic fervor to pull the reins. Despite the foundations of its constitution, the nation was based on applications of Manifest Destiny which is predicated on the availability of resources in perpetuity. The culture it most resembles is Rome, in both its republican and imperial phases.

    What has unquestionably changed, however, is the “can do” attitude that used to prevail in the US when it felt secure in its global primacy, which kept it in a good mood. It used to be a nation of engineers. Now it has become one of administrators and that, plus the slippage in primacy, is the essential difference.

  9. What strikes me as strange is not that the president would ask the nation to go without meat on Tuesday, but that everyone would be listening to the president at all. I think Nixon murdered the dream that the president was any kind of moral leader for the nation, and those who followed him only helped make sure the idea stayed buried. Maybe this is why First Ladies today do more of the moralizing — “just say no,” “learn to read,” “plant a garden.” Somehow we pretend they’re still half-saints. They must be — they’ve stayed married to the president!

  10. Alison Farrin says:

    What I find appalling is that you seem to think people need to be asked by our government (or compelled by it) to make do with less. Those of us who are wealthy and got there on our own did it by – AHA, surprise!!! – doing without and sharing with those who had less. My grandparents were penniless immigrants; my parents blue collar high school graduates who went to college at night after a hard days work and taught themselves enough to make it into a white collar world. I was the first person in my family to go to college out of high school, same with my husband and we got where we are today by working 60 hours a week in our jobs and then working all weekend on our investment properties. As I look back over our lives, in almost every year, we saved 50% of what we earned. Today, we are still not in the top 10% of wage earners, but we are in the top 5% of net worth.

    However, when I speak to others, almost everyone has embraced the “someone owes me” mentality fostered by our government. Rather than the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to a good paying job, health care that never ends, free education, housing support; you name it, someone else should supply it.

    At my house, we have meat about once a week, see a movie out about once every two years, watch our water consumption from our well, get our exercise by weeding the garden, turn on the air conditioning only at temperatures over 100 degrees, and if something breaks, we fix it ourselves 90% of the time. Our reward for doing without is that we are wealthy enough not to have to worry about living on social security. If everyone thought and acted that way – including our government – oh my, we wouldn’t need 90% of the services government provides. Then we wouldn’t have to give up half our income to taxes and when we saw an occasional fellow human the victim of extenuating circumstances, we could offer a hand out AND a hand up without government taking a 50% cut.

    • Grumbley says:

      I was with you up until you basically stated that you would offer a hand out if you weren’t giving out so many handouts already.

  11. Mo Gosh says:

    What an interesting topic for a blogpost. I have long been of the opinion that of all the character attributes displayed by people who are very active politically or socially, restraint is the one most clearly indicative of the potential for acts of greatest honor.

  12. Phillip J Hubbell says:

    I do note that a lot of these comments indeed reflect your reference to the “betrayal of our public schools.”

    I would suggest that the standard of living falls, not as a result of a return to the capitalism of old but as the final throes of the promises of the New Deal and the Great Society. We have consumed more than we produce and are just now getting ready to eat the seed corn as our insistence on normalcy prevents us from acknowledging what is coming. It isn’t profits that threaten our children…it is the confiscation of profits to fund sloth.

  13. A little nitpicking: imposing a stricter speed limit would actually be deadlier, because speeding accidents are correlated with speed differentials (which speed limits create, as some people follow them and some don’t), not with absolute speed. It would probably still help fuel consumption, though. But then again, so would switching to electric.

  14. Typical of me, I only discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s archive of blogs this morning, three days before Election Day, 2012. What occurs to me is my memory of opening a slim selection of P. B. Shelley’s poetry (a book!) off her living room shelf some forty years ago and seeing a sonnet she wrote to Shelley at, I assumed, a young age. The memorable line toward the end for me was “Shelley, teach me your intransigeance!” (I think she spelled the word that way, but little read dots underscore it now on this computer as I write!) In any case, Ursula has never given up on that kind of education, and I wish there were more people, as Robinson Jeffers once put it, “who can hear effectively.” For a time I have been translating Ulf Peter Hallberg’s writings from Swedish and idealizing the survival of a serious literary culture in Scandinavia, but, alas, detective, rather than science, fiction has become the current marketing means of survival there, and the old journalists–newspaper and radio–atrophy and become regressively marginalized even there, though they are way behind the curve here in the States. Now that I have retired from teaching Literature, I still have it in me to attend international conferences promoting the Humanities in what is left of educational programs at all levels. I am heartened, too, by the re-emergence of interest in the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics (See TRUTH AND METHOD) as a way forward to an assertion of that physical and social sciences ought to be regarded as subsets of a broader human endeavor: the Human Sciences, which proceed more existentially by reader response toward temporary, yet potentially transcendent, “truths” — such as Keats said we can “feel on our pulses.” I suppose I should have my own blog page somewhere, but, more urgently, I am dealing with my first CHP arrest and charge of a DUI (early morning October 30, when Sandy was still at full strength on the other coast), which led to my “spending a night in [Ventura County] jail.” At 66, I must apologize to more “intransigeant” folk who came to this impasse earlier in life on more principled grounds!! Always “going home.”

  15. Nat Case says:

    I think a big part of the shift comes from our broad cultural relationship to fiction. It’s a deeply tricky business—I’ve found your stories in particular a wonderful source of truth framed in stories of places that never were. The question is, when people become hooked on fiction, are they getting hooked on the truths within the dreams, or on the dreams themselves? Do they still see the world of atoms and neighbors and taxes and death, or can they less and less bear to look at that world in all its wonderful hopelessness? We’ve become a nation of fantasists. I’m 47, and when I was in 4th grade or thereabouts and discovered books with wonderful magic AND humans I recognized in them, it was you and Penelope Farmer and Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, and then I kind of ran out of books. Now? It’s hard to find a kids book that ISN’T magic-based. On one hand, all that wonderful wonder, and good riddance to the “problem novel.” On the other hand, we deep-down expect a wand to be waved and our brave children will save us from the Voldemorts of the world…