The Missing Word From US Discourse

I'VE been trying to understand this bizarre political season, and the word that keeps coming to my mind is "sacrifice."

Sacrifice has two main meanings. The first is a voluntary act of self-denial for a greater good. Heroes do this, whether they be soldiers or parents or saints. The second sacrifice is a victimization that some impose on others to spare themselves.

Americans seem to be succumbing to the temptation to find sacrificial victims to avoid their own need to sacrifice.

Politicians are being placed on the altar of US public discourse. Governor Bill Clinton's "death by a thousand cuts" is a dramatic example. The public's rage over members of Congress who had interest-free use of money belonging to other members is another. The alleged shortcomings of our leaders dominate our attention, blocking out the genuine challenges we face. Instead of making sacrifices ourselves, are we sacrificing our leaders?

Our leaders are hardly blameless. But who is it except us, Americans, who a decade ago gave irresistible power to that president who promised a free lunch where tax cuts would balance the budget? Who rewarded the leaders who cracked, "Go ahead, make my day" and "Read my lips, no new taxes" - even as the red ink flowed? Who buried in a landslide the leader who declared, in the prosperous season of 1984, that he would be honest and tell us he'd raise our taxes to cover the costs of government the country a ctually wanted?

If our political process is deceitful and cowardly how much is due to our own weakness and/or complicity? If, instead of real leadership, politicians in both parties have maneuvered, as in a game of Old Maid, to see who will be left with the blame, perhaps it is because we did not want to face the hand we dealt to ourselves.

The future we mortgaged is arriving. Paying the mortgage will take sacrifice. What George Bush called "voodoo economics," is draining our national fortune. What former Senator Howard Baker, trying to back his president, euphemistically called a "riverboat gamble," has squandered our inheritance. So we have roads and bridges crumbling, local governments cutting back services that invest in human resources, and mountains of debt.

So we lose ground to the Japanese, who do practice the economics of sacrifice and who save - despite high prices, a cramped lifestyle, and long working hours.

Rebuilding a solid foundation for national development will take investment. Investment means spend now, profit later. But that is not understood by those who eschew sacrifice. Therefore we create a political campaign full of pseudo-scandals that crucify those who might call us to our better selves.

The sacrifices that may be required of us in the foreseeable future go far beyond the sound investment practices of the old economic game. As the earth itself buckles under the weight of our global economic mechanism, unprecedented kinds of sacrifice are beginning to demand consideration.

The world's climatic stability is jeopardized. Are we willing to sacrifice the convenience of our profligate energy use to bring it back into balance?

The earth is strained by mushrooming population figures. Are we, who consume a disproportionate amount of the earth's resources, willing to have fewer children than we might choose on a purely personal basis?

The impact of raising beef is taxing resources. Are we willing to abandon established dietary preferences and move back down the food chain to help the planet breathe easier?

We are coming to a time when real changes of direction will be demanded of us, and change is always difficult. If we make these changes voluntarily, and in time, we will be heroes to those to whom we bequeath a healthy world. But the present spectacle is hardly heroic.

It is a time for sacrifice. But not our candidates, please. It is a time for scrutinizing character. But it is our own national character that should most concern us.

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