This weekend I was visiting one of the many free museums in Washington, D.C. (a perk of living in this city) and found an incredible poster at the National Museum of American History. Weimer Pursell’s color illustration depicted a well-dressed man behind the wheel of a 1940s convertible — with the ghostly outline of the Führer sitting next to him; it implored Americans to save gas during World War II by joining a car pool.
“When You Ride Alone You Ride With Hitler!” the letters scream. It is one of the war’s most famous posters and, while it has been copied and parodied since then, its message of national sacrifice resonates to this day.
Imagine that: During World War II Americans were told that riding alone in a car was like riding with Hitler. Saving and conserving, and helping others, was lifted up — in this and many other posters — as the greatest of American commitments to country and community. And this poster was one of an entire exhibit of government posters that lifted up that American commitment to self-sacrifice and conservation.
What happened to that self-sacrifice and commitment to conservation? Imagine if our government sponsored ads now likening riding alone in a car to taking a big old diesel engine, and dropping it onto the Alaskan wilderness, or a child’s face? Or — even more apropos – riding alone in a car being likened to riding with BP, Shell or Chevron oil companies, who are greedily extracting dirty oil from our precious waters.
Why is it that the ideas of conservation and caring about community are only invoked during a time of war? I believe that if the American people were asked — as they were by FDR and John F. Kennedy — to care about others living in poverty and suffering from hunger and not having sufficient healthcare or a living wage, they would see that as a patriotic request. Imagine if Americans were asked to care about the health of our communities and the health of our planet, and to conserve and recycle and take public transportation — and to care about those things as acts of patriotism. What a different country we would be living in.
This poster reminded me that it can be done, because it was done. Since I’ve been in D.C., I’ve been gloriously walking everywhere or taking public transportation. But when I get back to L.A. and pull my car out of my garage, I think I’ll have to imagine Hitler sitting next to me and then start thinking about my responsibility to stop polluting the air and to take the bus the two miles to work every so often.
And when I throw away something that could be recycled, I think I will just have to imagine that I’m throwing away a piece of raw material that could create something new and life-saving. Or when I pass another homeless person on the street, I won’t just be saddened and outraged, but will remind myself that it’s my patriotic duty to do something to make this country a better place for everyone.