Skip to main content

Is There National Service in the Air?

George Clooney’s new movie, The Ides of March, about the shady backroom dealing of a presidential campaign, has been getting mixed reviews for its strong acting but weak plot, bad script, and "basic misunderstanding of politics." But one scene is worth extracting, where Ryan Gosling, playing the candidate’s campaign manager, lays out a case for mandatory national service:

On one level, this is astonishingly blinkered, substituting a cheap cynicism for real analysis. "Everyone over the age of 18 are past the eligibility age and will be for it. Why not?" As noted earlier here, age doesn’t seem to be stopping the Tea Party from rabidly opposing even AmeriCorps—a far more modest program. However, the idea of national service, mandatory or not, has still been coming up amongst American thought leaders across the media spectrum.

A recent spate of items from across the media have been promoting the idea of national service. Tom Brokaw devotes a substantial portion of his new book The Time of Our Lives to it. Jim Lehrer said recently if he could make one decision unilateratally, he would impose mandatory national service, and Joe Klein, long a supporter of a draft, mentioned non-military national serviceit f avorably in recent appearances promoting a Time cover story. George Clooney's character supports it in his new movieThe Ides of March (see above), where he plays an aspiring presidential candidate, and he Clooney personally supported the idea in a recent interview with Charlie Rose.

National service means, in this context, working for a federal program to serve the nation domestically, including things like building public works, helping the poor and elderly, and conservation. The idea is more than 100 years old, but the rationale behind it—though it has evolved considerably—remains similar to the original, and its advocates tend to crop up most during hard times.

William James first proposed national service as a substitute for military service, a way to get the moral benefits of war without all the horror and unnecessary bloodshed (he regretted America's "squalid war with Spain" of 1898). His essay introducing national service for the first time is titled "The Moral Equivalent of War:" "Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible." But instead of military conscription, a country should have "a conscription of the whole youthful population to form...a part of the army enlisted against Nature." (Men only, of course.) It is primarily about moral uplift, "manly virtues" instilled, getting "toughness without callousness," but it is also about unifying and serving the country, in a variety of ways. James advocates "knocking the childishness" out of the "luxurious classes," so they may "come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas;" as well as mining coal and iron, building roads and boring tunnels, all for the greater good.

FDR, though he was primarily concerned with getting the masses back to work, still lauded the "moral and spiritual benefits" to working in his Civilian Conservation Corps while doing valuable work for the nation. Kennedy and Johnson's service ideas planed off James's "manliness" and "war against Nature" rhetoric, but it was still about moral uplift, and unifying and serving the country. Kennedy ("ask not...") said of Peace Corps volunteers that they were "one of the most encouraging manifestations of the national spirit." Johnson, when he started VISTA, told the first group that service would be difficult, but they would have the "satisfaction of leading a national effort," the "ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their Nation." Bill Clinton, who created AmeriCorps, hailed the "unifying power of citizen service," and the accomplishments of national service agencies from the CCC up to his time, including AmeriCorps volunteers that had helped rebuild after a tornado struck his home state.

The current crop of thought leaders promoting national service have much the same reasoning. In recent appearances promoting his Time story, Joe Klein promoted the idea of mandatory national service as a way to "give back" without joining the military. Brokaw, who goes into the idea in the most depth, laments that America has become "two societes with too little connective tissue," and says "it is time to renew the ideal of national service for all," referencing JFK. He lauds programs like Teach for America as emblematic of what is necessary, and tells how his own children benefited morally from service in Haiti and elsewhere. In an interview with Jon Stewart he even agreed with a proposal for mandatory national service to rebuild the nation.

Though national service is an idea always floating around the country, it tends to bubble up most in hard times. FDR faced the Great Depression when he instituted the CCC (and dozens of other jobs programs). Kennedy had the peak of the Cold War—part of the intended Peace Corps service was surely the (real or imagined) threat of communist expansion around the Third World. Clinton's time was relatively less imperiled, but there was still a recent recession and war, slow wage growth, and widespread anxiety about the national debt and overseas economic competition. After 9/11, John McCain called for a huge expansion of the AmeriCorps program, and in the midst of the 2008 freefall, both presidential candidates supported the idea—Obama ended up signing a bipartisan bill tripling AmeriCorps’ size. And now, of course, we have a persistently atrocious economy, the worst in eighty years .

It makes sense, then, that public figures from movie stars to magazine columnists to retired anchormen are now talking about further expanding America’s ongoing experiment in national service. If history were any guide, the country probably would be—though the majority of national service’s champions have been Democrats, even the likes of William F. Buckley supported the idea in the past. But the Tea Party has happened to American conservatism. House Republicans, many of whom voted just two years ago to triple AmeriCorps’ size, are now attempting to zero out the program entirely, for the third time this year alone. Before one can expand national service, it must first survive.

(Cross-posted at Ten Miles Square.)


Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included . But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that. So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms. The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no s

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that