The Arizona Desert Lamp

To serve, man

Posted in Media, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 20 November 2008

I wrote a guest column for today’s Daily Wildcat on Barack Obama’s national service plan, a response to last week’s page-four assertion that national service is “approximately as threatening as an anti-littering campaign.” From my column:

In a speech delivered this July to students at the University of Colorado, then-Sen. Barack Obama outlined his vision for a “new era of service” in the United States. “We need your service, right now, at this moment – our moment – in history,” Obama said. “I’m not going to tell you what your role should be; that’s for you to discover. But I am going to ask you to play your part; ask you to stand up; ask you to put your foot firmly into the current of history.” As a good citizen, I will answer that call. I will stand up for national service – but my feet will be firmly athwart the current of history, and I will be yelling ‘Stop!’

During his presidential campaign, then-Sen. Obama exhorted Americans to commit themselves to public service. National service, he declared, “will be a central cause of my presidency.” To this end, his policy platform suggests a huge increase in government-sponsored volunteer programs. Under the Obama administration, the federal government will not just sponsor the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, but expand or create a passel of new corps, including “Classroom Corps,” “Health Corps,” “Clean Energy Corps,” “Veterans Corps,” “Homeland Security Corps,” “Senior Corps,” “Global Energy Corps,” and “Green Job Corps.” Don’t worry: he didn’t forget to include college students. Under Obama’s plan, every Wildcat who completes 100 hours of community service will be able to claim a $4,000 tax credit to offset tuition.

For most students, Obama’s offer will be hard to refuse. After all, where else can you earn $40 per hour for picking up trash or sorting canned food? This wage is double what most graduates will earn once they leave college, so only the very wealthiest students will be able to turn it down without paying a hefty opportunity cost. For most folks, the credit will go a long way – paying off both federal taxes and a portion of tuition. What’s not to like?

Well, quite a lot—but I’ll let you read the rest for yourself. There are, however, a couple worthwhile points that I couldn’t cram down the news hole. Both are drawn from Sen. Obama’s July address on national service at the University of Colorado, the most detailed public pronouncement of his ideas on national service.

First is the nature of Obama’s own service. The beginning of Sen. Obama’s speech is a recap of the impact volunteer service has had on his own life. He notes that he is “someone who couldn’t be standing here today if not for the service of others, and who wouldn’t be standing here if not for the purpose that service gave my own life.” Just what sort of service did the Senator do? Well, take it from him:

During my first two years of college, perhaps because the values my mother had taught me -hard work, honesty, empathy – had resurfaced after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself. And by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with a crazy idea – that I would work at a grassroots level to bring about change.

I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job working to help neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings. My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car. And I said yes.

I didn’t know a soul in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me there. I had always been inspired by stories of the Civil Rights movement and JFK’s call to service, but when I got to the South Side, there were no marches, and no soaring speeches. In the shadow of an empty steel plant, there were just a lot of folks who were struggling.

I still remember one of the very first meetings we put together to discuss gang violence with a group of community leaders. We waited and waited for people to show up, and finally, a group of older people walked into the hall. And they sat down. And a little old lady raised her hand and asked, “Is this where the bingo game is?”

It wasn’t easy, but eventually, we made progress. Day by day, block by block, we brought the community together. We registered new voters. We set up after school programs, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with more opportunity, and some measure of dignity.

But I also began to realize that I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking. Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America.

Nary a Green Jobs Corps or a tax write-off to be seen. The “service of others” that so profoundly influenced Sen. Obama came from the values passed on by his family. His service to others was started by a church and run through a community nonprofit. The whole shebang was organized by private citizens and civil society groups, outside the purview of the state. So if Obama didn’t need government to heed the call to service, why do we?

Second, the fact that there is no serious consideration of the moral case against resurrecting corvée from its resting place among feudal lords and third-world empires. Obama does directly address potential opponents of the plan, but here’s what he has to say:

Now I know what the cynics will say. I’ve heard from them all my life.

These are the voices that will tell you – not just what you can’t do – but what you won’t do. Americans won’t come together – our allegiance doesn’t go beyond our political party, region, or congregation. Young Americans won’t serve their country – they’re too selfish, or too lazy. This is the soft sell of the status quo, the voice that tells you to settle because settling isn’t that bad.

That’s not the America that I’ve seen throughout this campaign. I’ve seen young people work, and volunteer, and turn out in record numbers. I’ve met members of our military – like the thousands of soldiers and airmen here in Colorado Springs – who signed up to serve in the wake of 9/11. I’ve met community workers who want to care for our kids; students who want to end the genocide in Darfur; businesses that want to expand opportunity; farmers who want to help free us from the tyranny of oil; seniors searching for ways to give back; and people of every age, race, and religion who want to come together to renew the American spirit.

This addresses a purely pragmatic argument—”this plan won’t work,” not “this plan is wrong.” Yet, the moral argument is a far more serious one: I’m not telling American’s what they won’t do, but what they shouldn’t do. The notion that this moral case may not even have crossed our President-Elect’s mind is frightening. Also, again, many of the examples Sen. Obama cites are instances of voluntary participation, not compelled or suborned volunteerism.

Anyways, check out the column here and start getting ready for your stint in the National Greatness Power Rangers.

2 Responses

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  1. […] arguments against it). As usual, I can’t argue with the eloquence of Connor’s response to some jerk’s defense of Obama’s “national service” program. I do have a […]

  2. […] last year, I made my case against the value and virtue of mandatory (or super-incentivized) service. But though this […]

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