ראש חודש אלול תש"ע
1 Elul 5770
The hubris of youth had me tuck that certificate away--such are the actions of a dichotomous mind, either good or evil to choose from--but recently I took the certificate from the drawer and have kept it out for framing, in order to add it a small, patriotic, shrine-like area above my dresser at home. The memorial bill will stand alongside a quaint needlepoint made by my mom in the American folk tradition, which is comprised of two wooden soldiers, a flag and an eagle, and then the words, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing." It was stitched in 1962, no doubt in the midst of her own sunny fervor made possible by President Kennedy's occupation of the White House, hopes that would soon be dashed upon the bloody rocks of the following decade of war, riots, and assassinations. I would look at that stitching throughout my childhood, in those dreaded seventies, where the bloom was long off the rose of the sixties except for a lingering sense of clothing styles, the false subversiveness of drug culture, and an endless repetition of sixties rock and roll on the radio. I grew up in a liberal, patriotic, Democratic home (4th of July parades, Lincoln, FDR, Truman and Kennedy biographies displayed proudly next to the American Heritage subscription series) in an era where devotion to the larger enterprise of nation was way, way out.
The only uniform I'd ever be caught dead in, of course, was a sports uniform -- for baseball and basketball -- and as look back on those years, the greatest attraction to those experiences was the sense of team and sacrifice that made achievement possible. Any other greater sense of team was already lost by the time I was eighteen--President Reagan was talking about bringing back the draft but we opposed it vigorously--that is, all of us except my dad. He wasn't so sure that some form of national service should be ended completely and was a firm believer that the civilian army was the great democratizer of American life. He regretted, he told me, not seeing his sons have the same experience that he had, a chain of tradition lost after only two generations (my grandfather was enlisted in the First World War.) Beside the tremendous sense of gratitude he felt serving his country as an American Jew, he believed in general that a flourishing democracy needed to be able to call upon its citizens to serve, to sacrifice, on behalf of a greater good.
My perspective, at the time, was different. I didn't want to die in a war that I didn't want to fight. Plain and simple. And having no draft meant that I could go to school instead of to Guatemala or El Salvador or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia and die for the policies of a nation to which I pledged, I guess, qualified allegiance.
There wasn't another option.
Thirty years later there ought to be National Service.
With unemployment at more than 10%, the cost of a college education continually climbing, and a national infrastructure falling to pieces, *not* calling a generation to service seems one of the greatest political mistakes our generation could make. From the environment and clean energy to schools, parks and roadways here at home; to national disasters and diplomatic initiatives spreading American ingenuity abroad, there is no limit to the amount of good we could bring to the world.
But the question we ought to be asking is: Has America lost its narrative of collective responsibility? Is there collective will among the leaders in Congress? Does President Obama have the ability to articulate a program and campaign for it? Would and could the atomized, individuated, digitally decentralized youth of today be capable of embracing it?
What is the turning point at which a nation passes the point of no return, becomes unhinged, and loses its collective narrative? As media companies take charge, as the cost of running for office exceeds tens of millions of dollars, and as the domestic and international problems pile up, only hastening our own escape into the bright screens and lullingly comforting click-clicks of our laptop world, I wonder how far is too far?
Ronald Reagan signed the certificate sent to my dad but it was written "by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration."
Can our nation be so "one" as to be collectively grateful? And can we, in our fidelity, demonstrate a selfless devotion to something greater than ourselves?