11 August 2010

Devoted and Selfless Consecration

ראש חודש אלול תש"ע
1 Elul 5770
For many years now I've kept in my upper desk drawer a certificate of recognition that was sent to our family (along with an American flag) in the months after my father's death.  On simple white card stock, it commends my dad for his service to his country during the Second World War and it's signed by Ronald Reagan, who was then President of the United States.  I missed voting against Reagan in 1980 by a mere three months so had to wait until 1984 to pull the lever for Walter Mondale.  In those partisan days of my youth, I was determined not to be drafted into any war in Central America or the Middle East that would have served President Reagan's purposes in battling an already dying Soviet communism or the hungry American pursuit of crude oil.  (The latter still haunts, doesn't it?)

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?


DP Greenberg said...

These dreadful, pointless wars that we once again find ourselves in would end in about two weeks if there were a draft because middle class parents like us wouldn't stand for our kids being inducted. As to the question of national service, I have a few qualms. The Constitution, of course, grants the federal government the power to raise an army, but mandatory national service to do the admittedly useful projects you mentioned isn't army service, it's regular work. As a result, I think the idea runs straight into the 13th Amendment which as you know bars slavery.

What our country needs is an economic and industrial policy that directs the vast, underused human and natural resources at our disposal where they are needed: to do useful work repairing our infrastructure, teaching our children and planning for a clean, productive future. We should be able to do that without forcing anyone to be part of a civilian army if they aren't so inclined.

The key here is compensation. It's not just that America needs to be rebuilt and reoriented. Useful work compensated fairly is disappearing every day, and with it the opportunity for millions to become part of the middle class. On the other hand, in the absence of such opportunities, our society is quickly beginning to tear apart at the seams, witness the increasing influence of the crank right. They are cranks for a reason, at least many of them are: they are desperately frightened that their way of life is being threatened by their inability to make a living. Granted, it goes a lot further than that for some of them, but a depression is the surest way to give these movements a foothold.

In the absence of an industrial policy that addresses both our infrastructural needs and provides good, productive jobs, your concept of a national service corps amounts to rounding up a reserve army of the unemployed. That, in turn, is bound to fire up the crank right even more, and in that case I'm not sure I would disagree with them.

Andy Bachman said...

DPG--I nearly agree with you. I have come to believe, however, that National Service will engender the courage needed for a real national industrial policy. As things now stand, everyone's on the make and we're on the fast road to imperial deterioration.