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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Obama’s call for national service laudable, not menacing”

    The element in our president-elect’s platform that seems to have stirred up the biggest ruckus is neither his proposed health care package nor his attitude toward the rulers of Russia or Iran.

    No, the most controversial item in Barack Obama’s long list of presidential proposals is his call for national service – his call, that is, for “”citizens of all ages to serve America.”” To hear the Right rail against it, you’d think Obama had called for liberty-loving dissidents to be tortured in a gulag.

    Expanding national service would be “”an attempt to turn young people into government employees,”” thundered Ben Shapiro of townhall.com. It is “”exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany,”” declared Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, “”and exactly what the Soviet Union did.”” “”Sounds like there’s gonna be a lot more Waco raids,”” remarked Ann Coulter.

    “”They plan to herd American youth into government-funded reeducation camps where they’ll be brainwashed into thinking America is a racist, oppressive place in need of ‘social change,'”” howled Investor’s Business Daily, echoing the language of liberals like Paul Krugman who thought Obama’s rise to fame evidence of a sinister “”cult of personality”” and the triumph of blind adulation over ideas.

    Alas, any homegrown radicals eager to join a burgeoning fascist movement will be sorely disappointed. When put beside the hysterical insinuations of the Right, Obama’s actual proposal sounds approximately as threatening as an anti-littering campaign.

    According to the President-elect’s Web site, change.gov: “”President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps.”” This sounds more like the kind of work being done by nonprofit programs like Teach for America than it does any sort of “”reeducation camp.””

    The new administration, according to the site, will expand national service “”by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service receive a universal and fully refundable tax credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of their college education is completely free.””

    The Web site’s language is vague -ÿdoes “”setting a goal”” mean that the community service will be mandatory or merely encouraged? Making it mandatory for all students presents a host of problems; for one thing, it’s hard to imagine how the federal government could effectively enforce it, short of withholding funds to schools that fail to comply. That seems contrary to the spirit of what Obama is trying to do.

    That said, requiring community service from students is a long way from statist tyranny, unless you consider mandatory public school attendance tyrannical in the first place. (Israel requires three years of military service of all its citizens, and right-wingers aren’t lining up to accuse them of fascism.) If the Obama administration can come up with an effective plan for implementing this program, I’ll be all for it.

    If there’s one thing our schools don’t do, it’s fostering a sense of civic-mindedness. The need for “”more engineers”” (and by implication, I suppose, fewer English majors) for smarter “”consumers,”” for more effective drudge workers for the sake of “”the work force”” dominates virtually every public discussion about education in this country. The gross domestic product, not citizenship, is our measure of the success of education. That, not giving college students a chance to pay their tuition by planting a tree, is the voice of statist tyranny.

    Whatever Obama’s election stood for, it wasn’t that. Americans did not elect a man whom half the establishment had denounced as an unserious fellow, foolishly devoted to laughable ideas like “”hope”” and “”change,”” because they regard efficiency as the highest of all virtues and making money as the noblest of all ends. Obama’s election was a blow to that sort of thinking.

    “”Part of my job as president is to make government cool again,”” Obama said in September. What he meant, I think, is that we have to start behaving as if our government is indeed ours, from our local communities upward. Only then will our government be returned to us.

    In 1917, as millions of Americans lined up to fight and die in the trenches of Europe, anti-war liberal Randolph Bourne called for a domestic “”army”” of teachers, engineers and social workers to descend on America and rebuild its communities. “”Our need is to learn how to live rather than die,”” he wrote – words to keep in mind as our new president takes office, and the rest of us look forward to a day when we can look on our government with more pride than suspicion.


    – Justyn Dillingham is the opinions editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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