Saturday, November 15, 2008

National Servitude

There's a visceral buzz in the country, or at least on tv, in anticipation of the "Change" coming in January when Obama will take the nation's helm. What sort of change will he bring? I perused his official website to see.

On thing that caught my eye was the "America Serves" section of the site. This details Obama's plan to help the citizenry to "serve" their country. Although it has been scrubbed of the specifics that were posted on it briefly (Obama wasn't elected on specifics after all), the section still gives the bare-bones of his plan.

In "America Serves" the president-elect promises that "[t]he Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges." Obama not only plans to expand the national service programs AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, but will also conjure up several new service programs. A Classroom Corps will work in "underserved" schools. There will also be a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps and Veteran Corps.

Kids as young as middle school will be expected to perform 50 hours of community service per year. The federal government would withhold funds from local schools that don't put their students to work the requisite number of hours (a fact missing from the newly sanitized site). College students will be expected to perform 100 hours per year. For their servitude, the older kids will be given a $4,000 tax credit toward college tuition.

If you think that a lifetime of hard work (wherein the average American works about 113 days per year to earn enough to pay their tax bill, essentially working involuntarily for the government during that period) might get you off the hook for continued "service," think again. "Obama will encourage retiring Americans to serve" their community too, his site explains.

To be fair to Obama, the guy he beat also supports expanding national service. Among other programs, McCain praised the example of "City Year," an AmeriCorps program that serves 18 cities. “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, [..] and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall,” wrote McCain. He enthusiastically explained that in another program, The National Civilian Community Corps, members “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases[.]” This idea is no doubt the authoritarian equivalent of Viagra for the militaristic McCain.

Since "national service" started out meaning compulsory military service, it's ironic that the military has moved toward a more freedom-friendly volunteer force (as it should), while the politicians in DC seem determined to push compulsory service into new areas of civilian society.

Proponents claim that young participants will learn responsibility and a sense of duty. I would argue that the young will learn that they are mere vassals of the government, which holds preemptive claim over their very lives, rather than free citizens with unalienable rights and lives with intrinsic worth.

Perhaps President-elect Obama (and Senator McCain, who will no doubt vote for any Democrat national service proposal in Congress) should reread the 13th Amendment which states, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." (Emphasis added.) It contains no provision exempting the federal government from it's prohibition.

In my own day, our high school had already implemented an annual "Community Service Day" in which students did various odd jobs around the three small, rural towns that comprised our district. (And it didn't even require goading from the federal government to do so.) Like compulsory service supporters contend, I DID learn valuable life-lessons from this. In fact, I learned two: 1)Spending hours trying to rake tiny bits of gravel up a steep, grassy incline with a widely-spaced leaf rake is a pointless, Sisyphus-like task. 2)People in positions of authority aren't necessarily smart.

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