Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Ashes of Universal National Service

An interesting movie came and went in 1993 without much critical or even public notice, Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids, set in Frankfurt, Germany in the 1930’s. It is interesting because it presaged an issue that has been trial-ballooned by politicians and collectivists in the U.S. for decades – and is now rearing its ugly head again – ever since President John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”: Mandatory national service.

The movie focuses on the conflicts of a group of rebellious teenagers devoted to “swing,” the popular dance music of the period. That style of music and dance, however, was not only frowned upon by the Nazi government as an instance of Western decadence, but was outlawed, as well. The teenagers are under constant pressure from their parents and teachers to conform to Nazi norms of good citizenship, which meant, among other things, serving their country by joining the Hitler Youth.

All but one in the group cave in to the pressure (that one character commits suicide after being hazed by members of the Hitler Youth). The most moral one, wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth, is tasked to deliver little wooden boxes to several women in the city. He is not told of their contents. When he learns the boxes hold the ashes of husbands who were executed in concentration camps, of men who had opposed the Nazi regime, he breaks down, suddenly realizing the true horror of the monster he had formerly rebelled against but was now serving.

In a final, desperate, blind protest against the evil he cannot understand, he attends a dance at the Hotel Bismarck he knows is to be raided by the SS and the Hitler Youth. He is ultimately arrested and put on a truck with other dancers, presumably destined for a concentration camp.

(In one of his most effective roles, British actor Kenneth Branagh [Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing] plays an SS officer who persuades the principal teenager to join the Hitler Youth by promising better food and luxuries for his family and immunity from Nazi purges. A friend called him the “great seducer.”)

This raises the question of how many American youths today would be able to rebel against the American version of the Hitler Youth as proposed by Time Magazine in its August 30th issue, “The Case for National Service: A Time to Serve.” Would they have the character to spurn the inducements, rewards and emoluments described in that propaganda? Would they have the repressed moral premises with which to gauge the evil of mandatory or pseudo-voluntary national service?

The questions are not difficult to answer. Are today’s youth being taught to regard themselves as individuals not answerable to the state, the collective or the nation for their existence? No.

Are they taught that they own their own lives? No.

Are they taught that they are not obligated to “give back” to society what it never gave them, and never could? No.

Are they taught that their education today is more a gauntlet of indoctrination than an acquisition of knowledge and skills? No.

Are they taught that reason is their sole guide to survival and living? No.

Are they taught that independence of mind is a virtue never to be compromised or adulterated? No.

Are they taught that whether it is national or “community” service, it is a policy of extortion? No.

Are they being taught that one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are one’s inalienable rights? No.

They are being taught that those inalienable rights are imaginary, or perhaps that they were valid in the past but not in the present, or that they are obstructive to the public good and so alienable, or are conditional privileges granted by the state or the collective to be abridged, abrogated or nullified at whim or by expediency.

Today’s youth – and past generations of youth, to judge by the flaccid complaisance of today’s adults and “senior citizens” – are taught to believe that consensus and group-think are valid policies with which to judge right and wrong, that these are the only feasible means of dealing with others, that whatever independence or sense of self they may feel must be subordinated to the state or collective.

Two obscenities in the Time article must be dealt with before examining the piece in depth. The first is its twice quoting Benjamin Franklin out of context in a puerile resort to the argument from authority to make it seem that he endorsed the idea of national service. The second obscenity is its concluding flourish of quoting from the Declaration of Independence. “The courageous souls who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged ‘our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.’ The least we can do to keep the Republic is to pledge a little time.”

This last is either an instance of a profound ignorance of what moved the Founders to action, or an unmitigated, thoroughly dishonest subrogation of their words. Did it occur to the article’s author that the Founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in a commitment to freedom, not to slavery? Perhaps, perhaps not, but the tactic indicates that the author of the article is a college graduate who was taught that a study of history and ideas is merely a study of historical graffiti that can be indiscriminately linked to any proposition, any time, anywhere.

The flourish then manipulates that quotation to hang an onus of responsibility over the reader, implying that his own life, fortune and honor require him to pledge himself to voluntary or involuntary servitude in order to “keep the Republic.”

On to the critique of Time’s master plan to “save” the Republic.

In prefatory remarks to the article’s assertion that more and more Americans are volunteering in public service – “Polls show that while confidence in our democracy and our government is near an all-time low, volunteerism and civic participation since the 1970’s are near all-time highs” – the authors cite what they claim are some reasons for the purported rise in “volunteerism.”

• “…[T]hey see public-school system with 38% of fourth graders unable to read at a basic level.” The percentage is probably higher. But regardless of the percentage, isn’t that figure a reflection of the non-efficacy of government-run, compulsory public education? Shouldn’t the disgracefully low test scores in math, science and literacy of American students suggest a termination of public education?
• …[T]hey see the cost of health insurance escalating as 47 million people go uninsured.” Why is the cost escalating? It is the government’s interference in the medical business and its incremental socialization of the medical profession. What about those alleged 47 million uninsured people? Perhaps they don’t want the insurance, or can’t afford it, because they are already paying for their neighbors’ medical coverage and bills through their taxes.
• …[T]hey see a government that responded ineptly to a hurricane in New Orleans.” Should the federal government go to the rescue of state and local governments to reward them for their corruption and negligence? According to ABC, the federal government has to date already spent $114 billion on rebuilding New Orleans, and will spend billions more. Yet, the Time article recommends creating a “Rapid-Response Reserve Corps” of volunteers to work under the “guidance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),” the very mismanaged bureaucracy that responded so ineptly!
• …[T]hey see a war whose ends they do not completely value or understand.” Neither do our politicians, including the President. Has any one of them heard of the Islamic jihad, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or the fifth column of cultural jihadists in the U.S., or placed any importance on them vis-à-vis the war against the West? No. There are apparently more important matters to see to than wondering how and why Islamists want to turn the U.S. into a caliphate.

For an intellectual sanction of Time’s plan for universal national servitude, the article relies on the assertions of an obscure Harvard (where else?) political scientist, Robert Putnam, who predicts that, despite the growing “diversity” of the American population, America will develop a “more capacious sense of ‘we.’” “We” meaning neither the thematic sense of Ayn Rand’s We the Living, nor the individualistic sense of “We” as the term is employed in the Declaration of Independence, but rather a boundless number of indistinguishable ciphers.

Twice in the course of the article the author insists that the proposed plan would be voluntary, not mandatory. Apparently he is anxious not to be accused of advocating involuntary servitude. What he fails to mention is that every one of the plan’s ten points requires another form of universal involuntary servitude: taxation. Individuals who resist the social pressure to sacrifice their time in “voluntary” service or refuse to be corralled in that “capacious ‘we’” not only can be shunned as “anti-social,” but can be dunned for the plan’s cost, as well.

Point One of the Time plan is to create a “National-Service Baby Bond.” Upon the birth of each American child, “the Federal Government would invest $5,000 in that child’s name in a 529-type fund – the kind many Americans are already using for college savings.” Where would that $5,000 come from but taxpayers? “At a rate of return of 7% [who or what will guarantee that rate?]…that money would total roughly $19,000 by the time that baby reaches age 20.”

Since it costs about $100,000 today to send a student through four years of an relatively inexpensive and mediocre liberal arts college, by the time “that baby” reaches college age, the cost could well be half a million dollars or more. And since such a “bond” would be similar to a Treasury bond, imagine the deleterious effects it would have in the marketplace for government securities; imagine all the rackets that would spring up in the trade of “baby bonds.”

The catch to this generous offer of other people’s money is “that baby” wouldn’t be allowed to touch it unless he spent at least one year in military or civilian “service.” This is a curious notion of “volunteerism.” Another catch is that the money “must be used to fund education, start a business or make a down payment on a home.” If, by that time, he can still afford such things.

Point Two of the Time plan proposes the creation of a White House cabinet-level department of universal mandatory service, which (under a “catchier” name, such as the Department of National Service, headed by someone whose surname shouldn’t rhyme with “Goebbels”) would amalgamate existing federal “volunteer” programs, such as National Senior Volunteer Corps and Americorps. That is, elevate the Corporation for National and Community Service to the executive level. This new department’s goal would be to “enlist at least 1 million Americans annually in national service by the year 2016.”

The author recommends appointing a department head “who would capture the imagination of the public,” such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the petit fascist governor of California, or Michael Bloomberg, the petit fascist mayor of New York. If the author of the Time plan knows nothing else, he knows his statists and which ones would assume his departmental duties with power-hungry gusto. Yes, such a person would certainly capture the imagination of Americans who haven’t been beaten or who haven’t surrendered their independence to that “capacious ‘we’”: they would gird themselves for more proscriptions on their lives.

Points Four through Seven describe programs that would come under the aegis of this Department of National Service. The first is an “Education Corps” that would send selfless do-gooders into selected urban swamps of public education to tutor and teach children who can’t read and who are not “supervised” during after-school hours. This would presumably attempt to compensate for the failure of compulsory public school attendance. The “education corpspersons” (one supposes that would be the politically correct term) of course would not need to bother with children who can read and think because they are being home-schooled or sent to private schools (by parents who are also paying via property tax assessments for the dumbing down of public school students), those children far outperforming any prisoner or graduate of the public education system.

The second proposed DNS program would send children to what can only be called a “let’s pay the pubescent not to make trouble” program. “For many teenagers, the summer between middle school and high school is an awkward time. They’re too young to get a real job [thanks to child labor laws and the federal minimum wage] and too old to be babysat.” But apparently they are young enough for further indoctrination and old enough to be babysat by the federal government.

As a “rite of passage” program, the “summer of service” would organize “after-school activities for middle schoolers and run summer programs for younger students in exchange for a $500 college scholarship.” Presumably those activities and programs would focus on “doing good.” After all, our new Nazi youth must be energized. As for the pittance in scholarships, in the old days it was called embracery. Today it is called bribery.

Point Six of the DNS idea is to create a “Health Corps.” This program would oversee the education and make-work of volunteers who would direct low-income people to government insurance programs and work as nonmedical support staff. “The one-year experience in the Health Corps could lead these volunteers toward careers in nursing or medicine, helping to redress gaps that have left the U.S. with a dearth of qualified nurses and medical professionals.”

The simplest solution to filling that gap would be to abolish all immigration restrictions on competent medical professionals. The government’s problem with this solution is that most of those qualified immigrants would come from Europe, and that would be “discriminatory.” It should surprise no one that the federal government is the biggest practitioner of racism. Also, the government would need to abolish the INS, and all its personnel would need to find gainful, productive employment elsewhere – which wouldn’t be fair, either.

The last DNS program Time proposes is to “Launch a Green Corps.” “This would be a combination of F.D.R.’s Civilian Conservation Corps…and a group that would improve national infrastructure and combat climate change….Today there are 1.5 million Americans between 18 and 24 who are neither employed nor in school.”

One needn’t wonder why, since the un-schooled are either are not allowed (or don’t wish) to work or are not worth an employer’s federally mandated minimum wage. Picture semi-literate unemployables working on a New Orleans levee, or combating climate change by using giant fans to waft hot air back across the oceans. “The Green Corps could reclaim polluted streams [and seed it with more snail darters?] and blighted urban lots; repair and rehabilitate railroad lines, ports, schools and hospitals [all government owned or managed entities already!]; and build energy-efficient green housing for elderly and low-income people.” Which would be another invitation to more government-contractor racketeering, also paid for by the shunned and dunned.

Point Nine of the Time plan is to start a “National Service Academy.” Another and more accurate name for this idea would be an extended Nazi Youth Camp. In it, “students would be studying the Federalist Papers [provided they can read them] and learning how to transform a failing public school.” This four-year stint of indoctrination would entail a “five-year commitment to public service after graduation” in order to “create a new generation of civic leaders” – or bureaucrats and gauleiters.

“The idea has been endorsed by Hillary Clinton and Pennsylvanian Republican Arlen Specter who are co-sponsors of legislation that would allocate $164 million per year for the envisioned 5,000-student academy.” It is bipartisan, so there can’t be anything wrong with the idea, right? Who said the Democrats and Republicans are worlds apart in social policy?

Point Ten of the Time plan is to create a “Baby-Boomer Education Bond.” “Over the next 20 years, 78 million baby boomers will be eligible to retire. That is, if they can afford to – and if they want to.” If they can’t afford to, it is because government tax policies penalize their savings and retirement funds, so they continue working part- or full-time to make ends meet.

For doing time teaching children to read or performing “community service,” “baby-boomer volunteers would be able to designate a scholarship of $1,000 for every 500 hours” of volunteer work; this amount would be "deposited in an education savings account or a 529 fund to be used by the volunteer’s children or grandchildren or a student they designate.” That works out to $2 an hour, way below the minimum wage, and it represents money that was already taken away in taxes over the years, but “given back” by the government, with the proviso that the sucker cannot use it himself but must hand it over to someone else. Leave it to a collectivist to dream up another scam.

The author of the Time plan for universal national service calculates that it would cost only more billions of dollars to implement. “At the same time, corporate America would need to play a critical role….The private sector has contributed more than $1 billion to Americorps. The private sector must step up to the plate in funding national service – after all, it benefits, too.” How? By being nationalized by the federal government for not doing enough for the “public good,” just as corporate Germany was nationalized by the Nazi government?

The Time article ends its advocacy of universal national service by remarking that people “are often skeptical of calls for national service, especially from politicians, as they see them as crowd-pleasing rhetoric or a way of avoiding asking people to make a true sacrifice.” Frankly, any American with a shred of self-respect should be frightened of politicians arrogant enough to ask for a “true sacrifice.” To quote Ellsworth Toohey in Rand’s The Fountainhead:

“…Just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice – run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.”*

The Time article is not so much another trial balloon as an emphatic signal to the presidential candidates of both parties that universal mandatory service is an imperative they should all endorse and include in their party platforms. “’People understand the idea that this is a great country,’ says Zach Maurin, the co-founder of, which has launched a campaign to get the presidential candidates to endorse national service.” And there isn’t a single candidate who would not hesitate to advocate some form of it. Every one of them is statist to the core.

In my role as a writer, my concept of “good citizenship” has always been and will ever be to oppose every form of tyranny over the mind of man – and over his life, as well. I know what ashes are in the boxes of universal national service – the ashes of a great, free country.

I refuse to carry them.

*The Fountainhead, Centennial Edition, p. 666

1 comment:

David Claassen-Wilson said...

Great article, and yes I remember the movie Swing Kids as a great examination of the themes you addressed (not to mention great dance sequences.)

In addition to those advocating universal national service there is another movement in America called "Character Education" that is similarly alarming and eerily similar to the workings of the Nazi propaganda machine.

Here in Topeka, Kansas there has been a city-wide campaign of "Character Education" going on for several years. The city is littered with massive billboards listing the virtues selected for compliant citizens and there are endless programs for school children on the character traits of virtuous citizens. Other cities around the country are following suit and national politicians are now clamoring to endorse "character education" just as they they have been preaching universal national service.

The hideous thing about the character education movement is not even the millions in taxpayer dollars that go to fund it nationwide, but that the main curriculum being used and endorsed by politicians, police, school officials, etc. is a Bible-based program called "Commands of Christ" that has simply been re-named and re-tooled for the general public. The lack of opposition to this is yet another guage of how ominously close we have come to a kind of Christian fascism in America.

Here is an article I submitted to our local paper to help expose the evils of "character education."

"Road to Serfdom Paved With Character Education"

Imagine living in a future totalitarian society where billboards stare down upon the masses preaching the virtues of obedience and servitude to the state. Imagine school children taught to sacrifice themselves unquestioningly to the collective and to loyally submit to anyone in positions of authority. Think this dystopian nightmare could never happen here? Well break out those paper coveralls comrade; the future has arrived.

Across America scores of quasi-governmental bodies and official committees are now promoting the cause of “character education” for the masses. These nebulous partnerships between faith leaders, educators and police are blessed by local officials to go into schools teaching their list of “character traits” for the compliant citizen.

The national curriculum of choice is called Character First! published by the Character Training Institute in Oklahoma City. The man behind Character First! is evangelical Christian guru Bill Gothard, whose "Institute for Basic Life Principles" boasts 2.5 million graduates of its Bible-based seminars.

The developers of this curriculum have created a list of 49 character traits; a thinly secularized version of Gothard’s 49 “Commands of Christ.” Although references to God and Christianity have been removed, the basic concepts are drawn directly from Gothard’s views on Biblical morality.

The curriculum is permeated by two major themes, self-sacrifice and submission to authorities. Here is a sampling of the virtues listed:

Obedience: Quickly and cheerfully carrying out the proper direction of my authorities.

Flexibility: Being willing to change plans or ideas according to the wishes of my authorities.

Deference: Limiting my freedom so I do not offend the tastes of those around me.

Honor: Respecting those in positions of leadership because of the higher authorities they represent.

Other concepts include Loyalty, Self-Control, Orderliness, and even “Faith.”

Advocates of the Character First! program are not simply religious conservatives. Liberal politicians nationwide are equally eager to force public schools to teach Character First! programs. Some 250 school districts nationwide are now using the curriculum, and over 50 communities (including Topeka) have begun calling themselves “cities of character.”

Topeka just received a $1.8 million federal grant to promote such programs in its schools, and the city is littered with billboards extolling themes of sacrifice, order and obedience.

The question is not which grab bag of character traits should be taught, but rather “Should government have any role whatsoever in teaching these ideas?” and “What philosophical ideals give rise to this Orwellian nightmare in the first place?”

The philosopher Ayn Rand named the ethical and political underpinnings of this worldview the “altruist-collectivist” creed. Altruism, for Rand, must be distinguished from benevolence toward those who warrant it. “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is the highest moral duty, virtue, and value.” It views man as a sacrificial animal who must live solely to serve the interests of others - society, family, tribe, the state, or God.

Embracing altruism as an ethical system leads directly to collectivism as one's political philosophy. Collectivism holds that individuals have no inalienable rights apart from the collective and that the group or its leaders may take away the life, liberty, or property of any individual whenever it pleases.

Society has yet to challenge the altruist-collectivist ethic that produces social engineering schemes such as “character education.” In an era of increased governmental control over all aspects of our lives, it is no wonder that educators and political leaders of all types are eager to promote ideas of blind loyalty and deference to authority. Concern for individual rights and independent thinking can then be obscured in favor of following orders “quickly and cheerfully”, “limiting my freedoms”, and “being willing to change plans and ideas” in conforming to the arbitrary whims of society and its overseers.

Humanity does not need “character education” schemes promoted by mystical authorities. We need an objective philosophy of rational self-interest, individualism, and limited government.

David Claassen-Wilson
Lawrence, KS