By Any Other Name…
Jonah Goldberg has sparked a minor blogospheric furor for a recent column in which he castigated Barack Obama, John McCain, and others for promoting a compulsory national service program, which he compared to slavery.
There’s a weird irony at work when Sen. Barack Obama, the black presidential candidate who will allegedly scrub the stain of racism from the nation, vows to run afoul of the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.
For those who don’t remember, the 13th Amendment says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime … shall exist within the United States.”
Most of the outrage directed at this column deals directly with these two paragraphs. And, frankly, I do think that Goldberg did employ some bad rhetoric here. But it’s bad rhetoric used to make an excellent point. Namely, that there’s something un-American about compulsory national service. As Goldberg points out:
In his speech on national service Wednesday at the University of Colorado, Obama promised that as president he would “set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year.”
Now, Obama’s plan, like most plans of this type, doesn’t outright mandate that all students perform national service. It merely makes such service a condition for federal education dollars. So in a technical sense, these types of plans probably don’t run afoul of the 13th Amendment. But they’re still pretty appalling, and I think that Goldberg does make an excellent point here:
This is the real problem with national service mania: It seeks to fix what ain’t broke. No, national service isn’t slavery. But it contributes to a slave mentality, at odds with American tradition. It assumes that work not done for the government isn’t really for the “common good.”
I agree with this sentence wholeheartedly. Both Obama and McCain’s service plans serve the nefarious idea that people ought to be forced to help somebody else, which is something that is anathema to the rights of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” that this country was ostensibly founded upon. I can’t be the only one who shook his head in disbelief at John McCain’s essay about ‘patriotism, in which he said:
Patriotism is deeper than its symbolic expressions, than sentiments about place and kinship that move us to hold our hands over our hearts during the national anthem. It is putting the country first, before party or personal ambition, before anything. [emphasis added]
Yes, in John McCain’s worldview, country reigns supreme. Above religion. Above conscience. Above the human race as a whole. At least, that’s the conclusion you have to reach if you take his words at face value. But that’s the very ideology that drives the clamor for compulsory service–the idea that the lives of young people are not their own. That their dreams and their ambitions should be shunted aside in the name of some vaguely defined “greater good.”
Look, if a kid wants to spend 50 hours a year volunteering at a soup kitchen or building a house for habitat for humanity, then more power to him. If she wants to spend that time playing video games or basketball, or even *gasp!* holding down a part-time job well, that’s her choice, too. The point of America is that you got to make the choice about what you want to do with your life, not have some bureaucrat decide for you.
Clunky prose aside, I think that Goldberg was dead on in condemning compulsory service. It’s an antiquated, un-American notion that should by no means make its way into federal law.