National Service Programs Have Nothing To Do With Patriotism
Nothing like a “boot camp” or forced labor to bring back that good ol’-fashioned patriotism, says Joe Klein:
We have drifted a long way from civic rigor in this country. We’ve had a period of intense prosperity and intense immigration and intense growth of government programs for those in need, followed by an economic crash. We don’t know each other very well anymore, and it’s hard to trust people you don’t know. Throughout history, civilizations have built a common cause through coming-of-age rituals. But we don’t do that anymore. Maybe we should think about that. It could be something as simple as kids’ cleaning up their schools together, as Bob Quinn did–yes, Newt Gingrich was right about that–or it could be full-blown national service, including boot camp. But unless we start getting to know each other better, our chances of coming to a consensus about the important things we have to do together as a nation are going to be pretty slim.
What we truly value, we institutionalize. To educate, we build universities. To cure, we build hospitals. To make citizens, we must facilitate the shared experiences that cultivate civic pride and responsibility.
This should mean a period of full-time national service as a rite of passage for every young American, ages 18 to 28. Such service could be military or civilian. Young adults could choose the Army or Peace Corps, Marine Corps or AmeriCorps, the Navy or VISTA. National service would be optional, but expected. Every college admissions officer or employer must start to ask, “Where did you serve?”
Hear that, young people? The Aspen Institute doesn’t think you’re patriotic enough, so they’d like you to lend your labor toward a great patriotic revitalization of nation and soul. And if you don’t want to, you should be relentlessly shamed and denied educational opportunities.
This idea crops up from time to time, and is occasionally endorsed in the pages of our biggest newspapers, mostly because it’s slightly less controversial than drafting young people into the military. John McCain had a memorable story in the Washington Monthly a month after 9/11—never waste a crisis, as they say—in which he more or less said he’d draft you if he could:
The decline of the citizen-soldier is not healthy for a democracy. While it is not currently politically practical to revive the draft, it is important to find better incentives and opportunities for more young Americans to choose service in the military, if not for a career, then at least for a limited period of time.
Most people don’t take reviving the draft or compulsory national service seriously because they’re terrible ideas, and the latter would almost certainly be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Their defenders all share a weak, shallow understanding of patriotism that is better described as something more idealistic, like nationalism. They would have a hard time making sense of Henry James’ great aphorism that “patriotism is like charity—it begins at home.” Our betters at the Aspen Institute and other defenders of national service say the public suffers from a sort of civic ennui. But contra David Brooks, this has less to do with a nation fragmenting along economic or cultural lines a la Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and more with the fact that the civic institutions where meaningful participation is actually possible have been stripped of much of their significance. And not just in the sense that state and local governments have abrogated many of their roles upward, but also because the more mobile a society gets, the less those local affinities matter. As the pluralistic state declines, we’re left with a unitary one, forever in a state of becoming, toward which destiny the labor of young people is demanded.
In the absence of James-ian patriotism, having been replaced by the crude jingo type prone to starting wars, libertarianism may be the idea best equipped to push back. Consider a hypothetical debate between a progressive, a conservative, and a libertarian about reinstating the draft. The conservative is perhaps slightly reluctant about the idea but embraces it because he sees a means toward restoring patriotism and, after all, the price of freedom is compulsory military service. The liberal enthusiastically supports it because it will correct racial disparities in the ranks (as per Rep. Rangel’s nauseating obsession). The libertarian says the draft is slavery.