Who’s Afraid of Volunteerism?

9 07 2008

Some asinine opinions should never see the light of day.

Consider Jonah Goldberg’s recent criticism of Obama.

Goldberg, the author of such timeless gems as Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, nonchalantly compared Obama’s call for greater volunteerism to slavery. That’s right slavery. The very kind of slavery the 13th Amendment abolished. The kind of slavery that was responsible for the lynching, killing, raping and out right terrorizing an untold number of black folk, and led to America’s four year long civil war.

Why would Goldberg make such an offensive comparison? The answer lies in his suspicion of government doing anything to encourage people to enhance the public good. Even tying federal dollars for college aid to more volunteerism sounds like forced labor to him.

“If you don’t make the kids report for duty, [Obama’s] essentially telling schools and college kids, you’ll lose money you can’t afford to lose. In short, he’ll make service compulsory by merely compelling schools to make it compulsory,” Goldberg exhorted in his LA Times column.

Obama, so the argument runs, and by extension the liberal left are shamelessly exploiting the use of President John F. Kennedy’s great maxim, “Ask not what…,” to justify an “all-purpose writ for social meddling.” And of course as a consequence of such meddling all of us will experience some loss of freedom the U.S. Constitution is designed to protect. Therefore, the conservative writer maintained that Obama’s plan was running “afoul of the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.”

Goldberg maintains this mindless yet provocative chatter only to flip flop less than 500 words later. But then Goldberg flip flops less than 500 words later. “No, national service isn’t slavery. But it contributes to a slave mentality, [and is] at odds with American tradition.”

Well, that certainly clears things up. Never mind that public service has bonded and functioned as the well spring of patriotism for many Americans at both low and high points in our history from the dawn of the republic to the modern day. In the framers era, everything from libraries to fire departments were started by volunteers. Such public goods are now a source of pride for many Americans.

And even as the government and many of our elected officials continue to ignore the Gulf Coast region, volunteers continue to flock to the Gulf Coast region to help those in need.

Goldberg and other pundits have noted that besides the sharp increase in the wake of 9/11, American volunteerism has remained steady the past few years, which implies that Obama’s call for more public service is unnecessary at best and politically cynical at worst.

But Goldberg is so taken by his own snark that he woefully misrepresents Obama’s position and hence misses the point entirely.

Obama does not make national service compulsory, he merely provides incentives for others to get involved. Those who volunteered 50 hours a year in high school or 100 hours while in college students would receive a tax credit of $4,000 a year. The presumptive Democratic nominee has also proposed expanding the ranks of the AmeriCorps, Youth Build, and USA Freedom Corps in addition to growing the Foreign Service and Energy Corps to promote environmental clean ups. He also wants to create programs that would enlist veterans to help other veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan adjust to everyday life.

Its not clear to me how working for a limited time in any of these capacities can be equated with lifelong captivity and oppression of any kind.

Perhaps it is true that rates of volunteerism have not declined in recent years. But thats no reason to refrain from encouraging more of it. And maybe the country could get by at the rates that under the Clinton years, but the nation has to cope with added strain from two wars, a crumbling economy, an educational crisis, and an bungled disastrous relief effort in the Gulf Coast area.

Additionally, there is a reason why Obama has made his pitch to young people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people aged 35 to 54 volunteer far more often (30.3 percent) than those in early twenties (17.7 percent) and an appreciable decline has taken place among teens.

Volunteerism can also have a significant shift in perspective for many people, including on those fiercely skeptical of government power.

Micheal Lindsay at the Pew Forum on Faith in Public Life found that there has been a dramatic reversal among many evangelicals regarding support for foreign aid and much of it is due to volunteerism. A few decades ago, many evangelicals considered foreign aid a waste of resources and an excuse for meddling in the affairs of other countries. But today they are apart of a growing collection of activists working to end the genocide in Darfur, advocating for the reduction of global poverty reduction, eliminating the spread of HIV and AIDS, and becoming increasingly supportive of U.S. State Department and USAID.

Part of this sea change in opinion among evangelical Christians, despite being stereotyped as provincial and nativist, can be attributed to engaging in foreign missions abroad only to discover that as fulfilling as their work can is a lot much more can be done by coordinating and properly resourcing American instruments of foreign aid.

So instead of criticizing Obama or McCain for supporting greater volunteerism among the American people, even if it were for naked political reasons, members of the media should consider the impact such plans could have in changing and repairing our nation. Its also a welcome contrast from George W. Bush, who after the Sept 11th attacks, merely implored us to go shopping, and recently cited giving up golf as one the activities he has forgone to acknowledge the sacrifice of the soldiers and their families.

But maybe that’s just my slave mentality at work.




One response

3 08 2008

Thank you

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