Paranoid Right-Wingers See Obama's Volunteer Service Project as Sinister Plot to 'Re-Educate' Americans
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And yet, conservatives, even the crazy ones, are correct to warn of national-service mission creep. There are influential people in the Obama administration, possibly including the president himself, who would like to go beyond expanding volunteer opportunities to establishing mandatory service laws.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has repeatedly expressed a desire to create "universal civil defense training" and a mandatory national-service requirement. He appears to have been a little too impressed by his Gulf War adventure in the all-draft Israeli military. As he explained to the New York Daily News in 2006, "We're going to have universal civil defense training. Somewhere between the ages of 18 to 25, you will do three months of training."
The idea of mandatory national-service has a distinguished intellectual pedigree on the left. At the turn of the 19th century, the philosophers William James and John Dewey laid the American foundations for service learning and a national-service culture. In his keystone essay on national service, "The Moral Equivalent of War," James argued that mandatory service — a "blood tax" — would take the best aspects of martial culture and employ them toward peaceful ends to the benefit of individual and country alike.
As many critics on the right have pointed out, Dewey and James were deeply influenced by pre-WWII Germany's vigorous ideas about youthful bonding and the cultivation of patriotism through service.
If the Service Act of 2009 had included a Jamesian "blood tax" clause, no doubt the left and the right would have united against the bill. But it doesn't. It's a Great Society piece of legislation, not a Third Reich diktat. If conservatives in this country were more honest, no doubt many of them would admit that deep down they find the former a lot scarier than the latter.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.