Paranoid Right-Wingers See Obama's Volunteer Service Project as Sinister Plot to 'Re-Educate' Americans
The far right has seen the fresh face of fascism, and it looks like the civic-minded legislative love child of Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch.
Most Americans applauded last month when the Senate voted across party lines to expand national-service opportunities. How could you not? The Serve America Act, which passed easily 78-20, invests $5 billion in volunteer corps focused on education, clean energy, health care and veteran issues. In a symbolic but meaningful gesture, the bill also designates Sept. 11 as a National Day of Service, thus expanding a post-9/11 concept of patriotism previously limited to dying in Iraq and shopping at JC Penny.
The Service Act will help millions of people learn to read, go to college, stay warm and connect with their fellow citizens. Upon passage, it was immediately hailed by 9/11 survivor organizations, literacy advocates, veterans groups and the AARP.
But not everyone feels warm and fuzzy about the bill whose House version was dubbed the GIVE Act. Among readers of WorldNetDaily and other sites that bridge mainstream conservatism and the lunatic fringe, the biggest question was whether President Barack Obama had shape-shifted from Stalin into Hitler, or had morphed into some grotesque dictatorial hybrid unique to history.
Whatever the genus of the beast, it was agreed in these corners that the Service Act heralded the end of the Republic, the end of Liberty, and the end of Boy Scouts helping little old ladies across the street.
The far right had actually been rehearsing for this moment since July. It was then that Obama told a rally in Colorado Springs, Colo., that he intended to create a volunteer "civilian national security force as powerful, as strong and as well-funded" as the military. For months, rhetoric on the far right concerning Obama's service agenda has ranged from mildly panicked to paranoid delusional.
The patriots at Resistnet.com warn that brown shirts lurk under every red windbreaker worn by AmeriCorps volunteers, whose ranks the Service Act will swell by 175,000. Judi McLoud of Newsmax speaks of "forced labor" and evokes the sign that greeted arrivals at Auschwitz.
Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin agree that the bill is proof we are becoming "slaves" to the federal government. In this the duo echo the Citizen's dubbing of the Service Act as the "National Enslavement Bill." The same Citizen editorial estimates that the Service Act's goal of seven million volunteers roughly equates to the number of East Germans who collaborated with the Stasi.
Not wanting to regurgitate Third Reich and Eastern Bloc analogies, popular conservative blogger C.J. Graham has taken the globo-government tack and connected the legislation to the United Nations' volunteer development program. She wonders, "Will American kids trade baseball caps for mandatory white helmets?"
Michelle Bachmann arrived a little late to the competition, but surprised judges when she executed a flawless triple-backflip allusion to Communist Vietnam, telling a Minnesota radio station last week that the Act would establish "re-education camps for young people" in which they would "get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then go to work in some of these politically correct forums."
It should surprise no one that the right's convulsive fits have been based on misreadings and distortions of the actual bill. While it's true the AmeriCorps Web site has an unfortunate red, black and white color scheme reminiscent of the Nazi flag, the Service Act's fascist overtones stop there.
Most right-wing bleating focuses on early drafts of the House version, H.R. 1388, which included a section instructing Congress to investigate the feasibility of a mandatory national-service requirement. But the clause died in the Senate. The final bill sent to the president merely expands existing programs (some of which were founded under Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush), such as AmeriCorps, SeniorCorps and Learn and Serve America. The Act also increases funding for service-earned college scholarships and programs for youth with disabilities and foster children.
The closest thing in the bill to the dystopia of conservative nightmares is a clause in Section 120 that sets as a condition for some programs the integration of "service learning" into the curricula of secondary schools receiving Service Act funds. This "mandatory service learning" clause is what Bachmann has in mind when she warns of leftist "re-education camps."
And what, exactly, will America's future volunteers be learning in these "camps" before doing the devil's work of retrofitting energy-inefficient homes, providing emotional support to homeless veterans and tutoring poor children in math and English?
According to the bill, educational programs funded under the bill will be designed to: "promote a better understanding of (A) the principles of the Constitution, the heroes of American history (including military heroes), and the meaning of the oath of allegiance; (B) how the nation's government functions; (C) the importance of service in the nation's character."
Sounds like a Weathermen's plot to me!
If the Service Act seeks to instill the sober virtues of patriotism and selflessness, why did 168 congressional Republicans vote against it?
The closest thing to an answer is found in the Senate floor speech delivered by Jim Demint, R-S.C., who assailed the bill without resorting to "coming-fascism" hysterics. Demint warned that expanding national public service infrastructure would destroy civil society by undermining self-reliance and pushing out private charity, essentially arguing that volunteerism is a zero-sum game.
"We cannot replace private charity with government programs," he said. "If we try, a lot of people are going to miss meals [and] suffer cold winters and leaky roofs."
Here is the familiar conservative refrain that government can't do anything right, but with a bizarre twist. Demint is saying that not only will government-sponsored volunteerism fail to accomplish good, its very existence will forever poison the idea of altruism in America. It apparently doesn't matter that the "cold winters and leaky roofs" Demint worries about are among the very problems that the Service America Act is designed to ameliorate. Along with creating a Vets Corps and an Education Corps, the Service Act establishes a thousands-strong Clean Energy Corps to retrofit and insulate homes as part of the larger goal to "improve energy efficiency and conserve natural resources."
This rubs up against another source of (mostly unspoken) conservative opposition to the bill. The Service Act, with its surprisingly strong emphasis on the environment and energy, is arguably the first government initiative that addresses the energy and climate crisis with anything like the war-level attention it deserves.
The launching of a Clean Energy Corps echoes FDR's 1941 creation of the Office of Civilian Defense, which organized volunteer civilian support for World War II. These councils helped organize, recruit and train volunteers for wartime programs ranging from scrap-metal collection to rationing. Obama's Clean Energy Corps also reminds one of the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps, launched in 1933, which employed millions of young Americans planting trees for nearly a decade.
No doubt many conservatives hate the Service Act because of its strong New Deal aroma. But the Act ties into groups with more recent lineages that touch an even rawer conservative nerve.
There is anger on the right that the Service Act will benefit groups involved in dreaded "urban community organizing." These groups often have ideological origins in the early New Left and Great Society programs of the 1960s. Among them are ACORN and Public Allies, where first lady Michelle Obama was the founding executive director between 1993 and 1996. That organizations embodying the tactics and ideals of Saul Alinsky will benefit from government largesse is maddening for the right.
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.