Published Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:29 pm
Michael Gerson: Service builds nation and character

These are tough times for the nation, by which I mean the idea of the nation, the concept of things national.

All that is national is seen as federal, and all that is federal is seen as Obama, and all that is Obama is seen as arbitrary and threatening.

It is not an auspicious time to begin a dialogue on national service. Which demonstrates why it is needed.

The impetus for this discussion has come from the military. During an event at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival last year, Gen. Stanley McChrystal offhandedly endorsed universal national service for young people graduating from high school or college, fulfilled in either a military or civilian setting. His particular concern was the growing disconnect between the less than 1 percent of Americans who serve in the armed forces and the rest of country.

The result is not only an unequal distribution of burdens but the unequal development of citizens. “Once you have contributed to something,” McChrystal said, “you have a slightly different view of it.”

This mention has matured into a proposal, endorsed by a list of luminaries including former Secretaries of State Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Instead of giving 18-year-old males a meaningless (to them) Selective Service number, why not also give all 18-year-old men and women information on the five branches of the armed forces, along with the option to serve a year or more in a civilian service program? National service, while not legally mandatory, would be socially expected.

The service movement has always had an element of nostalgia for the shared, unifying burdens of World War II, America’s epic of citizenship. In his slim, weighty volume, “Gratitude,” William F. Buckley recalled how his war experience has been a reminder of the “pulsation of consanguinity” that united the “Laramie cowboy” and the “Litterateur in Greenwich Village.” National service, he argued, can “ever so slightly elevate us from the trough of self-concern and self-devotion.”

This nostalgia is rooted in a deeper insight about self-government. Alexis de Tocqueville warned that a rights-based democracy has a natural tendency toward individualism — “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”

The natural centrifugal forces of democracy have been augmented by geographical mobility and technologies that allow for the complete customization of little societies.

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purposes.

The opposition of some conservatives to national service is predictable. Buckley faced critics who dismissed his proposal as “induced gratitude.” To which he responded that all gratitude is induced, or at least taught, given the “disposition of modern man to take for granted everything he enjoys.”

Conservatives, on the contrary, should be attracted to the devolution of responsibilities beyond government entirely, to citizens themselves. It was, after all, Gov. Ronald Reagan who founded the California Conservation Corps, which trained and inspired young people under the motto: “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions.”

This is a strange moment in the conservative movement. Following a period of governmental overreach, a Jefferson-Jackson corrective is predictable and necessary. But a tone of anger and paranoia is discrediting. Future generations will struggle to explain the conservative elements that praised Edward Snowden, apparently granted on the theory that the enemy of my government is my friend.

The conservative instinct — and America’s shared republican tradition — heads in a different direction, toward gratitude for our patrimony and affection for our traditions and institutions, expressed in service to the country and to one another.

We honor and cultivate such responsible citizenship because it makes our country, in Buckley’s words, “safer, lovelier, and more precious.”

And because it strengthens something valuable and unavoidably national: our national character.

Contact the writer: michaelgerson@washpost.com

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