January 19, 2009
“On January 19th, Barack and I will join thousands of people across the country for an extraordinary day of service,” begins the e-mail from Michelle Obama. “Whatever service activity you organize or take part in — cleaning up a park, giving blood, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or mentoring at-risk youth — you can help start this important journey.” We’re likely to hear more calls to service under the Obama administration, a New Democratic plan for reviving America.
The Democrats have become just as adept at using message control as their Republican counterparts. This call to service is a warm-up for the call for “universal citizen service,” an idea laid out in The Plan, Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed’s blueprint for changing America. “Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service. They’ll be asked to report for basic civil defense training in their state or community, where they will learn what to do in the event of biochemical, nuclear, or conventional attack.” Not quite a draft, but the authors admit it will expose more young Americans to the prospect of military service, hopefully boosting enlistment.
More importantly, universal citizen service instills the fear of terrorist attacks into the minds of every young American, particularly those at an age where radicalism and the potential for change burn most strongly in our culture; absent a critical voice, the centrist political parties face little real opposition. The threat of terrorist attacks has been used by both parties to justify illegal spying, the attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other Middle Eastern countries, and the military build-up since the beginning of the Cold War. “The U.S. military is an extraordinary example of differences giving way to national purpose,” claim the authors, barely masking the neoconservative foreign affairs agenda underlying the New Democratic agenda.
The call to service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is stark evidence of the New Democrat’s cunning manipulation of the American narrative. Towards the end of his all-too-short life, King focused on the economic conditions of the poor and on American foreign affairs. Reflecting on the toll of Vietnam, King was “increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” Our current wars abroad and economic system attack the same segment of society – those below the Democratically-acceptable middle-class, largely non-white, and particularly those in poverty (including 20% of our nation’s children). “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King keenly articulated in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967. Our military budget will breach $1 trillion this year, the largest defense budget on record. Obama has given little indication of reducing the military budget, closing our 700 bases in over 100 countries, or quickly withdrawing American troops occupying foreign countries – all actions that would reduce the motivation of terrorist while freeing up funding for badly-needed social services. In 2009, the federal government will provide more money for nuclear weapons than our primary education system.
We’re asked to give our time in honor of an American Civil Rights leader while the incoming administration hands out billions to the corporate elite guiding our broken economic system. We’re asked to give blood while allowing for-profit entities to run our healthcare system. We’re asked to volunteer at a homeless shelter while Obama breaks his campaign pledge to repeal Bush’s obscene tax cuts for the wealthy. We’re asked to mentor at-risk youth while seeing no indication of the economic changes needed to address poverty.
The call to service provides a day for the liberal bourgeoisie to feint compassion while reinforcing their dominance. Our nation’s foreign affairs follow the same logic, offering help only when it serves our own interest. In typical American fashion, the day of service offers the most meagre assistance while giving the dominant classes the feeling of “giving back.” It is far more powerful to make changes that would allow others to stand on their own feet instead of offering a temporary hand.