A quick detour from Private Equity, if you'll indulge me (I'll be back on the PE train later in the week with a post on out-years risk).
In college, I won a roshambo to attend a cocktail party honoring William F Buckley. Time with Bill was always part symposium on the evils of statism, part english lesson, and part comedy hour. We kiddos around the room may not have agreed with all (or, in some cases, much) of what Bill said that evening, but we could all agree that WFB was a renaissance man and a gentleman.
Anyhow, Bill had just published a book on the topic of mandatory national service, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. His call to service was based not only on a sense of responsibility, a sense of duty, but also on a belief in the soul-nourishing benefits of contributing to something larger: "Materialistic democracy
beckons every man to make himself a king; republican
citizenship incites every man to be a knight." Service to
one's society summons forth "the better angels within our
nature." (quotes cribbed from Ted Sorensen's NY Times review).
WFB believed that a mandatory year of service would help shape a national ethos, a sense of solidarity, an appreciation of common cause, an affirmation of civic pride; service was about community.
Yet in the two decades since the book's publication, society has become much more disparate and far-flung. For many today, "community" comprises a hodge-podge of fellow-travelers in the digital ether; some spend too much time on their "social networks" that they ignore the old-school social network: those who live around them, in their neighborhood, their city, their state. Sure, virtual communities are communities of interest, but your IRL (ahem, In Real Life) community really needs you to help make things better. That's why I'm so supportive of President (elect) Obama's USA Service Initiative (and here). Who knew that WFB and BHO who be so sympatico? I'd love to see the idea of service made compulsory.
Serving together, working shoulder to shoulder with a fellow countryman, this is the essence of citizenship; it's intimate, it's loving. Service and love are inseparable and they're part of the Promise of America. As always, Whitman nailed it:
COME, I will make the continent indissoluble;
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon;
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of
America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other's
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
For you these, from me, O Democracy, to serve you, ma femme!
For you! for you, I am trilling these songs,
In the love of comrades,
In the high-towering love of comrades.
And you call ME a Marxist?
Nicely done, though, Guv, seriously — I am proud to call you my comrade. And the more you get on the Barack train, the more I heart you.
But my favorite Buckley line remains: “Waiter, bring me a bottle of wine before I absolutely die!” I only wish that, like you, I could have heard that one IRL!
Well, Walt Whitman’s poetry was anti-slavery, even though his politics was not really abolitionist. See:
However, I doubt that he would like to be used as support for the re-introduction of “mandatory servitude”. (Sigh) The fact that this is being discussed openly makes me glad that I am not young any more.
Chris – great post. In many ways I felt W missed a great opportunity after 9/11 but not using that crisis as a way to galvanize young people into serving the country. He wanted us to “shop” but I would rather he encouraged us to “serve”. There is probably nothing more fulfilling in life than to serve others – keeping with your lyrical references, how about Milton: “They also serve those who stand and wait”
noble knights were often enforcers, for eg, Colombian coke cartels. wouldn’t Buckley have chosen a better historical “role model”?
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