In which we get a wee bit political
LA Times columnist Rosa Brooks has penned an excellent piece calling for a universal public service program. “Why not call on every young American to spend a year or two serving our country?” she asks. She continues:
Some could serve in the military or in the Peace Corps; others could choose to
help with post-conflict reconstruction, teach in our schools, staff our public
health clinics or screen passengers at our airports. Universal national service would help us fill hard-to-fill jobs and create a culture in which service is the norm, not the exception. Just as important, a well-designed national service program also would help break down some of the barriers that keep us from a healthy and mutually respectful political discourse.
Participants should be given some choice of how they serve, but not much — and everyone should be required to go through several months of basic civil defense training. As in the military, participants shouldn't be able to choose where or with whom they would train — they should have to mix it up with people from other walks of life — and the training should be genuinely useful, focusing on the core practical skills every citizen ought to have: first aid training, emergency response and survival skills, for instance.
I’ve often thought such a program would be a boon to our democracy… and I’d take it even a step further. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of forcing people into national public service. Instead, I think we should make it an option and offer a reward. And the reward would be the ultimate prize in a democracy—the right to vote and to hold public office.
If I were Supreme Dictator for Life*, I’d set it up this way. There would be two basic legal classes in society—Residents and Citizens. Citizens would be people who complete, after successfully graduating high school or its equivalent, 18 months of national service, public or military. Residents would be people who choose not to go through with their national public service. Residents and Citizens would share equal rights under law, except that only Citizens would have earned the right to vote and hold public office.
To assure equal opportunity to anyone who wishes to participate in the national public service program and earn citizenship, assistance would be offered on sliding scale to those in material distress, who have family hardships, and so forth.
Participants would be fed and housed and offered a small stipend, and perhaps be offered savings accounts that they would be able to access later for higher education, should they choose to pursue it.
In the program, rich brats from places like Palo Alto might be sent into the inner cities and to poor rural areas to assist the needy, helping them understand that not all are as fortunate as they. Likewise, poor kids from the inner cities might be sent to places like the national parks to work in the sun and help them understand that there are other ways to live. People would be able to participate at any time in their lives in the event that they missed or passed up the chance to earn citizenship when they were young.
Citizens might also be granted the right to wear some symbol of their citizenship, such as a lapel pin or ribbon. Such a visual identifier would act as an added incentive.*Of course, if I were Supreme Dictator for Life, we wouldn’t need to do any of this, because everything would be perfect. Right? Right?