Thursday, November 13, 2008

National service and propaganda

Michele Catalano wrote an article today defending Barack Obama's national service goals. Catalano's basic argument is that Obama just wants Americans to be nice to each other for once. For example, Catalano writes
There are thousands upon thousands of high school and college students, as well as adults, doing some form of community service right now. Service to your community is an altruistic thing; it is a way of perhaps giving back to a community that has given to you. It is a way to reach out to a community, to help others who may not be as fortunate as you, to teach young adults about sharing, caring, and helping others, to do something out of the goodness of your heart that will benefit your community. This is not slavery. This is not forced labor. This is outreach. It represents values. Slavery is an act that benefits no one but the person who owns the slave; community service benefits both the giver and receiver and helps make the world a better place and leaves a general good feeling for everyone involved. It is not comparable to slavery.
Well, yes, voluntary community service is most certainly of social benefit to a nation. The point that Catalano seems to overlook is that voluntary community service can also play a powerful political role in a nation as well. Purely as an illustration of my point, consider a small part of what Michael Burleigh has written about the Nazi charities in "The Third Reich: A New History":
The Nazis sought to rectify these failings [of the Weimar Republic's welfare system] by replacing faceless and obtuse bureaucracy with remoreseless activism, and by fusing charity and welfare. Calling the resulting arrangements an aberrant apotheosis of the welfare state, or a 'racial welfare state', does not quite do justice to the subtlety of Nazi arrangements. Mass voluntarism demonstrated the national commnuity in action, while enabling the government to divert public resources to ends other than welfare.
This isn't to suggest that Obama wants to create a Nazi-style welfare establishment. This is to suggest that charitable giving and voluntary community service, as such, is not a bad thing, but that government-sponsored charity and community service can be used as a propaganda tool by unscrupulous politicians. Catalano's own article betrays Obama's propaganda game in this regard. Catalano writes that:
Obama would encourage a goal of 50 hours of community service for high school students. That’s 50 hours over the course of a year, hours that could be spent cleaning up a park, reading to the elderly, working in a soup kitchen, assisting developmentally disabled children, delivering meals, collecting clothing for shelters, or working with local community programs like Kiwanis. There are myriad ways in which the youth of America can get involved with their surrounding communities, providing a give and take that benefits both the student and the community at large.
Notice the conception of community service as primarily labor-intensive instead of intellectual work. Community service is here conceived as sacrifice instead of "selfishness", labor-intensive work instead of intellectual work, and above all action instead of thought. These are the undeniable hallmarks of propaganda, and in Obama's case, I'm pretty sure this won't end up being conservative propaganda.

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