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The paranoid style

Who could possibly be "against" community service? Guess.

The natural temptation, at the moment, is to focus on the hot-button issue du jour, and that would be the Obama regime's current struggle to craft an appropriate legal response to the Bush regime's adoption of the abusive torture practices employed in the early '50s by the Chinese communists and later by Pol Pot in Cambodia.

But such a focus would inevitably stir the partisan juices, and I'm feeling rather bipartisan this morning. In that spirit, I'm more interested in the historic bipartisan bill that President Obama signed into law yesterday. The newly-renamed Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act is surely too tame to roil the usual passions, but that's part of its appeal. Who, after all, could be "against" the concept of drawing more young people into community service, with the aim of improving the quality of America's civic life? (Read on.)

This law - which whisked through both congressional chambers in a mere three weeks, with more than half of the Republican senators voting Yes on March 26 - will entice kids to pitch in as volunteers, and in return they'll get some modest federal help with the cost of their college educations. Obama had talked about national volunteer service during his '08 campaign, but it was hardly a new idea, nor a Democratic one; some Republicans, notably John McCain, have been taking about it for years, and McCain was one of the 21 GOP senators who voted Yes.

The new volunteers will (among many other things) assist homeless military vets, tutor poor children in math and English, help restore parkland, build low-income housing, retrofit energy-inefficient homes, and aid communities stricken by natural disasters. Some of these projects will be new. Others will be handled by a much-expanded AmeriCorp, the government service program that is now expected to triple its roster of volunteers over the next eight years. And one of the big overall aims is to help assist the beleaguered non-profit community groups that have taken a heavy hit during this recession. This new federal law will cost $1 billion a year, which might sound like a lot...until you remember that we spend that much every three days in Iraq.

The Corporation for National and Community Service - which oversees AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and other government volunteer programs - is purposely set up as a bipartisan operation. Its board of directors is bipartisan. Maria Eitel, the incoming CEO nominated by Obama, worked in the first George Bush administration. The current vice chairman, Stephen Goldsmith, was George W. Bush's chief domestic policy advisor during the 2000 campaign and later served in the White House as an advisor on faith-based service programs.

This bipartisan spirit hardly seems surprising; after all, how could anyone possibly perceive evil partisan intent in a law that, upon passage, was praised by veterans groups, senior groups, literacy groups, and 9/11 survivor groups (the latter, because Sept. 11 has now been officially designated as a National Day of Service)? There's no way that anyone could be "against" the concept of encouraging community service, right?

Wrong. Not even this law gets a pass from the paranoid right.

The late Richard Hofstadter, one of our great political thinkers, wrote 45 years ago that our political discourse is often marred by what he called "the paranoid style," typically employed by "dispossessed" people who feel marginalized by events, and who therefore traffic in "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasies." Case in point, the reaction to this national service initiative.

For weeks this spring, there was hysteria about Obama's purported plans to "enslave" young people with compulsory national service. In some right-wing quarters, the measure was nicknamed the "National Enslavement Bill." But, as Hofstadter might have put it, this was merely one of the fantasies, concocted and nurtured from long-discarded House language. When the bill was initially introduced in the House, it had a suggestion about studying "whether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed." But that suggestion was stripped out long before the House passed the bill, and it never surfaced in the Senate at all.
Meanwhile, the paranoids have never quite made up their minds whether the service initiative is fascist or communist, so they've invoked both. There has been blogosphere buzz about brownshirts and "forced labor," and it has been pointed out that the color scheme on the AmeriCorps home page (red, black, and white) is the same color scheme as the infamous Nazi flag. But we also have Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (she was bound to turn up) contending that the law is basically designed to brainwash the kids, by establishing what she calls "re-education camps for young people" - thus borrowing the terminology most closely associated with Vietnamese communists.

The "re-education" line appears to have been inspired by the law's reference to "service learning." Indeed, there's a provision stating that, under some circumstances and in some programs, "service learning" curricula should be introduced in participating secondary schools. Scared yet?

But here's how "service learning" is defined in Part I, Section 112 of the new law: "promote a better understanding of (A) the principles of the Constitution, the heroes of American history (including military heroes), and the meaning of the oath of allegiance; (B) how the nation's government functions; (C) the importance of service in the nation's character."

If it's "leftist" or "facist" to reestablish civics in the schools, and to perhaps teach young people some patriotic stuff that they can't find on their iPods, then the bipartisan architects of this law would surely be happy to plead guilty.

But see what's happened? I tried to bring up a benign issue, something impervious to the passions of the moment; indeed, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a key co-sponsor of the volunteer service initiative, has called it "probably the most bipartisan bill we will see on the Senate floor this year." But given the impulses of the paranoid stylists, we know of course that no topic is safe anymore.