Community Service - A Treatise

As seen in the Oregon Daily Emerald!

It was a warm evening in May, and I along with some 8000 other people were standing in the quad listening to Barack Obama talk about his vision of the future of America.

He told us that, if elected, he would make it easier than ever for young Americans to go to college, and we all cheered.

He told us that, if elected, he would implement a federal tuition credit program in order to bring down the cost of a college education, and we all cheered.

He told us that in return, we, the youth of America, would repay our country with community service, and the crowd cheered, and I said, “Um, wait – what?”

I’ve always had something of an aversion to community service. Community service was not a graduation requirement at my high school, and the only reason I didn’t join the National Honor Society was because I didn’t want to do the 40 community service hours that were a membership requirement. My logic was that if I wanted to do community service I’d at least commit a misdemeanor first so I could get some fun out of it. Growing up in Salem, I felt that as soon as my community was willing to serve me with effective public transportation, better urban planning, and a branch library that was even reasonably close to my house, I’d be willing to serve it right back. That day never came, however, and thus I logged exactly no hours of community service.

I had never felt bad about ducking my civic duties before Obama came to town. President Bush clearly did not want or need the help of the American public (as indicated by his unwillingness to consult us on matters of domestic wiretapping or FEMA appointees) and I didn’t want to give it to him. My friends who did community service didn’t seem to be gaining any enlightenment from their work, so I didn’t give the matter much thought and instead spent my spare time surfing the Internet and complaining about the sorry state of my surroundings. If angst was a form of community service, I’m sure I would have qualified for a Nobel Prize.

What I realized after the rally, however, was that by griping about what was wrong with the country without doing anything to change it I was just about as bad as the people who complain about the president but never vote. America has its flaws, yes, but I think we can all agree once you forget about the Electoral College and Kid Rock that we live in a really great place. Yes, my community failed to provide me with adequate public transportation or easy access to a library, but it did give me safety, electricity, and 12 years of public education (whether I wanted it at the time or not), and since I wasn’t paying taxes for most of those years, the least I could’ve done was contributed a little elbow grease to keep the place tidy while I was living there.

Do you know how easy it is to live in America? In Austria, South Korea, and Israel, military service is mandatory for the majority of the population. For the very right to live in the country, tens of thousands of people enter military training and leave their families for anywhere from months to years. At the age of 18, Austrian men must serve six months in a branch of the military; conscientious objectors must spend nine months as part of a civilian service work crew. South Korean men are required to spend up to two years as a soldier. And in Israel, men and women alike must serve for three or two years, respectively. Even after their time in the service, Israeli men are required to remain in the reserve program, serving for a few weeks every year until they’re in their mid forties. And in America, people bitch about jury duty. Our country asks so little of us that spending a few hours volunteering to improve your surroundings really doesn’t seem like much trouble at all when compared to boot camp.

It’s important now that we start pulling our own weight – and not because President Obama wants us to, but because it’s what we should have been doing all along. We’ve got to start taking better care of our parks and roads and playgrounds; these are things that our community has given us, and we since can’t expect them to give us new ones right away our best bet is to keep what we’ve got in good working order. Sure, the current mood in the White House seems to be one of change, but if the piles of trash the inauguration crowd left behind are any indicator, the rest of the country seems to think that, having elected The Reformer, their job is done and they can return to their Doritos and American Idol.

Hopefully Obama will do what we put him in office to do, but for it to work – and for it to keep working with the next president, regardless of his or her party – we’ve got to start taking pride in our country, and not just with patriotic bumper stickers. We’ve got to clean this place up like we’ve got company coming over. Oh, there’ll be a time for Doritos and American Idol, but we’ll have to earn it first.