Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nervous about "service"

Michelle Obama urged her young audience at something called the Florida Campus Compact Awards Gala at something called the Freedom Tower — such grandiloquent names usually promise trouble — to dedicate their lives to "service." (Tip of the hat to American Thinker.)

Mme. Obama had a lot to say about being committed to "service-mindedness."

But first, she said this: "And I also want to thank someone who I got to party with on Tuesday -- (laughter) -- and I think you exaggerate by saying we could win any salsa contest." And this: "I want to recognize the superwoman at my table, Dee Dee Rasmussen, your Executive Director -- (applause). I learned a lot about all her good crazy [
sic], because in addition to running this organization, she is raising three kids on her own."

Am I a hidebound stick in the mud for cringing at the wife of the president of the United States talking about herself "partying" and "win[ning] any salsa contest?" Am I nitpicking about that ungrammatical "her good crazy"? Perhaps a transcriber made an error, but does the White House not have anyone on board who reads these speeches before they're published on the official web site?

Let us leave that, however, and get to her First Ladyship's message.
Whether the issues are climate change, or keeping our communities safe, to providing desperately needed health care in underserved communities and desperately needed teachers in underperforming schools, these issues are critical. … So young people are volunteering through their schools, and their churches, their synagogues, and their mosques. They are concerned about the environmental implications and the ethical implications of the products they buy and the lifestyle they're -- lead. These young people are thinking about the world, and there's a growing sense among this next generation that maybe service is a little cool -- and that's okay.
Am I a hidebound stick in the mud for cringing at the wife of the president of the United States saying "maybe service is a little cool" — uh, never mind. She continues:
But the question is, how do we harness all that energy and all that excitement? How do we show these young people that service can be more than just something that you do once in a while, that it can be more than just something that you do for a year or two after you graduate, but service can be a way of life, it can even be a career? How do we contend with the traditional definitions of what success should look like, those beliefs that still hold sway over so many young people -– the idea that success means money, or power, or prestige, and that it comes with a nice house and a fancy car? How do we counter those voices that tell them, "Well, if you don't get paid a lot money for what you do, then maybe what you do really isn't that valuable." Or voices that say, "Well, that's awfully nice that you want to do service, but when are you going to get a real job?" (Applause.)
I was not invited to deliver an address in the Freedom Tower party central, even though I would willingly have touched on the subject that so moved Mme. Obama. It's understandable. Time is short, climate change is long. Had I been invited to supply a few words to American's young gung-ho volunteers, I might have said something like this:

"Service. It is a beautiful concept. Something — call it a spiritual impulse, or conscience, or just rational self-interest — tells me that we are not put on this earth to be masters, but to be servants. Not servants of the powerful, but servants to our fellow creatures, including the least of our brothers and sisters.

"So I applaud your ambition to be of service. I would only ask that you think a little more deeply than you already have about what service actually means.


"The first thing you might consider is the results of the service you want to accomplish. Not just the immediate results, but the big-picture, long-term results. When you help rescue people from conditions brought about by their own folly, negligence, or stupidity, it can feel good. They're not necessarily bad people. They may not thank you, may take your 'service' for granted, but still — you're helping, and you say you don't expect gratitude, which if true (don't kid yourself, please) is virtuous.

"But if you help those who do not help themselves, you are keeping in motion a vicious cycle. It's what economists call 'moral hazard.' You are encouraging dysfunctional behavior by demonstrating that it has no negative consequences, that someone will always be there to rescue the irresponsible from themselves. Not only are you denying the objects of your service the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, but you are placing an added burden on society as a whole, which is where the cost lands. People who have behaved responsibly end up paying for relief of those who haven't.


"Michelle Obama wonders, 'How do we contend with the traditional definitions of what success should look like, those beliefs that still hold sway over so many young people -– the idea that success means money, or power, or prestige, and that it comes with a nice house and a fancy car?'

"I'm not telling you that you should measure your success or worth only by the money you make, or prestige, or power. I will say, though, that at your time of life, it is a good idea for you to work at a job where you make a good income. Skip the prestige and power if you like, but make money.


"How can I say something so crass? Well, it's like this: when someone is paying you to do a job — unless you work for a government — that is an objective sign that you are doing something valuable for one or (more likely) several people in an organization. Those in positions above yours have judged you in unsentimental, even ruthless, terms and decided you are worth your title and reward.

"You are earning a salary, not feeding off a grant. These days, a grant means nothing about your abilities. It only reflects that you or someone you are affiliated with meets political criteria or is of the 'correct' ethnicity. But earning means you are
competent at something. Don't underestimate how much that affects how you feel about yourself. You know you are respected for accomplishment, not for holding the right political attitudes, saying the right words.

"Besides, being in a position where you have to earn your keep teaches you things you need to know if you are to 'serve' successfully. Those things may not be what you imagine. You learn that just because you say something, people don't have to accept it. You learn about compromise, tact, different kinds of people. You develop the ability, and come to understand the importance, of 'selling' your ideas, not just proclaiming them. Eventually, you get it that others as well as yourself have something to offer, and it might come from longer experience than your own.


"Michelle, with all the respect she is due, wants you to feel pride in 'serving,' being a volunteer and so on. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins for a good reason. Pride and honest service are ever at war.

"Her implication is that you are a step or two closer to sainthood than those slugs who work at 'real' jobs. Their object is, ugh, money. Well, listen up. Only a society that makes money can afford to help unfortunates. It takes surplus wealth to do good effectively. There are many countries that have few economic strivers, captains of industry, capitalist pigs. By and large, they are the countries that depend for their very survival, year after year, on aid from countries run on the system you are taught to despise.

"If you would serve, then paradoxically, I recommend you ignore charity organizations for now. Make money. Try to afford a decent house and a decent neighborhood to live in. You'll be serving your family, and even if you have none, you will be a better person for knowing you're financially independent. Most of all, you'll develop skills and experience that will help you help others in the future, which you can't do until your own feet are on the ground.


"At some point, you can begin to wisely integrate social service into your career. Eventually, maybe you'll want to give up your job and 'practical' work, becoming truly humble and monastic, as people are urged to do in the final stage of life in Hinduism, and live to serve others.

"If you are very lucky, you will by then know what service is actually all about. It starts with a climate change in your soul."



David said...

The whole "service" (ususally stated as "public service") refrain is getting very old.

If you are a farmer growing crops, or a railword worker hauling them to market, you are not defined as engaging in "public service." But if you work for a "nonprofit," writing useless studies about agriculture or transportation, why then you are a noble individual who has devoted his life to public service.

Anonymous said...

What exact act of service has Michelle and Obama done?

Sheila said...

Excellent rebuttal to the Wookie. I'm so tired of this promotion of "public service" as the highest possible good. Who exactly invested the term "public" with all these wonderful, generous qualities? I like private businesses and private attitudes and private lives. I can't think of anything public that I actually admire. Far too many private schools are jumping on this same bandwagon, demanding their students perform some sort of officially sanctioned "service" as a graduation requirement. Newsflash, folks, if it's mandatory, it's not really "service" and it's not motivated by personal humility or charity. Have pride in your individual accomplishments, not your title or your supposedly superior social principles. Help those who are willing to help themselves. Otherwise, keep yourself out of other people's business and more importantly, out of their lives!!

Rick Darby said...


Nonprofits act like agencies of government, even when they're not (officially). Lots of conferences attended, reports written, nest feathering.


I must admit to being puzzled about why the Obamas have gone so hog wild about public service. It doesn't seem to fit with their overall stance of "if it's a problem, government is the answer."

Still, the kind of service they envision isn't much about empowering individuals, but rather emphasizing group values and organizational action.


"The Wookie"! That's funny!

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, which I agree with.

David said...

Rick...there is a great UK term for a big category of nonprofits: QUANGO, which I think stands for QUasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization.

The first time I saw the word QUANGO, even before I knew what it stood for, I knew it had to be some kind of awful entangled mess.

MnMark said...

I'm going to be cynical here. As a former 20-something enivronmentalist activist type, my take is that deep down, the type of young people who are all worked up about "service" are people who don't really know what to do with themselves and can't think of a job they want to work at. So they figure, at a semi-unconscious level, that if they go hang out doing some "service", it will provide them a lot more freedom and burden them with a lot fewer expectations than working as an employee at a paying job. It gives them something to tell their friends and their parents and their Uncle Bill when they ask what they plan to do with themselves. "I'm doing service work with the organization. It lets me 'give something back' and work for peace and social justice." (Cue Uncle Bill's eye rolling.)

That gives them several more years to bum around after getting their B.A. in sociology and political science.

Rick Darby said...


Just as a word, I love "Quango." It's fun to say.


I know what you mean. In Berkeley in 1970, I was part of something called the Berkeley Ecology Center. No money, but a heady sense of mission. And it gave me the warm glow of belonging, and being a missionary to the heathen world.

One clear memory from my "service" at the Ecology Center remains with me. (Well, two actually, but as a gentleman I won't say anything about the other.) I wrote an article about a proposed nationwide plan for ecologically aware garbage disposal or something, including the words: "Funds comparable to those that enabled the moon landing will be needed."

When you're un-gainfully employed and barely keeping body and soul together, it's a kick to dream of spending billions of dollars of other people's money.

MnMark said...


That's funny. That government funding is so tantalizing - potentially MASSIVE amounts of money can be had if you can convince some congressmen to send it your way. And it costs them nothing to do it. SO much easier than actually going around trying to raise money through voluntary donations, where people are personally weighing the costs of the donation in terms of what they will be giving up if they give you the money. These progressive schemes would never have gotten anywhere without the massive amounts of government money.

Whenever it was back there in history where Congress started allocating money for such frippery, that was when the great slide downhill to economic disaster began. One exception was made, and it set the precedent. And now progressives can realistically imagine getting billions of dollars, extracted from taxpayer pockets - including, deliciously (from the progressives' perspective) the pockets of greedy stupid right-wing corporation-loving rednecks who never ever would have donated otherwise.

How could it ever have been thought 'sustainable' to set such a precedent?

Anonymous said...

That's funny. That government funding is so tantalizing - potentially MASSIVE amounts of money can be had if you can convince some congressmen to send it your way.

Funny indeed. There is now a whole industry devoted to writing up policy issues that tell parliamentarians how to spend money.

You set up an organistion at home. Call it something imposing and useful- 'Centre for Sustainable Water Usage' or something. Now you can charge $100,000 just for the policy paper.

If youve been reading EU Referendum, you will see how many such institutes, foundations, etc have been setup to cream off from the AGW scam - hundreds of billions via hiked up energy bills and CO2 levies on energy.

Rick Darby said...


You understand the reality. Lord, I never wanted to deal with this stuff; I'm unworldly, artistic. That doesn't absolve me from being a patriot when I'm called.

Keep telling the truth, in whatever way works best for you.


Thanks for another intelligent comment.

Are you British, as your spelling suggests?

Ice People said...

I cringed. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who did.

Rick Darby said...

Ice People,

We're here. You are not alone. Stand fast.

Anonymous said...


My spelling is not what it used to be, what with creeping dementia, and MS Word sowing doubt.