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Universal Service?

By Benjamin J. Samuels

Each year on Memorial Day, the superzip—upper-income ZIP code—city of Newton, Massachusetts, a city comprised of 13 villages, holds its annual Memorial Day parade.  Despite the fact that Newton City Hall resides in tony Newton Centre, the parade routes through Newton’s middle class Nonantum neighborhood, literally and somewhat figuratively located on the other side of the Pike.  Having just read Charles Murray’s new study of so-called “White America” since 1963, I quizzically thought about the geographical placement of the parade in light of Murray’s critique of contemporary values held by two increasingly distant classes of Americans: elites and workers.

To me, Memorial Day represents not a day off from work but an affirmation of the values and vision that have made our nation great, by honoring those in the U.S. Armed Forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of what Murray calls the “American Project.”  I attend Newton’s Memorial Day parade almost yearly and have been consistently disappointed by the turnout.  Old-fashioned fire trucks, convertibles filled with aging, proud veterans, floats aflutter with American flags, and marching bands playing traditional American classics travel down traffic-cleared roads with few sidewalk observers in sight.  For some reason, working-class, principally Italian and Catholic Nonantum turns out more parade observers than Newton’s more upper-crust villages.  Does Nonantum send more of its sons and daughters to the military?

For me, Nonantum challenges Murray’s generalizations.  Working-class Newtonians hold fast to patriotic values such as loyalty, sacrifice, and honor.  Murray presumably would counter that Nonantum is squarely middle class—the American majority that his book, surprisingly, ignores.

Recent studies indicate, Murray contends, that that core American values are on the wane in working-class America and holding steady in elite enclaves.  He says a higher incidence of commitment to family and partnered child-rearing through stable marriage, personal integrity and honest business practices, industriousness, and religiosity can be found among well-paid, college-educated elites than among working-class whites.  Loyalty, sacrifice, and honor in the most meaningful ways are no longer the hallmarks of a significant percentage of the broad American population.  While differences in economic station, education, and job opportunities are certainly to blame, for Murray, the changes and their remedies are not about economics or race (the focus of the study is whites) but about class, values, and culture.  If core American values continue to weaken, the center will not hold and our society will come apart.

In Coming Apart, Murray styles himself a biblical prophet, foreseeing doom as a consequence of broken covenants while holding out a modicum of hope if the elites assume their responsibility to lead the nation back to core values through education and continued reform of welfare and entitlement programs; and if they avoid adopting the failing European model of government-subsidized lives of leisure or allowing the hollowing-out of elite America through imitation of the disintegrated value system of the working class.  Murray disavows economic solutions such as income redistribution, higher taxation of the elites, and entitlement programs, which, he says, disincentivize the elites and make the working class increasingly dependent.  Instead, he turns to an inchoate vision of re-educating the American public as to what is essential for success in life, both personally and nationally.  On the one hand, Murray decries the lack of judgmentalism by elites toward the working class: Elites, he thinks, are particularly suited to serve as the moral conscience of the nation, since they have achieved the winning formula for success in life; the problem is that they have abdicated their duty of advocacy, preferring the more politically correct noncommittal positions of ecumenism and intellectual pluralism.  At the same time, however, Murray is an avowed libertarian, believing in the art of moral suasion but not in government-regulated social fixes.

I share Murray’s concern about the integrity of the core values of marriage, honesty, industriousness, and religiosity, while affirming our belief in a country that separates Church and State and upholds individual liberty.  However, I would recommend a different solution from Murray’s to the question of how best to confront the challenges facing America and our growing class divisions.  I believe there should be a return of the draft, not just for military service but for national service. 

A draft, first of all, would allow the intermingling of classes during the most formative years of emerging adulthood.  Being part of a national work force would forge a new national allegiance and foster proud camaraderie.  Second, induction into a military or national service program would not only create opportunity to repair our nation’s aging physical infrastructure but allow us to teach a new generation discipline, cooperation, industriousness, work skills, and social awareness.  Third, conscripted young adults would be able to earn money to pay for furthering their education through an updated version of the GI Bill.  Students who have spent two years after high school working for the common weal of the nation would enter college more mature, self-reliant, and hardworking, eager to succeed at their studies and begin their lives.  

Finally, such a program would create an opportunity for discovery and self-discovery for the most talented Americans, especially those who would emerge from the lower classes to which they were born.  While the elites would understandably resist being forced into such a program, since in their minds they already possess the benefits described above, it would be essential for compulsory conscription to be universal if the program’s goals are to be attained.

There are still other arguments that can and should be made in favor of universal, mandatory conscription of America’s youth to meet the increasing challenges that face not only white America but African-American, Latino, and other ethnic minorities.  If such an approach is  ever adopted, Memorial Day, like the Fourth of July, will regain its national significance as a day that celebrates and memorializes loyalty, sacrifice, and honor, as displayed by every citizen who will be a builder of a better America.

Benjamin J. Samuels is Rabbi of Congregation Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, Massachusetts.