Paul Andersen: Reunite America through national service
The first time I had meaningful contact with a Black person was in a factory on the North Side of Chicago. I was 21 and worked alongside Gerry, a middle-aged man from the inner city. Together, we performed the most brain-numbing work imaginable.
Our job was to measure the tolerance of plastic-molded gear shafts by slipping each one through fixed calipers. We sat on metal stools at a steel counter with a large cardboard box on the floor between us filled to the top with thousands of small, plastic worm gears.
For eight hours a day, we methodically plucked individual gears from the box and either kept or discarded them according to the tolerance of the calipers. We had to keep each other company so as not go stark, raving mad.
Gerry and I developed a friendly banter that got us through the tedium, and we did it together. Eventually, we shared our personal lives and even our lunches. We talked about our dreams. We laughed. We commiserated. We became friends.
Working side-by-side with someone different than you is a great way to normalize and equalize. Over time, differences vanish. What emerges is our shared humanity. Working together for common goals makes for common purpose and a common bond.
Compulsory national service could help heal the rifts dividing America today and bring peace to that “uncivil war” Joe Biden described in his inaugural address. National service could provide an antidote to the isolation of factions and help break down the many barriers between social strata that have alienated the American people into hostile camps.
Having just emerged from four years of American carnage, we all know how badly division damages the collective national psyche. The value of unity is a centerpiece of the Biden administration and a foundational requirement for the civility necessary to a functional democracy.
Thought- and text-based seminars, like those offered at the Aspen Institute, could help bridge the divide between political leaders and policymakers, but a purely intellectual dialogue on the ideological workings of government and society can only reach so many.
The divide we face in the US is far more emotional than intellectual in forming the cultural and societal realities of most Americans, so the normalizing role of national service seems essential to providing common ground to ensure our future as a truly democratic nation.
Reflecting on my own varied work experiences, each of which broke through ethnic and racial divisions, hard labor is the most effective bonding modality. Hard work imbues the values I learned as a member of a tree-removal crew in suburban Chicago where I worked with all breeds of men.
Sweating and toiling together in the heat of summer or the cold of winter stripped us of superficial identities and joined us in mutuality. We weren’t always friends, but we respected each other for simply enduring.
Respect was earned, not by entitlement or the color of one’s skin or the level of one’s education. Respect came with the humility necessary for carrying heavy logs and dragging brush together. We shared pride in doing a very tough job through teamwork.
National service could bring together people from every race, ideology, background, income bracket and gender to work as teammates on common goals and achievements. Only then can we meet as humans, not as labels or stereotypes. Such a program could be modeled on military service, which is the most integrated of our American institutions.
National service would link people together through meaningful work that this country needs — road and bridge projects, trail building, farming, constructing shelters, conservation work — the list is endless, and so is the labor pool.
Taking national service local, the benefits of mutual labor can apply right now to neighborhoods. Fixing a road, clearing a fallen tree, clearing snow, helping with meals if someone is sick, and all ways of giving and receiving, can bring us together.
Americans will still disagree about politics, but that becomes secondary to living together respectfully as human beings. Working together means reaching out in good faith for a collective momentum that could pave a road to the unity we so desperately need.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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