WASHINGTON – I wanted to do something for my country during the holidays, so I went to the movies.
I watched the Christmas Day opening of “The Interview,” to show North Korea that I wasn’t afraid of its threats to blow up theaters that screen the parody of Kim Jong Un. The $9.50 I paid in the name of patriotic pride bought me stadium seating, a preview of the coming feature “Hot Tub Time Machine 2,” and a feature film full of jokes about rectums, sex organs, ricin and the supreme leader defecating in his pants. Except for the Asian stereotypes, it was just my speed. Still, I wondered if there isn’t a better way to sacrifice for my country.
My patriotic gesture was a form of Slacktivism – a uniquely American form of engagement in which statements are made without any real sacrifice.
The Slacktivist gets icy water over the head to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease, or tweets out hashtags to fight kidnapping in Nigeria (#BringBackOurGirls). The Slacktivist wears color-coded bracelets for causes, “likes” causes on Facebook – and goes to see a Seth Rogen film to defy North Korea.
This can be traced back to September 2001, when President George W. Bush launched wars without calling for sacrifice from Americans – other than to spend money.
“Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots,” he said. “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” He also asked Americans to “hug your children” and to pray for those in uniform.
But hugging children isn’t a sacrifice. The problem is that the nation’s wars have been detached from any notion of sacrifice for the country – except for the fewer than 1 percent of Americans who serve in the military.
In mid-December, the National Conference on Citizenship released its annual “civic health indicators” (volunteer work, contact with friends and family, confidence in institutions) and found a “broad decline” in 16 of 20 areas. The study was backed by the Census Bureau and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Similarly, Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that volunteering in 2013 was at the lowest percentage (25.4 percent) since the government started counting in 2002.
The cause of this is fairly clear: Americans are not being asked to serve their country.
With the passing of the World War II generation, veterans are just 7 percent of the population, roughly half of what they were in 1970. Fewer than 20 percent of incoming members of Congress served in the military; in the 1970s, more than 70 percent had served.
John Bridgeland, who worked on national-service initiatives in the Bush White House, sees the decline of military service as the cause of Washington’s problems.
“The World War II generation that served together had higher levels of charitable contributions, volunteering, voting, social trust, trust in one another,” he told me. “Even the gap between rich and poor was at its lowest levels.”
Bridgeland’s solution, joined by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is to expand national service – military and other forms – to 1 million 18- to 29-year-olds each year, up from the current 100,000.
While far from mandatory national service, this would be enough to create a social expectation that each 18-year-old would either join the military or spend a “service year” after high school earning a stipend serving in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and the like. They figure it would cost about $10 billion in taxpayer money and another $10 billion in private funds.
“In the World War II generation, people felt like happiness wasn’t some individual right but something we helped one another achieve,” Bridgeland says. “We’re trying to rescue that notion for a generation that’s lost its way.”
McChrystal and Bridgeland, who work on the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project, have a difficult sales job ahead of them. Bush expanded the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps after 9/11, but most service programs have been frozen or cut in recent years, as Congress refuses President Barack Obama’s requests for them.
But there’s hope in the form of the would-be presidential and vice presidential candidates.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and Rob Portman have all expressed interest in the issue.
This raises the hopeful possibility that national service could return to the agenda – and that a generation of Americans might be able to do something for their country other than pay $9.50 to hear crude jokes.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.