Friday, June 28, 2013

Young People: You WILL Serve the State

President Cowen at the Aspen Institute Summit
As Tulane University President Scott Cowen enters his last year before retirement, I want to acknowledge his contributions to the university. President Cowen is a talented and charismatic individual who has worked tirelessly for the institution he has headed since 1999. Although Tulane's recovery from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina owed as much to its faculty and staff as to any administrator, President Cowen did play an important part in this recovery. My appreciation for President Cowen's work and my respect for him personally, though, do not imply agreement with all of his projects and initiatives. Among these, probably the one I disagree with most profoundly and intensely is his support for universal national service.

The university's public relations outlets are trumpeting President Cowen's participation in the 21st Century National Service Summit at Aspen, Colorado. Along with other public figures, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, he is discussing the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project to establish a plan of action to create a national service program.  This plan aims to "link military and civilian service as two sides of one coin." It will do this by establishing five full-time national service corps. All young adults (aged 18 to 28) will be encouraged to serve at least a year in one of these corps, or in the military. The idea is to mobilize the citizenry in a unified (and regimented) system, directed by government in collaboration with educational institutions and other organizations, aimed at training people as citizens. They propose to establish this nation-wide system of regimentation through a Presidential Executive Order.

I find this a nightmarishly authoritarian image of the American future. The President will issue commands to redesign American society through a massive campaign of mobilization. Government will not be the product of freely associating citizens. Instead, government officials will organize and direct the civic training of individuals organized into corps established on the mandate of The Leader. Now, I'm not one of those accuses everyone he disagrees with of being a "fascist," but if there is any seriously considered public agenda in the United States today that comes closer to genuine fascism than the Franklin Project I haven't heard of it.

No one has to ask my permission to advocate any sort of policies. If President Cowen supports the top-down regimentation of American society,  he has every right to say so. But I do think that he should be clearer that this is only his personal view, not the official stand of his institution. On this issue, he definitely cannot speak on my behalf.

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