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Gratitude: What We Owe to Our Country

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Reflections on service and citizenship

Editor’s Note: The following essay by National Review founder William F. Buckley comes from the first chapter of his 1990 book, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country.

I have always thought Anatole France’s story of the juggler to be one of enduring moral resonance. This is the arresting and affecting tale of the young monk who aspires to express his devotion to the Virgin Mary, having dejectedly reviewed, during his first week as a postulant at the monastery alongside Our Lady of Sorrows, the prodigies and gifts of his fellow monks. Oh, some sang like nightingales, others played their musical instruments as virtuosi, still others rhapsodized with the tongues of poets. But all that this young novice had learned in the way of special skills before entering the monastery was to entertain modestly as a juggler. And so, in the dead of night, driven by the mandate to serve, walking furtively lest he be seen and mocked by his brothers, he makes his ardent way to the altar with his sackful of wooden mallets and balls, and does his act for Our Lady.

This account of the struggle to express gratitude is unsurpassed in devotional literature. The apparent grotesquerie — honoring the mother of the Saviour of the universe, the vessel of salvation, with muscular gyrations designed to capture the momentary interest of six-year-olds — is inexpressibly beautiful in the mind’s eye. The act of propitiation; gratitude reified.

How to acknowledge one’s devotion, one’s patrimony, one’s heritage? Why, one juggles before the altar of God, if that is what one knows how to do. That Americans growing into citizenhood should be induced to acknowledge this patrimony and to demonstrate their gratitude, for it is the thesis of this exercise. By asking them to make sacrifices we are reminding them that they owe a debt, even as the juggler felt a debt to Our Lady. And reminding them that requital of a debt is the purest form of acknowledging that debt. The mind tends to turn to the alms-giver as one experiences the alms he has to give us. We are familiar with the debt an exonerated defendant feels toward the judicial system on which he suddenly found himself relying. The man truly hungry looks with a different eye on the person who feeds him. It is entirely possible to live out an entire life without experiencing the civic protections which can become so contingently vital to us at vital moments. Even if we never need the help of the courts, or of the policeman, or of the Bill of Rights, that they are there for us in the event of need distinguishes our society from others. To alert us to their presence, however dormant in our own lives, tends to ensure their survival. And tends also to encourage a citizenry alert to the privileges the individual might one day need. This enjoyment, this answering of needs, can make us proud of our country — and put us in its debt. In this essay on the theme of Gratitude, I postulate that we do owe something. To whom? The dead being beyond our reach, our debt can only be expressed to one another; but our gratitude is also a form of obeisance — yes, to the dead. The points I raise will disturb some “conservative” presumptions as also some commonly thought of as “liberal.” I have, in any event, the obligation to explore the social meaning of duty. Those who respond to religious guidelines will not be surprised, for example, by the Christian call to reinspect Divine commandments: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Although religious faith is not required to prompt attention to the nature of the injunction, the intensity of the concern of some Americans is sometimes best understood by the use of religious metaphors. Emile Durkheim wrote engrossingly on the question when he spoke of the “relation of a devoted child to his parents, of an ardent patriot to his fatherland, [of a] cosmopolitan to mankind, of a worker to his class, of a nobleman conscious of his rank to the aristocracy, of the vanquished to his conqueror, of the good soldier to his army.” “All these relations,” Durkheim concluded, “with their infinitely manifold contents can, indeed do, have a general tenor as far as their psychic aspect is concerned — which must be called a religious key.”

Durkheim might have added to his list the relation of the citizen to the community organized to protect his rights. An intensity which can be called religious characterizes the devotion shown to their community by literally millions of people who routinely sacrifice — time, money, labor — to remark that devotion; and, using their own language, methods, and skills, to requite the community. Mother Teresa characterizes her altruistic, prodigious efforts as an attempt to repay the Lord for bringing her to life, and giving her an opportunity for perpetual life by His side. The anonymous soldier who volunteers for a dangerous mission to enhance the prospects of the army that seeks to defend his nation is moved by a great passion to serve. Most service is not heroic in character — they also serve, who only stand and wait. But service is twice ennobling: it acknowledges that which deserves veneration, and satisfies the hunger of those who cannot be satisfied save by a gesture of requital. That as a nation we should encourage the requital of such young citizens is the enthusiastic premise of these pages.

Coming very slowly to a boil in Congress is the question of national service. It is a very old idea, by the way. George Washington spoke in favor of national service, which was commonly supposed at the time to be service in the military, it being military preparedness that was in those days most commonly needed to defend against the agents of His Majesty King George, or the red-skinned agents of Chief Charging Bull. The proposition that American citizens owe something to the community that formulated and fought to establish their progenitive rights was proffered in 1910 by William James, in an essay still widely referred to as a kind of charter instrument of national service (“The Moral Equivalent of War”). The durability of the idea of national service at the very least betokens an inherent appeal. It was all so very much easier to speak about, and even to fancy, back when the tradition of public service meant the military. The Ferocity of the Warrior was readily transmuted to the Pride of the Father. In an age in which military contention absorbs less and less social energy (it has been 17 years since an American was drafted for military duty), the eye roams, under the prompting of a parched heart, for service of another kind; for the satisfaction, say, of juggling for Our Lady.

Both political parties, since the presidential contest of 1988, have declared themselves in favor of national service. Indeed, Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, acting for his party, introduced as the very first bill (S-3) in January 1989 a Citizenship and National Service Bill. What it says, to use only a few words to describe it, is that young people should be induced to give service to the nation. By no means does the bill propose that national service be limited to the military. Indeed, since the bill was introduced, because of the happy events of 1989 in the Communist bloc, it becomes apparent that we face the need for fewer, rather than for more, soldiers in the field. Accordingly, the efforts of many national-service volunteers would be directed to extra-military pursuits, of which there are a dismaying number. Dismaying in this sense: if you add up the number of young people whose services could profitably be used — say, in helping old people; in assisting teachers both in instructing children and in protecting them; in advancing environmental goals; in protecting deteriorating books in libraries — you add up quickly to more than one-half of the three million Americans who, every year, become 18 years old. The Nunn bill addresses the younger generation and says: Look, if you will agree to give us a year of your time in national service, we will pay you $10,000 beyond the pocket money you will get during your national service. This $10,000 you can use toward your college tuition payments, if you go on to college; or as a down payment on your mortgage when you get around to buying a house.

It is conceived as a grand federal enterprise, and I do not wish only for that reason to oppose it, though I do so for reasons I will elaborate. As of this writing, the Republicans have (I concede, as I’ll do later in greater detail) a half-hearted substitute bill, not worth exploring. It is very much worth remarking, however, that the subject of national service, although the debate about it has not yet reached the voter’s hearth, is very much there, a subject waiting to be deliberated. It is going to run into any number of hostile presumptions, among them the aversion to an idea of federally sponsored philanthropy (though the Federal Government has long since encouraged philanthropy by granting tax deductions); an egalitarian resistance to special favors for special classes of citizens (though the government has long since favored veterans with the GI Bill, which pays much of college costs); and, not least, the inertial resistance to the blight of any Grand New National Idea. I hope to confront these objections, and even to suggest that not every conceivable Grand New National Idea ought to be discarded out of hand. (Wouldn’t many of us agree that it would be a Grand New National Idea to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “America the Beautiful”?)

Meanwhile, it is fair to note that those politicians who have entered into the argument, and they are both Democrats and Republicans, are saying that participation in the community should take more active form than merely paying taxes, buying and selling in the marketplace, and voting (occasionally, if at all). And of course the question is necessarily raised in the context of the one question we can never get away from. I treasure the story of Congressman Rich of Pennsylvania, who sat in the House of Representatives for years and years and rose to speak in session after session, year after year, to make only the one simple comment before sitting down again: “How are we going to pay for all this?” And then one day, at two o’clock in the morning, after the House had been in session continuously for over two days and a bleary quorum was ready for the final vote — up shot the hand of Congressman Rich, resignedly acknowledged by the Speaker, to a chorus of vocal dismay. He rose and said solemnly, “April Fool!” Even on April 1, the question of cost cannot be dismissed. I reveal at this early moment that I deem it entirely manageable. But just as the question is bound to arise — how much will national service cost? — so an advocate of the idea is required to consider that cost and to explore its ramifications. In the last analysis a society has to accumulate a surplus before it gets around to thinking in terms of expenditures beyond those absolutely necessary to produce food and shelter. Without an economic surplus we are left with not even enough to afford a set of the juggler’s mallets and balls.

Of course. Practical attention needs to be paid to the question of national service, but if the idea takes over the public imagination, as it has done my own, the cost will prove bearable, and its fruits beyond the reach of slide rules. And then, properly conceived, the status of the citizen in a republic, uniting privilege with responsibility, evolves into a kind of nobility no less aristocratic for being widespread and universally accessible (is there any difficulty in conceiving of a society, every one of whose members is of an aristocratic order?). Materialistic democracy beckons every man to make himself a king; republican citizenship incites every man to be a knight. National service, like gravity, is something we could accustom ourselves to, and grow to love.

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