This year’s “Week of Service” at Yale sets a new record for linguistic distortion. Of all the recommended activities, only one is related to community service, and even that one is sponsored by a registered Yale undergraduate advocacy organization. All others are undisguised exercises in political activism. The “Week of Service” is hardly unofficial: it is funded in various ways by the university, and directly endorsed by its prominent officials. It is also an embarrassing and politicized farce.
I spent seventeen years at Yale, in many capacities, so none of this shocks me very much. The national climate is right for such displays as well. After all, with both the Senate and the House considering ways to implement Obama’s call for increased government funding to national volunteer programs, the basic point that working for the government is not the same thing as serving the public has all but slipped away.
Obama is not creating volunteers but rather community activists who “volunteer” in return for a paycheck: in other words, politicized government employees operating under the guise of apolitical public service — the worst of both worlds. This boils down to redefining volunteerism out of existence by making it an arm of the state.
Indeed, politics are at the heart of the “Week of Service.” It began on Monday with “Civic Engagement Day”: that means registering to vote and listening to candidates for the New Haven Board of Aldermen debate. The debate was sponsored by Dwight Hall, the Yale College Council, the Yale College Democrats, the Yale Daily News, and the Yale Political Union — all Republican and conservative groups were conspicuously absent. Political debate and voter registration are, of course, commendable, but they do not constitute service. And in this context, they’re far from nonpartisan.
Tuesday is “New Haven Solidarity Day”: registering for the politically controversial New Haven Municipal ID Card. Wednesday is “Social Justice Day”: cooperating with a Latino advocacy group to “campaign . . . against legislation slashing budgets for Latino social service agencies,” and an inter-faith panel on “Religion and Global Women’s Rights” with activist Andrea Blanch. Thursday brings “Health Advocacy Day”: petitioning “to rally support for the SustiNet bill, which aims to establish universal healthcare in CT,” and during which movies are screened extolling the virtues of public health care, with both activities sponsored by the Public Health Coalition and the College Democrats, as registered undergraduate organizations at Yale.
And Friday is a grab-bag of support for local activist charities, all of which exist in large part to lobby for the passage of their favorite new entitlement. The Diaper Bank, for instance, is there “to advocate for policy reform so that diapers are included in the definition of and provision for the ‘basic human needs’ of families,” while New Haven Home Recovery expresses fervent support for the Stimulus Act.
With the minor and partial exception of the canned food drive, none of this has any connection to service. It is all about politics. It is not even balanced — not that it would make it any better — by any activity that makes the slightest nod towards Republicans or conservatives. Important parts of the event are funded with Yale’s money, which comes in part from current students, in part from donors, and in part from the Federal Government.
The broader point, of course, is that this definition of service is a perversion of the concept, is entirely biased in its application, and constitutes a further, gross politicization of the university. Once volunteers are turned into government employees, they can be recruited directly toward political ends. Perhaps that is the real intent of Obama’s promotion of taxpayer-funded volunteering.