Friday, November 28, 2014

Entitlement, Service, and Dreams

Some students in a university “cultural resource management “ (CRM) program were upset about my November 17 posting entitled “Contract Archaeology versus Plumbing,” (  In that post, I said that I didn’t see the registration of archaeologists, or increasing how well they’re paid, as a significant public policy issue.  The students invited me to visit their private chat page to explain myself, and I readily agreed. 

They asked me, in a nutshell, why I didn’t think “CRM” archaeologists ought to be registered like plumbers are, and make more money as a result.  Trying to be properly Socratic, I responded with a question.  What, I asked, is the social value of “CRM archaeology?”

I expected to get responses stressing how important it is to learn about the past, or take care of the environment, or control impacts on “cultural resources.”  These, I thought, might lead us into a fruitful discussion of just how these worthy interests are advanced by walking around on project sites looking for artifacts, digging holes, and in almost all cases assuring the world that proposed development projects won’t do any damage to those precious “resources.”  This, I figured, might lead on into a discussion of what “CRM” ought to be doing in order to advance such interests.

But the immediate responses I got were not at all what I expected.  Instead, they boiled down to: “The value of CRM archaeology is that it can (if if just will) pay me a good salary so I can support my family.”

Later on, I did get some rather more altruistic, less self-centered notes, but the opinion-setters in the group seemed to feel quite justified in saying that what they did was worth doing because it could, if they got paid well enough, make them comfortable.

I found this rather startling, and said so.  The reaction to this, on the whole, was not positive.  One fellow, who turned out to control access to the site and shortly excluded me from it, contributed to the discussion mostly by posting images of himself (I presume it was he) making ugly faces at me.  To this, higher education has evolved.

The notion that “X activity is good for society because it can (and should, dammit) make me comfortable” was so surprising to me that I began to wonder why my perceptions are so out of synch with those of the younger generation.  I try to resist geezer-talk (“Why, Sonny, back in my day…..”), but it had just never occurred to me to equate benefit for myself with benefit for society, and I had to think that this had something to do with the passage of generations.  “Back in my day” we distinguished between social benefit and personal gain, and rightly or wrongly took it for granted that (a) society didn’t owe us a living, but that (b) we owed society some kind of service.  As he often did, John F. Kennedy summed it up pithily: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  We might not all believe that our country was worth all that much devotion, but I think it used to be pretty widely believed that we had a responsibility to humanity, society, the world, the planet.  Conversely, I don’t think I ever used to hear or read anyone proposing that humanity, society, the world or the planet had any particular obligation to take care of us.

What, I wondered – and still wonder – has changed?  Is it rampant consumerism?  Or is it that we’ve become so fixated on civil rights that we’ve forgotten civil responsibilities?  Is it that every politician claims to be “fighting for YOU?” 

I don’t have an answer; I’m still puzzled, still mulling it over.  But the exchange with the students reminded me of one very specific policy decision, made back when I was a grad student, that I wondered about at the time, and still wonder about today.  That was the decision to end the draft.

Back in my day, sonny, it was understood that if nothing else, you (if you were male and reasonably fit) owed society, in the form of your country, a few years of service under arms.  Our country’s sad adventure in Southeast Asia made that understanding seem misguided, I suppose; whatever exactly the cause was, we gave up the draft in 1972. 

I wonder if throwing out the draft – perhaps combined with some of those other factors I alluded to earlier – led us toward thinking less and less about what we could/should/had to do for the country/society/the world.  Did this, in turn, lead us to flip the equation, conclude that – as my student interlocutors seem to believe – the world owes us a living?

I don’t know, but all this mulling made me particularly alert to an editorial in this morning’s Washington Post by David Ignatius about the “Franklin Project” at the Aspen Institute – see  The Franklin Project, according to its website, would “improve citizenship by giving every young person in America the opportunity to do a service year.” “Sometime between the ages of 18 and 28,” it goes on, “the young person would do a fully paid, full-time year of service in one of an array of areas from conservation to education and everything in between.” 

It’s not the draft; the proposal seems carefully formulated to emphasize the voluntary character of the “service year” – and that in itself is a bit surprising.  Have we become so disenchanted with the idea of service that we have to make it crystal clear that gee, kids, you don’t have to do this?  I guess we have.

But still, it seems to me like it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start discussing service, and obligation, and who really owes who what. 

All this led me back to thinking about CRM, and the environmental impact assessment (EIA) system within which it’s embedded.  As assiduous readers of this blog know, I think that system has become fatally corrupted.  It occurred to me that one basis for this corruption, and for the puzzling fact that most people involved in the system seem to accept it as natural, is precisely the premise that something is a good thing if it allows you to make a living – that it need meet no other standard, no other criterion.

This, in turn, led me to wonder whether something like national service might provide the answer that I’m never able to come up with when someone asks: “OK, King, so the EIA system is corrupted, what do you want to DO about it?”  I find myself dreaming of some sort of EIA Service that would assess the impacts of proposed construction and land use projects in the public interest, rather than in the interests of those paying for and profiting from them.  Putting people like my student interlocutors to work not for the change agents, and not just to enrich themselves and the companies that employ them, but for the public, the environment, the future. 

Probably a dumb idea, or at least an idea whose time has gone before it could come.  We are probably way, way too far down the road toward self-satisfaction and comfort-seeking for anything like this – or even the seemingly rather filmy notions of the Franklin Project – to gain traction.  But dreaming of such things helps fend off the depression that's generated by experiences like my encounter with the students, and for such dreams I’m thankful.


Anonymous said...

I realize that Americans everywhere are once again in the mood for going on the march. We are all being bombarded with that stuff these days. But a call for "service under arms" seems so out of character coming from the progenitor of "traditional cultural properties" and the staunch defender of cultural relativism. Such hawkishness is pervasive everywhere lately, but it seems strangely out of place on this pleasant little blog site. Why not leave the saluting and the flag waving for the Super Bowl ? There should be some places left where war weary folks can get in out of the rain for a quiet few minutes.

Don't forget that military service was not always so popular as it has become lately. It wasn't that long ago that compulsory induction led to Kent State, and many incidents like it. Were those kids at Kent State wrong ? Were they demonstrating out of a sense of personal entitlement?

Actually, bringing back the draft is not such a bad idea. Take the "spectator" out of the "spectator sport" of war, and maybe Americans won't be so quick to get involved in them. But if we do ever restore the draft, this time, give inductees the option of an alternate form of service - a more appropriate way for them to fulfill their "responsibility to humanity" if they so choose. And include women too, in whatever capacity they elect.

Personally, I have a would have a whole lot more admiration for someone who served as a civilian in a squalid village in the Phillipines or Haiti, than I would some guy or gal who chose to service Humvees in Germany or Japan. But, either form of service is valid.

This blog is not the place for postings like mine, no doubt. But, you brought it up.

Thomas F King said...

"Pleasant little blog?" Now, THAT, Annon, I find truly insulting. But as to the draft....

Thanks to my late father, a WWII vet who talked me into joining the Naval Reserve while in high school, I "served under arms" on a warship in the western Pacific instead of getting drafted and offed in 'Nam like a lot of my age-mates. I came home to serve honorably in the anti-war movement, so I haven't "forgotten that military service was not always so popular." Popularity, and for that matter, military service, is not the point. The point is that in the days of the draft we had the perception that service was something expected of us; that we weren't entitled to a free ride. That's what I think we might be well advised to try to recapture, and it absolutely should involve a wide range of kinds of service. To judge from the last line in your post you agree. Or maybe I'm missing your point.

Anonymous said...

Also, in response to the first Anonymous, keep in mind that many anti-war folks, myself included, think that having the draft would at least make politicians think twice since their kids and relations are as likely to be cannon fodder as anyone else. When everyone is at risk and the risk can be personal, I think that better decisions can be made.

Rob Wolfe said...

Hi Tom,

I hope I am not bothering you by posting on this older post, but it rather resonated with me.

I pose the question, do you think it possible to enter the field of CRM and doing it social benefit?

I often remark that I entered the field of Historic Preservation because I believe in helping communities preserve their heritage, and while I would like to be able to live on that work, I don't think society owes it to me. I owe it to society to prove that the kind of work I do is worthwhile.

To that end I am actually doing a year of National Service through AmeriCorps, and I am doing on economic development with a historic preservation bent.

Maybe I am misguided, but I do feel a social responsibility to serve the country. Mainly I am inspired by Jay Rockefeller, the retired WV US Senator who started his public service career as a VISTA in the WV Coal Fields.

Thanks again for the blog. Great to read.

Thomas F King said...

Thanks, Rob. Good points, and I'm glad to be dragged back to this post, which I'd more or less forgotten. I'm glad and relieved to learn that you're driven by a sense of responsibility; I wish I didn't think you were in such a minority. I hope your year of service works well for you, and for society. Good on you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom. I'm a newer member of the cohort of which I think you speak, and although I am perhaps a bit older than some of my peers and certainly less mainstream than most, I wanted to let you know that I signed up for the CRM program specifically because I wanted my voice to mean more. I want to be heard when I say that cultural resources matter, especially those that might be considered less important than historical buildings or archaeological artifacts. I am interested in those ideas and beliefs, those ways of life, regardless of the culture from which they came, those things that might help our current culture get out of the fine mess it has gotten itself into with degradation of the environment and disrespect for life in general. I want to be able to make some kind of active change in how capitalistic minded humans interact with the world. I may not make it through this program, and I find I want to quit nearly every day, but this degree is merely a stepping stone for me to become less ignored in my activist anthropology. I find your writings invigorating!