March 10
by Ken Reynolds

Every generation likes to remember the good old days when things were different — meaning better. When I think seriously about what American life was like in my youth — not just my life, but life for Americans in general — I know we are healthier and more comfortable, but we have paid high prices. In my opinion the highest price has been a diminishing sense of connection — to one another, to our families and to our nation.

It would be simpler to list what has not changed than what has, but some changes have so significantly altered our lives and our society they are worth singling out.

Television changed our concept of entertainment. We settled into the living room with the family — and next-door neighbors, until they got a television of their own. As prosperity increased families acquired multiple television sets and entertainment became personal, and disconnected.

The Interstate highway system made it easier to travel, but it also fostered the growth of suburbs and long commutes. Time with extended family transformed from a part of everyday life to something that had to be planned. The nearest member of the family too often lived miles away and connection had to be limited to phone calls and occasional visits.

Corporations adopted the concept of the “professional manager” who could be transferred to distant locations. Entire subdivisions filled with families transferred from another town or region. Children grew up with the realization that their best friend may move away because the father was promoted or assigned to another town. Lifelong friendships and marriages became remarkably unusual.

Relaxed international trade laws and the growth of manufacturing in third world nations have increased imports and the number of American companies with foreign ties. Those changes helped shift manufacturing to countries where less expensive labor replaced American workers. Those who were not displaced learned they could no longer expect to work for the same company all their lives. Employee loyalty to the company and company loyalty to its employees ceased to be the norm and became a rarity. Almost all consumer products are made somewhere other than in America.

Computers completely altered the way business functions and the way people communicate and transfer money. It is a rare business that has a human being answering its telephone. Personal letters gave way to email, then to texting and twittering. Who knows what will come next, but the number of cell phones and the volume of texting signify to me that we long for connection.

Widespread protests against the Vietnam War and its disproportionate impact upon the poor led to the dissolution of the draft. That took away a tie that connected young men from all walks of life — a tie that forced young men and their families to remember who protected them and their freedom to enjoy the benefits of living in America. Our country did not happen by accident. It developed and grew because of the hard work and sacrifice of people who believed in it. Before the all-volunteer army almost everyone had a relative or a friend who served our nation in the military, or was eligible to be drafted. We were connected to the idea that serving our country was a duty. Since the Korean War our population has doubled and connection to the concept of obligatory service to the nation has lessened.

On July 4th we attend fireworks displays, and at international competitions we chant “USA, USA” to demonstrate pride in our connection to America and its teams. At the same time we face growing factionalism within our major political parties and increasing numbers of politicians who put themselves — and the interest groups they are beholden to — before the overall good of the nation. Special interest groups often seem more determined to achieve their goals than in protecting and preserving the nation that makes it possible for their groups to exist and articulate their desires without fear of the government.

As individuals we are not able to undo those changes, but we can and do work to mitigate the impact on our families and our neighbors. Many Big Canoe residents are working hard to repair those broken connections. They volunteer time and donate money to help others and to build a strong community. They know strong communities make strong nations. We also have a large number of veterans — career, reserve and draftees — who have served America in war and in peace. They and their families know what it means to serve our country.

In my opinion our nation could make a strong step toward rebuilding individual American connection to the nation by instituting universal mandatory national service. We have all kinds of work that needs to be done. Every task that is performed by a member of the armed forces, by an employee or contractor of the federal government represents a potential assignment for Americans performing their national service.  Only those who are unable to perform any useful work should be excluded.

There are countless obstacles and objections to universal service. Some groups would want to include services now performed by charities. Unions would want to impose work rules and wage requirements. Another major obstacle would be the tendency of bureaucracies to generate needless and mind boggling regulations. Some people may regard universal service as involuntary servitude.

I think that all Americans, and those who want become Americans, should be required to give two years to assuring that we continue as a connected nation, and not disintegrate into a mass of special interests whose connections to America become irreparably broken.

-originally published March 1, 2010 in Smoke Signals

Read more about Ken Reynolds on the Writer’s bio page