If volunteerism is suddenly unpatriotic and even “socialist,” that will come as a nasty surprise to many of the Republicans and conservatives who have always supported such efforts, notably including both presidents named Bush. And if stepping up to help our neighbors and community on 9/11 would somehow dishonor the Americans killed in that infamous attack — as feverish critics of President Obama now scream — then what do they think actually happened on that day 10 years ago?
The latest outbreak of phony outrage began when the president, following a tradition established by George W. Bush, announced that he and the first lady will mark the upcoming anniversary as a “National Day of Service and Remembrance,” and urged Americans to “come together, in their communities and their neighborhoods, to honor the victims of 9/11 and to reaffirm the strength of our nation with acts of service and charity.”
To Rush Limbaugh and assorted lesser cogs in the right-wing noise machine, that was a deeply controversial statement and an attempt to “politicize” the event — as if the White House had ordered everybody to put on blue caps, join a local Obama for America chapter, and then build a solar house for the poor.
Yes, according to the furious wingers, Obama’s attempt to inspire volunteerism was in fact a barely disguised appeal to “serve the state,” as well as an un-American distraction from what should be, in their minds, a more militaristic commemoration. But leaving aside their usual bizarre theories about the president and his motives, this pseudo-controversy shows how little these so-called conservatives understand what really happened on 9/11, in New York City and then across the country. On that day and the days that followed we saw a demonstration of the highest American values, which are apparently no longer comprehensible to the denizens of the right-wing swamp.
Our traditions of volunteerism and community have distinguished this republic ever since its earliest years — as Alexis de Tocqueville explained back in the 1830s, when he wrote the two volumes known as Democracy in America. In that classic work, he described the uniquely American style of voluntary association and how it made a free society possible. He was no radical, by the way, and would have ridiculed the stupid notion that a presidential call to voluntary service equals socialism.
But it isn’t really necessary to consult Tocqueville, who admittedly was a Frenchman, on the American virtue of voluntarism.
Just ask Tim Zagat, publisher of the famous Zagat restaurant guides and New York civic activist, who is preparing to issue a remarkable book titled 9/11: Stories of Courage, Heroism and Generosity next week. In the participants’ own words, it chronicles the outpouring of citizen action of every sort that sprang up in response to the attacks. These are the amazing true stories of the construction workers who left their worksites and marched down to Ground Zero, unbidden and en masse, to join the search and rescue effort; of the restaurateurs who emptied their refrigerators, brought tons of food down to the site and fed everyone working there; of the sanitation workers, teachers, phone technicians, and thousands of others who stepped forward to help the city revive itself — and of Americans from around the country who joined them. There was the guy in a wheelchair, who rolled himself miles from his home in Harlem to bring down a bag of sandwiches. There was the urban search and rescue team that came up from San Juan, Puerto Rico with their dogs to spend hour upon hour hunting through the piles of debris. And there were those who had lost loved ones in earlier disasters, coming to help the bereaved of 9/11 cope with tragedy.
So many thousands showed up from everywhere to help that the authorities had to turn the city’s main convention venue, the Javits Center, into a special site dedicated to organizing the volunteers according to skills and capabilities. Recalling that enormous outpouring of support from “people of all persuasions, backgrounds and beliefs,” former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says, “I saw it; I lived it; and am humbled by the heartwarming, remarkable response that demonstrated the resilience of America.”
That resilient spirit is perhaps what the president hopes to summon, at a time of trouble that should evoke the cooperation, sacrifice, and wisdom we saw in New York after that awful autumn morning in 2001. What a disgrace that his political opponents would reject that call, seeking instead to poison the occasion with ideological ranting and partisan rancor. This is how they dishonor the memory of the dead — and they have the gall to call it patriotism.