A May 8 Washington Post feature on Washington Nationals player Josh Bell praised the first baseman’s new community service efforts in the District as promoting “social change.” The Nationals’s Youth Baseball Academy, which helps hundreds of underprivileged youth in our nation’s capital, is a way Bell, in his own words, can contribute to solving “structural racism” in our nation.
To be clear, I’m glad Bell is using some of his free time — and his social and financial capital — to help needy D.C. kids. The problem is how that volunteerism is described, both by corporate media, woke capitalists, and even conscientious athletes. Performing desperately needed community service isn’t simply a good and necessary act of citizenship, in this description. It’s activism.
Not long after graduating with a degree in physical therapy from Virginia Commonwealth University, my father agreed to take a job making medical house visits in Anacostia, which then, as it is now, was one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. That job had stood vacant for a long time before my dad accepted it, as no other physical therapist was willing to assume the risks to his personal safety. Yet my dad, an Army veteran who had grown up in Jim Crow Alabama, didn’t mind the danger, and over the years volunteered his medical services in impoverished black communities across the District and Northern Virginia.
My father never considered his labors to be “activism,” but the hallmark of being a good Christian, neighbor, and citizen. Neither did I when I did community service in Anacostia, served underprivileged black youth in the Gum Springs neighborhood of Alexandria, and taught ESOL to first-generation, working-class black and Latino kids in Lorton. I was simply following the example my mother and father had given me: you go to those in need because that’s what our faith and civic responsibilities demand.
The Josh Bell “activist” story is not unique. Last year, Fairfax County Public Schools — the school district of which I, my mother, and much of my extended family are products — decided to allow students one excused absence per school year to “protest.” Teachers unions are encouraging educators to push an activist mentality among students. Curricula designed by the 1619 Project and the American Civil Liberties Union are increasingly common in U.S. public school systems.
I perceive a few disturbing problems with the trend, popular among many on the left, of peddling activism as the default of good citizenship. One concern is for radicalizing volunteerism, as it becomes less about inculcating the virtue of citizenship and more about portraying community service as ideological and revolutionary. According to this paradigm, good citizenship isn’t about community service and volunteerism per se, but a particular type of volunteerism that seeks to upend perceived systemic injustices baked into the American cake.
Thus we hear the need to end structural racism that is supposedly found in our Constitution and even in the actions of the earliest generations of American colonists. We are urged to dismantle oppressive power structures like the patriarchy. We are exhorted to reject social and political norms that have marginalized various sexual minorities.
In as much as the current leftist agenda seeks to accomplish this ideological mission, I would argue it manifests a fundamentally different political species than that of the older, traditional, constitutional conception of our nation. If America was founded on praiseworthy principles and is oriented towards a diversity of goods we hold in common, our service to it can simply be citizenship. Yet if America, as it was founded and perpetuated for its first 250 years, is not good but racist, sexist, and oppressive, then it must be dismantled and remade. That requires an activist and revolutionary mentality, not that of the dutiful citizen.
There’s also certain hypocrisy about the new activist volunteerism. Any kind of community service that aligns with the left’s current ideological agenda — fighting structural racism, protesting systemic injustices, uplifting marginalized sexual behaviors, protecting our environment — is considered sacrosanct. Not so much volunteer activity that promotes the pro-life cause or encourages stable families with mothers and fathers. Those kinds of things, we are told, represent attacks on women’s reproductive rights and reinforce antiquated patriarchal norms.
Perhaps the reader is skeptical of the delineation I am making. Isn’t pro-life or pro-marriage community service still activism? Well, yes, but it is inherently different from that of the woke, social revolutionary activist.
The pro-life and pro-marriage movements have not argued that our nation, and even our society, are disordered because our original founding principles and Christian culture were morally bankrupt. Rather they have called for a return to an earlier, more coherent way of life that better understood human flourishing, from birth to natural death. This was the conception of the good life and citizenship bequeathed to us by the Founders.
Not so with woke activism. As its proponents have declared, America is fundamentally racist. Its patriarchal power structures run so deep they must be constantly exposed, condemned, and demolished. According to this narrative, we are not returning to something noble that has been disfigured by sin, injustice, or ignorance, because there is nothing intrinsically good to which to return. We must make a new way. In this, it owes more to Jean Jacques Rousseau than to the Framers.
Of course, as I’ve recently argued at The Federalist, much of this activist culture is merely play-acting. People put up signs in their front lawns that condemn hatred while promoting Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, lenient immigration, and “science.” They litter their social media feeds with simplistic, self-serving memes about the latest social justice cause. Meanwhile, volunteerism among the youngest (and loudest) American cohorts is on the decline.
Many Americans, sadly, choose the more painless route. It’s a lot easier to put up a yard sign, post something on Twitter, or participate in a viral street protest (smile at the camera!), than to tutor an underprivileged kid for an entire school year or sacrifice Saturday mornings at the homeless shelter. The former is not only easier but elicits more immediate positive reinforcement from our peers.
Yet what form of volunteerism better accords with authentic citizenship? Community service does genuine good for our immediate neighbor in need. I wager that’s why it’s likely not going to make the front page of the Washington Post.