The Value of Public Service

by |January 3, 2018

We live in a complex interconnected world with many powerful forces competing for power, profit and influence. We are all part of a global economy that I believe will someday provide a sustainable, renewable resource-based living for everyone. But in a world where we are constantly interacting and competing, we also need to nurture and generate the value of cooperation and compassion. This value or ethos includes helping our neighbors in need, but also helping those we do not know. This is a value I call public service. Such a value is critical in helping those that lose in the competitive race for gain, as well as those that are weak, ill, or simply unlucky. Given the vast resources we have in the developed world I believe it is simply unethical to watch suffering without acting to alleviate it.

The value of service was one I first became aware of watching President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as U.S. President in January, 1961. President Kennedy challenged us to “ask what we could do for our country”. He spoke of meeting national challenges with a call to service and defined service broadly enough to establish the Peace Corps. His inaugural addressed the issue of global poverty when he observed:

“To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” (emphasis added)

Our most recent presidential inauguration expressed a different set of values when President Trump declared:

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”

The contrast between President Kennedy’s call for sacrifice and service and President Trump’s appeal to self-interest could not be clearer. Kennedy’s rhetoric included a challenge to respond to the threats of modern life with global engagement and service for the greater good. Trump’s rhetoric called for hunkering down and focusing on self-interest. Kennedy empathized with the aspirations of the developing world, Trump sees those aspirations as threats to American prosperity. To this seven year old boy in Brooklyn, President Kennedy made the idea of public service noble; it led me directly to government service in the U.S. EPA at the start of my career. I doubt any kid listening to the Trump inaugural will be similarly inspired. One could argue that government in 2017 is very different than government was in 1961. Fair enough. But the ideal of service remains the same.

Public service is of course not simply working for the government, or for the military or Peace Corps, but any activity that takes you beyond your self-interest into the world of helping others. After natural and human made disasters we see many examples of people helping each other. In the aftermath of hurricanes in Texas and Florida this fall there were wonderful scenes of people helping people. Race, ethnicity, and political ideology faded as neighbors lent a helping hand to neighbors. It would be easier and maybe safer to walk away, but the value of service drives us into the fray. That urge to help, that impulse to service is the glue that binds together a complex, often competitive society.

I work in a university where we try to focus on the problems that the world needs to solve. That is one of the functions of a modern research university. But like the media that has made its business model one of accentuating how we differ, we are losing sight of how much we are alike. By demonizing those that don’t think exactly as we do, we lose the opportunity for dialogue and understanding. By focusing on how we are falling short of perfection, we lose sight of how much progress we have made. A way to address this lack of discussion is to encourage the value of free speech, something Columbia University does partly because our president is a First Amendment scholar. A second way to gain the perspective we need is to continue to encourage the value of public service.

In the process of working to help your neighbor, not only does your neighbor in need benefit from your help, but you benefit from the experience of helping. You get to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes, to see life from someone else’s perspective. Society gains from this growing sense of empathy and from a deeper understanding of people in need. There is a danger when this sense of charity begins to excuse the absence of personal responsibility, but I do not see the values of service and personal responsibility as incompatible.

The value of public service becomes a lens through which you view the world and the behaviors within it. Sometimes it is a routine act of helping, like lending a hand when someone is carrying a baby in a stroller up the subway steps. Sometimes it is an act of heroism such as one we saw recently in the case of a soldier who gave his life to save people in an apartment fire. As reported by Elizabeth A. Harris, Ashley Southall and Vivian Wang on December 29:

“Emmanuel Mensah was a handsome, strongly built young man in his late 20s who immigrated to the Bronx from Ghana five years ago. He joined the Army National Guard but returned to his apartment on Prospect Avenue in December, after graduating from boot camp with the rank of private first class. And on Thursday night, he lost his life trying to save people from his furiously burning apartment building, one of 12 people to die in the blaze. “He brought four people out,” said his uncle, Twum Bredu, who lives next door. “When he went to bring a fifth person out, the fire caught up with him.””

Saving one family was not enough, as long as more people were in danger, this young man felt compelled to once again face danger. The value of public service does not require that we act heroically and put our lives in danger, but that we respect and admire those that do. In the case of our sitting president, I worry that he might consider Mr. Mensah a loser, since he died trying to save people. Trump famously criticized Senator John McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War. Anyone valuing public service could never say such a thing. Even those of us who opposed the Vietnam War have reason to cherish and value John McCain’s courage and conduct during his horrific captivity.

The broad sweep of world history and our growing ability to use technology to meet basic human needs of food, water, air, clothing and shelter, has led to a gradual reduction in the amount of poverty in the world. We have within our reach the potential to end poverty. But once we achieve that historic goal there will still be winners and losers in the world. There will always be a need to help those who need help. The issue for humankind is to nurture the value of service. To see people as fundamentally the same and worthy of assistance.

I remain mindful of the presence of evil in the world and of people who seek to harm people. One could not have lived in New York City on September 11, 2001 and not understand the capacity for great evil. One form of service is to fight that evil and combat it in all of its forms wherever it appears. But let’s not confuse the small number of evil people with the overwhelming majority that share the goal of living in peace, providing for their family, and participating in a constructive, positive society. Let’s not let anger at evil distort our understanding of how the world works.

The value of public service calls on all of us to respond to the better parts of our humanity and is self-reinforcing. By doing good we become good. As we approach 2018, let’s look for what is good in this country and what unites us. Let’s not become the victims of hatred, but the beneficiaries of a world made better by our efforts to help each other.


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