Friday November 21, 2008 3:14 pm
Werd: Service - Part Five
Until a kind benefactor/patron finally purchases the Oxford English Dictionary (complete set, please) for me, I will be using the excellent (free) resource Online Etymology Dictionary for my Friday updates. Here’s how the latter OED defines the roots of our word, “serve”:
c.1175, “to render habitual obedience to,” from O.Fr. servir “to serve,” from L. servire “to serve,” originally “be a slave,” related to servus “slave,” perhaps from an Etruscan word (cf. Etruscan proper names Servi, Serve). Meaning “to attend to (a customer)” is first recorded 1362; that of “to set food on (a table)” is from c.1386. [Full entry here.]
So we find here that the Latin root for the word “serve” essentially refers to a “slave.” Though modern usage has updated that interpretation to include a more general implication of noble intent, I think the root still is still relevant. It also puts
my monologue this week in a different context.
Read More | Online Etymology Dictionary
On Monday, I noted Brokaw’s message of service and his inability to come up with a concrete example of it in his own life. We can now wonder – should service, tainted by this definition, be something we aspire to? Or is it a con game meant to move man-hours towards the slavemaster? Is Brokaw simply a slave to the rivers he would like to fish on during his retirement?
On Tuesday, I took Obama’s America Serves program and tried to support it by my personal experience with service. But given the etymology – should I now consider myself a slave to the children I gave my time to? Or to the school districts that benefited from my actions? And more generally: is any action I make that does not immediately benefit myself (either in building my ego or by payment for my service) merely slave labor?
On Wednesday, I looked at the opposing viewpoints of service, many of which support this etymology. The general attitude of the anti-service message alludes to the mentality that any service rendered should be rewarded with a form of payment (the foundation of capitalism). Additionally, any efforts of service that attempt to portray their efforts as volunteer are either delusional or communist. The simple message: any service is unpaid work and unpaid work is slavery.
On Thursday, I discussed the battling viewpoints of service given by Dylan and Lennon. Dylan would have us be slaves to his Lord (or, I guess, the devil), Lennon only asks that we are slaves to ourselves (and who, in truth, does not perform many hours of unpaid labor for the benefit of the self?). I also noted that I can never be a slave for Dylan, though I would much easier be one on Lennon’s behalf.
So we arrive on Friday, certainly no wiser than on Monday. If we accept the Latin root of service as a form of slavery, then while we must constitute community and public service as such, so should we also define all habits of service towards others, even if it is military service or professional service. One could argue that it is the payment for services that marks the difference between slavery and freely working for others for the benefit of the self. To me, though, this seems a flimsy argument: I would rather have it match the all-or-nothing standard of that Latin root, which assumes slavery in all instances of service.
If you argue that community service is a form of slavery, then you must accept that all jobs that are not completely entrepreneurial (self-derived, self-serving) are likewise slavery. For instance, I work for a publishing company and I perform the service of publishing information to the reading public. It is a noble endeavor, surely, but it is not the one I would pursue were I competent enough to survive on my preferred creative talents. I serve others by an agreed upon coercion: I realize that until I build my own self-enterprise, I must be employed at the will of the larger self (being the company, starting with our founder) that pays me, while the society benefits from and pays for the service we offer. We have, as a society, agreed that we cannot always allow everyone to be free: we insist that many of us work in order to sustain the environment that we are subject to by the proxy of our birthplace. This is true in any nation.
But our children are an even more deeply subjugated group. We do not ask them if they want to go to school or if they want to learn the parts of history that we, as a society, choose to teach. They have a very limited free will in choosing what they can learn – and I haven’t yet seen the most strident capitalist suggest that our students be paid to learn. Instead, we as a society generally agree upon what to teach our children, so that they might grow up and support mom and dad when we are feeble. We may not agree with every aspect of any curriculum, but within our democracy we can run for the school board if we feel strongly enough about what is being taught (as seen in Pennsylvania and Kansas, where parents did not want evolution taught and attempted to voice their policy beliefs democratically). We allow democracy to ultimately choose the directions of the education we compel our students to be taught and, for better or worse, it is the majority whom direct our path.
When America was experiencing the slavery of Africans, it was merely by a measure of degrees: America’s slaves, in addition to toiling for a boss they didn’t like (as most of us will), also were denied the possibility of reading and writing, voting, earning enough money to move, the right to quit their job and try something new, and the general ability of being able to climb the social ladder (surely, I’ve missed many of the limitations that were favored during the time). While we eventually decided those infringements went beyond the rights afforded to all Americans by our Constitution, the slavery of all Americans (by this definition of service) continues to this day for people of all colors. We are all compelled to perform labor for others and I doubt that we will ever find a rationale that sees this reality dismissed.
So: all that we do that is beyond the needs our own persons is slavery. Some forms of slavery are compensated better than others (while we may believe that a true entrepreneur has no limits upon the extent of his individual expression) but, most generally, we all serve others with our unpaid labor.
As a singular American and through the experience I have had in my life of working on behalf of my fellow Americans (whether in my community service, in my paid jobs, or the work I do on behalf of my friends and family), I believe that we should encourage our continued slavery to our fellow American (and even more so: our fellow human). Knowing that the lessons we choose to inculcate in our students is the “freely chosen” slavery of our public education system, I only suggest that we follow Obama’s path towards service. The lessons of service are legion: what our children choose to do with them after they pass through our education system is entirely up to them. But so long as we compel them to perform the labor of education on behalf of our entire country, I suggest that service should be a mandatory element of their learning, just as learning reading, writing, and arithmetic is.
After all, we have these little bastards right where we want them: completely subject to the whims of our wills, unable to escape the servitude of the unpaid labor they are forced to perform for the nation’s benefit. The very least we could do is let them know how lucky they really are as Americans by putting them through the reamer of service until they graduate from college, at which time we will offer them an adulthood where they can freely disregard any forces that might make mandatory their desire to help their fellow American out.
And who just so happens to be one of those fellow Americans? I am. And who, then, will benefit from a national commitment to service for others? I will. Do you understand now? Above all, as Lennon said, you need to serve yourself.
And so I subsequently looked up “slave” and discovered that the root for that word is derived from the Slavs, “so called because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples.” Ah, I cried: my people! [I’m half-Polish.]
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