Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Wired's GeekDad column has a good, long piece on the Boy Scouts and whether they have any relevance at all today. The short answer is mostly no, because they decided to jump into the culture wars on the wrong side. They are now dominated by Christianists, to the point where they exclude not only gay kids, but Unitarians.

This wasn't always the case. It surprises people who know me now when they find out I was in the Boy Scouts (a long time ago, to be sure). I had mixed feelings about it even then -- the quasi-military aspects of it did not appeal. But it got me and my father out of the house and into nature, which was definitely a good thing. And I look back on some of the more positive cultural aspects of the organization -- "Be Prepared" is a still a fine motto today. And you could get merit badges in computers and nuclear energy, as well as more traditional things like first aid.

I got as far as Life Scout (one rank below Eagle) before quitting and joining up with Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-zionist youth group which is genetically related to the Boy Scouts through common ancestry in the Wandervogel movements of early 20th century Europe. Hashomer had girls and a much more attractive underlying culture. It didn't really take either -- I declined to go live on a kibbutz after finishing high school, and went off to MIT instead.

I occasionally find myself wishing that the Scouts had not become dominated by regressive elements so that I could participate in it with my own children. I came up with the idea that in places like the Bay Area or Boston you might be able to make an alternative organization that embodied the positive aspects of scouting without the Christianist crapola. Call it the alt.scouts, or maybe the Green Scouts, which sounds like an cadre of young environmental shock troops. If someone wants to help start a group like that, let me know, I'm in and I'll drag my kids along.

Here's a passage from the Wired article that makes the case for scouting:
Scouting emphasizes a strong bond between boys and their families. In many cases, this is exemplified by the relationship between boys and their fathers, who are most often volunteers for the program. This traditional arrangement provides an ideal opportunity for boys to step away from their daily routine and not only learn core Scouting skills like orienteering, cooking or first aid, but also skills outside the Scouting curriculum, like negotiating the pitfalls of adolescence and growing to become men. Yes, these are things that boys can learn elsewhere, but Scouting provides a conduit - whether a weekend-long campout, a two-week backpacking trek or just a weekly meeting - where interaction with teenagers and their fathers is mandatory — an occurrence that’s sometimes difficult for many families at home.

Then, there are Scouting’s values, those twelve points that both brand and identify a Boy Scout as, that squeaky-clean, do-gooder kid: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. For the most part, these are ideals that most of us want to see in our family, friends and neighbors. Scouting has consistently forwarded these values over their 100 year history. Peter Applebome, an editor of The New York Times, once wrote that, as an adult volunteer involved with his son’s scouting, he observed that “Scouting’s core values … are wonderful building blocks for a movement and a life. Scouting’s genuinely egalitarian goals and instincts are more important now than they’ve ever been. It’s one of the only things that kids do that’s genuinely cooperative, not competitive.”
Scouting today seems rather quaint and weak. Its iconography of Indians and play-soldiery was outdated in my time and is laughable to the kids of today. As an institution it has been unable to adapt to changing values and as a result is increasingly controlled by the troglodyte right (especially Mormons, it turns out). It might have once been a noble effort to temper the onslaught of modernity by creating a values-centered social institution, part of the lamented civil society, that network of non-state institutions that is supposed to be the main constituent of social life. Not a bad idea but difficult to pull off in practice. Unfortunately the groups best positioned to resist the centrifugal effects of capitalism and technology are also the ones with the most regressive values.

[[update: Here's Penn & Teller's take on the BSA]]

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