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Why the Boy Scouts Work
A century ago, this outfit figured out how to fire the imagination of inner-city boys with nature lore, ritual, and a code of conduct stressing duty, honor, and manliness. That’s why today’s elites hate it.
Winter 2000

Feeling dispirited about today's youth? Try attending a Boy Scout meeting. You will find a parallel universe to today's vulgar, sexualized youth culture, filled with gestures of sometimes unbelievable delicacy and a code of conduct as anachronistic as sixteenth-century courtiership. Take Harlem's Troop 759. Six boys, from tall to small, sit expectantly around a card table in the basement of a red brick church on Morningside Avenue. The gangly senior patrol leader, Osmond Ollennu, a tenth-grade son of Ghanaians, calls the troop to opening ceremonies ("C'mon, men, form a straight line!"), and Osmond's little brother leads it in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by four full-throated repetitions of the scout motto ("Be Prepared!") and one scout slogan ("Do a Good Turn Daily"). Then Osmond, who is the troop's second-in-command, announces inspection. While the boys stand quietly in line, he gently reties a neckerchief here, straightens a collar there, occasionally whispering a reminder in a boy's ear. The troop's leader, a dignified 18-year-old named Henry Lawson, inspects Ollennu in turn.

To anyone familiar with the chaos in New York's inner-city classrooms, such rituals are a little piece of heaven. Though scouting arose in response to a perceived moral crisis in youth nearly 100 years ago, its founders could not possibly have foreseen how much more desperately their gift to poor, drifting boys would be needed today. In a world lacking structure, where even family may be constantly in flux, scouting provides order—from the weekly meetings with their flag ceremony and scout oath to the little rules of self-presentation, like neckerchief-tying and tucked-in shirts. To boys desperate for authority and discipline, it offers self-control and a clear path toward achievement. Most important, it speaks a language of selflessness and honor to a culture tongue-tied about virtue. It is a ready-made salvation for urban children, complete with that holy grail: self-esteem. Even so, today's cultural elite, offended by scouting's nineteenth-century ethic of manly virtue, has put it right in the line of fire of today's culture wars.

As the nineteenth century ended, men on both sides of the Atlantic worried about boys, especially poor immigrant boys in the teeming cities, who seemed destined for delinquency or poverty. Ernest Thompson Seton, a Canadian naturalist, wildlife painter, and children's author, summed up these anxieties: "It is the exception when we see a boy respectful of his superiors and obedient to his parents . . . handy with tools and capable of taking care of himself, under all circumstances . . . whose life is absolutely governed by the safe old moral standards." Seton looked around for "robust, manly, self-reliant boyhood," and found instead "a lot of flat-chested cigarette smokers, with shaky nerves and a doubtful vitality"—just as his British contemporaries found an alarming number of young men unfit for the draft.

These concerned men responded by creating a host of character-building organizations, the most powerful of which was the Boy Scouts. The organization grew out of Seton's newly created boys' group, the Woodcraft Indians, and the insights of an ebullient British war hero, Robert Baden-Powell. Lord Baden-Powell had returned to England from the Boer War in 1903 to find children devouring a soldiers' scouting manual he had written. Teachers urged him to revise the manual for boys, and Baden-Powell, inspired by Seton's Woodcraft Indians handbook, seized the challenge.

He envisioned a new organization that would draw on wartime scouting lore and ancient codes of chivalry to teach boys the Victorian virtues. King Arthur's Round Table, Baden-Powell understood, resonated in boys' souls, for it symbolized the marriage of strength and goodness, by contrast with today's "gangsta" culture, which defines manliness as violently predatory. The aim of this new organization, Baden-Powell wrote in 1906, "is to develop among boys a power of sympathizing with others, and a spirit of self-sacrifice and patriotism."

Baden-Powell believed that scouting's core virtues of selflessness and the cheerful performance of duty were as valid for the poor as for the upper and middle classes. "Everything on two legs that calls itself a boy has God in him," he insisted, "although he may—through the artificial environment of modern civilization—be the most arrant little thief, liar, and filth-monger unhung. Our job is to give him a chance." Respect for others, without class distinctions, was a scout's universal duty.

Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys, published in 1908, was an instant hit. It combined the author's whimsical "campfire yarns" and drawings with nature lore and tales of honor. Scouts would progress through a series of ranks by mastering outdoor skills and showing self-reliance and civic-mindedness. Many of the requirements reinforced bourgeois values: to learn thrift, for example, scouts had to earn and bank up to one shilling. Other requirements were exercises in self-cultivation: boys had to memorize the contents of a shop window after a brief period of observation, for example, in order to develop mental discipline and attention to the world outside the all-absorbing adolescent self.

The core of scouting was the scout law and oath. The scout handbook, historian Paul Fussell has observed, is a "book about goodness," and the law is its purest distillate. Its overarching theme is thoughtfulness toward others. A scout is "friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, brave," in the American phrasing. Explains Baden-Powell: "When in difficulty to know which of two things to do, [the scout] must ask himself, 'Which is my duty?' that is, 'Which is best for other people?'—and do that one." A scout observes traditional rules of chivalry: he is "polite to all, especially to women, children, old people, and the weak and helpless." He must obey an ironclad law of personal integrity: "If a scout were to break his honour by telling a lie . . . he would cease to be a scout—he loses his life," warns Baden-Powell.

Far from being a stern decalogue, Baden-Powell's law contains only positive injunctions. "’Don't,' of course is the distinguishing feature and motto of the old-fashioned system of repression; and is a red rag to a boy," he wrote, with his unerring grasp of boy psychology. "It is a challenge to him to do wrong." Far from being the jingoistic martinet that caricaturists make him out to be, Baden-Powell shares many of the views of today's so-called "progressive" educators. He believed that effort, not just achievement, should be rewarded; he made boys each others' teachers and avoided creating a competitive structure in scouting.

Reviewing the American scouting handbook in 1912, a mother reported that "something in me got to its feet and saluted as a cadet salutes a superior officer." It is impossible to avoid the same reaction to the scout law and oath today. "I had hoped my boy would be all these things, and had so admonished him," the reviewer explained. "But these are Scout Laws, mind you, not advice and admonition, not hopes backed by maternal pleadings and fears, but laws, self-imposed when the Scout takes his oath." Unlike today's progressives, Baden-Powell and his contemporaries recognized children's powerful desire for a moral absolute. And he fed boys' hunger for heroism and valor, traits excluded from today's feminist-inspired pantheon of sensitivity and nonjudgmentalism.

The scouts spread electrically. "There suddenly appeared in my world," H.G. Wells wrote, just three years after publication of Scouting for Boys, "a new sort of little boy—a most agreeable development of the slouching, cunning, cigarette-smoking, town-bred youngster—a small boy in a khaki hat, with bare knees and athletic bearing, earnestly engaged in wholesome and invigorating games—the Boy Scout."

Quickly spanning the globe, scouting almost instantly leaped to America. The first American Scout Handbook for Boys of 1911, edited by Ernest Thompson Seton, contains delightful contributions from American naturalists, a section on chivalry that places the Pilgrim Fathers and Abraham Lincoln in the tradition of Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad, and meaty material on American history and governance. But combined with the Nature empathy—"the love of the green outdoors—the trees, the tree-top singers, the wood-herbs," as Seton's ecstatic prose put it—was the core Victorian ethic of manly altruism, which harmonized perfectly with reigning American values. Chief Scout Citizen Theodore Roosevelt reminded the scouts in 1913 that "manliness in its most rigorous form can be and ought to be accompanied by unselfish consideration for the rights and interests of others."

The American scout oath and law gave a Yankee twist to Baden-Powell's original, excising all his charming British whimsy. The American scout pledges to keep himself "physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight," and he must obey the injunction to be "brave, clean and reverent." Long before diversity trainers appeared to browbeat America, the scout law urbanely commanded boys to "respect the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion."

Though World War I sealed scouting's status as the premier American youth movement, thanks to the scouts' indefatigable war-bond sales and collection of matériel, American scouting didn't enter its real heyday until after World War II. The scouts thrived "when America believed in itself," painter and Boy Scout illustrator Norman Rockwell recalled. Every two years, the scouts performed a well-publicized national Good Turn, collecting clothes for overseas, practicing conservation, or getting out the vote. Peer pressure pushed toward, not away from, membership.

The 1960s counterculture and the Boy Scouts of America were a train wreck waiting to happen. Here was a supremely patriotic, service- and family-oriented institution suddenly up against a movement celebrating rebellion and declaring "AmeriKKKa" a fascist regime. The official scout response to the assault on everything the scouts stood for was understandably confused. Though a 1968 annual report scoffed at the "impractical flower world of the Hippie," officials worried deeply about that bogus sixties concept, "relevance." They commissioned a survey that asked, "Is Scouting in Tune with the Times?"—and, not surprisingly, learned that the answer was no.

In 1969, membership dropped for the first time in history; it nose-dived throughout the 1970s. The organization responded first with small changes, then big ones, as recounted by scout historian Robert Peterson. The Cub Scouts dropped "To be square" from their Promise. "Boy" was eased out of the official name, which became for a time simply Scouting/USA. And in 1972, the Scout Handbook endured a sweeping overhaul. Gone were such stalwart features as tracking skills, canoeing, rope lashing, and first aid for sunstroke and frostbite. In their place were first aid for rat bites, hiking in the city, and advice on drug abuse. A boy could now reach Eagle rank without ever venturing beyond city limits. No longer a sage on outdoor craft, the scoutmaster became a "personal growth" counselor.

The change in part grew out of the scouts' new emphasis on minority recruitment. In the first half of the century, the Boy Scouts conformed to America's racial caste system, encouraging local councils to form black troops but not insisting that troops be integrated. Black scouts' camping facilities were painfully substandard. Nevertheless, many blacks fondly remember their scouting experiences from the 1940s and 1950s. "It was a thing of pride to wear your uniform on the streets," recalls Harvey Johnson, a scout at the Harlem Boys Club at 134th street during the late 1940s. "Now, if you try to do it, it's unbelievable."

In the 1960s, scout officials began a massive campaign to recruit inner-city and backwoods rural boys. Their insight was faultless—scouting could be a lifesaver for at-risk youth—their execution, inept. Rather than rely on the time-tested appeal of the outdoors and of scouting's rules, rituals, and achievements, officials tried to remake scouting into an urban survival program. Rather than call on scouting's long tradition of volunteer service to bring scoutmasters of all colors into the ghetto, they started using CETA funds—that bungling federal work program—to hire minority scoutmasters.

Some inner-city troops adopted a veneer of Black Power: one Brooklyn group pledged to ethnic solidarity and black pride, and sported the combat boots, berets, and army fatigues of black radicals. Other troops, however, stuck to the traditional program, to the lasting benefit of their members. "What I picked up was so invaluable," recalls Frederick Simmons, a scout at the Second Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem during the 1960s. "Most of my friends became involved in drugs. Scouting kept me out of trouble." Simmons used to brag to his uncles about his knowledge of knot-tying, chopping wood, and first aid, for these were skills that adults didn't have. He slept with his merit-badge sash wrapped around him. "Every one of those badges represents an achievement; no one gave them to you," he explains. "They helped my self-confidence"—just as Baden-Powell had intended.

And here Simmons touches on the unheralded power of scouting. At a time when government was creating a dependent class, scouting insisted that nothing comes for free. The poorest scout has to pay at least de minimis monthly dues; handbooks and uniforms have to be earned, if not paid for in cash, by attendance and gradual progress toward a goal. Merit badges are allocated not on the basis of skin color but according to individual accomplishment.

As for the million-dollar question in scouting—do the scout oath and law actually affect behavior?—Simmons answers an emphatic yes: "I can assure you, we do internalize the scouting values," he says. A 1996 Lou Harris study backs Simmons up: men with scouting experience place a higher value on honesty and integrity than men without it.

The 1972 revisions to the scouting program only accelerated the membership decline, and traditional scoutmasters left the movement in droves. In 1978, scout executives realized that running after America's convulsive cultural changes was a losing game: either scouting's founders had discovered something universal about boys and their attraction to nature and ritual, or there was little point in existing. So officials brought mandatory camping skills back into the program, just in time for the Reagan counterreformation. Membership started climbing again.

The scouts' commitment to the inner city, however, laudably became permanent. Local scout councils now spend heavily to recruit minority kids; corporate donations allow every poor inner-city scout to attend camp. The promise of scouting—that it is a universal brotherhood blind to class, race, and religion—has come true. Many scout troops are wildly diverse, and even all-white troops are an ethnic and religious pot-pourri.

The inner city has redeemed Baden-Powell's wager that all kids can respond to the call of the outdoors. The resulting images are sometimes surreal. In Brooklyn's depressed Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, ten boys watch a pot-bellied man in black dress shoes and a scout uniform saw a log in a church basement. "My thing is, you gotta know the parts [of the saw]," he throws out to no one in particular. There are no trees in this stretch of Bedford-Stuyvesant, but the scouts in Troop 409 pay attention anyway. Neither parents nor boys see any incongruity. As a Cub Pack skips down Fifth Avenue singing "America the Beautiful" for the Veteran's Day parade, a single mother tells me that her son is doing a lot of "interesting things to get ready for the world—camping, tying knots, building fires. It's very helpful."

Of course, no one today needs to know how to build a fire or pitch a tent. But these skills were always pretextual. Scoutcraft teaches, among other things, persistence in the face of disappointment. When it rains and your boots are filled with mud, "you can either take a bad hand and fold, or you can keep playing it, and it will get better," explains Scott Slaton, an Eagle Scout from Atlanta who works with inner-city scouts. In or out of the inner city, this Baden-Powellesque cheerfulness toward adversity is a recipe for success.

Indeed, scouting is a brilliant method for infusing children with a set of values that can be especially hard to find in the inner city. The little details that fill each meeting constantly reinforce a code of conduct based on self-restraint, neatness, and courtesy—the essentials of civilized life. Keeping your uniform in order, standing precisely in line—these are not haphazard naggings. These details define a scout; they are part of his identity. "You guys are the Boy Scouts; you have to set an example for others, so buckle up your lip," a scoutmaster on West 96th Street barks at his troop before they enter a Cub Scout ceremony. How often do most inner-city teens get to serve as positive role models?

In the most disciplined troops, this search for perfection takes on a sort of magnificence. Henry Lawson, the self-assured leader of Harlem's Troop 759, reminds his troop: "December 18 is my Eagle Scout Court of Honor. Look sharp!" Achieving Eagle Scout status is a rare accomplishment in the ghetto. "Take your uniforms to the cleaner, bring your family, your sister. Look sharp!" he repeats emphatically. "I want puh-leat-zzz in your uniforms!" To demonstrate the desired crispness, he delicately pulls his uniform taut at the shoulders with slender fingers. The boys write in their notebooks: "Henry court of honor. Full uniform."

Inner-city boys are starving for discipline; scouting allows them to follow and to lead. Terry, a bucktoothed patrol leader in Brooklyn's Troop 409, leads his troop in a salute and pledge to the flag, after which he announces to his scoutmaster: "Your orders have been carried out, sir." What does this 16-year-old most like about scouting? "The sense of giving commands and following orders," he says. "If the scouts don't follow orders, they pay the consequences." Not that it's so easy getting your charges to pay attention. A long-lashed patrol leader sighs sadly about his fractious troop: "I don't know why they are not obeying tonight." If he figures that out, he will be well on his way to assuming leadership as an adult.

The ultimate goal is the fully moral life. In scouting, explains Atlanta's Scott Slaton, "you're surrounded by these ideals. It can be lonely to do the right thing. But if you know it's right, it's right, period, no matter what your friends say." Don't count on children learning that at home or from their peers.

For many ghetto parents, scouting's greatest boon is the scoutmaster. "This is a lifesaver," a single mother tells me. The scoutmaster may be the only stable adult in a child's life. Schools call him about truant boys; single mothers or grandmothers invoke his wrath to try to get a boy to behave. Staten Island's Harvey Johnson exemplifies the male authority figure that inner-city mothers desperately want. "When I take seven to eight boys to camp, I can't accept nothing but discipline," he says. "I'm not a little guy," the burly Johnson explains slyly. "Now, that boy isn't absolutely certain that I won't get real mad; he can't swear it. He's thinking: ‘I don't know if he'll kill me or not,'" Johnson chuckles, "’so I better do what he wants.'" Johnson is fiercely dedicated to scouting's values and to bringing boys into their orbit. "Scouting is corny," he says proudly. "You try to sell that corniness to the boys: that it's all right to salute the flag and respect your family." Black kids don't need the militancy of the 1960s anymore, he says—not at this stage of history. "You have to know how to build a fire and pitch a tent," he asserts. "I can't do that and walk around with my fist in the air." Johnson strives to spread scouting's values to a scout's parents, too, in an ever-widening circle of influence. He tries to teach mothers that their every gesture is a moral example—for better or worse—to their boys, and to persuade fathers, if they are around, to take responsibility for their children.

Unfortunately, men like Johnson are hard to find in the inner city. Scout councils have continued paying scoutmasters in areas where they can find no volunteers; the New York Council even hires former welfare recipients, a practice other councils rightly frown upon. Local councils today ought to cast a far wider net to find men, regardless of color, willing to help poor boys. They should send out a call to New York's civic-minded corporations that they need men for a proven program for guiding boys into adulthood. These companies, which already finance camperships and provide tutors and mentors for a wide range of youth activities, are sure to respond.

The traditional values of scouting are shrivelling up everywhere today; in troubled neighborhoods, they are a precious balm. "When I see my neighbors carrying bags, I'm supposed to help them automatically," announces Dayshon Green, a round 12-year-old scout in Bedford-Stuyvesant. "You're supposed to tell the truth; the truth will set you free."

I have seen tiny civilities in scout meetings across New York that may have been common 75 years ago but that today make the heart rejoice. As a Cub Pack meeting near Columbia University is drawing to a close, one of its young leaders, a vivacious Peruvian-American named Thomas, pauses to consider his options. "And now we're going to . . . to . . . ." His inspiration arrives: " . . . sing a song for our guest!" And the boys break out into a lusty rendition of the "Cub Scout Spirit" for me, complete with body spins. At the conclusion of the Troop 409 meeting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the boys thank me in unison for coming. Two fawn-like boys at a meeting on the Lower East Side politely introduce themselves, offering their hands. When I ask one of them, Ian, where he got his good manners, he clutches his handbook to his chest and says, "I've practically memorized my Boy Scout book." The handbook says nothing about introducing yourself to adults; apparently its civilizing influence is wider than its literal words.

Scouting is taking up the schools' slack regarding American history and government, too. At a merit badge rally last November (a "teach-in" for merit badges), a dumpling-shaped lady in a scout uniform grilled boys in large parkas about American government. "Fellows, if we don't know our Declaration of Independence, our Preamble, and our Constitution, we don't know anything about our nation," she chastised them in a heavy Queens accent. "Does anyone know the first three words of the Preamble?" At a time when 25 percent of college seniors in a recent poll thought that the Marxist maxim "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," was a Constitutional phrase, the scouts' emphasis on civics is crucial. "There are very few activities that allow you to get into a traditional form of American education," a single mother of a Cub Scout told me. "You need some fundamentals and basics."

The scouts are probably kids' only source of basic training in patriotism today. Cultivating a love of country in disadvantaged boys is a cure for alienation; it centers them in an identity far larger and more valuable than race or class and assures them that this is their country, too. Thomas, the radiant Peruvian-American Cub leader, tried to teach tiny Wolf Cubs about the flag last November. "Okay, the first thing we need to talk about is the Pledge of Allegiance," he announced enthusiastically. "Who knows what it means? What is allegiance?" The boys stare fascinated at Thomas, with open mouths and huge eyes. No response. He cheerfully continues his one-sided Socratic dialogue. "Allegiance is to respect our country. Allegiance is to be true. Who knows what a republic is? It's our kind of government. Do you learn about history in school?" All the boys shake their heads no. Thomas then hits unwittingly on the essential paradox of ordered liberty: "Liberty is freedom for you and others," he explains. "We're all free to do what we want. Except," he reflects judiciously, " . . . well, rules."

The scouts have recovered their 1970s membership losses and are now growing at a fast clip, especially in the suburbs, as many parents increasingly realize that they can't raise decent children in a value-free environment. Even so, the elites in the press, the universities, and the chattering professions, having thoroughly absorbed the adversarial values of the 1960s, have kept the scouts from regaining their place in the American imagination. Nothing could be more repugnant to elite values than the scouts, with their traditional manliness, as two revisionist histories from the early 1980s make clear. In Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and Their Forerunners: 1870-1920, historian David Macleod portrays that era's effort to inculcate honor and duty in boys as merely the hysterical reaction of a neurotic upper class to adolescent sexuality. Noting with derision the scouts' emphasis on sexual abstinence till marriage, Macleod sneers that "pleasure of course never skulked across the stage." Presumably, because scout leaders did not discuss, say, masturbation or orgasm or condom etiquette, as do today's sex educators, they betrayed their charges. Forget duty to others; today's academy teaches that only the self and all its polymorphous desires counts.

Macleod scoffs at the wide-ranging knowledge of American history and government the early scouts acquired. Where, he bleats, is the scouts' call for "critical thinking on how to effect political change"? Like all contemporary advocates of "critical thinking," Macleod forgets that you can't think until you know something, and like most radical profs, he takes for granted that any critical thinker will call for a new political system.

In the same vein, Columbia English professor Michael Rosenthal presents scouting as a terrified upper-class effort at social control; he indulges in much self-righteous chest-thumping about the evils of imperialism as well. Baden-Powell designed scouting, he argues in The Character Factory: Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts and the Imperatives of Empire, to create docile automata who would mindlessly perform the duties of empire. Rosenthal astoundingly sees in the inspiring scout law, with its supreme emphasis on selflessness and kindness to others, "one quality only—obedience." Echoing Macleod's knee-jerk call for "critical thinking," he reduces scouting to "hatred of dissent [and] fear of the independent critical mind"—which, of course, will think only approved sixties thoughts.

Since the 1960s, academia has trumpeted itself as a selfless, public-spirited counterweight to greedy, materialistic America. But that's an empty claim compared to scouting's full-throated championship of chivalric duty and its opposition to the selfish individualism of industrial society. Faced with the call to help others "before everything else," in Baden-Powell's words—before, that is, all the imperatives of the self—the modern academic shrivels up, reaches for his latte, and whines about "critical thinking."

Just as the academic debunkers began to hyperventilate, the American litigation machine started to gear up against the scouts. The organization has always had its share of critics, charging the scouts variously with being too pacifist, too militarist, too capitalist, or too internationalist. In the 1920s, for example, the secretary of the Young Communist League warned Baden-Powell to expect a fight to the finish. Baden-Powell lightly stepped aside: "You can't fight without two," he replied calmly. "Our aim is to help the poorer boy, independent of all political questions, to get his fair chance of happiness and success in life."

But unlike early critics, who often simply went and formed alternative organizations, today's opponents have been suing to get into the scouts and dismantle it from within. Atheist Elliot Welsh of Burr Ridge, Illinois, is a typical scout litigant. He characterized the Tiger Cub Promise, "I promise to love God, my family, and my country, and to learn about the world," as "bigoted, outmoded boilerplate." Did he send his six-year-old son Mark to an American Atheist camp instead? Of course not. He sued the scouts in 1989 for violating his son's rights. As an alleged "public accommodation," Welsh argued, the scouts could not ask their members to declare reverence for God.

Girls, atheists, and homosexuals have all sued the scouts. Until recently, the scouts always won, on the grounds that they were a private entity, not a "public accommodation" like a restaurant or a hotel. As such, they should be allowed to set their own membership and leadership criteria, consonant with their moral purpose. Nevertheless, the litigation has been a public-relations nightmare. The press, of course, ate up every challenge, while ignoring the daily good that the scouts perform. When Timothy Curran, a homosexual Eagle scout, lost his bid to become a Berkeley, California, scoutmaster—he reportedly wanted to teach kids that there was nothing wrong with the homosexual life—Bay Area institutions sprang into action. Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo, the United Way of San Francisco, and the Bank of America stopped funding the scouts (the Bank of America subsequently restored funding); San Francisco and Oakland schools banned school-day scout programs. Companies elsewhere are joining the bandwagon: in a paroxysm of self-righteousness, Fleet Bank of Providence criticized the scouts for their ban on avowed homosexual scoutmasters while publicly accepting a scout award.

For those scout funders and sponsoring institutions that have withdrawn their support, it comes down to this: furthering the gay-rights crusade takes precedence over helping inner-city children—all the lost funding was earmarked for inner-city scouting or training for minority scoutmasters. New York state senator Tom Duane and Queens schoolteacher Danny Drum, both homosexual activists, are pressing the New York City Board of Education to end their support of scouting camperships for poor children. "I don't think students should go to a camp like that, whose organizers clearly discriminate against gays and lesbians," Drum explained. I asked him whether the young campers were even aware of the scouts' views on homosexuality. No, he answered: "The fact that [homosexuality] is not talked about is one of the biggest problems."

Ironically, the scouts' reticence about homosexuality is what finally ended its winning streak in the courts. Last August, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the scouts to reinstate James Dale as a scoutmaster, despite his public homosexual-rights activism. Not only did the Court find that the scouts were a "place" of "public accommodation," akin to a business establishment, but it concluded that the scouts have no First Amendment right to select leaders committed to their chosen moral message.

The Court rejected the scouts' First Amendment defense on several grounds: that fighting discrimination against homosexuals is supremely important; that having a homosexual scout leader is really no big deal; and that finally, though the scouts claim to believe that open homosexuality undermines their family-values message, they don't really mean it. The Court reached this astounding conclusion thus: since the scouts don't rant about homosexuality, since in fact they are virtually silent on the matter in their published materials, and since as we all know there is nothing more benighted than disapproving of homosexual conduct, the scouts misinterpret their own moral oath. The scouts may claim that their injunction to keep "morally straight" proscribes homosexual conduct, but they're wrong. The Court knows better.

If the New Jersey Dale decision stands, you can say good-bye to an independent private sphere. If the government can tell private, values-based groups what they really believe, free thought will go underground. If private groups have no freedom to choose their own leaders, private groups will wither away. What better way to destroy the scouts than to force on them leaders opposed to their core convictions? James Dale feels obliged to "point out" to scout administrators "how bad and wrong" their stance against homosexual conduct is; given the compulsively proselytizing character of the homosexual-rights movement, some homosexual-activist scoutmasters will inevitably also "point out" to the boys themselves their right to choose a homosexual life over a heterosexual family.

The New Jersey Supreme Court breezily declared that forcing homosexual scoutmasters on the scouts would have no effect on the organization. Seasoned scoutmasters know better. Francis Harty, a veteran Staten Island scoutmaster who has helped dozens of boys become Eagle Scouts, says: "I have no problem with a gay person in scouting. I'd have a hell of a time telling parents he's taking their boys into the woods." People will leave in "droves," predicts Baltimore scoutmaster Harry Shaw. "And we thought it was bad in the 1970s."

The Scout litigation is an alarm that America's obsession with alleged discrimination has gone too far. Elite culture now sees the highest function of government as correcting the petty prejudices of the citizens, even if that means destroying civil society in the process. If the government's crusade against so-called bigotry means eviscerating the scouts, it is long past time to shut the crusade down. Scouting does more good in a year than an army of ACLU lawyers has ever done. Although scouting has been battered by time, although its top officials are public-relations incompetents, it remains the paramount character-education program of our era, as a host of copycat programs such as Outward Bound testify. Everyone who cares about poor children—everyone who cares about teaching values to boys—should embrace it wholeheartedly and rally to its defense.

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