The Supreme Court ruled in June that the Boy Scouts had a constitutional right to reject the services of openly gay scoutmasters. Simply because the Scouts used places of public accommodation-church basements, school gyms, parks-for meetings and camp-outs did not mean they were a public accommodation themselves. The Court’s decision looked like a victory, albeit a hair-raisingly narrow one (the decision was 5-4), for the private sphere.
It was no victory for the Boy Scouts, however. When six scouts participated in an opening ceremony at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, they were booed by gay delegates from California (Senator Lieberman must not have been on the platform at the time). This was the routine boorishness of the activist. But on Aug. 29, The New York Times reported on page 1 that the Scouts were suffering more tangible penalties: the withdrawal of money and public access by government and the private sector.
When one parsed the Times story carefully, one found that the counterattack on the Scouts comes primarily from two directions: from local governments that have official pro-gay agendas, and from the United Way, which reminds us of the extent to which organized charities now mimic government policy. The Times , in other words, overplayed the story. No surprise from the paper, which might well rename itself Gays in the News . But big corporations-Chase Manhattan, Textron-have yanked their support from the Scouts, too.
Running like a sewer beneath the public debate is a sexual subtext. The Scouts and other youth activities provide the occasion for much near-pubescent sexual fumbling. Camille Paglia wrote a few years ago in these pages that the hottest times she ever had were at summer camp. No such disclosures will be forthcoming here. Just because she showed me hers, I will not show her mine. On the other side, the desire of gay activists to claim the scouting movement as a wall trophy cannot be unrelated to male homosexual idealization of the archetypal young man. Add uniforms and, for a certain gay sensibility, you have a twofer.
Needless to say, these undercurrents are not what Scouting is about. For suburban kids, the Boy Scouts offer a chance to experience nature as something more than pets, sparrows and garbage-eating raccoons. Of all the constellations I learned for an astronomy merit badge, I still remember eight or 10. They make the night sky a little familiar, without robbing it of its strangeness. The Scouts also gave soft-living baby boomers at least a nodding acquaintance with practical responsibility. If you couldn’t light the fire, you wouldn’t eat; if you stowed the canoe incompetently, you got dunked. Camping is not a video game; real actions have real consequences.
In the winter 2000 issue of City Journal, Heather MacDonald described what Scouting does for urban boys, many of them immigrants, many of them poor. It gives them a focus for aspiration, with structure and ideals. When all the slob youth culture has to offer are parka’d black rappers bellowing about “ho’s” and pimply, backward-capped white guys wishing they were rappers, boys who don’t simply embrace the wallow become desperate for direction and leadership. The Latin Kings offer one form of hierarchy; isn’t Scouting better? Some years ago the literary critic Paul Fussell, a sophisticate of sophisticates, wrote an essay proposing the Boy Scout Law as a model of conduct. Poor kids in Brooklyn and the Bronx turn to it today.
In the context of a living tradition, change occurs over time. In the marketplace, it occurs as consumers nudge the mass, like a swarm of tugboats, this way and that. Law and public policy today offer a parody of tradition and the market, with scrums of lobbyists and litigators shifting their weight and feeling for holds; the sweating contestants in the suit involving the Boy Scouts were Gay Pride versus the First Amendment Gang. In the judge’s box sit the Supremes, four on the left, four on the right. When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who sits in the middle, decides what the universe and the Constitution prescribe for the instance under review (but for no other), we clang the bell and the contestants go back to their corners to await the next round. It’s a worse system than tradition and the market; better than reading entrails. It’s what we have; we muddle along.
The Boy Scouts, it seems, are being assaulted at all three levels-by lawyers and lawmakers; by corporate sponsors; and perhaps, last and most slowly, by popular sentiment, which is the freeze-frame of tradition, as bien pensant becomes common currency. It is, after all, the Gay Moment. If the Boy Scouts won’t conform to the mores of Barney Frank, let them camp out on their own private land, like white supremacists in the Idaho panhandle. Such seems to be the signal they are getting.
Maybe a hum of hostility, like background radiation, will be good for the organization. It is probably wrong for anybody ever to be too at ease in Zion. I remember a few years ago when two parents who were Christian Scientists experienced some real penalty for not sending their sick child to a hospital. It may have been as severe as jail time. I remember thinking, Good for them; better for their religion. Christian Science is a sect that has suffered from having too much money (a lot of its Junior-WASP members were well-heeled). Being on the outside can improve the muscle tone of the mind.
Will we benefit from penning the Boy Scouts into Bantustans? If the Boy Scouts become a thing apart-tolerated but faintly disdained, like snake-handlers or nudists- then secular moral instruction will be left entirely where it now mainly resides: with the public schools, and with the windy exhortations of politicians. We will not always have Presidents as debased as the outgoing incumbent, so the farcical contrast between professions and practice will not be unrelenting. But these are weak reeds to lean on.