Why Boy Scouts Have Always Bothered Me

Boy Scouts of AmericaI live across the street from a family that is very involved with Boy Scouts of America. The father is a scout leader and two of the sons are Eagle Scouts. And they are all very nice people. One couldn’t ask for better neighbors. But here’s the thing: I find the Boy Scouts a deeply creepy institution. And this is not some liberal thing. I’ve always felt this way.

Although it might not be clear to look at me now, when I was a child, I was a very typical boy. I loved my army men and when I got older, I ran around with the other boys playing war with sticks fashioned into guns. So when my friends started becoming cub scouts, you would have thought I would have followed along. But I didn’t. Then, as now, I thought it was all very creepy.

It probably comes from the core of my being—my fascination with the Romantic hero archetype. But the idea of everyone dressing up the same way just wasn’t my idea of what it is to be a man. And more to the point, it wasn’t what my idea of what it is to be an American. As I noted last year:

It may be unfair, but I always associate the Boy Scouts with the Hitler Youth. I understand that the Hitler Youth basically took over what had been the Boy Scouts in Germany. But the uniforms, the paramilitary style, the right wing politics? It strikes me as downright un-American. But that’s just because there are two currents in America: the fierce individual and the belligerent conformist. I respect the first. But the Scouts reflect too much of the second, even if it is not intentionally bad. Its exclusionary policies alone reinforce the worst aspects of in-group/out-group politics. Hell, some troops were still racially segregated until 1974!

So I wasn’t exactly surprised to see an old article in The Atlantic by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz about the announcement that the Boy Scouts were going to let gay scouts into their club[1], Christopher Hitchens on the Mildly Fascist Founder of the Boy Scouts. I’m afraid she’s soft-pedaling it. Robert Baden-Powell was very supportive of fascism. And you can see why. Socially, fascism pushes the same kinds of ideas that that the Boy Scouts do: duty to the group and conformity.

Now let me be clear: I don’t think that the Boy Scouts of America are a fascist group. I don’t think that at all. But it wasn’t hard for Mussolini and Hitler to change the Boy Scout programs in their countries to fascist youth groups. And I think that is what is creepy about the group. But that is completely expected. I am the kind of person who rebels against authority. I am an equally bad leader and follower. A society made up of people like me would be no kind of society at all. So we need a lot of people who are willing to conform to create social cohesion.

Just the same, I think it is a major mistake to turn conformity into a fetish. The military does this because it is an unfortunate necessity, just as the very existence of the military is an unfortunate necessity. But to push boys into blind and ostentatious conformity before they are able to make the choice seems wrong to me. It’s too much like indoctrination. What’s more, it is a particular kind of paramilitary indoctrination. And for me, that’s what tips it from concerning to creepy.

[1] But they still aren’t allowing gay leaders. It is not clear what they think they are doing by this ban. Are they afraid gay leaders might rape the boys? Well, their straight leaders seem to already be doing that.


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Truth and Consideration

Virginia Woolf by Roger FryTo pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked.

—Virginia Woolf
To the Lighthouse

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The Muddle of Rick Perry’s Indictment

Rick PerryI’ve been biding my time on this whole business with Rick Perry and his actions to get Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign. Over the weekend, Jonathan Chait wrote, This Indictment Of Rick Perry Is Unbelievably Ridiculous. Now, I often disagree with Chait who is awfully neoliberal in many areas. But he is also incredibly smart, informed, and thoughtful. But the truth is, I think that Chait and others are jumping to a lot of conclusions. The truth is, we still don’t know what evidence Perry was indicted on. The dominant media narrative seems to be the one that Rick Perry wants.

The most troubling part of the narrative is that this is part of some Democratic witch hunt. That doesn’t really fly. As USA Today mentioned in an editorial criticizing the indictment, “It is being brought by a special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge.” So I wish that liberals would stop arguing things such as that it helps Chris Christie by implying that all questions about Republican corruption are politically motivated. This one just doesn’t seem to be.

As for the main argument that the indictment is based upon nothing, well, we just don’t know that. Most interestingly, My San Antonio reported, Perry Aides Offered Lehmberg a Job for Resignation. This muddles everything. On the one hand, Perry’s office allegedly offered Lehmberg a different job in the DA’s office. But they apparently also offered to replace her with a Democrat. That last bit of information would seem to eliminate Perry’s primary motive. Or maybe he felt any other Democrat would be less effective than Lehmberg. Or maybe he was just looking for a way to save face. Who knows at this time?

And that’s the point: we don’t know. James Moore at Huffington Post did a good job of laying out the potential problems for Perry, Why Rick Perry Will Be Convicted. In the article, he noted a bit of an inconsistency in Perry’s claim that Lehmberg was unfit for office because of the drunk driving conviction. Moore wrote:

Two other Texas DAs were arrested for DUI during Perry’s tenure in office and he spoke not a discouraging word about their indiscretions. Kaufman County DA Rick Harrison drove the wrong way into traffic and was found guilty of drunk driving in 2009 and in 2003 Terry McEachern, DA of Swisher County, was convicted of a DUI. Perry said nothing. It’s probably only coincidental that both of those individuals were Republicans and did not oversee an investigative unit responsible for keeping elected officials honest in the capitol.

In addition to this, the special prosecutor Michael McCrum has indicated to Vice that the case isn’t about the veto threat itself. He said, “I’m investigating the circumstances surrounding the veto and whether the governor’s actions were appropriate or not under the law.” And Jeffrey Toobin at the New Yorker has indicated that at this point, it doesn’t much matter if what Perry did was common, “[C]ourts respond to the argument that ‘everyone does it’ more or less the same way that your mother did.”

In the end, I don’t suppose it much matters. Rick Perry was never going to be the next President. No one on the left likes him. And on the right, he’s been an outcast ever since he indicated that he had a soul in the 2012 primary, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.” The Republican Party, in fact, does not have a heart and they won’t forget that.

So whether or not Rick Perry gets convicted doesn’t much matter outside of Texas. But I do wish that my fellow liberals would stop arguing that this is partisan and that Rick Perry is some kind of victim. It’s nothing like that.  It’s just Texas.

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College of Architecture and Planning Sign Is a Joke

College of Architecture and Planning

This is my own cropped version of an image that has been making its way around the internet. In case you can’t see it, the “C” in the word “College” is pasted on the brick wall to the left. It is clearly meant as a joke and an object lesson for all those “planning” majors. I think it’s quite brilliant.

By all accounts, the building was at Ball State and has since been torn down. But it is hard to know anything for sure. Consider that when this photo was posted on Reddit this January, cjhelms wrote:

The building was constructed in two parts. One completed in 1972 and the newer part completed in 1982. The newer part includes the wall to the left and the older part is the rest that you see. The photo was taken from the basement level. The lettering is above the first level (the windows above the words are of a second floor conference room). There was originally a pedestrian bridge that connected to the entrance below the lettering.

When the newer portion of the building was constructed, the contractor missed his mark and caused the lettering to be cut off. Why didn’t they change it? The space that used to be a beautiful grand entrance to the college was converted into a loading dock.

Part of this may well be true: the left side looks newer. Just the same, none of this would imply that an error was made and I find it very unlikely. Much more likely is that they were making an addition to the building and they knew they had to cover over part of the existing beam. Rather than redo the sign, someone said, “You know what would be funny…?” Cjhelms’ implication that they couldn’t be bothered to fix the sign because it was now just a loading dock doesn’t fly. If that’s the case, why did they go to the trouble of pasting the “C” on the brick wall?

What’s more, I question cjhelms’ seriousness. In another comment, he mentions that it was built by the “lowest bidder,” which is a tired cliche. No one ever gets a contract by being the lowest bidder; they often get them by being the lowest qualified bidder. What’s more, cjhelms claims he knows what went on there because he works at Ball State. But that doesn’t mean he knows anything about the project. And if he wasn’t there when it was built (he recently had a child so he is probably young), all he likely knows is campus folklore.

In contrast, RJMjr60 claimed:

It was done intentionally to prove a point, and to continually reiterate that point to every student who entered the building… The name was a reminder to always think things through and the fact that it made it to Reddit many years after its demise is proof that it got people’s attention and made them think.

Or just consider the human psychology behind the sign. If you ran the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State, and something went wrong on the project for your new building, you would make the best the situation. (For one thing, you would require the contractor to fix the sign!) You would not throw up your hands and say, “It’s an embarrassment, but there is nothing we can do about it!” So whatever the situation with the building, the sign was a choice—a joke that makes a point about the subject being taught.

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John Hiatt

John HiattThe great singer-songwriter John Hiatt is 62 years old today. I first noticed him in my teens. “Pink Bedroom” got a lot of play on our local radio station. He seemed to me like the American equivalent of Elvis Costello. That’s still not an entirely inappropriate comparison. But whereas Costello is more adventurous musically and lyrically, Hiatt is more audience-friendly and doesn’t suffer from Costello’s many excesses.

I don’t have much to say about his life or career. Mostly, he’s written a lot of songs that other people have covered. And he has a substantial following, but he isn’t playing stadiums. He has the kind of career I think most singer-songwriters would like: widely acclaimed by his peers, famous enough for it to be flattering, and rich from all his royalties.

To me, his 1983 album Riding with the King made him a star. For one thing, it is just a great album. But it seemed to me that everyone was playing “You May Already Be a Winner.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Here is “She Loves the Jerk”:

In 1992, Hiatt put out the album Little Village with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. I still listen to that album. It’s not great, but it’s a lot of fun. Here they are performing live:

Since that time he has been extremely consistent. Here is the title track from his 2005 album Master of Disaster:

Happy birthday John Hiatt!


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Conservatives Unhappy About History—Insist That Nicer Narratives Be Taught

Larry KriegerMichael Hiltzik brought my attention to a new education outrage, Republicans Throw a Conniption Over the Teaching of US History. Sadly, this one is particularly bad not because of the conservatives—I’m so used to anti-intellectualism on the right that it hardly registers. This one is terrible because of the total spinelessness of one very prominent educator.

The whole thing is about the new history outline for Advanced Placement classes issued by the College Board. It seems that retired teacher and AP test guide author Larry Krieger is unhappy because the outline doesn’t push his own personal view of American greatness. He is upset, for example, that Benjamin Franklin isn’t even mentioned in the outline. Can you imagine?! This is a historical figure that all American children have crammed down their throats from the first grade. What possible reason could the outline have for not mentioning him by name? I mean, other than the fact that students get college credit for AP courses and would be expected to have a pretty good understanding of both the man and his importance in the history of America?

What Krieger is really up to is clear in his reaction to this photograph by Jacob Riis of tenement conditions in New York in 1890:


Hiltzik describes the test question and Krieger’s objection:

One question asked is “Conditions like those shown in the image contributed most directly to which of the following?” The correct answer is, “An increase in Progressive reform activity.”

Kreiger comments, “That’s historically true but note that progressives are going to be the heroes in this narrative.”

There’s your bottom line. In the conservative educational world, historical truth will take you only so far. It’s the ideological narrative they’re concerned with, and if it doesn’t conform to their vision of an America invariably shining the light of freedom and plenty on the world, it must be “biased and inaccurate.”

All of this has led to the Republican National Committee passing a resolution calling the outline “biased and inaccurate” and asking for Congress to defund the College Board. But what is terrible is that the new College Board president, David Coleman, more or less caved as one would expect from the conservative stereotype of a liberal academic:

The board’s president, David Coleman, responded with a pusillanimous open letter praising the critics as “patriots who care deeply about what students learn” and bowing to the “principled confusion the new framework produced.” If he thinks this sort of soft-soaping will mollify the mob, he’s got another thing coming.

Coleman also notes that he joined the College Board “after the new US History framework was developed and released” (emphasis his), which is an odd way of standing up foursquare for years of work by one’s colleagues. He sounds a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Duke of Plaza-Toro, who “when there was any fighting… led his regiment from behind.”

Thankfully, the teachers who actually wrote the outline are fighting back. Their open letter is the kind of sharp attack that is critical if we are not going to allow ever more knowledge to fall into the black hole of “He said—she said—who can possibly say?” reporting that has now engulfed climate science and constantly threatens evolution theory.

We are writing this letter to correct recent uninformed criticisms that have been made in the press about the AP US History Curriculum Framework. We are proud to have participated in this landmark project to improve the teaching of United States History. We hope that this new course will help train a generation of students to understand their nation’s history and to be active citizens who can apply their understanding of the past to their daily lives.

The motivation to redesign AP United States History came first and foremost from AP teachers, who repeatedly expressed frustration with the way they believed the AP US History course prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of US history. Scholars of teaching and learning in history, and history teachers themselves, felt that the AP course provided too little guidance about what might be on the AP exam, causing them to rush their students in a quick march through a list of historical events. There were too few opportunities to understand the “why” of US history, and or to make its deeper meanings come alive to students…

Many of the comments we have heard about the framework reflect either a misunderstanding of US history or a very limited faith in history teachers’ command of their subject matter. The Curriculum Framework was written by and for AP teachers—individuals who were already experts in US history and its teaching. Based on feedback from other AP teachers outside the Curriculum Development and Assessment Committee, we did not think it necessary to specifically identify Martin Luther King, Jr, among the post-war “civil rights activists” mentioned in the framework. Any United States History course would of course include King as well as other major figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower. These and many other figures of US history did not appear in the previous AP framework, either, yet teachers have always understood the need to teach them. Critics who believe we have omitted them from the course are misunderstanding our document, and we request that they examine the AP Practice Exam as evidence of our determination that AP students must be exposed to a rich and inclusive body of historical knowledge.

American politics is out of balance. On the right we have ideologues who see everything as a threat to their carefully crafted vision of the nation. That might be okay if it were balanced on the left with a bunch of ideologues who see everything as a threat to their carefully crafted vision of the nation. But the right is not so balanced. Instead, it is “balanced” by practical centrism. As a result of that, we run into these problems all the time where basic knowledge gained from science and other disciplines is attacked as bias precisely because it isn’t biased.


It is also possible that Larry Krieger is just using right wing outrage. As I noted above, he is a writer of test preparation material and he seems to own the company Insider Test Prep. So he could see the changes as threatening. On the other hand, nothing is so good for writers of educational materials as changes in standards. It allows used books to become far less valuable, thus increasing sales of new books. So, as Newsweek would tell you, “Who can possibly say?”


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Deported Children Often Killed Within Days

Isaias SosaLike thousands of other undocumented Honduran children deported after having journeyed unaccompanied to the US, Sosa faces perilous conditions in the violent neighborhood from which he sought to escape.

“There are many youngsters who only three days after they’ve been deported are killed, shot by a firearm,” said Hector Hernandez, who runs the morgue in San Pedro Sula. “They return just to die.”

At least five, perhaps as many as 10, of the 42 children slain here since February had been recently deported from the US, Hernandez said…

In one case, a teenage boy was shot to death hours after arriving in San Pedro Sula on a deportation flight, according to the boy’s cousin, who refused to identify himself or the boy to The Times for fear of reprisal from neighborhood gangs.

—Cindy Carcamo
In Honduras, US Deportees Seek to Journey North Again
H/T: Charlie Pierce

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SNL Bans Critical to Shows Problems

Sinead O'ConnorI’m not proud. Last night I saw the link and I clicked, 15 People Who Have Been Banned from SNL. And I learned a few things from the article. The most basic thing is that Saturday Night Live has this ridiculous thing about banning entertainers for life. I don’t know what this is about. It would seem that Lorne Michaels is a megalomaniac who thinks he is doing something more important than producing a banal comedy show. Regardless, many of the reasons for bans are petty.

The best example of this is Elvis Costello’s appearance on the show in 1977. This was right before his first album My Aim Is True was released in the United States. His record company wanted him to perform “Less than Zero.” That was the first single off the album in the UK. But the song is about the British fascist Oswald Mosley—a subject that wasn’t of particular interest to an American audience. Costello wanted to do “Radio Radio.” So on SNL, he started “Less Than Zero,” stopped the band and then did “Radio Radio.”

Why exactly this got Costello banned is not clear. I think there are two aspects of it. One is that Michaels is a corporate lackey. Another is that he hates it when anything happens that wasn’t approved His Mediocreness. The ban stayed in effect for 12 years, but was eventually lifted. According to Wikipedia, Costello was “one of only three people to have their ban from SNL lifted.” To my mind, this is kind of like a bookstore deciding to lift its ban on Stephen King and start selling his books. There are other such cases where SNL is punching much too high: Milton Berle, Frank Zappa, and Martin Lawrence, to name a few.

Another person banned was Sinead O’Connor. In 1992, the young singer-songwriter made a protest against child abuse in the Catholic Church. She ended her a cappella version of “War” by tearing a picture of Pope John Paul II. She was banned, apparently because the only thing worse than the Church covering for pedophilia among priests is talking about it. In retrospect, O’Connor looks like an oracle and SNL looks just like the purveyor of lukewarm inoffensive comedy that they have consistently been for the past four decades.

The whole thing reminds me of Tim Minchin’s foul mouthed, “The Pope Song.”

If you find me more offensive than the possibility
That the Pope protected priests when they were getting fucking fiddly
Then listen to me mother fucker this here is a fact:
You are just as morally misguided as the mother fucking,
nbsp;power hungry, self aggrandizing
nbsp;nbsp;bigot in the stupid fucking hat.

Good comedy requires taking a stand and SNL has pretty much never done that. The original head writer, Michael O’Donoghue originally left the show because the comedy was too staid and safe. He later said of the show, “It’s like watching old men die.”

But I believe the article was wrong about Charles Grodin getting banned. It says:

Before he was a political television commentator, Charles Grodin was a comedian and actor who pissed off more than a few people during his October 29, 1977, hosting gig on <i>Saturday Night Live</i>. Grodin ad-libbed much of his performance, and not well, leading up to an incident during a sketch where Grodin broke character and caused a stir.

I know the episode they are talking about, and it is one of the best ever. Grodin played an amiable buffoon. The idea for the show was that he was totally unprepared because he spent the week sightseeing and buying the cast members presents. For example, in a sketch with The Killer Bees, Grodin supposedly broke character asking if the bees were supposed to be actual bees or men dressed up as bees. Another part of the show was that John Belushi was really angry with Grodin for his lack of professionalism. Now, there could have been something behind this. But Grodin did exactly the same character when on The Tonight Show.

Regardless, before I read the article, I had a low opinion of the show. Now that opinion has slipped even lower. Saturday Night Live is truly the Sinbad of sketch comedy. Sinbad, of course, being the amusing but totally inoffensive comedian who has never been banned from SNL.

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Can We Acknowledge Our Shared Humanity?

Palestinian Father with Dead Child

This image was posted on Google+ last night by Forever Palestine. I have no context for it. I assume it is a father kissing his dead daughter before he buries her. It is a heartbreaking image.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m highly sympathetic toward the Palestinians. But I don’t particularly take sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is a mess. I think lowly of the belligerents on both sides. But it is the Palestinians who are dying in such large numbers. And I don’t think that takes away from what Israeli civilians are going through. The random rocket fire does create terror, and for the people harmed or killed, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are.

But this image reminds me of Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment on CNN that Hamas “use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.” Undoubtedly, the corpses do have a PR value. But the statement is entirely typical of war propaganda: dehumanize the enemy. I think you can say that Hamas’ actions are shortsighted. (You can say the same thing about Israel’s actions.) But you can’t say that Hamas doesn’t love its children.

Another problem is that Americans tend to make assumptions about Hamas that are not valid. While the group does use terrorism as a tactic, the group is a lot more than that. Treating the group as a monolith is a mistake. Another false assumption is to equate Hamas with the people of Gaza. And blanket statements like Netanyahu’s only reinforce these false assumptions, which is probably why they are made.

Would it be so hard for us all to agree that all the peoples of the world value life? Or at least that we all love our children? This seems the very least we can do. But the dehumanization of the enemy is very important in allowing the killing to continue. And I don’t expect either side to acknowledge the humanity of the other any time soon. Meanwhile, the anguished man in the photograph is real. The child is dead. And regardless of PR or ideology or property right, this is wrong.


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Ogden Nash

Ogden NashOn this day in 1902, the great poet Ogden Nash was born. In general, poetry is hard on readers. It takes greater concentration than we are used to giving. But Nash found an audience quickly because he was so clever and funny. His poems often included made up word puns and unusual pronunciations. He also worked as a librettist for a couple of Broadway musicals.

His father had an import-export business, so the family moved around a lot. He was born in New York, but chose to live almost his whole adult life in Baltimore. Of this fact, he wrote, “I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more.” Other that this clever line, I can’t really understand choosing to live in Baltimore. But I guess that was just one of the things that made Nash special.

Here is Nash’s response to Dorothy Parker’s, “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses.” He wrote:

A girl who is bespectacled
She may not get her nectacled
But safety pins and bassinets
Await the girl who fassinets.

And here is his poem (part of a series about animals), “The Panther”:

The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don’t anther.

It’s all very playful and fun stuff—well worth spending some time with. And here is one of his songs, “Speak Low” with music by Kurt Weill:

Happy birthday Ogden Nash!

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