Ethics & Public Policy Center

America in Peril from Boy Scout Militarism

Published in The Wilson Quarterly on December 5, 2001

by Jay Mechling
University of Chicago Press, 324 pp., $30

At the start of On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth, Jay Mechling promises to steer a middle course between right-wingers who see the Scouts as the solution to America’s problems of “character” and the left-wingers who see them as being themselves part of the problem. At least, at the beginning he calls both of these views “skewed.” But within a page or two he reveals that he himself believes, at the least, that the right-wing view is considerably more “skewed” than the left-wing view. An Eagle Scout himself, he asserts his own bona fides by mentioning his “late 1990s progressive male guilt” over the “militarism”, “sexism”, “homophobia” and ignorance of actual Indian tribes (as opposed to the Scouts’ “Indian lore”) of his own scouting days, noting that “the continuities between Scout camp in the late 1950s in Florida and in the late 1990s in California are too many to celebrate a victory of ‘progressive’ masculinity over Cold War masculinity.”

A curious idea, this of “progressive” and “Cold War” masculinity. What he really means by the latter is traditional masculinity, which he attempts to discredit by (among other things) making it a mere contingency of the Cold War. He himself is an advocate of the “progressive” kind of masculinity and even tries to claim that such theorists of the same as William Pollack and Nancy Chodorow are latter day versions of G. Stanley Hall or Ernest Thompson Seton, whose ideas were basic to the founding of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. “The strong resemblance between Seton’s boy psychology in the 1890s and that of these therapists in the 1990s. . . reinforces our notion that the two decades responded in similar ways to a perceived crisis in masculinity,” he writes.

But what about the fact that the alleged “crisis” of the 1890s led to the cultivation of a distinctive and traditional version of masculinity while the theorists of the more recent one seek to break it down? Ah! That objection disappears once we have understood those old-timers properly. Looked at in the right way, they reveal marked “sexual ambiguities” themselves, thinks Mechling. “In my view,” he writes, “we don’t need to probe the sexual orientations of these individuals in order to see the central point — namely that in their own personalities the founders of the BSA were ‘role models’ for an androgynous masculinity not dissimilar from the new masculinities that emerged in response to parallel social and economic pressures on masculinity in the 1990s.”

He is less squeamish about his “probe” of the “professional Scouters” or “bureaucrats” at national headquarters who are the villains of the book for vigorously opposing the admission of atheists, girls or homosexuals to the Boy Scouts. These men, he claims, “have great stakes in fostering a narrow, inflexible, exclusively heterosexual definition of masculinity” because they “are suffering powerful anxiety about masculinity, and a Boy Scouts of America that admits homosexuals and bisexuals will have lost its usefulness in their social and psychological defenses against alternative definitions of masculinity.” The particular troop of Californian scouts that he has chosen for his study, “Troop 49″ under Scoutmaster “Pete” is meant to show us, by contrast, how progressive it is possible for scouts to be.

Mechling’s attempt to stigmatize the views of the conservatives as being the result of a psychological anomaly or even mental illness is typical of the way in which he tries to enforce his liberal and permissive view by an appeal to authority: thus sayeth social science. He is himself for admitting gays and mildly and temporarily against girls (though he thinks the matter should be left up to local troops). But once the desired redefinition of masculinity takes place, “misogyny and homophobia would wither away,” he writes with perhaps a whimsical allusion to Marxian theory. Earlier on, however, he writes that Pete’s decision not to have a joint campfire with the nearby Girl Scouts “had been a wise one.” Pete said: “You know how the boys act around girls. They show off, get silly, get really out of control.” How, I wonder, would that basic fact of life be altered by the utopian masculinity that Mechling proposes?

Source Notes
ON MY HONOR: BOY SCOUTS AND THE MAKING OF AMERICAN YOUTH by Jay Mechling University of Chicago Press, 324 pp., $30

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