RETHINKING THE SCOUTS

Jun 21 2001 @ 11:52pm

Is it okay for a pundit to rethink an issue? I’m used to being raked over the coals for minor inconsistencies (difficult to avoid when you write as much as I do). But I also think it’s important for writers to be able to change, alter, or nuance their stances if good arguments and facts come along. With that in mind, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the Helms Amendment – and here’s where I’m at. When the Boy Scouts of America said they were a private group and therefore should be exempt from state anti-discrimination policies in the Dale case, I sided with the BSA. I did so despite the fact that I find their policy on gay scouts and scoutmasters to be stupid and immoral. My point was one of freedom of association – which I regard as close to sacred. One of the anti-Scout arguments in that case was that because the Scouts used public facilities so much, they should be regarded as a public entity and so subject to public anti-discrimination laws. I was glad that that argument lost because I thought it threatened the Scouts’ freedom to associate as a private body. So isn’t it a little odd that having argued that they were a private group, the Scouts are now claiming all the privileges of a public group – in access to public facilities and so on? I don’t see why they should have it both ways – private when they want to be left alone, public when they want public funds and access.

NEVERTHELESS: I’m troubled by some of the anti-Scout rhetoric being used. The Scouts, on the whole, are a terrific organization. Their anti-gay policy, I believe, is a stain on their honor – and also a direct slap in the face to the countless gay men and boys who have done so much for the group over the decades. But I don’t think it helps to call the BSA bigots or to equate them with the KKK and so on (see the Begala Award below). That doesn’t get us anywhere. I’m also aware that when a school rents or shares its property with private groups, it essentially defines the class-room/gym/whatever as a public space and is constrained as to the criteria by which it can exclude or include certain groups. Singling out the boy scouts for exclusion could be seen as discrimination in response to discrimination. So I see the point made by those siding with the Scouts and the fact that Nat Hentoff, whom I deeply respect, has now sided with them has given me more pause. Still, I’m against the Helms Amendment for a couple of (to my mind) decisive reasons. The first is because discriminating against gay scouts and scout-masters is simply indefensible. The only coherent rationale is that every gay scoutmaster is a potential pedophile, an argument I find repulsive and wrong. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean no same-sex guardianship of boys or girls in any even vaguely intimate circumstances – a rule that would destroy much good mentorship and volunteerism in the Scouts and everywhere else. And that doesn’t even deal with the issue of discriminating against openly gay scouts themselves. I know some don’t agree with the notion that this is a profound piece of discrimination. But if the BSA suddenly decided to exclude black scouts or Jewish scoutmasters, do you think we’d be having this discussion? Sorry, but I believe these categories, though not identical, are morally equivalent. Secondly, I loathe the idea of Washington micro-managing local schools. This is a principle that is deeply weakened if you apply it selectively – as some conservatives want to do. Sue me for being a consistent conservative with regard to local control. So I guess I haven’t changed my mind completely – but I’m grateful for all the emails that have helped me think this through more carefully.

LIBERALISM A LA MODE: Kinsley gets the Patients’ Bill of Rights hooey just about right, methinks. All of which makes Mike mildly happy and me mildly depressed. Well, at least it isn’t HillaryCare.

BEGALA AWARD: “Most schools have zero obligation to cater to bigoted otherwise intolerant groups. This is the school’s choice. No KKK meetings, no Mormon brainwashing seminars, no creepy Promise Keepers rallies, no showings of German snuff films in the school cafeteria, no homophobic Scout troop meetings. Simple. So here comes Jesse Helms (extreme R, N.C.) and his horde o’ white wheezing chest-thumpin’ GOP hunks, oozing his viscid North Carolina malevolence across the nation as he spearheads a nasty little education initiative (tacked onto the larger education reform bill) that effectively bars government funds from schools that have barred the homophobic Scouts from using their facilities due to their anti-gay stance.” – Mark Morford, The San Francisco Chronicle. Thanks to Wall Street Journal Online for pointing this one out.

DERBYSHIRE AWARD: “Other critics [of the BSA], as we’ve noted – including some usually thoughtful observers – have dressed up their anti-Scout efforts in old-style segregationist code words (“local control” and the like).” – Wall Street Journal, Best of the Web Today. C’mon guys. “Local control” code words for segregationism? Would you say the same about Bush’s Education Bill? Wait till that one comes back to haunt you.

ABERZOMBIE AND KITSCH: Sorry about that headline. I forgot to mention that the punch-line of the A&F boycott is that it is endorsed by the usual religious right groups AND the National Organization for Women. Sometimes, Puritanism’s two wings join up for a single campaign. As to the propriety of A&F, I take the point that children should not be exposed to this. But I don’t see it as any less reprehensible than a Britney Spears video, Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue or a Victoria’s Secret catalogue – the secret pleasure of many a teenage boy. The difference is that A&F is sexually ambiguous – the group shots imply an acceptance of same-sex attraction, in a way that very few other catalogues do. That’s why it’s famous in the gay community. It’s also why – reading between the lines – it’s being singled out for condemnation. I just wish the opponents would be more intellectually honest and admit it.