On My Honor by Jay Mechling
On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth
by Jay Mechling
Chicago. 360 pp. $30.00
In 1953, at the age of eight, a Miami boy named Jay Mechling joined the Cub Scouts. Having climbed through the ranks and reached the pinnacle of Eagle Scout, and having become still later a “folklorist of children’s cultures” and an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of California at Davis, he decided to make the Scouts the subject of his scholarly work. Then came the 1999 rampage by two teenage boys at Columbine High School in Colorado, a series of popular books on America’s “boy problem,” and a hugely controversial Supreme Court decision allowing the Boy Scouts to ban gays; the professor realized he might have a role to play as a public intellectual.
The resulting book, On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth, steeped in the language of gender theory, frame analysis, feminist psychoanalysis, and cybernetic systems, makes one thankful that so few academics venture outside their cubicles and their conferences to speak to ordinary Americans. Still, On My Honor, for which a better subtitle would be “The Semiotics of ‘Gopher Guts’ and the Homoerotic Discourse of the Outdoor Latrine,” does have its moments. And despite its all too predictable theorizing, despite even its own intentions, Mechling’s detailed portrait of one Boy Scout camp also proves just how truly invaluable this national institution is.
Most of On My Honor takes the form of a composite diary from a two-week stay at the summer camp of Troop 49—not its real name—in the Sierra Nevadas. The troop, divided into four patrols of younger boys and a group of “seniors” (age fourteen to seventeen), follows an elaborate calendar of traditional activities. With Mechling, we go to Church Rock, which commands a stunning view of the Sierra peaks, where religious services are held each Sunday. We watch the flag-folding ceremonies, the greased-watermelon contests, and instruction in the proper tying of neckerchiefs. We learn the troop’s yells, campfire songs, and oaths.
In analyzing the meaning of these activities, Mechling reaches for a variety of inane academic theories that lead him to conclusions like: “The six-pack of cans of Coke that is the treasure in the Treasure Hunt can be read as a copro-symbol of feces.” But he also manages to evoke the campers’ strong attachment to custom and tradition. Their rich routines and rituals provide a highly pleasurable arena in which boys who are “used to having their mothers do everything for them”—the words are those of their scoutmaster—learn personal responsibility. The younger boys master the art of cooking for themselves. Each thirteen-year-old patrol leader has to manage the eight boys in his group, ensuring that meals are made, cleanup duties are completed, and homesick campers are comforted. As for the seniors, they conduct most of the classes, including compass and map reading; organize major events like treasure hunts and hikes; and run the nightly campfire, choosing which of over 100 songs will set an appropriate tone for the evening.
At the head of the camp is the scoutmaster, Pete, who deserves a place among the ranks of legendary teachers like Joe Clark and Jaime Escalante. An adult with a natural gift for the moral education of young people, Pete demands that seniors take their work seriously, reminding them that “these classes are your duty.” He shows his younger charges how to reconcile after a fight, and how to tease back instead of sulking when they have been made the objects of ridicule. At a rope-slide contest, he pulls aside the young patrol leader to explain how to encourage a fearful boy without humiliating him. And he vigorously challenges lying and evasiveness; his “Four Decodable Coverts,” a guide to the ways young people pretend to be agreeing with you when they clearly are not, is a masterpiece of amateur psychologizing.
Still, camp is far from a church social. Though he accepts no cruel or especially foul language, Pete tolerates the raunchy gross-out humor, including farting contests and masturbation jokes, beloved by children and male adolescents. He even experiments with permitting his seniors the modest use of alcohol during a night out and dirty magazines at their campsite, though he also rescinds these privileges immediately and without apology when the boys abuse them. In less important matters, Pete believes strongly in giving second chances; for outside camp, as he astutely observes, “[t]een culture pretty much labels you, and you’re stuck with that status all through junior-high and high school.”
Interspersed throughout his narrative, and in a series of “excursuses,” Mechling tackles the three major controversies—“God, gays, and girls”—that have bedeviled the Scouts over the last decade. The first began in the mid-1980’s when several families challenged the organization for expelling members who refused to repeat the Scouts’ oath of “duty toward God.” By digging in its heels on this issue, Mechling contends, the National Council of Boy Scouts abandoned the intent of the organization’s founders, several of whom entertained unconventional religious attitudes and showed “little interest in promoting religion beyond a very generalized belief in a Supreme Being.” Besides, he adds, “duty toward God” only made its appearance in the 1950’s, during a period when religiosity was viewed in the country at large as evidence of anti-Communism and the phrase “under God” came to be inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The 1990’s brought perhaps the greatest challenge in the organization’s history as, in several ultimately unsuccessful cases, girls sued to join the Boy Scouts. (Fearful of more court challenges in an already full docket, the Scouts have recently decided to allow female volunteer leaders.) But more notorious than these have been the lawsuits that followed a decision to terminate the membership of a number of openly gay scouts. One of these cases finally made its way to the Supreme Court; in June 2000, the Justices ruled for the Scouts, accepting the argument that they are a private group with a protected right to association rather than a public accommodation required to adhere to anti-discrimination laws. Yet this has not settled matters; since the Court’s decision, government agencies, usually at the prodding of civil-rights groups, have rescinded special privileges for the Scouts like the subsidized use of parks, and legislation has even been introduced in Congress to revoke the organization’s federal charter.
Mechling’s major objection to the ban on gays is less legal than, well, academic, and in expounding it he gives us a good picture of some of the major premises of contemporary gender theory. Yes, he admits, there are biological differences between the sexes, but primary attraction to the opposite sex is not one of them. Harking back to Freud’s theory of infantile “polymorphous perversity,” he asserts that humans are naturally bisexual, and only in early childhood does the patriarchal family take upon itself “the creation of the heterosexual male.”
It is in order to advance this “fragile construction,” Mechling speculates, and “to repress the feminine,” that the Boy Scouts have followed the rest of society in teaching boys the ways of misogyny and homophobia. Allowing homosexuals in the Boy Scouts, he argues, would not only have the salutary benefit of discouraging these evils, it would broaden America’s “stereotypical performance of masculinity” beyond its narrow, patriarchal boundaries.
Academic theorists often invite skepticism, but it is rare to find a sitting duck on the order of the author of On My Honor. For in his actual description of Troop 49, Mechling supplies us with everything we need not only to disprove his own analysis but to demolish many of the premises on which he relies to demonstrate it.
Take his notions about the “construction of heterosexual masculinity.” By his own testimony, Troop 49 is nothing if not nurturing and sensitive, consciously discouraging the very quality of “coolness” that epitomizes what Mechling calls “masculine autonomy, rationality, and control.” We see a senior tenderly cleaning the blister of his fellow. Pete, who admits to crying easily, weeps along with a long-time camper who is thinking of leaving the troop. The scoutmaster tells about how he learned to cook in the Boy Scouts and now does all the cooking for his family. The boys of Troop 49 are forbidden to call each other “fag.” And so forth.
Mechling tries to wriggle out of the implications of these examples of “androgynous masculinity,” so numerous even he cannot miss them, by insisting that “Troop 49 is nothing like what the defenders of the national movement imagine a Scout troop to be.” But he would have to say that; for, in his rendition, the men who run the official organization and their sympathizers are the Authoritarian Personality personified. These are individuals who see “atheists and the ACLU . . . as agents of an assault upon masculinity and whiteness.” They are filled with “anxiety”—about masturbation, about “the adolescent male body,” and of course, about their own masculinity.
Unfortunately for Mechling’s feverish fantasy of patriarchal masculinity, signs of it are not only absent, by his own telling, from Troop 49 but are nowhere to be detected in the organization’s official literature. (As for “whiteness,” Mechling of course never mentions the Scout’s strenuous, and successful, efforts to recruit minority, inner-city boys.) True, the Scouts have said they find homosexuality “immoral,” but far from the “purge” Mechling thinks this implies, the movement asserts, plausibly enough, that it “makes no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person.”
In fact, the Scouts strive to avoid the subject of sex altogether. The reason for this is not “anxiety” (except, perhaps, anxiety about lawsuits). It is, rather, that sex severely complicates the task of socializing children. A memorable moment in this book occurs when the ever-sensible Pete refuses an invitation for a joint campfire with a Girl Scout troop just across the lake. The trouble, he says, is that when they are around girls, boys “show off, get silly, get really out of control.” The soundness of his insight is demonstrated later that night when three boys are caught attempting to swim across the lake.
What Mechling and his ilk finally cannot admit is that it is not “the patriarchy,” and certainly not the Scouts, that teach homophobia and hyper-masculinity to youngsters. To the contrary, those most likely to engage in hazing, taunts, and cruelty are undersocialized adolescents who are out of earshot of adults like Pete. No Boy Scout who has truly learned the lessons of the Handbook—to be “friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, and brave,” and to do one’s duty to others—would dare to act like that.