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A Bad Scout?

In response to:

Boys Will Be Boys from the March 15, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Tim Jeal’s biography of Baden-Powell [NYR, March 15], Ian Buruma refers to my book, The Character Factory, as one of the best known of the “leftist” or “progressive” efforts to debunk the Chief Scout’s mythology, and praises the ease with which Mr. Jeal handles my “conventional, progressive” views of Baden-Powell. While I appreciate that “progressive” is intended to be intellectually disreputable in this context, I confess to being surprised by the labels. I had thought the point was to understand, even if the understanding involved some unpleasant truths.

Take, for instance, the question of Baden-Powell’s racism, which I raise in my book. Following Mr. Jeal’s lead, Mr. Buruma dismisses the subject with the knowledgeable claim that “B-P was no more racist than most Englishmen of his time, indeed in many ways less.” (How Mr. Buruma knows the degree to which most Englishmen of the time were racist remains a mystery, but no matter.) The issue, of course, is not whether Baden-Powell was more or less racist than anyone else, but whether his racist thinking tells us something important about the originator of a significant social movement whose professed ideals transcended race.

So it won’t do to be cozy with it, as Mr. Buruma is, or worse, as with Mr. Jeal, to pretend it doesn’t exist. Jeal’s ability to explain away the offensiveness of Baden-Powell’s frustration at native sloth in forming a levy (The Downfall of Prempeh, 1896)—“The stupid inertness of the puzzled negro is duller than that of an ox; a dog would grasp your meaning in one-half the time. Men and brothers! They may be brothers, but they are certainly not men”—is a hermeneutic triumph which does not disturb Mr. Buruma in the least. It turns out to have been simply a mistake, indeed the “common European mistake,” Jeal writes, “of supposing that Africans whose way of life did not require the punctuality of factory workers were too stupid to run their affairs in an organized fashion.” (162) That this mistake is a splendidly incisive definition of racism does not seem to have occurred to Jeal, or to Mr. Buruma.

In addition to misunderstanding the benign and homey nature of B-P’s racial beliefs, I was apparently also led astray by my progressive blinders over the issue of scout militarism. For Mr. Buruma, “Jeal’s argument that B-P’s Boy Scout Movement didn’t have military aims may be quite correct, in fact is correct; what the Chief Scout aimed at was to revive the warrior spirit in peacetime, rather like the old samurai and his Bushido.” It is hard to know where Mr. Buruma draws the line between reviving the warrior spirit and what is conventionally understood to be militarism. As I tried to demonstrate in my book, B-P was himself incapable of making that distinction. A lifetime army officer, he not surprisingly saw the military virtues of obedience and loyalty as comprising the basis of all human excellence.

Scouting explicitly developed out of the trauma of the Boer war and the anxieties it unleashed concerning the deterioration of Britain’s manhood. One of the ways Baden-Powell sold the scouts to the nation was by stressing the critical role they could play in preparing the rising generation for the next war. As he cautions at the start of Scouting for Boys, “Every boy ought to learn how to shoot and obey orders, else he is no more good when war breaks out than an old woman.”

To accept the militarism of scouting’s origins and early ideals is not to undercut the value of scouting or to suggest that it didn’t develop in different ways over the next eighty years. But why must we pretend that its origins were not what they were?

Finally, as a debunked debunker, I would like to point out a major scholarly blunder on my debunker’s part which Mr. Buruma over-looks. Mr. Jeal is adamant—and Mr. Buruma seems to agree—that Baden-Powell was oblivious to class concerns and that the scouts were not in any way intended as an instrument of social control to help secure the loyalty of the poor who stood essentially outside the social system. In this regard, it is interesting to see that when Jeal reproduces the original scout law of 1908, he prints the second stipulation as follows: “A scout is loyal to the King, and to his officers, and to his parents, his country, and his employers.” (392) In fact, “parents” were not included until the 1912 version. The omission was not accidental. Baden-Powell viewed the parents of the under classes as part of the problem, rather than respectable figures of authority to whom he could trust his scouts. It was only when scouting clearly emerged as a middle and lower middle class movement that B-P felt it was appropriate to require scouts to promise loyalty to their parents. Such was the jovial “boy-man’s” innocence of class matters.

Michael Rosenthal
New York City

Ian Buruma replies:

I have the distinct feeling of being caught in a crossfire here, but if I had any lingering doubts about the respective merits of Tim Jeal’s and Michael Rosenthal’s views on Baden-Powell, they were swept away by the content and presentation of Rosenthal’s arguments. The truth is always complex, but whereas Jeal carefully weighs its many ambiguities, Rosenthal bludgeons it into the shape of his often anachronistic opinions. The point of using the dreaded word “progressive” for Rosenthal’s view is not to discredit him as a mad pinko, but to show how Rosenthal’s own progressiveness leads him to misjudge the nature of Baden-Powell’s conservatism. As Jeal points out in various places in his book, Baden-Powell was certainly conservative, even priggish in many ways, but to call his complicated and at times contradictory ideas conservative is to ignore their radicalism and their links, acknowledged by B-P himself, with socialism and other progressive views of his age.

As to B-P’s racism, neither Jeal himself nor this reviewer denied that the chief scout’s views of race were, from the perspective of our own time and place, often offensive, but, as Rosenthal says, the thing is to see whether they said something important about the man and his movement. Rosenthal’s juicy quote notwithstanding, B-P tried very hard to bring Indians (successfully) and South African blacks (unsuccessfully) into the Boy Scout movement at a time when this was vigorously opposed by many white authorities. As B-P himself put it in 1926: “The question stands with the politicians just where it did twenty years ago. They do not look forward to what is due to the native.”

On the issue of militarism, I must confess that Jeal was not only far more subtle than Rosenthal, but also than myself. He did not say that the Boy Scout movement had no military aims, but that “at its inception Scouting was more a civil than a military institution, both as regards the predominant intention of its founder and in its practice by boys up and down the country.” Again, Jeal sees shades of gray where Rosenthal sees black and white.

Finally, I have looked hard for evidence of Jeal’s scholarly blunder in describing B-P as being “oblivious to class concerns,” and found myself chuckling again at the many cited instances of the scout’s snobbery and obsession with “getting on.” So where is the blunder? Of course, he had class concerns, just as he had race concerns and military concerns. The point is that whereas similar concerns went hideously astray elsewhere, leading to tyranny and mass murder, Baden-Powell’s martial fantasies were not much more excessive than affording the opportunity to boys of all classes, creeds, and colors to indulge in such silly but hardly noxious pleasures as blowing the koodoo horn.

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