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Boys Will Be Boys

Added up, these various horrors and fancies do indeed lead somewhere near the conclusion drawn by Jeal that B-P was a repressed homosexual who sublimated his desires on a grand scale. There is a school of thought, gaining currency among some conservatives, that the Victorian repression of sex was not such a bad thing, since, as in the Chief Scout’s case, it resulted in prodigious creative energy. Jeal, though neither a prig nor especially conservative, lends support to this argument:

When a gifted man’s deep anxieties about his sexual nature and his personal manliness coincide with a nation’s fear of impending decline through lack of virile qualities, the basic ingredients exist for a remarkably potent creative brew.

Indeed so. But a potentially dangerous one, too, for it is the brew from which great dictators emerge.

Which leads us to the next question about B-P, and others like him: Was he a proto-fascist? Were the Boy Scouts part of the same brew as Hitler Youths? Leftist debunkers of the Chief Scout’s mythology have argued that he was, though admittedly not a murderer, certainly a racist, authoritarian, reactionary breeder (if that is the right word) of cannon fodder for a belligerent empire. The best-known book to make this case is The Character Factory by Michael Rosenthal, a Columbia University professor.1 One of the aims of Jeal’s book is to debunk the debunkers, specifically Mr. Rosenthal.

He largely succeeds, B-P was no more racist than most Englishmen of his time, indeed in many ways less. Jeal has little trouble attacking Rosenthal’s rather conventional “progressive” view that B-P was a conservative elitist, for the Chief Scout’s ideals were far from conservative; in fact, they were rather radical, having much in common, as Jeal says, with Fabian socialism and the aesthetic politics of John Ruskin. And if the sight of uniformed boys swearing oaths around campfires strikes one as particularly right wing, one might ponder the fact that these spectacles are most common in the few people’s republics still remaining. But Jeal’s main line of attack against the progressive debunkers is to argue that B-P did not intend to breed “militarists” so much as “good citizens.”

This may be missing the point, for what are good citizens? Good citizens of Sparta were not like those of Athens. B-P himself had some strong ideas on the subject. Jeal quotes from a pamphlet written by the hero of Mafeking in 1907 to promote the idea of “Peace Scouts”:

The main cause of the downfall of Rome was the decline of good citizenship among its subjects, due to want of energetic patriotism, to the growth of luxury and idleness, and to the exaggerated importance of local party politics.

This is not a recipe for militarism, to be sure, but like many radicals of various persuasions, Baden-Powell associated party politics, materialism, commerce, intellectualism—in short, urban life—with decadence. He sought to stop the rot by, so to speak, throwing away the books and making for the bush. Typically, he believed that the virtuous pioneering spirit of America had been destroyed by “over-civilization.” Like Ruskin, and, it must be said, many romantic fathers of political extremism, he had a profound contempt for the bourgeoisie, possibly because they stood for a society which forced him to suppress his most hidden desires. And so he dreamed of a premodern order of purity, self-reliance, comradeship, and discipline. 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. Indeed he went further, he hoped to achieve world peace and brotherhood through the warrior spirit. Despite his old-fashioned notions of patriotism, he was as much of an internationalist as the most ardent Marxist.

In the class war, though getting on all right himself, he wanted his movement to transcend class, just as he wished it to transcend race and nation. As for Empire, his ideals led to an interesting dilemma, felt by many a British adventurer in the bush. For there was B-P, in Africa, ostensibly to civilize the natives, while in many respects admiring their customs more than the flabby ways of the white man. He deplored, quotes Jeal, the destruction of “the tribal system of training and discipline” to make way for the “widespread provision of cash wages, bad temptations, and such teachings of civilization as they can gain from low class American cinema.”

Those bad temptations just won’t go away! To help his scouts resist them, he found some use for the tribal folklore he had picked up among the natives; blowing the koodoo horn at morning call, handing out African amulets for special merit, that sort of thing. Perhaps the Way of the Tribal Warrior was better than the wage-earning, movie-going, party-voting booboisie back home, but surely members of the latter were closer to our definition of good citizens in a modern democracy.

It is true that much of B-P’s tribalism was boyish, not to say infantile, more than it was sinister. Pictures of the old Chief Scout in shorts, surrounded by his loyal scoutmasters (his “Boy Men,” as he called them), roaring with good clean hearty laughter, suggest not so much fascists as outsize boys who refuse to grow up. It was a common Victorian and Edwardian affliction. B-P was apparently so moved by James Barrie’s Peter Pan that he went to see the play on consecutive nights. The koodoo horn, the amulets, the campfire yarns, the lusty community singing: Jeal is surely right that “for many men, Baden-Powell among them, the Boy Scouts provided a blessed illusion of reclaiming their stolen childhoods.”

But was B-P’s movement really quite as innocuous as Jeal says? Was it really all boyish romance “in a different moral world” from the National Socialist and Communist youth movements of the 1930s? And if it was, was this a matter of circumstances or because “the fundamental moral ideals of the two organizations could hardly have been more distinct.” I am not quite as sanguine about this as Jeal appears to be, for I am more inclined to think that B-P’s brand of back-to-naturism, tribal nostalgia, and youth worship always contained a kernel of noxious idealism, which, if it had developed under different conditions, might well have ended up in the same moral world as the Hitler Youth or the Red Pioneers.

Still, despite B-P’s brief flirtation with the ideas of Hitler and Mussolini (not as unusual in the Thirties as some people like to believe), his boy scouts never become tools of an authoritarian state. B-P’s movement was more akin to the German Wandervögel, city boys mooning about with rucksacks, trekking through forest and dale, letting the mountains echo with their soulful folk songs. Like B-P, they rejected “over-civilization,” politics, city life; they, too, made a cult of the flannel-shirt life, of nature, of youth. They were consciously antipolitical. As one enthusiast observed:

Does not political activity all belong to that urban civilization of yesterday, from which we fled when we set up our community of friends out in the forests? Is there anything more unpolitical than the Wandervogel? Were not the Meissner festival and its formula a repudiation of the party men who were so anxious to harness youth to their political activities? Is not the sole task of the Free German communities to educate free, noble and kind people?2

Instead of politics there was a cult of beauty, male beauty. This was splendidly recorded in Herbert List’s photographs of blond nature boys sitting on rocks or bathing in lakes—rather similar, one imagines, to the pictures taken by B-P’s Charterhouse friend. The pure idealism and antipolitical nature of the Wandervögel movement were what made it so attractive and so vulnerable to political manipulation, for in time the celebration of youth, of nature, of male comradeship, of anti-urban, antibourgeois sentiment was harnessed to a most sinister cause, which also insisted on being above party politics—though not nation or race—in the name of a beautiful new order. One figure to emerge from the Wandervögel was Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Youth. Descriptions of him sound a familiar note:

a big, pampered boy of good family who laboriously imitated the rough, forceful style of the boys’ gang. His unemphatic, rather soft features held a hint of femininity, and all the time he was in office there were rumours about his allegedly white bedroom furnished like a girl’s.3

There is no evidence that Schirach was homosexual, or that male femininity, any more than the presence of great mothers, is a clear sign of homosexuality, or that homosexuals are any more attracted to extreme ideals or antipolitical romanticism than heteros. But there is a connection between authoritarianism and communities based on male bonding, particularly when they seek to replace or at least put themselves above politics, family life, in short, the boring booboisie. This is sometimes forgotten in our own enlightened times by those who see the bourgeois family as uniquely oppressive and homosexuality as a liberating force. It can be thus, but it can also be the other way round: family loyalty, as all totalitarian regimes well know, is a great obstacle to state control, whereas the collective loyalty of bonded males is often a help. It is also true that some of the more notorious leaders of boys’ bands (Gabriele D’Annunzio, Oswald Mosley) were not homosexuals; but on the contrary compulsive womanizers, but this is really no more ironic than B-P’s neurotic homophobia or the vicious persecution of homosexuals in Hitler’s Reich.

The best examples of overt homosexual authoritarianism are the samurai and the Dorians. In a recent book on Japanese homosexuality, the Japanese authors4 lament the passing of the aesthetic cult of boy-love (shudo), upon which, they say, the Way of the Samurai was based. The Way of Boy-love specifically promoted the loving submission of beautiful boys to more experienced men. What destroyed this unique system of beauty, loyalty, and male nobility, were those old enemies of the romantic mind, capitalism and industrialization. As they put it rather charmingly: “Modernization resulted in beauty being taken over by women!” Why? “Because in traditional societies one regarded oneself as being, while in the modern, one sees oneself as having.” One was born an aristocrat or a peasant, and an aristocrat had to be more beautiful than the common man, whereas the modern bourgeois have “no need of being beautiful themselves, They relate themselves to beauty by ‘having’ a beautiful woman.”

So much, then, for the modern view of seventeenth-century Japan. What about this poem composed in Greece by Theognis, in the sixth century BC:

You want to buy an ass? a horse?
You’ll pick a thoroughbred, of course,
For quality is in the blood.
But when a man goes out to stud—
He won’t refuse a commoner
If lots of money goes with her.5

Theognis was deeply worried about modern decadence and advocated boy-love, discipline, and hierarchy to preserve the noble traditions of the past. As his translator put it:

He presents to us the distress and confusion of those who live in an age of transition from one set of values (based on agrarian, hereditary nobility) to another (based on money and the city).

The distress and confusion of Victorian gentlemen, particularly those on the fringes of nobility with aspirations of getting on, were just as acute. Likewise with Japanese dandies pining for the samurai past, or even perhaps Edwardian aesthetes falling in love with one another and Stalinism in Cambridge. Walter Pater, one of Oscar Wilde’s mentors, drew the comparison between the Dorians and Victorian England. Dorian youth, he wrote, left early the mushy comforts of the suburban home to be educated in public schools:

It involved however for the most part, as with ourselves, the government of youth by itself; an implicit subordination of the younger to the older, in many degrees…. [They ate] not reclined, like Ionians or Asiatics, but like heroes, the princely males, in Homer, sitting upright on their wooden benches;…[They] “became adepts in presence of mind,” in mental readiness and vigour, in the brief mode of speech Plato commends,…with no warm baths allowed; a daily plunge in their river required…. Youthful beauty and strength in perfect service—a manifestation of the true and genuine Hellenism, though it may make one think of the novices at school in some Gothic cloister, of our own English schools.6

This, much more than the Teutonic earnestness and racism of the Hitler Youth, would have appealed to B-P and his Boy Men. “Youthful friendship ‘passing even the love of women’…became an elementary part of their education. A part of their duty and discipline.” Indeed, indeed. And if such a system weighs heavily on individual freedom and, in times of peace, “may be thought to have survived the original purpose,” well, says Pater, “An intelligent young Spartan may have replied: ‘To the end that I myself may be a perfect work of art, issuing thus into the eyes of all Greece.’ ”

B-P was himself a work of art, in the eyes of his mother, in the eyes of all the world. And in being so he gave many boys much innocent pleasure. He never was a fascist, but his ideals lent themselves to fascism elsewhere. Britain was too bourgeois to turn into a Sparta and the aggressive energies of youth had a ready outlet in the Empire. As B-P observed:

This nation does not need more clerks in the overcrowded cities of this little island…. No! The nation wants men and wants them badly, men of British blood who can go out and tackle the golden opportunities, not merely for benefiting themselves, but for building up and developing those great overseas states of our Commonwealth.

Those days are over now. We live in meaner times. One shudders to think what might happen if the energy of British youth, jobless, ill-educated, ready for any action, were to be turned to some great cause, against the clerks whom B-P so despised. One can already hear the words of salvation in the mind of some future Spartan: discipline, sacrifice, comradeship—Be Prepared!

Letters

A Bad Scout? June 28, 1990

  1. 1

    Michael Rosenthal, The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement, (Pantheon, 1986). Rosenthal’s book was critically appraised in the New York Review (June 26, 1986), by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, whose arguments were rather similar to Jeal’s.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Joachim C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (Pantheon, 1970), p. 224.

  3. 3

    Joachim C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 227.

  4. 4

    Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun’ichi Iwata, The Love of the Samurai: A thousand years of Japanese homosexuality (London: GMP Publishers, 1989).

  5. 5

    Translated by Dorothea Wender, in Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics, 1973).

  6. 6

    Walter Pater, Plato and the Platonists, (London: Macmillan, 1893), pp. 199–201.

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