There is an old quote by Abraham Lincoln that goes something like this: “Knavery and flattery are blood relations.” Indeed history has borne him out. Praise and mischief often go hand in hand. I’ve been turning this line over in my head as I read over the statement from the Boy Scouts of America after President Trump’s highly partisan speech the other night at their annual Jamboree. In it, the scouting organization reiterates its wholly non-partisan stance, and explains that the invitation to President Trump was extended, as it is to all Presidents, as part of the Boy Scout’s commitment to “duty to country” and “respect for the office of the President.”
The scouting oath on “duty to country” hinges explicitly on two fundamental ideals: that scouts must obey the laws, and be good citizens. The speech was, in its most charitable description, strange, disjointed, highly political, and often personal and with very few nuggets of scouting wisdom. He was there because of the Boy Scout’s duty to country. But to lavish praise upon the President while he boos and belittles his opponents, well Scouts, I’m afraid that’s not duty to country. In fact, being a good citizen looks nothing like that.
My family is relatively new to scouting and didn’t come to the Boy Scouts easily. The organization’s murky history with transgender scouts and gay leaders gave me significant pause. But in 2015, they reversed their ban on gay leaders, and in 2017 finally their century long stance on welcoming transgender scouts. It felt as though the organization was open to evolving, to learning. It seemed like perhaps we might have a place there after all. Our son was insistent that he wanted to give it a go and so we signed him up.
Our local Pack has been a pleasant surprise. We have found it to be a welcoming and accepting group. When they boys studied religion, they did so in a church, but in a talk led by the local Rabbi. It seemed as though it was a place to learn about other cultures and religions that we were unfamiliar with. When he pressed us to go on the camp out, we hemmed and hawed. We had no tent. Even if we did, we had no idea how to set it up. But our local pack leader invited us over on the weekend to loan us one of his, and to practice with us how to put it together. Not knowing wasn’t something to belittle us about. It was an opportunity to bond and learn. We felt welcome.
My son came home talking about the importance of how you should always do your best. He rode his first BMX bike with them. He lit his first match with them. He learns how to do things I should probably be teaching him like fire safety and knife safety, these actually genuinely important tangible life skills that parents of a certain age tend to gloss over nowadays. On crossover night, we retired weathered American flags and the boys helped each other roast marshmallows. There were different faces and religions and colors around the campfire. It felt good, and very American.
But the speech that the President made at the biggest scouting event of the year has left me truly heart sick. There is something so wrong about this kind of pointedly partisan and negative talk at an event geared specifically for children. This event was the focus of the entire day for these Scouts: a speech by the President. And he did not disappoint. He encouraged boos for Obama and for Obamacare. He belittled Hillary Clinton and her campaign. He told odd and inappropriate stories about friends who bought yachts and made lots of money. He celebrated the end of “Happy Holidays” and the return of “Merry Christmas to all!” Gone was the focus on respect. Gone was this idea of inclusiveness that my family so relishes about our local Pack.
My son wasn’t at the Jamboree, but if he was, I would have been furious. Perhaps if you don’t have a young child, you may not realize how pliable they are. That wasn’t a celebration of Scout values and respect and inclusiveness. That was an indoctrination event, an opportunity to condition impressionable kids. All the news is fake. Believe what I tell you. Work hard and you too can have a yacht. Also Obama stinks and Christmas rules.
President Trump’s speech at the Jamboree was misplaced at best, and highly inappropriate at worst. And being a good citizen and doing your duty to your country means calling your President out on this. It is a very uniquely Trumpian message to conflate loyalty with acquiescence. That if you support him, if you love your country, you must agree with him, laud him, and go along with him, either in silence or in deed. And many at that rally and still today from the top down at the Boy Scouts of America continue to go along with the most base and disgusting parts of that speech. Duty to country and democracy itself in fact requires that we not clap politely or stand idly by while evading the more uncomfortable parts of that event. Democracy requires us to speak up, to disagree. Duty to country means lifting our voice, not blinding our eyes.
Late last night I asked my son about the Scout oath, and we talked hypothetically about the Jamboree event as I hadn’t given him specifics yet. I asked him how he would feel if he went to a scouting event where both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were belittled and booed. He responded that he would push back. A President, even one you do not like deserves our respect. He went on to tell me candidly, it is hard to give President Trump respect, when he so rarely gives it to anyone else. “He’s mean to people when they have a different opinion. That’s wrong. It’s un-American. You’re allowed to have your own opinion.” Then he adds, “But I believe in him. I believe he can be better. I believe he can change.”
That, my friends, is what being a good citizen looks like. That is what duty to country looks like. Being respectful, being able to speak honestly and say when you think someone is wrong, and believing despite their worst and most base public impulses, in their ability to strive for more, to be better.
Speak up Boy Scouts of America. That speech was wrong, hyper partisan, and inappropriate for our boys. Be the good citizen you preach to our children. Have some honesty and character and use your voice.
Because that is what duty to country looks like.