In an Atlantic column, the inimitable writer looked back at the 1908 manual that started a worldwide movement.
"Be prepared." That was the advice the Boy Scouts of America gave its regional directors in a 1991 memo called "Atheism, Girls, and Homosexuality." It was a fraught time -- the organization was juggling multiple lawsuits, and local leaders were overwhelmed by the media attention. To help them fend off the press, headquarters sent out a "comprehensive package of information," beginning with a statement on homosexuality:
We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirements in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts.
Statements like that didn't do much to stop the controversy -- or the lawsuits. But the Boy Scouts stuck to their position for decades, asserting just last summer that the ban on homosexuality was "absolutely the best policy for the Boy Scouts." That's why this week's news came as such a surprise: The organization is now poised to adopt a new policy that will let each chapter decide whether or not to accept gay members.
Baden-Powell called Mein Kampf "a wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation."
For many current and former scouts, this about-face raises questions about the very character of the Boy Scouts of America, an organization inspired by a British military officer named Robert Baden-Powell. In the June 2004 Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens looked back at Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys, the 1908 manual that gave rise to an entire culture of "young men in shorts."
As Hitchens writes, Baden-Powell was a peculiar character: "He was a racist and an imperialist and a monarchist, all right, but most of the time to a temperate degree. ... He had charm and courage, and a knack with the young, and he could draw excellent freehand illustrations."
Before founding the scouting movement, Baden-Powell was most famous for writing a book about wild-boar hunting (also known as "pig-sticking"). But his views on outdoor education were closely tied to his concerns about "the moral tone of our race." In Scouting, he stated that "one aim of the Boy Scouts scheme is to revive amongst us, if possible, some of the rules of the knights of old." He praised the Japanese code of Bushido, which taught young men to prize their honor above all else, even if it meant death or suicide.