- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

By Jay Mechling
The University of Chicago Press, $30, 318 pages

When someone starts off telling you that masculinity is a social construct, as Jay Mechling does in "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth," it's time to reach for your gun. Of course society does communicate what it expects from adolescents as they emerge from absurdity into attractive adult men, and that does vary in important respects from one era to another. The aristocratic child of the 18th century looked to somewhat different requirements than those faced by the bourgeois Victorian child a century later. It would be wrong, however, to think that they would be seriously alien to one another. They would certainly find good advice in Aristotle's "Ethics."
But the phrase that identity as a man is socially constructed has an invidious quality, and implies an arbitrariness about the idea of masculinity that does not correspond to lived experience. Everyone understands that Arnold Palmer has "class," and that John McEnroe does not. Everyone knows that Pewee Reese had "class," and that Pete Rose does not. It seems to me that the Victorian ideal formulated in Rudyard Kipling's great poem "If" and in Matthew Arnold's too little-known essay "An Eton Boy" is as valid today as it was when those engaging works were written.
Mr. Mechling, who teaches at the Davis branch of the University of California, is very much a social scientist, and this painstaking book has been years in the making. The author when younger earned Eagle Scout rank, and for him the Boy Scout experience was, and remains, profound. The core of this book is a very extensive account of two weeks he spent at a Scout summer camp in the California Sierra Nevada mountains. He describes in great detail perhaps greater than many readers will relish the rites, the initiations, the games and other activities, the traditions and assumptions and so on that are supposed to help boys move into adulthood.
He finds, interestingly, that there is a gap, often, between what actually happens in the life of a Scout troop and what the officials of the Boy Scout organization would like to happen. Not unexpectedly, he finds that the personality of the individual Scoutmaster is decisive.
In the background of this book are the current controversies concerning the Boy Scouts, derivative of what has been called the culture wars arising out of the l960s. Should open homosexuals be allowed to be Scouts, even Scoutmasters? Should proclaimed atheists be allowed in? Should girls be allowed to join? It is an unfortunate feature of our litigious era that this pushiness usually makes its way up through the courts to the Supreme Court.
During grade school, I was a Scout for a few years, stopped at Life Scout, the rank below Eagle if I remember correctly, and attended two summer camps in rural New York state. It was a positive experience, but nowhere near as profound and lasting as that of Mr. Mechling.
According to figures from the National Institute of Health, 1.5 - 2.5 percent of American men are homosexual, which contradicts the discredited 15 percent claimed by Alfred Kinsey and by homosexual propagandists. That means that among the Scouts of my era there were some homosexuals, maybe homosexual Scoutmasters. I was never aware of them. If they were there they kept quiet about it and, of course, did not launch law suits. No one thought there was an issue here.
By the time I finished high school and had also finished with the Scouts, I had heard abstractly about homosexuality and also knew about Oscar Wilde. But to me Wilde was an exotic bird, and after all was English. He had nothing to do with me. The first actuaI homosexual I knowingly met was a freshman classmate at Dartmouth. He came, incredibly, to my dowmitory room and propositioned me. I was completely flabbergasted. This was the most unheard of thing I'd ever heard of. My roommate, who overheard this from the next room, thought it hilarious, a red-letter day in the history of Wheeler Hall. But, then, he had come back from the war as a lieutenant-commander in the Navy.
The last three words of the nine-word Scout Oath ask the boy to be brave, clean and reverent. "Clean" to us meant that sex belonged to marriage. If I had been asked, apropos of "reverent," whether I believed in God, I probably would have said "maybe" or "I suppose so." In fact, I was never asked and had no religious beliefs at all. These came much later. It may be that I was "reverent" in my awe of things more impressive than myself: the ocean, the mountains, the canopy of stars. I certainly did not pound the table and demand acceptance as, then, an agnostic or atheist. Too pushy.
The overall tendency of Mr. Mechling's book is to ask that the Boy Scouts be open to dreaded word diversity. Where masculinity is concerned, he would like the boys to be encouraged to discover their feminine side, not a bad idea when loutishness is a problem. Some androgeny, as he calls it modishly, is not a silly idea for him. These are certainly socially constructed ideas, constructed in the contemporary academy, that is.
Looking back on my own experience in the Scouts, I find that the strength of the organization lay in its Victorian roots, expressed in the oath and in a variety of assumptions. Around the campfires Teddy Roosevelt of the Roughriders, conservation, and the outdoor legends was an unseen but powerful presence.
I did not know Kipling's poem "If" then, but had I known it I would have applauded every line of its Victorian injunctions. This 24-line poem, spoken by a Victorian father to his son, outlines the things that "If" he can do them, he will be a man. The sportsmanship injunction goes, "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same … You'll be a man, my son." These lines still adorn the player's entrance to Center Court at Wimbledon. Lleyton Hewitt does not make the grade, but it's still sound advice.

Jeffrey Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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