Meaning, Cults, Freedom

Recently, I finished reading Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, about Scientology.  It’s a lucid history and examination of the movement.  I wrote a review of the book over at the Proximal Eye, here.  In that review, I touched on a few of the concerns I harbor in regards to religious movements, Scientology in particular, but all of them in general.

The central question in Wright’s book—and indeed in others, for instance Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven about Mormonism—is the question of volitional surrender.  Why do people hand over the keys to their being to institutions and ideologies that are often based on dubious claims, led by people with clearly autocratic tendencies, to live lives of functional servitude, if not physically certainly intellectually?

There are separate questions here, concerning different stages.  For those born into a group, being raised within its codes and customs, the Outside is by definition alien and the individual is required to do exactly the reverse of the adult who comes into that group from the Outside.  The same question can apply to the apostate who has grown up knowing nothing else—why would you throw over all that you know to embrace this Other Thing?  (The Amish offer an excellent example of the problem, with their practice of rumspringa, a kind of wanderjahr for the youth to go see the outside world and decide for themselves whether to stay or leave the community.  It would seem to be a fair practice, offering freedom of choice, but how fair can it be?  One can read a book about another culture, “know” it intellectually, but that’s a far cry from being able to operate within it, or understand it on any visceral level.  Instead, it’s a kind of wilderness test, which more than likely causes sufficient anxiety that a return to what one has known one’s entire life is virtually guaranteed except for the most adventurous—which may serve the community by culling out those so independent-minded who may cause problems later by nonconformity.)

It would be easy to dismiss certain problems with cultism by seeing past eras as offering essentially little to counter the claims of a charismatic proselyte offering a path to transcendence, but the fact is most of these movements seem immune to any kind of counterargument for those who seem determined to join something that offers them such a path.  For the first generation of Mormons, it didn’t matter that Joseph Smith was obviously coming up with his revelations out of his own head.  When his wife called his bluff on polygamy, all she managed to do was sheer off a splinter group and increase the resolve of the core followers.  What was happening was a sophisticated con, but it didn’t matter, not to those surrounding Smith and later Brigham Young.  It was at that point no longer Smith’s revelation but theirs.  He couldn’t have stopped if he had wished to.  The intricate and alchemical brew of group coherence had happened and it had become Another Thing, an Experience that was true as an experience, regardless of the facts or the motives behind its inception.  The followers had created it and made it its own entity.

Which would suggest that the thing being believed in is less important than the clear need on the part of the acolyte to believe.

Subsequently, this creates a hermetic seal around the object of belief, because belief is not real unless it is absolute.  Criticism of the tenets of faith are not so much attacks on details as on the act of believing.  The whole being of the believer becomes so intertwined with the thing believed as to be one and the same, inseparable.  Personal.  And yet, curiously dispassionate.  It’s not so much a choice as an inevitability, a recognition, an “of course” moment, a “how could I have been so blind?” revelation…

…which automatically renders any question of “how can I be so blind?” inadmissible, unhearable, unsupportable.

It has nothing to do with intelligence.  It’s all about meaning.

The central question of all philosophy is simple: Why am I here?  Even philosophies that seem to render this as an unanswerable—and therefore purely academic question—start from there.  It’s a good question.  What is my purpose in this life?  Religion supplants the inward-directedness of this by offering more cosmic possibilities, often of an unknowable nature, which require belief.  Faith.  No matter what, there is a purpose, a point, and even if I can’t see it, it is at least there.  Meanwhile, here are some guideposts, some rules, some practices that will keep me on a path more or less in sympathy with this higher purpose.  By serving this belief in a telec universe, our own sense of purpose can be, if not answered, at least validated, even if the cause is abstruse or abstract.

Trusting that purpose will be fulfilled simply through faith is not sufficient for the organizations commanding the obeisance of their membership.  If there is a purpose, then actions must be taken to fulfill it, and in lieu of any other clear program, conversion becomes their raison d’être.  They must be seen to be purposeful.  What higher purpose, then, than to change the world.  The clearest way to do that is to convert the world to their cause.  (This is functionally impossible, because there has always been and will always be competing doctrines, but it does raise an interesting question of what would they do if they achieved this end?  After the point at which everyone believed in the same thing, what next?)  And so the continual proselytization such institutions sponsor. (This has the added benefit of redirecting any kind of skepticism from the proselytes potential to ask questions of their own faith into a concern for the potential converts lack of faith.)

There are many definitions of cults, some of which contradict, but at base it is a tricky thing because a “cult” bears sufficient semblance to well-established religions that the only apparent difference is size.  If a charismatic preacher with a hundred followers claims to speak directly to god, he’s a nut.  But if the pope makes the same claim, it is accepted as a matter of faith and accorded a kind of respect the preacher cannot command.  Size.  A hundred people can be deluded, but a billion?  At that level, we tacitly acknowledge that Something Else Is Going On.

My own test has to do with permeability.  Is there egress equal to ingress?  How easily can people leave?  What restrictions are placed on individual interaction with the so-called Outside World, if any?  It’s one thing to claim that people are free to leave at any time, but if the organizational structure requires a cutting off of contact, a limitation of information from outside the group, whether physically imposed or simply a matter of conformity to the group, part of its identity, then it becomes a question meriting a closer look.  Cult? Or religion?  Or, more accurately, cult or church?  The Amish offer an apparent open door, but it’s not really.  Young Amish go out on their rumspringa utterly unprepared because all their lives up to that point have been lived in a bubble that limits information, limits experience, limits contact, and then makes it an either-or test.  (That the limits are self-imposed does not matter since they are self-imposed in  order to avoid group censure.) They are unequipped to make the kinds of judgments and choices so many of us take as a simple right to associate with whom and in what way we choose.  (The big difference regarding the Amish is they do not proselytize.  They don’t go out actively recruiting.  This, to my mind, removes them from cult status and makes them simply what might be called a Pocket Culture.)

A cult guards itself from the Outside by demanding its members shut out anything not wholly contained within the cult.  It actively discourages interface with the world at large.  Sometimes it will go so far as physically impede such contact.

But the members will accept this.  The question brought up by Wright’s book is, why?

If one genuinely believes that their salvation is at stake, that they risk losing an eternal soul should they question—if, in other words, fear is the motive for strict adherence to a set of doctrines and behavioral restrictions—then it is possible one is being abused.  We have ample evidence and example of abused children remaining intransigently loyal to their abusers.  The possibility of inhabiting another condition, whether “better” or not, is unthinkable, because they risk their identity.

Within the precincts of certain ideologies, part of the experience is literally seeing the world in a different way.  The “truth” of the doctrine is exampled in this seeing.  Things “make sense” in ways they never did before.  (It doesn’t matter here that this new way of seeing can happen with any conceptual breakthrough and that if we’re lucky it happens all the time, throughout life, as a natural part of learning.)  That apparent “clarity” can become so important that anything which endangers it must be avoided, actively shut out.  Questions about the central doctrines simply cannot be entertained when the stakes are so high.

In this way, the apparent glassy-eyed acceptance of conceptual weirdness within certain cults makes sense as the only possible path for someone who has achieved a fragile balance because of a framework of belief and is afraid of losing it by questioning the very beam on which they now stand.  The tragedy is that this balance should be theirs no matter which beam they stand on, but the institution has convinced them that it is not theirs should they question or leave.  People feel they have found a home, but a home is a place from which you can come and go as you please, bringing back what you find, enlarging it and decorating it with new things.  The door is never shut in either direction.  Wright’s subtitle posits “the prison of belief” and that pertains when the door is shut and you either don’t leave or if you do you can never come back, which turns the world to which you’ve escaped into just another prison.

Ironically, the one in the deepest cell may be the figure at the center of the movement.  The founder.  Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, all the others.  None of them could stop being who their followers thought they were.  Ultimately, it killed them all.  They had even less freedom to leave.  Their task was to design the prison and always be in it.  One wonders if they in any way fulfilled their own definition of purpose.

New Me

I haven’t done any serious new shots of myself for a while.  A few opportunistic snapshots here and there, but nothing suitable for framing, so to speak.  Comic Con is coming up and I’ll be there and I was asked for a photo, so this morning Donna (patiently) indulged me and we did some new ones.  This one isn’t going out for a head shot, but I rather like it:

Me and Orchids, Feb 2013

She wanted one with the orchids and I don’t usually do profiles, so…

I had something in mind more like this, though, since I’ve been feeling a bit more physically…well, the way I’d like to feel…

Me, Doorway, Feb 2013


Sort of a catalogue feel, if you know what I mean.  What you imagine in the mind’s eye is rarely what you actually get, but I don’t think I’m likely to look much better anymore, given the nature of time and such like.

Combination of surgery and doggedly returning to the gym.  Cutting back on snacks, too—about all I allow myself anymore is the occasional oatmeal cookie.



I wanted to go for a noirish look, but I’m either just a bit too cheerful or not quite bleak enough.  The best I can achieve is a sort of nod in that direction.

Me, New Promo, Feb 2013

The hat makes it.  That’s my favorite hat.  Brought that back from Minneapolis many years ago.  My cool hat.  Sometimes I wear it to get in the mood to play some jazz, like here:

Me, Hat, Piano, Feb 2013

Michael LaRue shot that at the latest coffeehouse.  That was a nervous night, actually, so the hat was as much camouflage and shield as affectation (the bosses were there that evening) but it goes with the kind of music.

Probably, though, the way most people will remember me (assuming they do) is with a coffee mug in hand.

Me, coffee cup, Feb 2013

This wholly self-indulgent post is…self-indulgent.  Sometimes I need to be reminded of the reality, though.  Looking out through one’s own eyes, from the stand-point of whatever homunculus one has constructed to act as what we call “self image” is in need of occasional adjustment.  “Drift” in the sense of a mismatch between what you think people see and what is really there happens all the time.  Being reminded we aren’t quite what we think we are isn’t a bad thing from time to time, and the occasion for new “promo” shots is a good opportunity to reassess.

On the other hand, it’s also a good thing when it turns out that things aren’t as bad as they could be.







New Black & White

I’m still perusing my new Edward Weston and Ansel Adams books.  Sigh.  I lurves me good black & white.  Not that this image is particularly good, but it’s my most recent.


Moon Over Mundania
Moon Over Mundania


I’m working on a new novel.  Well, not new new, but new enough.  And reading.  And right now watching pesky snow fall and wishing  I didn’t have to go into work this afternoon.

So this is another marker till I have something meatier to post.  Enjoy and stay warm.

Unexpected Blossoms

New Bloom
New Bloom


Back in August some friends sent me a lovely orchid as a get-well gift.  Gorgeous flowers.  Naturally, they died, and we thought, that’s the end of that.  We’d heard how delicate orchids were.

But we did  not discard the empty stalk, just moved it to another room on the off-chance.  Much to our delight, the “delicate” blossoms have responded to a modicum of benign neglect, and once more we have great beauty made even more wonderful by it’s complete unexpectedness.

I’ve also been combing a new book of Edward Weston photographs and feeling the urge to do new photography.  It’s been a while, so…

Guns and Popes

2013 is shaping up early to be one of those singular years in which people will be asked “Where were you when…?”

Two things of note at the moment, both of which have the slimmest of connections—or maybe not, depending on your perspective: this is the first largely popular effort in support of gun control since the late Sixties, at least rhetorically, and, if the polls are to be believed, demographically; and the first resignation of a sitting pope since 1415.

Connected?  In terms of the kind of faith some people bring to certain givens, perhaps.  But in both cases, core ideologies are being challenged by external pressures that have grown so great as to impose change.

External pressures?  In a word, reality.

Let’s start with the Pope.  It came as a shock even to the non-Catholic world, his resignation.  After eight years, he’s had enough.  He is an old man—Joseph Ratzinger was born in 1927—and aside from everything else that is not an easy job.  He became pope during a time of internal strife and public ignominy over the child sex abuse that has been an ongoing problem for the Catholic Church for decades now.  What, from all I can see from the outside, he tried to do was continue to reassert a traditional model of Catholicism on a body religious that has been fractured and mutating since Pope John XXIII and his Vatican II reforms.  Every subsequent pope since has been trying to put certain genies back into a bottle that is cracked if not broken.

The failure of the Catholic Church to deal with the abuse scandal, however, points up another problem that predates even John XXIII and goes to the image the Vatican has of itself, namely that it is in some very real way a separate authority from the secular world in which it operates.

John XXIII was in very significant ways trying to address that very issue through Vatican II, namely that till then the Church had held itself so apart, ideologically and philosophically, from the world that it did not feel obligated on any level to admit to changes in that world which had a bearing on how it conducted itself.

I go on a bit about John XXIII because of the ironies nascent within his reign.  See, he was the second Pope John XXIII, and I think it many ways he chose that name because the first of them had been technically an antipope.  That’s relevant in this instance because of the media fillip about Ratzinger being the the first pope since Gregory XII to resign—and Gregory XII reigned as pope simultaneously with the first John XXIII.

As well as simultaneously with Benedict XIII.

Three popes? This was at the end of a century or more of intense change throughout Europe, culminating in the Western Schism (1378 – 1417) which came to a close when all three of the sitting popes—one in Rome, one in Avignon, one in Florence—abdicated and a new election was held and Martin V became pope.  The question central to orthodoxy, of course, is how could such a thing possibly occur since by convention popes are elected at the influence and direction of God.

The other part of this has to do with the resignations themselves, which were hardly voluntary, but coerced.  John XXIII himself was imprisoned afterward and had to be ransomed.  The last pope to decide for himself to step down was Celestine V, who quit the job five months after having it thrust upon him in 1294 when he realized how inept he was politically.  The man—Pietro Angelerio—had been a monk and hermit and found himself, at age 79, impotent to have his decrees enacted or enforced.  He quit.  (Dante placed him in the antechamber to hell for cowardice, because the one who followed Celestine V was Boniface VIII, whom Dante places firmly in Inferno.)

None of this reveals divinity but political deal-making and squabbling.  However, by tradition everything to do with the papacy becomes the direct will of God (who moves by mysterious ways we are told).

Clearly, though, the actions of the Vatican since the second John XXIII bear all the hallmarks of a secular state that has turned conservative and is trying to reimpose some kind of authoritarianism upon an increasingly willful populace who have problems Rome has been unwilling to admit exist much less attempt to address in any concrete way.  It has all come to a head with the child sex abuse scandals.

To be clear, no one except the least informed suggests that this is a problem solely of the Catholic priesthood.  The fact is, in terms of numbers, priests who do this are no more numerous than in any protestant denomination—in fact, there may be a bit less—and the numbers aren’t high.  Not in terms of priests.  In terms of victims, there may be considerably more than in other denominations because of the internal policies of the Catholic Church, and it is there that the distinction has force.  Because the Church, even when they found out, left these priests in place, sometimes for decades, and imposed its authority on the victims to silence them, first by playing on their Catholicism and then later with threats or pay-offs.  In a protestant church, if a minister is found out doing this, the police are called and he’s arrested.  He is handed over to the state authorities because he has committed a crime.  Rome does not recognize such authority with regards to its officers (priests).  This is, for them, an internal affair, and they will handle it, thank you very much.

Except the world has changed and this is wishful thinking on their part.  Yet, they stick to their core ideology in face of this changed world, trying to pretend that they still represent, in their practices, something relevant.  They may very well, but not at the expense of ignoring what is around them.

The Catholic Church long ago constructed a narrative in which they try to live, one which serves the ideology that defines them.

Likewise, organizations like the NRA are currently constructing a narrative which serves the ideology that defines them.  Like the Church, they have elected to ignore reality and focus on a core set of premises which may at one time have served a purpose but which have become ever more problematic in a world that no longer functions the same way.

There is a faith element to both situations that is striking in how transparently at odds they are with the world we live in, but it is a faith held primarily by those who are insisting that their vision is the correct one in opposition to the context in which they operate.

The answer to gun violence is more guns?  Really?  The answer to pedophile priests is continued immunity from prosecution and more confidence in the institution that is shielding them? Really?  The answer to these is to do exactly the opposite of what is being asked for, indeed demanded, by the people who are feeling most victimized by dysfunctional practices?

What is obvious in both cases is that we are seeing widespread retrenchment and a hardening of ideological bastions against an assault that by any metric should be viewed as an opportunity for better and more constructive communication and involvement.  They are both responses to perceived threats.  The demand for accountability for child abuse by priests is viewed as an attack on Church authority instead of what it is—a demand for justice.  The demand for better controls on firearms is viewed as an attack on a presumed right of personal defense (and an implicit right to counter government abuse by violence) instead of what it is—a demand that people who should not have access to deadly force should in fact be kept from such access.

But furthermore, on both sides, there is a growing consensus that there ought to be a space in which safety can be taken for granted not gained by a willingness to assert personal force.  People want to know, with surety, that they can go to church and be safe, because that’s what church means.  They also want to know they can live in their neighborhoods and send their kids to school in safety and not have to worry about being ready to draw down on some nutjob gunning for an apocalyptic crescendo.  These are not just reasonable expectations, they are in large part what most people mean when they think of civilization.  It is not right that they be made to feel somehow marginalized because the institutions on which they should be able to depend are willing to sacrifice civilized behavior to defend an authority that, frankly, is not even under threat.

But when every comment, criticism, or conversation is seen as just such a threat instead of an attempt to find common ground, it is obvious that those defending the core ideologies are doing so with more and more irrelevance to the world around them.

The NRA started out as an educational organization and when they did that they were very good at it and very effective.  The organization was a good citizen.  But bit by bit their mission mutated from education to advocacy and their tone has become more and more stridently absurd, all in reaction to the boogie man of tyranny and at the expense of a valued place at the table.  The gun, for them, is becoming more important than people and public safety.  All because they have been constructing a narrative based on a false premise of an American past more faithful to bad Westerns than actual history.

We’ve heard the motto more and more lately, an armed society is a polite society.  This is patently false to anyone with a modicum of historical grasp.  Some of the most polite societies have been unarmed and some of the most violent and crude have been armed to the teeth.  There is a reason dueling was outlawed from the 15th century on by every country that aspired to be called civilized.  Might does not make right, not in the arena of public discourse—it only makes for arrogance, tunnel vision, and inequity.  Because right cannot be asserted by force, whether physical or intellectual.  Right must be demonstrable in and of itself, through actions and a willingness to admit error.

Something the Catholic Church has, in fact, been learning to do, but which it still hasn’t quite gotten a good handle on.

There is another way in which the two things are connected.  Some genies are too big to put back in their bottles.  John XXIII started a series of reforms designed to bring the church into sync with the world, to meet the needs of people in the modern age under circumstances that have unquestionably changed.  The Church seems to have been trying to deny this vision ever since, by electing ever more conservative popes who toe ever more conservative lines (the last reformer, John Paul I, met with a very early demise, and there are valid questions to be answered about the circumstances).  They are fencing with schism as a result and have certainly paid a price in attendance.  Likewise, the sheer quantity of firearms in this country and the culture in which they exist represent a genie of a different sort, just as unlikely to be put back in a bottle.  The landscape has changed.  In that sense, the gun lobby is defending something that doesn’t need defending.  It is what it is.  A new approach is required.  A reform of the culture.  We need desperately to tell ourselves a new narrative.  Because without that, all we’ll have is more of the same.


Memento Vivere, Memento Mori

A good friend of mine put this image up on his Facebook page:


Me 'n Greg 1979


This was taken at my friend’s wedding in 1979.  I was his best man and this is the only time I’ve ever worn a tuxedo.  (I’m on the right…yeah, the short one…)

Seeing this brought forth a cascade of memories, many of which aren’t all that great, but all of which are absolutely vital to who I am today.  See, this is a marker of the moment my life changed.  The next several months put me on an emotional roller coaster that finally stopped some time in early 1980.

Look at that face.  I thought I was a cool guy, at least near the surface.  I wasn’t, but then, really, who is in every aspect?  Or even in most?

That’s Greg.  He married his Judy that day, a wonderful person, and they’re still together.  (There is another photograph in their album of all of us, including Judy’s sister, lined up in the hall after the ceremony, waiting for people to file by.  It’s funny and revealing.  Greg, Judy, her sister, all of them are crying.  I’m on the far end grinning like the fox who just got away with a fresh chicken.  In my mind, I was having a good time and feeling coy because it wasn’t me getting hitched!  False bravado, really, though I believed in my independence—but I was intensely lonely, refusing to acknowledge it.)  I’m not that short, he’s just that tall.

Fresh-faced, I suppose you would call that.  I still had some notion of being a world famous photographer then.  I remember watching the wedding photographer and being thoroughly unimpressed.  Notice this shot isn’t especially sharp?  But in truth, I was still a-forming and had no idea what I wanted to be.

I had just finished my first novel not very long before. (This is the one that Shall Never See Daylight.  All we writers have one of those.)  I thought I could eventually Do It All.  Photography, writing, music.  Yeah, I still had some extremely vague notions of picking up music again somewhere along the way, but that wasn’t really going anywhere.  I’d been teaching myself guitar the previous couple of years, writing some absolutely wretched songs.  (The lyrics, anyway.  Musically I don’t think they’re too bad, but I wrote some incredibly bad lyrics.)  Not sure which of these was going to make it for me, but I had time.  I thought.  I had time.

But then things kind of went pear-shaped on me.

I won’t go into detail.  Yes, there was a woman.  Yes, there were late nights and soul searching.  Yes, there were likely half a dozen more clichés.

Basically, I was following my usual learning curve, which is rather like a ski jump.  Plunging headlong into things, full-tilt boogie as we used to say, and assuming a stable landing.  I’ve always been like this.  I don’t do things methodically, in reasonable steps.  I go along fecklessly convinced of my completeness until I realize I want something else, then eschew any systemic approach to the new thing and dive in.  Take big bites.  Grab what you can with both hands.

I said I was lonely.  That year—and maybe seeing Greg and Judy get married drove it home—I realized I was going down a blind alley.  If I stayed on the path I was taking, I would be a bitter old man with nothing to show for all of the flailing and sweat.

Or so I thought.

I did not know what else to do, so I just declared a change in direction, reached out for what I thought I wanted, and hung on for the ride until I crashed.

Crash I did.  By October that year I was a mangled wreck.  I grew a beard, walked endlessly around the city, often into neighborhoods I had no business entering.  There were some ugly scenes.  I came out the other end hollowed out and cynical.

I started writing again.  In fairly quick order I wrote four more novels.  Not very good ones, they too will remain in boxes, never to see the light of day.

Sometime early in 1980 I met Donna.  Turns out, I wasn’t as hollowed out or cynical as I thought.

I’m toying with finally shaving off the beard.

Symbolically, metaphorically, the man (youth, boy) in this picture pretty much died that year.  I am not him.  I was not him by 1980, but I contained his history, and since whatever new person I was had nothing of his own yet, I used that history on which to build anew.  Not in any conscious way—who is ever that self-possessed?—but the results were an amalgam of what once was and what would soon be.

Seeing this picture reminded me that I spent that year trying in very large ways to Be More, to Live Fully.  I didn’t know how.  The instruction manual so many people seemed to have was written in a sanskrit for me.  So I launched myself into unknown territory and got badly burned and busted up.

It would be nice to believe that the best parts survived, but that is perhaps not for me to say.  But I wouldn’t have done it differently.  If I had, what followed would have been other than what I have, and I like what I have.


Place Keeper

I put up a review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas over on The Proximal Eye.  The long and the short of it here is, I liked it.  I liked it a lot.  Go read.

I’m doing a little light reading now for the next few days while I get myself geared up to do a new novel.  (Henning Mankell, Dennis Lehane, maybe Greg Egan…)  The great office renovation is about over and I can work comfortably in here now.

For those of you with your heads tucked into your shells, it snowed last night.  Bah fucking humbug.  We stayed in, I wrote, I needed to do Other Things outside, but if I don’t have to I won’t do them in the snow.

Tomorrow there will be work-related interruptions to my lazing about.  See you after that.

Scouts’ Honor

My relationship with the Boy Scouts of America was not the most pleasant.  I was an oddity, to be sure.  I think I was at one time the only—only—second class scout to be a patrol leader.

Second class.  For those who may not have been through the quasi-military organization, the way it was structured in my youth was you entered as a Tenderfoot.  There were requirements for advancement.  Skills had to be learned, benchmarks achieved, and then, having passed through them, you matriculated to Second Class.  You were something of a scout, then.  It was assumed by your fellows that you knew a thing or three, wouldn’t get lost in the woods, knew how to police a campsite, etc etc.  Next up the rung was First Class, which signified a new level of competence and achievement.  The requirements were more stringent, trying, harder, and in many instances more useful, at least in the advent of civilization’s collapse and you made it into the wilderness.  (Likely you still wouldn’t last a week if those were the only skills you brought to the challenge, but they were better than nothing.)  First Class was where the really serious achievements could be made.  Once you fulfilled the requirements for the next level, you went up to…

Now, here I get confused.  Eagle Scout?  Or Life Scout?  Something like that.  The reason I don’t remember is because I never got there.  See, I never made First Class.

Now in a fair world, I’d have no carp, because I couldn’t fulfill the requirements.  I couldn’t swim and by the rules you had to in order to make First Class.  As far as it goes, very reasonable.  I was terrified of the water, and despite the lessons we all went to, I just couldn’t do it.

The problem was, there were other requirements which the other members of my troop did not have to fulfill because, well…the scout master just signed off on them.  (One was hiking a set amount with a pack.  The troop didn’t own a pack nor half the stuff that was supposed to be in it, so our scout master just signed off.)  Not many, but because we were basically an inner city troop, it was deemed that opportunity—or lack thereof—allowed for some sliding.  The rest of my peers made First Class.

Here’s my problem.  I went ahead and did all the rest.  I found the opportunity, got ahold of the necessary stuff, and did it all.  Except the swimming.

I did not get signed off on.  The extra credit, so to speak, made not one bit of difference.  I couldn’t swim.  No special consideration.

But special consideration—given, I think, mainly to save the adults a lot of work—was dispensed to the others.  In my 12-year-old mind, that constituted blatant unfairness.  Nevertheless, my complaints went unredressed, and months later I was elected patrol leader.  Buffalo Patrol.  My mother made our pennant.

I was a creditable boy scout.  I knew a bit about woodcraft already from hunting trips with my dad.  I could find my way with a compass, I could read a map, I could police a campsite, I could manage all the pesky but cool Daniel Boone stuff.  But I was never going to advance up the ladder into the stratosphere of superior scouthood because, well, I couldn’t swim.

But they didn’t kick me out.

There were other problems I had with them, institutional conflicts which I ran afoul of without knowing what was going on.  Years later, I understood.

The Boy Scouts are all about conformity.

The uniforms, the rituals, the youthful boyish comraderie, the classifications for advancement, the dedication to the troop above the individual, all of it was designed to impose a standard form ideal manliness on the scouts.

Now, by itself this is nothing unusual, nor if handled in a benign way a necessarily bad thing.  Civilization needs a certain amount of conformity in order to function.  It’s a dance, to be sure, between individuality and group coherence, one we wrestle with all the time.  But in order to be effective and beneficial, it kind of has to be both fair and honest with itself.  Just what is it we’re conforming to?  If everyone knows what that is, then everyone is (theoretically) free to participate or pass.  It’s only when you hide your intentions or won’t admit to them that problems emerge.

Which brings us to the current spate of trouble the Boy Scouts have been having for a couple of decades now.  They wish to disapprove of homosexuality.

Well, it is a private organization, which is something I think a lot of people forget.  Therefore, they have the freedom to be what they wish to be.

Except almost all boy scout troops are school-affiliated.  As long as they’re with a private school, again, it’s their call.  But if they’re attached to a public school—and I assure you, boy scout troops use school facilities, they get at the least tacit support from the school—then we have a wee bit of trouble over discrimination laws.

Still, I’ll set that aside for the moment.

I hope they choke on this.  Firstly, what they’re saying is the only boys they want are “red blooded all American heterosexuals who like girls!”  Wait, do they say that?  By discriminating against a “gay lifestyle” they damn well are.  The hypocrisy of course is that they give no brief on straight sexuality, either.  By long tradition, what they’re about in this regard is what might be called “wholesome manhood” which once meant that we simply do not tolerate sexuality of any sort.  The idea is that these are boys, they aren’t supposed to be concerned with sexual orientation or anything else concerning carnality.  “Wholesome manhood” is an ideal that pretends sex doesn’t exist until marriage and then you keep it to yourself.

By openly discriminating against a sexual orientation they are coming out in tacit support of a preferred model of human sexuality.  They can’t escape this because the only basis for distinguishing between gays and straights is sexual preference.  Which, by long practice, the Boy Scouts of America are there to suppress on both sides of that spectrum in favor of Wholesome Manhood.

At best, this is hypocrisy.  At worst, it’s fraud.

(One of the charming rituals I endured, as did all the boys in my troop and, I presume, all over the world, was a hazing called “Being Pantsed.”  This entailed being ganged up on as a Tenderfoot by all the others and being stripped of your trousers and forced to try to get them back in your underwear.  Of course, this is not supposed to have a sexual connotation, but the embarrassment was acute and went straight to issues of sexual modesty at a vulnerable time in a child’s life.  Most people who have endured this just laugh it off. Fine, upstanding youth, just larking about.  No subtext.  No connotative secondary implications. Hm.)

So if the Boy Scouts see it as their mission to educate young boys to be on the surface nonsexual, how come that wouldn’t apply equally to a gay boy?

Anyway, the second problem I have with this is that it is defining someone by one trait.  That gay scout might be the best trailblazer in the district, known more about outdoor survival than any dozen others, and be capable of earning fifty merit badges in a year, and yet all this “scout-worthiness” means nothing beside the horror of his sexuality.  Judging him by one thing.

As was I.  I couldn’t swim.

Of course, I wasn’t kicked out.  I suppose because they all assumed that, in spite of that inability, there was no question that I liked girls and, surely they guessed, wanted to do thoroughly Unwholesome things with them.  (Not really, I don’t consider sex unwholesome.  Their standard, not mine.)

Right now the issue is raging over an openly gay scout master.  But again, he’s being judged by one single trait—a trait the entire moral edifice of the Boy Scouts is traditionally not even willing to recognize in straights.

The Boy Scouts is a private organization.  But it is one which we as a culture have long handed our confidence and trust to, one which we have accepted as if it were a public institution, which status they have quite willingly accepted without bothering to correct.  The Boy Scouts like being identified with other public institutions and all things American.

Until now.  Now that they have been revealed as the particular kind of conformists they are, they remind us of their private status and hide behind it.

Fairness is one of the virtues they teach.  And honesty.

In my experience, they’ve never been either.