Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Trump, Scouting, my Dad, and Me

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I don't know why this makes me so angry, but it does.

Maybe anger's not the right word; I'm not angry, I don't think. (I rarely get angry; not in my make-up, I suppose.) But I am annoyed, chagrined, bothered, upset, pissed off. And I suppose I know why too, though it's not easy to pull it all together.

My contempt for President Trump is out in the open, for anyone who cares to look or ask. But as a scholar of politics, and as someone who is ideologically disposed to look at socio-economic trends, institutional forces, structural incentives, and so forth, the way I look at the man and his presidency mostly stays in the realm of ideas and implications. Yes, I'm a social media addict who snarks within my own self-created informational bubble, like almost everyone else: guilty! But by and large, I really don't think my attacks on the Trump administration have been personal, and I think it's important--and have said so, often, even if I have not always resisted the temptation--to focus on the policy shifts, the party developments, the bureaucratic staffing (or lack thereof), the norm-bending, the rule-ignoring, and the legislative maneuvering taking place in Washington DC, rather than on the words that come out of this clown's mouth.

And yet, there he was, speaking at the 2017 National Boy Scout Jamboree:

I'll tell you a story that's very interesting for me. When I was young there was a man named William Levitt.....And he was a very successful man, became unbelievable--he was a home builder, became an unbelievable success, and got more and more successful....[H]e did this for 20 years, and then he was offered a lot of money for his company, and he sold his company, for a tremendous amount of money, at the time especially. This is a long time ago. Sold his company for a tremendous amount of money. And he went out and bought a big yacht, and he had a very interesting life. I won't go any more than that, because you're Boy Scouts so I'm not going to tell you what he did. Should I tell you? Should I tell you? You're Boy Scouts, but you know life. You know life....

So he had a very, very interesting life, and the company that bought his company was a big conglomerate, and they didn't know anything about building homes....So they called William Levitt up, and they said, would you like to buy back your company, and he said, yes, I would. He so badly wanted it. He got bored with this life of yachts, and sailing, and all of the things he did in the south of France and other places....You'd get bored too, believe me. Of course having a few good years like that isn't so bad. But what happened is he bought back his company, and he bought back a lot of empty land, and he worked hard at getting zoning, and he worked hard on starting to develop, and in the end he failed, and he failed badly, lost all of his money. He went personally bankrupt, and he was now much older. And I saw him at a cocktail party. And it was very sad because the hottest people in New York were at this party. It was the party of Steve Ross--Steve Ross, who was one of the great people. He had a lot of successful people at the party. And I was doing well, so I got invited to the party. And I see sitting in the corner was a little old man, William Levitt, by himself....

He'd lost his momentum, meaning he took this period of time off, long, years, and then when he got back, he didn't have that same momentum. In life, I always tell this to people, you have to know whether or not you continue to have the momentum. And if you don't have it, that's OK. Because you're going to go on, and you're going to learn and you're going to do things that are great. But you have to know about the word "momentum." But the big thing, never quit, never give up; do something you love....[O]f course I love my business, but this is a little bit different. Who thought this was going to happen? We're, you know, having a good time. We're doing a good job.

You and I and everyone reading this has heard dozens of speeches worse than this--so what's the big deal? A stupid, rambling story about "momentum" and "never giving up"; what's the harm in that? The harm is that this was just a small slice of a huge, even more rambling speech that attacked (sometimes humorously, sometimes implicitly, but sometimes neither) former President Obama, Trump's 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, the news media, and members of his own administration, and continually, continually, praised himself and his electoral win last November. The harm is that for more than 30 minutes a bunch of Boy Scouts were subject to the sleazy, stupid, self-aggrandizing ramblings of an over-his-head politician, and not to a speech that was remotely presidential.

And there's the rub: the Boy Scouts themselves, and the idea of, let's call it "presidentiality." We're all too cynical, too realistic, too grown-up, too mature, too liberal and open-minded and sophisticated for us such things, right? In our meta-meta-media environment, every sociological assessment of the Boy Scouts of America, and every nuanced criticism of presidential power, becomes part of prefabricated partisan narratives. "Big deal! You anti-Trump people are the ones who always hated Scouting anyway! And who cares if President Trump just gave a big lazy political speech? Everything's political anyway, right, isn't that you've always said? USA! USA!"

Except...I stand here, someone who thinks both that Boy Scouts of America v. Dale was rightly decided  and that the BSA has done the right thing in finally waking up and backing off from its anti-LGTB and anti-secular attitudes. I think that presidents have come to play an undemocratic and unhealthy role in warping and centralizing our political rhetoric and also that there is value to having the elected leader of the country be able to play a dignified, nonpartisan, civic role. Yes, those are a mix of perhaps incompatible ideas. But real life is filled with such mixes, and when someone comes along and crashes through all the informal, organic, inconsistent-but-still workable assumptions that hold our innumerable social and civic and even constitutional ties together, well, it's not surprising that it pisses people off. (Not just me: see here and here and here.)

I am not a professional Scouter, but I am a lifelong member of the Boy Scouts of America. That's the way it was--the way it had to be--in the family I grew up in, with the father I had. Jim Fox believed in Scouting, and he made it clear that he expected all seven of his sons to earn their Eagle Scout rank--which we all did. Is there something unseemly, something anti-intellectual, something illiberal in a family or a church or really any unit of people committing themselves so thoroughly to an organization which holds to such traditionalist, patriotic ideas? Yes to the last of those challenges; it would be silly to pretend that any movement that organizes boys and young men into troops, gives them uniforms, and instructs them in moral codes would be anything except, to one degree or another (your mileage will vary depending on your local leaders) anti-individualistic. But I reject the first two. Scouting absolutely isn't for everyone, and I'm happy to see my own church retreating from its too-long and too-total embrace of Boy Scouting as its youth program. (As a father of nothing but daughters, our children's experiences have all been with the Girls Scouts in non-church contexts--and for those of our girls whom Scouting has fit with their personality, their experiences have been very good.) But the civic principle behind Scouting--the idea of teaching young people principles as a part of a necessary project of cultural-formation, a project that will always include a mix of inspirational ideals--is not in any way, I think, hostile to the intellectual life or modern pluralism. Like it or not, free societies will inevitably generate civil religions; that's part of the way the great majority of human beings articulate their longings for community and meaning. I respect and support Scouting in the United States as a component of that--and am deeply disappointed and frustrated when a person who inexplicably ended up in one of the most prominent positions within that civic structure treats it as an occasion for cheap politicking and sleazy self-promotion.

Is all this about my Dad? Maybe. He wasn't a professional Scouter either, but he might as well have been; he gave huge amounts of his time to the organization, organizing and earning and leading and teaching in it, at all levels. He had the opportunity on a couple of occasions over the years to speak to thousands of Boy Scouts, assembled together--and when he did, he didn't let his conservative politics or, worse, his own self-estimation show. He used Scouting, for all its flaws and limitations (and he admittedly didn't recognize many of those which seem obvious to me today), to teach and inspire and encourage and share. He wasn't the POTUS, but he knew how to show reverence (the last, admittedly least practiced, but also possibly most important, component of the Scout Law) for those times and traditions when respect and encouragement and non-divisive fun is called for. Donald Trump knows none of those things. But why would he? He wasn't a Scout--to which I can only say, thank goodness. The organization has enough problems as it is.


Matt said...

Very nicely written, Russell.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks, Matt. I'm happy to say that today a much better version of, and much needed addition to, the comments which Boy Scouts of America released on Tuesday came out. Good for them, and good for all the parents and leaders of Scouts who let the national leaders know how embarrassed and angered, as I was, by President Trump's boorish performance on Monday.

[W]e know the past few days have been overshadowed by the remarks offered by the President of the United States.

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

While we live in a challenging time in a country divided along political lines, the focus of Scouting remains the same today as every day....In a time when differences seem to separate our country, we hope the true spirit of Scouting will empower our next generation of leaders to bring people together to do good in the world.