Sunday, May 28, 2006

Scouting Teaches Values?

The state of Florida, in its ongoing determination to be socially irresponsible, particularly when it involves anything remotely connected to taxation, has created a whole series of specialty auto tags. For a mere $30 extra above the cost of a state-issued tag with its rather pale orange plugging the citrus industry, individualist drivers in a hyperindividualist culture can express their individuality. They do this by placing tags on their vehicles which express the identities they've purchased from an array of consumerist options. These range from one's alma mater to anti-abortion "Choose Life" tags to the inevitable environmentalist tags appearing on the backs of environmentally destructive Hummers and SUVs. This purchased identity of the individualist can then join the thousands of other individuals on clogged expressways who are similarly disposed to display their individuality.

One of the options available to Florida drivers today is one which praises the Boy Scouts of America. "Scouting Teaches Values" the tags proclaim. But what kind of values?


The building contractor originally scheduled to repair our home from Hurricane Charley had long run boy scout troops out of his home. For years his trailers bearing canoes, tenting and other equipment had been parked along our residential street making passage nearly impossible. After weekend and vacation time scouting events were passed, we would pick up candy wrappers, citrus fruit which had been used as ammo and drink cans from our streetside yard. Even so, wanting to be good neighbors, we had regularly participated in food drives and bought the luminaries the scouts created for Christmas Eve.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, our builder decided he could make more money in a shorter period of time than our house reconstruction offered him. So, after a year of slow repairs, promises ("You're just going to love it when I'm done") and interminable waiting during which hope turned to despair, our contractor/scout master left town for Mississippi and the quick buck. In the process, he left our home with 2/3 of its roof removed, open to the elements where the remaining undamaged flooring and walls quickly became more damage to be removed and replaced.

The night he finally came back to town, we demanded to see him, to simply ask if he was going to finish the project. Sixteen months into the repairs, he simply said, "I just don't see how I can finish it" to which he added, "I appreciate your being so nice about this." I didn't know whether to feel relieved, angry or despondent. But I will never forget the image burned into my memory as he left that night. On the tag on his van was the fleur-de-lis of the Boy Scouts of America and the specialty tag proclaiming, "Scouting Teaches Values."


On my return home from visiting my father yesterday, I got back on the Florida Turnpike (I NEVER call it the Ronald Reagan Expressway and I never confuse National Airport in DC for Reagan International) headed south toward Orlando. After about 15 miles or so, a large green SUV in the left, passing lane had parked itself there, holding up a long line of traffic behind him and me. After a few minutes of hoping the man would catch a clue and pull to the right, I flashed my lights at him. No response. Finally the car in the right lane began to pass the man. I pulled to the right and passed him on the right.

His wife, sitting in the driver's seat, looked over at me just as I passed, shaking my head and comparing the driver, presumably her husband, to a rather detestable part of the human anatomy. It had not been my intent for either of them to see my assessment of the driver. But from the events that occurred next, I assume that at least the passenger - if not both of them - did.

Passing the SUV, I finally managed to return to the left passing lane. Suddenly. this SUV, which had been holding up traffic for five miles, its driver stodgily refusing to speed up or move out of the pass lane, roared into the right lane, cutting off cars which had followed me to get past the SUV. Given my own speed of 75 mph, the SUV must have been going 85 when the driver pulled up just to my right and shot me a bird. But before he slowed down to the speed limit, I caught a glimpse of his tag once more: "Scouting Teaches Values."


A few years ago, I agreed to give my brother and sister-in-law a night out by taking their boys to their scouting meeting. It was supposed to be a hamburger dinner at MacDonalds kind of outing of two local packs, one a full scouting troop, the other the up and coming Cub Scouts. But after supper, the scout master got out a book with pictures and began to tell the Christmas story from his own Southern Baptist perspective. "Jesus had to be born so he could die for our sins," he droned to the antsy group of boys from homes in this affluent suburb north of Orlando representing a number of Asian traditions as well as Judaism.

Turning to a page with a depiction of the manger scene, he began trying to engage the boys: "So, who's at the manger?" The first couple of boys gave innocuous answers: "Shepherds." "Sheep." Good, the man would proclaim, rewarding them for the obvious and expected answers. But things began to go haywire when they reached the child sitting next to my younger nephew. "Who else is at the manger?" the leader asked. "Tyler," the child said. "Tyler?" the puzzled leader asked to which the child pointed to a tow-headed boy with mischief written all over his face and responded, "Tyler. Tyler was there." "No, I don't think Tyler was there," the chagrinned leader continued, turning next to my nephew. "So who else is at the manger?" Knowing my nephew to be capable of just about anything, I caught my breath: "Tyler's butt!" he said. At this point all the boys began to roar with laughter - all except Tyler and the leader whose face had turned a brilliant shade of scarlet. Trying to regain his momentum, he moved on to my older nephew, "So, JD, who else was at the manger?" at which point this gifted middle school student launched into a dissertation on how it was not Christmas, it was actually Advent and he didn't understand why we were doing this in the first place. At that point, the book slammed closed and the leader moved on to talk about upcoming events for the pack.

At a basic level, I felt sorry for the man. He had bitten off way more than he could chew, probably with the best of intentions. But it was his obliviousness to the group, his perceived need to impose his religious views on them and all in the name of values and under the aegis of the Boy Scouts of America that I found more than a little irritating. He deserved what he got that night but I doubt he got the message. Indeed, I wondered if he could. "Scouting Teaches Values."


June 28, 2000, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision upholding the Boy Scouts of America in their policy of excluding homosexuals as leaders. The Scouts also exclude agnostics and atheists from leadership. In its ruling SCOTUS overturned a New Jersey statute which prohibited discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The BSA policies apply not just to scout leaders but to scouts themselves.

Not surprisingly, the Irving, Texas based Boy Scouts sounded an awful lot like Bible Belt fundamentalists when they defended their discriminatory policies:

  • "A homosexual is not a role model for traditional family values," says Scout spokesman Gregg Shields. (Newsweek, 8/17/98).
  • "We also think that men who are promiscuous and those with DWI convictions do not make good role models," said Gregg Shields, spokesman for the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Irving, Texas. (Kansas City Star, 3/21/01). Note the assumption that gay men are necessarily promiscuous. Note also the structure of this argument is essentially the same as the evangelical Protestant appropriation of Paul's epistles which, taken completely out of context, list homosexuality along with murder as sins of equal value.
  • Shields, like a good fundamentalist, also interprets the Scout's oath, in which Scouts pledge to keep physically strong, mentally awake and "morally straight," in a literalist, acontextual manner like that of religious fundamentalists. "The Boy Scouts of America have always taught traditional American values. An avowed homosexual is not a role model for those values," said Gregg Shields, a spokesman at the group's national headquarters near Dallas. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/22/01) Like chicken in which parts is parts, straight is straight, for the Boy Scouts.

Every group which expresses ideals and offers them as normative for the culture around them runs the risk of appearing hypocritical when they fall short of their own ideals. Just ask any college sophomore who can spell out with detail and specificity the hypocrisy they observe around them in the world. It's easy to see the examples in the scenarios above as the exceptions to the rule, the bad apple which should not spoil the whole barrel.

But when one looks at the pattern of overt and blatant discrimination, of the self-deception in legitimizing raw human bigotry by dressing it up as "traditional family values," it's hard not to wonder if this is not so much the exception as the rule. That becomes even more plausible when one looks at comparable groups to the Boy Scouts: "The Girls Scouts of America, the YMCA, 4-H clubs, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Jewish community groups, don't exclude gays." (USA Today, 10/10/00) Canada's Boy Scouts permit gay troops. (Toronto Globe and Mail, 6/19/00). So what is it the US Boy Scouts know that everyone else doesn't?

A good friend responded to the Boy Scout's defense of its homophobic policies by sending his uniform and merit badges earned attaining his Eagle Scout status back to the BSA with a letter explaining why he'd done that. My friend is gay but more importantly he felt his own values of tolerance, valuation of diversity and human dignity - values he felt he had learned in part from the Boy Scouts of America - were simply incompatible with those demonstrated by today's incarnation of the American Boy Scouts. It's probably not suprising that he never heard a word from the Scouts. Apparently one of the values Scouting teaches is denial and avoidance of anything which might draw the foregone conclusions of the tribe into question.

Increasingly I see the Boy Scouts as one of the last bastions of patriarchy along with all its less desirable traits: focus on power and status within hierarchy, aversion to critical thinking and social responsibility, tribal self-understanding, demonization of the other outside the tribal bounds. Scouting, as practiced by the Boy Scouts of America, might well be teaching values. But somehow, I wonder if these are values a responsible parent truly want their boys to learn.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Thoughts on an Unrepentant Prophet

A friend on Future Faiths Forum, one of the lists on
which I participate, sent in a couple of quotes
by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York's
Riverside Church. Coffin was an amazing prophetic
figure in a mainline Christianity known more for its
obsessions over genital contact and social respectability
through observance of middle class morality than for
anything particularly related to the Kingdom of G_d.

Here are the quotes and some musings on their content:

"Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it.
Hope resists, hopelessness adapts."
William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) pastor, Riverside Church

I think Coffin was onto something when he spoke about
hope and criticism. In a film I show in my classes,
Faces of the Enemy one of the speakers talking
about the Reformation said that the presumption of
the reformer who criticized the Roman Catholic
Church was that things could be better and
thus we had the obligation to try to make them so.
I see many social activists in the same light. They
see the potential of a society and in their critique
insists that a people live into that potential.

Inevitably they are seen as assailants and malcontents
by those who cannot see a larger picture than the
immediate construction of reality. These are folks
who confuse patriotism with an uncritical support
of policy regardless of its deleterious effects on
others and its contradictions vis-à-vis one's own
stated principles. These are folks who cannot distinguish
critique for purposes of betterment of a society from
bashing for purposes of denigrating its current leadership.
The author of Proverbs observed that without a vision
the people perish. Rarely were such words more on target
than in today's America.

But I wonder if it's simply hopelessness that prompts
the rationalization and adaptation to destructive
social constructions that Coffin talks about. I am
strongly informed by the work of M. Scott Peck whose
book The Road Less Traveled speaks of the force of
entropy, declining to one's lowest level of functioning
if no energy is exerted to counteract that trend.
Peck assessed the causes of entropy as laziness,
fear of the unknown (the devil you know v. the devil
you don't know) and the aversion to any kind of
suffering. He called entropy "original sin." That's
the only definition of that concept that's ever made
sense to me.

So, I guess I wonder if what Coffin calls
hopelessness is not so much a lack of hope as
lack of will to exert the energy, endure the pain
and face the unknown that he called entropy. In
other words, it's not that human beings are incapable
of doing the right thing or even that we don't know
what it is. We simply choose to avoid it when we
can get by with it. Little wonder, then, that prophets
are stoned. They blow the cover of the entropist,
they explode the rationalizations and call the
adapters on the lives they lead vis-a-vis the
principles they say they believe.

"It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos,
"Let justice roll down like mighty waters,'
and quite another to work out the irrigation system.
Clearly there is more certainty in the recognition of wrongs
than there is in the prescription for their cure.
William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) pastor, Riverside Church

Truer words were never spoken. And here's where the
entropy is really felt. To critique a system
means to recognize two things: one, it has the
potential to be better, to be more closely
approximating of its ideal; but, two, that to
create a more perfect union, to move closer to
that ideal will require the ability to conceptualize
with a wide angle lens, to figure out ways to
actualize that vision and then to muster the hard
work to get there. Frankly, I feel weary even as
I write these things. Doing them is even more

On the other hand, it is unreasonable to expect
the prophetic voice of the critic to also have
all the answers for fixing that which they decry.
Indeed, to demand that critics have an answer
as a condition of listening to their critique
is a prime example of the entropic qualities
Peck decries. In both the critiqued construction
and the replacement construction, the masses
have remained uninvolved. They've not had to
exert any energy, face an unknown or endure the
pain required to recreate their society.

It is not reasonable to expect one critic or
even a handful to provide the replacement for
the current way of being a people. It took years
and countless souls to create the current version
of society which is not working. It will take more
than a small group of prophetic voices to make
the necessary changes.

In the meantime, do we have the luxury of
simply blowing off the task of dealing with
global warming? or the grinding, death dealing
occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq? or the
slow but sure build to the attacks on Iran?
or the genocide in Darfur and Timor? That a
problem is huge and difficult does not mean
we are somehow excused from dealing with it.
Rationalization and adaptation in the face
of crises like these are not viable options
for people of good faith. Indeed, they are not
viable options for a people who value their
ongoing existence.

Without a vision the people perish.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

May Day March: Si, se puede!

I marched with 20,000 marchers in Orlando yesterday in the day without immigrants. It was the largest march in Orlando history. It was matched by similar marches in Homestead (agricultural district south of Miami), Sarasota, Deland (small city just north of here) and Pensacola. It was an incredible day, bright sunshine, blue skies, warm temperatures and a sea of brown faces clad in white tee-shirts. There were young men and women holding American flags, mothers pushing strollers, children holding parents' hands, elderly people, construction workers, bank tellers, union officials, and a gaggle of us Gringo marchers there to support their efforts. I arrived home three hours later sunburned, exhausted but exhilarated as I listened to the evening news and was informed that I was one of over a million Americans who had been in the streets for justice this May Day.

A few observations:

  • The largest single group of marchers here in Orlando, as measured by crowd response to questions about places of origin from the organizers over the PA system, was from Puerto Rico. In other words, US citizens. While the local CBS affiliate initially reported that the streets were filled with "illegal aliens," (which brought a chuckle from this fifth generation Floridian who's Gringo to the bone), in fact the majority were at least documented if not citizens.
  • The announcements were tri-lingual - Spanish, English and Haitian Creole. What was most interesting was hearing the chants glide effortlessly from one language to another - "Si, se puede! Yes, we can!" These are people whose ability to learn and grow expose their detractors' resistance to do the same. The presence of such diverse cultures has made this place a desirable place to live for those of us who are not so fearful that we must surround ourselves with like-minded, like-situated and like-appearing peoples.
  • The presence of religion took two forms: 1. fundamentalist Protestant sects passing out Spanish editions of their comic book style tracts and holding banners which seemed to equate one's immigration status with sinfulness and the need to repent, 2. Roman Catholic religious orders and Catholic Workers who have a presence among the farmworkers here. Noticeably missing: all mainline Protestant churches, including those who have "Hispanic ministry" like the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. So much for putting one's money - and one's official presence - where one's mouth is.
  • The smugness of the counter-demonstrators provided a stark contrast to the exuberant passion of the marchers:
  1. "This is my country! Go home!" Translation: Somehow I have come to speak for the whole country which I presume to be mine to speak for. It's all about me.
  2. "My mother was a legal alien. What's your problem?" Translation: I got mine, screw you.
  3. "What's that? I can't understand you?" Translation: I'm a monolingual philistine (and to whose surprise the crowd immediately translated their chant - "Yes, we can!").
  4. My response to the counter-demonstrators whose tiny flags were dwarfed by the sea of American flags among the marchers: "Shame on you!"

I had questioned my motives for going to the march debating with myself the night before whether I should even go. I'm not an immigrant though I'm clearly the descendant of immigrants, some of whom faced major discrimination when they came (Irish, German). I'm not Latino or Haitian though many of my students are and I teach Latin American Humanities. Was I presuming to be the great white liberal, doing something good for some poor souls whom I presume need my help and from whom I will demand to be duly appreciated? But within moments of arriving at the T.D. Waterhouse Center, where million dollar NBA players are watched from corporate skyboxes flowing with champagne and the people filling the parking lot clean their toilets and stock their bars, I knew why I was there.

Justice and dignity were the two main words I saw over and over. Protestations against unjust characterizations of immigrants as criminals and terrorists screamed from some of the signs. Demands that the value of the work immigrants provide be recognized was featured in other signs (Who built your house?). These are all themes I recognize implicitly. As a gay man who has lost jobs, been denied jobs and been treated with less than human dignity because of his sexual orientation, I understand these concerns immediately, personally and viscerally. But more importantly, as a man who has spent his life working for justice and human dignity from special ed classrooms of public schools to courtrooms of juvenile justice as public defender to observing cease-fires and elections in Central America, this is simply one more chapter in a story that is much larger than me. I thought back to previous marches down the streets of Orlando in which I had participated to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. and the ongoing struggle for African-American civil rights and to several Gay Pride parades in which I had marched or stood curbside with banners which proudly - but debatably - read "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." Yesterday's march was just the latest chapter but undoubtedly not the last.

Justice. Dignity. Human rights. Seeing the image of G-d on every human face and throughout the good creation. Those are concerns worth fighting for. They are, in the words of Princeton ethicist Cornell West, causes larger than oneself worth devoting one's life to.

For those who watched with dismay or perhaps even fear as the streets of America were swollen with a mere fraction of its immigrant population: This is your wake up call. The sleeping giant has awoken. They now have your attention. But this is just the beginning.

Get used to the idea that your nation is a nation of immigrants. And here's a poorly kept secret for those of you who are history challenged: we always have been. Immigration laws, which didn't come into existence until after WWI, have always been based in the fears of the WASP majority that they were losing dominance of this country. It's why the first immigration laws were passed in the wake of the wave of eastern and southern European immigrants who brought their own languages other than English which lasted exactly one generation and their own religions (Roman Catholicism, Judaism) which didn't ever go away.

Immigration laws always exist in geo-political contexts. That's why the more recent laws allowed the collateral damage (translation: human victims) of our foreign policy mistakes in Cuba and southeast Asia to flee across our borders while making the path of more recent victims of that policy from El Salvador and Guatemala (where we sided with the right wing victors) difficult if not impossible to traverse. Immigration laws are the essence of social construction - they exist at the will of the power majority and often tyrannize the less powerful minorities within their power. They are the manifestations of the deepest fears of the power holders, using human beings to mark social boundaries of power, privilege and status. Indeed, national borders themselves are classic examples of social constructions. Point to the line between Arizona and Mexico from space. Or from that vantage point, explain why the tiny Rio Grande is a border while the more logical choice of the Mississippi is not.

While an orderly pattern of immigration is undoubtedly needed if for no other reasons than to prevent infrastructure collapse if not to prevent terrorist attacks, we need to constantly remember that immigration policy exists in a specific context. If we want to understand immigration patterns and why they occur as they do, we must be willing to look at the larger picture in which immigration occurs. That context includes ourselves and lives of privilege we lead in America. I am not opposed to someone objecting to uncontrolled immigration and porous borders so long as they do not speak with their mouths full of immigrant produced food sitting in homes that immigrant labor built and maintain and whose cheap labor made all of it affordable. But what I am not willing to take seriously - even for one second - is a confused notion that somehow a human being can be reduced to an immigration status. Regardless of how we may see them, no human being is illegal. And if we are not willing to see that, there are many, many more marchers ready to come to our streets to make that lesson clear. "Si, se puede." Yes, we can.

One last thought. Cultural diversity spurs creativity and syncretic generativity. The immigration struggles in America offer Americans an opportunity to become a stronger people, a better nation. The immigrants are here. They have come seeking the same dreams of prosperity Americans enjoy, the dreams beamed around the world via satellite and piped into every home able to afford a TV. Immigrants have fueled a standard of living unsurpassed in history, albeit one built on the backs of near-slave labor. Among the slogans repeated over and over in the march yesterday was this one: "El pueblo, unido, jamas seran vencido." A united people can never be defeated. Abraham Lincoln recognized this truth in his use of Jesus' words that "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Can we Americans learn to embrace the other who lives within our borders, to see them as fully human, to afford them the dignity such recognition requires, and only then to talk about immigration? I suspect our ability to do so will determine whether this great house we have built will continue to stand or fall from internal dissension. Yesterday's march gives me hope. The immigrants have spoken. Now the ball is in our court.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.