Christopher Hitchens, Boy Scouts, Zulu Dances, and Hockey-Sticks With the Heads Removed

It seems that everywhere I see articles by this Christopher Hitchens fellow, and they’re usually quite interesting. At The Atlantic this month, Hitchens has published one about Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, and his Scouting movement. It’s titled Young Men in Shorts and it’s rather worth a read.

Its emphasis on the outdoors and on personal courage and initiative notwithstanding, the scouting ethos had always had something modern and totalitarian about it. B-P could not even keep his nature notes under control: he told his trusting readers that industrious bees were to be admired: “They are quite a model community, for they respect their queen and kill their unemployed.” He repeatedly referred to the movement he had inaugurated as “a factory,” for bodies and minds as well as “characters.” The expression “to be a brick,” still in use if somewhat archaic, originates with this fearsome injunction:

You should remember that being one fellow among many others, you are like one brick among many others in the wall of a house. If you are discontented with your place or your neighbors or if you are a rotten brick, you are no good to the wall. You are rather a danger. If the bricks get quarrelling among themselves the wall is liable to split and the whole house to fall.

Some bricks may be high up and others low down in the wall; but all must make the best of it and play in their place for the good of the whole. So it is among people; each of us has his place in the world, it is no use being discontented.

Hitchens’ fascinating reflections on this movement make me think back to my own experiences as a Boy Scout; my experience, in Canada, seems to have been much more focused on the nature-and-survival side of things, though it’s notable that the one person in town who was vaguely British when I was a Cub Scout (the younger version of a boy scout) was my father. I don’t know what my postcolonial-lit friends would think of his teaching us a Zulu war dance (he did so in a massive indoor gymnasium, and we bore hockey-sticks with the heads removed as our spears in the dance), but it certainly bore nothing of the revulsion that Baden-Powell might have felt at seeing boys learn the traditional war dance of a pack of Zulu Africans.

Or would Baden-Powell have embraced such a thing, as he did Bushido? It’s difficult to say.

In any case, this Hitchens guy: he’s worth a read.

3 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens, Boy Scouts, Zulu Dances, and Hockey-Sticks With the Heads Removed

  1. I was never in Boy Scouts. I was in Cub Scouts, but when it was time to transition to Boy Scouts and I got an image of social environment I’d be entering my brain went on high alert: “Hazing and mindless conformity ahead…beware!” I don’t know how much of that was Boy Scouts as such and how much of it was Scouting in Texas, but I made it clear to my folks that under no circumstances was I going to become a Boy Scout.

  2. I think he’d probably have embraced the idea. One thing I’ve learnt from hearing about him 2nd, 3rd and 4th hand from Guiding people that had met him, is that he may have been a bit odd, but he knew how to move with the times, and also placed a very high value on what the kids themselves enjoyed doing. For example, I heard a story about someone asking his daughter in the late 80s what he’d have thought about the changes to guide and scout uniforms (away from the really formal stuff, to less formal more kid friendly stuff). And she’d replied that he’d have had them in jeans and t-shirts that they liked years ago.

    Another thing I like is the 11th guide law he wrote when he and his sister were originally working out the principles for the girl guides. You’ve got the 10 laws everyone knows, about being cheerful, kind to animals, obediant, responsible and so on, and then “A guide is not a fool.” It didn’t make it into the final set of 10, but it can be found in his early drafts for the guide laws. I really like it, because it gives you this list of ideals, some of which are fairly absolute, and then ends by saying don’t be a mindless drone slavishly following them, but use your head and think for yourself.

    In fact, the guide program in Australia and the UK used to be based on 8 major areas, and one of them was called Thinking For Yourself.

    So BPs a tricky one. He’s not clear cut.

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