Tue, 25 Jul 2017

Trump and the BSA National Jamboree

My social news feeds are awash with news of Trump's speech at the 2017 National Jamboree (full transcript, full video). I'm disappointed on a few levels, but I'm not leaving the Scouting program.

I was a Boy Scout when I was a kid. I'm currently an adult leader with a Boy Scout troop. I think the ideals and the potential of the Scouting program are good. The short version of Scouting is that we strive to develop kids' citizenship (in the USA, but also in their community and the world), character, and fitness (both physical and emotional). We use a number of tools to accomplish those goals, but the one that most differentiates Scouting from other similar organizations, in my opinion, is what BSA (the Boy Scouts of America) calls "the outdoor program", i.e. all the stuff we do outdoors, including camping, fishing, hiking, and a whole host of other activities.

BSA is not perfect; there are policies they have that I think should be changed, and bad adult leadership in a troop can give the troop's kids a bad experience. But I believe that the core goals and methods of the organization are good, which is part of the reason I am a scout leader. I want to make sure that the kids in my troop have the opportunities to get as much out of the program as possible and have good experiences while doing it.

As part of BSA's focus on citizenship, the President of the United States is considered to be the honorary president of the BSA (though there's a separate actual president who actually runs the national board). Consequently, the US President is always invited to speak at the BSA National Jamboree, an every-four-year camping event that hosts troops from all across the US (and plenty from other nation's Scouting programs, too). Nineteen National Jamborees have been held (including the one currently underway), under twelve different sitting US Presidents (including Trump). Eight of those presidents have spoken in person at a National Jamboree during their term. (Neither Nixon nor Carter spoke at a National Jamboree while they were President. Reagan was scheduled to speak, but was unable to make it for health reasons, so Nancy Reagan spoke in his place. Obama recorded a video that was played at the Jamboree.) The BSA's Bryan on Scouting blog has a history of presidential visits to National Jamborees through Obama.

So whether you like Trump or not, it was reasonable (in my opinion) for him to be invited to speak at this year's National Jamboree, on the basis of Jamboree tradition and in the spirit of developing citizenship in young Scouts.

That said, Trump took a disappointingly political tack with his speech, seeming to treat it as a campaign rally. Officially, the Boy Scouts of America is a non-partisan organization. Everyone should be able to benefit from the skills, knowledge, and experiences available through Scouting, regardless of political viewpoints, so no one should feel excluded because of their viewpoints. Past presidents have focused on non-partisan topics, emphasizing things like community service and being a good citizen, in their Jamboree speeches. Trump had a fair amount in that vein, but he kept dropping in things like his usual digs at the media or complaining that he hasn't been shown enough "loyalty". There was actually a lot of good stuff in his speech, but it seemed like he couldn't avoid making every few paragraphs about himself, in a partisan, exclusionary manner. (Plenty of past presidents used their speaking opportunity to highlight things they saw as personal accomplishments, but they all presented those things as examples of citizenship or service in line with the ideals of Scouting.) He also managed to use language that most Scout leaders would at least frown on, were it uttered by one of their troop members at an event, and referenced apparently risque activities in a fairly approving manner.

I was also disappointed at the members of the audience who went along with Trump's partisan digressions, booing Clinton and Obama while cheering things like the GOP-supported, Democrat-opposed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I'm not actually surprised that Trump treated his speech like a campaign event. It still saddens me, but it's entirely in keeping with his demonstrated character up to now. I had hoped, however, that Scout leaders would understand that sort of partisanship is inappropriate at a Scouting event. It is, of course, hard to tell just how many people were participating, but it was enough that the TV cameras could pick them up.

But despite all that, the instances of angry, divisive speech from President Trump to the Jamboree crowd do not represent Scouting as a whole. I'm sure there were some people in the audience who would be happy chanting "Lock Her Up" at a genuine Trump rally, just as I'm sure that there were among those 40,000 people some who have marched in anti-Trump protests. I think, however, that most scout leaders care primarily about encouraging their kids to be better people without having to pick a political team and without having to shut out anyone on the opposite side.

If you have qualms about Scouting, go visit some troops in your area and see how they work. The scouting program is big and it provides a lot of resources for individual troops, but what defines each one is really the adults and kids in that specific troop. Each troop has its own character. Some are bad environments for youth development, which makes me sad. Some are good environments that maybe just aren't the right fit for your particular child. But most troops are friendly and welcoming, and in most places there should be at least one where your child will feel comfortable and engaged and where there are people who will help your child develop into a healthy citizen of upstanding character.


Phil! Gold