I was never a Boy Scout but I was a helluva Cub Scout.
Pack 30, First Congregational Church. I rose through the ranks: Bobcat, Wolf, Bear, Lion. I accumulated Gold and Silver Arrow Points, the Cubs' junior varsity version of merit badges. My mom was a Cub Scout den mother and spent a lot of time teaching fake Indian campfire songs and decorating various arts and crafts with poster paint.
But when the time came to transfer to the big guys, the Boy Scouts, I saw years of knot tying and helping little old ladies across the street ahead of me and opted not to re-up. Nonetheless, I feel my time served qualifies me to have an opinion about President Obama not appearing in person at this week's National Scout Jamboree in Caroline County, Virginia.
The Jamboree is a gathering of the clans that takes place every five years or so and this year's is especially significant as 2010 marks the centennial of the scouting movement in the United States. Congratulations. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a wonderful organization.Truly.
But the right wing of this country, with the aid of Fox News and other media outlets, has opted to ignore many of the qualities one usually associates with a good scout -- trustworthiness, honesty and especially cleanliness -- to sling mud at the president for not making a personal appearance at the Jamboree. Instead, he videotaped a message for the lads.
Not exactly a sin on the order of massive oil spills or ethnic purification. But to hear conservative commentators you'd think he had at the very least used the flag to buff Air Force One. All of this complicated by the fact that the president came to New York instead for some fundraisers and an appearance on The View.
"It's unfortunate that President Obama didn't take the time to promote the Boy Scouts this week, but they should be able to thrive, as they have for the past 100 years, without him." So sniffed Eagle Scout Nik Nelson, writing in The Weekly Standard, where he's an intern.
What these folks fail to mention is that President Obama met with a group of scouts and their leaders just a little more than two weeks ago. In the Oval Office. In fact, the president does so every year, but this year, special attention was given to the centennial.
As Scouting Magazine's official blog reported, "During the White House meeting, the president and the BSA delegation shared their mutual goals for addressing key concerns for our nation's youth: healthy living, service to the community, and environmental stewardship."
Admitting this, of course, would mess with the conservative narrative. Nor, it turns out, is this the first time that elements of the right have shamelessly tried to use the Boy Scouts, of all organizations, to impugn the Obama White House. A whispering campaign via e-mail (in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream) alleged that unlike his predecessors the president has refused to sign Eagle Scout certificates. As it turns out, there was a gap between the Bush and Obama presidencies when blank certificates were sent out.
But, as the debunking website www.snopes.com reports, "Production of new Eagle Scout certificates bearing President Obama's signature... got underway in late 2009 for distribution to Scouts who obtained Eagle rank in Spring 2010. President Obama has also mailed over 13,000 personal letters of congratulation to individual Eagle Scouts, including a September 2009 case in which every single one of the five most senior members of Troop 182 in Palatine, Illinois, earned eagle rank."
Now all of this would be simply silly if not for the fact that this is the pattern: find a bright, shining lie, an often trivial issue, reshape it to your agenda of attack and fear, distort and dissemble, bang it like a drum to rouse the media circus and distract the public - and its public servants -- from the critical work necessary to survive as a republic.
The Shirley Sherrod debacle at the Department of Agriculture last week is just one example. The current fight over building an Islamic "mosque" near (not "at") Ground Zero here in Manhattan is another and perhaps the loudest.
Once again, downtown New Yorkers are faced with outsiders telling us our business. Newt Gingrich: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over." Sarah Palin: "Many Americans, myself included, feel it would be an intolerable and tragic mistake to allow such a project sponsored by such an individual to go forward on such hallowed ground. This is nothing close to 'religious intolerance.' It's just common decency."
But as developer Sharif El-Gamal told Jordana Horn of The Jerusalem Post, "Those aren't my neighbors, my friends or my New Yorkers. A vocal minority have come out to amplify their own agendas of hate and bigotry that have nothing to do with my project." He notes, too, as have many others, that calling it a mosque is an exaggeration. "There will be a mosque component, which will be a separate not-for-profit component of the project," Gamal said. "It's going to be a small component in a community center, just like the 92nd Street Y has a synagogue."
This is not to deny the emotions that always will be stirred by 9/11, especially by the friends and families of those who died there, but as Padraic O'Hare, director of the Merrimack College's Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College, wrote in The Washington Post, "Build a house which nurtures and cultivates less wounded, less ego-driven and more just and peaceful Muslims, people of real and healthy prayerfulness? Hand me the shovel."
Meanwhile, as the citizenry has its attention diverted by xenophobic anti-Muslim harangues, on Thursday night, Republicans in Congress killed the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to help emergency workers and others near Ground Zero. As the New York Daily News reported, the bill "would spend $3.2 billion on health care over the next 10 years for people sickened from their exposure to the toxic smoke and debris of the shattered World Trade Center. It would spend another $4.2 billion to compensate victims over that span, and make another $4.2 billion in compensation available for the next 11 years."
GOP members called it a "slush fund." Is there a merit badge for classy?
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.
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