No One Expects the Boy Scout Inquisition!
Posted by Neal on February 22, 2011
This past weekend, Adam’s Cub Scout pack had their annual Blue and Gold Banquet. The event began with the Pledge of Allegiance. As soon as it was over, I started to leave the room to get something I’d left in the car. I’d barely taken a step when the cubmaster said, “Please remain standing.”
I stopped and remained standing, wondering what for. On the stage, three adult scouting people that I didn’t recognize were sitting around a drum. They began to chant lots of vowels and W’s while beating the drum. I gathered that I was supposed to trust that they were chanting some sacred and meaningful Native American chant, the kind of thing that you find in the muddled, mixed-up Briticized-Asian-Indian/American-Indian folklore that’s supposed to serve as a foundation for Cub Scouts. It might not have even been in a Native American language, for all I knew. Even if it was, I doubt the three guys chanting it knew anything at all about it. If an actual speaker of whatever language it was had been there, they probably wouldn’t have recognized it. They probably would have laughed, or been insulted. In fact, that’s how I feel whenever the scout leaders start breaking out any kind of Native American stuff: What would an actual Native American say if they saw us? Even if the words or traditions are accurately represented, I think it’s silly to pretend to understand and accept as your own the values of a culture or cultures you haven’t grown up with, and especially one that your own people spent so many years trying to eradicate.
Those were some of my thoughts as the chanting went on and on, and I kept suppressing the urge to look at my watch. How long was this thing supposed to last, anyway? Why should I “remain standing” for this pretentious, phoney-baloney performance whose significance no one had even bothered to explain?
Finally, though, it was over, and I made for the door. But one of the leadership committee members stopped me. I’m the pack treasurer, and she needed me to write a check. A check for $25, for those three guys who had just performed for us. What, they charged us money for that? We hired them to waste those five minutes of our time? They must have voted to do that at that one committee meeting I missed.
Well, enough about that. The highlight of the evening was the “crossing over” of the older Webelos Scouts to officially become Boy Scouts. Adam himself is now a Webelos Scout, and will do his crossing over next year. This year he’s been learning the Boy Scout motto, slogan, law, and oath. The oath (which is in English!) goes like this:
On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my Country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
The way the line breaks are given, and the way it’s punctuated, the Boy Scout Oath seems to have three main parts after On my honor, I will do my best, and in fact, much is made of this three-part structure. The three fingers held upright in the Boy Scout Sign are supposed to represent the three parts of the oath. But now I know why I found the three parts of this oath troublesome to keep straight during my two years of scouting as a kid: There are four parts, not three!
Actually, when you hear the oath spoken, it sounds at first as if there are only going to be two parts. First there’s to do my duty to God and my country, an infinitival phrase. Then there’s an and, signaling (usually) that the next item is the last one in the current coordination. That next item is another infinitival phrase: to obey the Scout Law. So we’re done, right? I will do my best (1) to do my duty, and (2) to obey the Scout Law.
Not so fast! Here comes some more! It’s a third infinitival phrase: to help other people at all times. And finally, here comes the fourth infinitival phrase, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. This fourth item doesn’t sound like it’s going to be the final one, because unlike Item #2, this one isn’t introduced with an and. That’s fine in and of itself, because poetic or otherwise flowery language sometimes uses asyndeton (i.e. coordination without conjunctions), but it’s still a little weird to use a conjunction to join Items #1 and #2 in the list and not use one before the last item.
The bottom line, though, is that this is a list of four items: four infinitival verb phrases, all adjuncts to do my best. If you want to package the first and second promises into one, then what you want to do is change to obey to just obey. Then you’ll have a coordination of two VPs headed by the plain form of the verb: do my duty to God and my country, and obey the Scout Law. They’re bundled together as a single infinitival phrase by to. Oh, and you might want to put an and before the last infinitival phrase, but that’s not a requirement. Diagrammed, the improved oath would look like this:
Alternatively, instead of rephrasing their oath, the Boy Scouts of America could change their sign for one that more accurately reflects the structure of the current oath: