State of the Union

The “Death of Writing” & Return of Oral Culture

Amidst reports of the ensuing “death of the novel,” former USA Today reporter Chuck Raasch forewarns of something even more ominous—the death of writing itself:

If you are literate today, it does not mean you can write — not even close to it in many cases. But if you were literate in 1863, even if you could not spell, you often could write descriptively and meaningfully. In the century and a half since, we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.

Raasch’s theory is not a new one. Back in the 1980’s, when Internet was still in its primordial days and television was king, Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. His book cautioned against the developing “Age of Show Business,” fed by television’s sensory, visual medium.

Postman believed three “ages” were prominent throughout information’s history: first, ancient oral cultures encouraged the preservation of information through spoken records and stories. When the printing press and writing became more prominent, oral cultures dissolved into the “Age of Exposition”: a time when written records were perceived as holding the greatest truth. Then as photography and videography developed, media began to change again—for the worse. Postman believed we would lose more than writing ability in the wake of the entertainment era: he warned of a depleting mental and emotional capacity. He believed we would become as obsessed with pleasure as the humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman’s descriptions of distracted, sensationalistic consumers relate well to Raasch’s “species of short gazers.”

We can only imagine what Postman would have said about the Internet; perhaps Raasch gives us a taste when he describes it as “the Great Din”: “Today, throwing barbs and brickbats into the Great Din of the Internet has become as second nature as breathing … The Great Din requires no forethought, no real calculation of purpose or result, no contemplative brake, no need to seek angles or views beyond those that reaffirm or reassure what we think right now.”

Is this truly the future of media? Will we lose any true, deep, thoughtful communication in its havoc of pixels and pictures?

One interesting counter-opinion comes from former Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. Having recently left the world of journalism for event production, Brown has told reporters that she no longer reads magazines herself—in fact, she thinks “the whole writing fad is so twentieth century” (in the words of New York Magazine). But rather than warning of impending havoc and din, Brown calls people back to oral communication: “I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversations,” she said, adding that we are “going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant.”

If we experience the “death of writing,” as Rassch puts it, could we come full-circle and return to the age of oral communication? Will grandfathers sit down with their grandchildren and tell them stories, like our ancestors so long ago? One can only hope; but if such an experience were truly to flower from “The Great Din,” it would be rather surprising.


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Syria Destroys Chemical Weapons Capacity, but Distrust Remains

The process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has been going well, shockingly well, in fact. When a United States retaliatory strike was averted by a last-minute push by Russian diplomats to seize on John Kerry’s inadvertent comment about Syria being able to give up its chemical arms, few experts had high hopes for a successful disarmament. The chemical weapons destruction and verification process is onerous and exacting, even for countries undergoing disarmament under conditions of relative peace and security, such as those in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi agreed to relinquish his weapons almost ten years ago. Since Libya has still not completed its process after a decade, and Syria is engaged in a full-scale civil war, the idea of the Assad regime being able to comply fully and transparently even if it so desired was received, well, skeptically.

Yesterday, it was announced that Syria had completed the first step of the disarmament process by successfully destroying its capacity to manufacture chemical weapons and securing its remaining arsenal. In fact, it completed that step a day early “as President Bashar al-Assad has offered unexpectedly robust cooperation, at least so far, with a Russian-United States accord to dismantle his arsenal” according  to the New York TimesBy all accounts, the Syrian government has been unusually cooperative with the inspectors acting under the auspicies of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, tasked with enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention Syria signed earlier this year. The OPCW also received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

However, distrust will rightly remain until Syria has fully complied with the destruction of its chemical weapons capacity and arsenal alike, and yesterday’s news was not unanimously positive. Instead, Foreign Policy‘s “The Cable” reported that Syria had requested to avert the destruction of some of its chemical weapons manufacturing plants for the ostensible purpose of converting them to civilian use, “fueling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to reconstitute its chemical weapons program at some later date.”

Moreover,

The Syrian request—which was contained in a confidential letter from Muallem to Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—has also raised concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

Countries are permitted to request such exemptions should they make a “compelling” case, but Syria remains under special suspicion as much of its chemical weapons industry is placed on military facilities that would be awkward converts to peace-time manufacturing. FP quoted nonproliferation expert Amy Smithson as saying much would depend on the intended end result of the conversion “‘If they want to make bubble gum or humanitarian products that are essential for the well-being of Syria’s citizens, that’s one thing,’ she said. ‘But if they ask to make pesticides and fertilizers, normally those plants are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ability to make warfare agents.’”

As the fragile agreement to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons in the aftermath of a horrific use of apparent sarin gas on a Damascus suburb continues, parallel with Syria’s unceasing civil conflict, it remains to be seen if the Assad regime will prove to be genuine in its willingness to disarm, or will use bureaucratic requests and the fog of war to undermine the efforts of OPCW inspectors. Should the fears of nonproliferation experts prove true, we may find ourselves back where we were at the end of this summer.


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Our Friends the Saudis

I made this point in a casual bloggy way,   so I’m very glad to see it made more rigorously by a highly regarded author and commentator.  In Time, Fareed Zakaria punctures the notion that the Saudis are the Mideastern ally which must be catered to (this has become a new neocon meme, especially useful for those who want to downplay the Israel lobby’s role in influencing American Mideast policy.) Key Zakaria graf:

If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia. It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom’s immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics.

Quite so. There may be no sound reason to oppose  the Saudis, or even to assume their kingdom will go the way of all monarchies sooner rather than later. But treating them as a highly trusted  ally with veto power over American  diplomacy is a bit much.   Personally I was taken aback when a liberal friend, the brilliant Jim Chapin,  shortly after 9/11  described the Saudis to me as a viper clasped to our bosom, but can understand where he was coming from.  In any case, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be granted any kind of veto power over our negotiations with Iran, any more than Taiwan had over our dealings with China.   Be friendly. . . absolutely.  Keep them informed. . . of course. Stand ready   to defend them against external aggression.   But remember, Saudi Arabia is the international affairs equivalent of the rich heir who never worked a day but gives nice parties.   A thin reed upon which to base  American diplomacy in the Mideast.

But you have to admit, it is amusing to see all this neoconservative solicitude for Saudi concerns.

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Senator Kirk Embarrasses Himself Before International Audience

I’ve generally been paying more attention to the P5 plus 1 Iran negotiations than the government shutdown melodrama. Haven’t you? The opening round in Geneva was predictably opaque: Iran’s foreign minister presented a complex proposal, and the Western negotiators, plus Russia and China, acknowledged its seriousness and said, we’ll get back to you. Anyone who thinks that nuclear negotiations are not incredibly complex, whose details are beyond the ability of all but experts, isn’t serious. But in general, Iran seems to want to offer inspections and limitations on how much and to what degree it will enrich uranium, in return for acknowledgement of its “right to enrich” and sanctions relief. Of course, the devil is in the details, but my sense is that a rigorous but fair-to-both-sides agreement would essentially make it impossible for Iran to “break out” and build a weapon without the rest of the world having a lot of warning. Which is good, because Iran’s leaders have said they reject nuclear weapons for religious reasons. Perhaps an Islam expert can suggest what these might be: it’s pretty obvious that Christian, Jewish, and atheist regimes exercise no such rejection. I would take the Iranian assertion with somewhat of a grain of salt, but it is clearly much better than Iran’s leaders saying that religion requires them the have the same weapons that various other countries wave menacingly about.

Of course, we know that a powerful entrenched interest opposes any such agreement with Iran. One high-ranking representative of it, Senator Mark Kirk, took to the pages of the London Telegraph to warn against any deal. Said Kirk, it’s 1938 all over again, and does the West want to be Churchill or Chamberlain. I wonder whether a single person in Great Britain is moved  by such comparisons. In any case, a top Telegraph columnist responded forthwith, pointing out the very obvious differences between the behavior of Iran and Nazi Germany, including that, unlike some countries we might name, Iran hasn’t invaded another country in 170 years.

Mark Kirk, sad to say, represents a big fraction of the US Senate that takes its foreign-policy marching orders from AIPAC and Benjamin Netanyahu. One question observers of the negotiations are waiting to have answered is whether Congress will decide, in an effort to thwart successful negotiations, to add on to the sanctions—essentially denying the Obama administration the capacity to actually negotiate with Iran. My feeling is that this is somewhat a danger—but that if it is apparent to all the world that the ignoramuses of Congress are blocking a deal (I’m borrowing the term deployed by  the Telegraph‘s Peter Oborne) the other nations whose cooperation is needed to enforce the sanctions regime will begin to peel away. Which might be good for Iran—to have the sanctions removed without a deal—but probably is not the best of possible outcomes.

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Anthony Weiner Getting Exposed

Over at Open Zion, Ali Gharib has video of Anthony Weiner trying to brush off a questioner who asks him about his claim there is “no Israeli occupation” of the West Bank. A couple of weeks ago I wondered whether New York voters would care about or even notice this issue, whether Weiner’s opponents in a liberal Democratic primary would see Wiener’s far-right Israel politics as a point of potential vulnerability.  The verdict is not yet in, but the fact that someone (a pro-Palestine activist? someone linked to one of the other campaigns?) is trying to publicize  the issue is a sure sign of progress.

Weiner is in a bind: he wants to appeal to that segment of the electorate which is really far right on Israel, while hoping the rest of the primary electorate doesn’t notice or care. It’s a balancing act that can only work if no one brings up the issue in public.  Why should voters care what a mayoral candidate’s position on Israel-Palestine is? If you’ve lived through a New York democratic primary, you know that much of the campaign consists of every candidate trying to “outliberal”  one other in pandering to New York’s very large array of liberal constituencies.  The issues are often fairly technical, and it’s hard to get a fix on how candidates would actually govern if elected — when there are real restraints on how liberal they can be.

So the question of Israel-Palestine becomes a sort of window into the moral judgement of the candidate.  I don’t expect great things, but Weiner’s far out position clearly exposes  himself as both ignorant and bigot — personality traits which are not irrelevant to his capacity to govern the city.  No wonder he looks peeved in video.

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Egypt’s Blasphemy Laws–Still a Bad Idea

It’s a strange variation on a common theme in post-revolution Egypt: the country’s burdensome laws against blasphemy are being used to punish anti-Christian hate speech.

A hard-line Muslim cleric received an 11-year suspended sentence Sunday for tearing up and burning a Bible, Egypt’s official news agency said.

Cairo’s Nasr City court sentenced Ahmed Abdullah and his son was given a suspended sentence of eight years over the same incident, the Middle East News Agency reported. The two were ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($700). The ruling can be appealed.

Abdullah ripped up a Bible and burned it during a Sept. 11 rally by ultraconservative Salafi Muslims in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, protesting an anti-Islam film produced in the United States.  (AP)

In Egypt’s Islamist tilt, these laws have increasingly been applied against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, a religious minority comprising about ten percent of the country. Earlier this month a Coptic Christian lawyer, Rumany Mourad, was sentenced to one year in prison for “defamation of religion” on the basis of a private conversation he had at a law library with two of his Muslim colleagues. Hearings in the case were reportedly “characterized by a heavy presence of Islamist lawyers and their supporters,” one of whom suggested the death penalty, reports Amnesty International.

Last Tuesday, an elementary school teacher, Dimyana Obeid Abd Al Nour, 24, was fined US$14,000 after her students accused her of praising the Coptic Pope and disparaging Mohammed in the classroom.

A Coptic activist asked at the time of Al Nour’s imprisonment, “Why is defamation of religion a one-way street, only for the benefit of the Muslims, while Christianity is defamed every day?” He pointed out that Ahmed Abdullah’s public Bible defamation had gone unpunished.

His question is a fair question, but not the right question. With Abdullah’s conviction, Egypt’s blasphemy laws have been used, for once, to protect Christians from hate speech instead of censure them, but this is no cause for celebration. Blasphemy laws themselves, and not their application, are the problem.

“This ruling is bad,” says Nina Shea, a Hudson Institute scholar who has written a book about blasphemy laws. “The whole blasphemy regime is bad. Minorities get prosecuted disproportionately, and it’s a way of shutting down debate. You could say, ‘Well, burning Bibles, burning Korans should be off limits.’ It never seems to end there. It’s a slippery slope towards banning ideas about religion and expressing rejection of religion.”

“It’s tempting for religious people to be demanding,” she says, noting that as a religious person she finds Abdullah’s actions abhorrent. “That’s the problem, though—it creates sectarian sense of grievances.”

“They think that they can gain greater social peace if the government regulates speech against other religions,” she explains. “Usually that is not the case—just the opposite, it creates jealousy and grievances.” When one religious group sees a member convicted of blasphemy, she explains, it can use that precedent to call for the prosecution of another group.

Moreover, once the government takes a role in regulating religious expression, it rarely sticks to policing the extremes. “The temptation is always to go further to curtail speech and expression,” explains Shea. “You can’t contain this once you go in that direction.”

As tempting as it may be for Egyptian Christians to feel relief at receiving seeming equal protection under the law, no one should praise this ruling. The equal prosecution of blasphemy is at once far too low, and impossibly difficult, a standard to keep.

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Iranian Voters Stump the War Party

A spectre is haunting America’s war party. Last week, Iranians went to the polls and surprisingly and unambiguously voted for the most moderate candidate, Hossan Rohani, an establishment  cleric who campaigned on the need to improve Iran’s economy and end its diplomatic isolation. Rohani is the vehicle for disparate hopes—not least those of Green movement, suppressed after the 2009 election. One should note the weaknesses of an electoral system where prospective candidates are vetted by the government, but there is little doubt that Rohani’s victory represented a vast outpouring of popular discontent—and raised prospects for an eventual détente between Iran and the West. In their way, the peoples of both Iran and the United States have both spoken—in America first by rejecting the more belligerent candidacies of first McCain and then Romney in favor of Obama; in Iran choosing, probably in the 2009 and certainly last week, the least confrontational candidate available.

Rohani threatens to deny the war party their cartoon image of an Iranian “Hitler,” one which which had been painstakingly, if dishonestly, constructed from the undisciplined and belligerent musings of his populist predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rohani doesn’t have time to open his mouth before Jonathan Tobin of Commentary warns us that   Iran remains a “totalitarian theocracy” and Obama better not “waste more time on sanctions and diplomacy” in an effort to end  Iran’s  nuclear program. (Tobin fails to  explain that rather unique form of  totalitarianism which allows meaningful competitive elections, nor does he mention which country in the Middle East has introduced to the region a huge  nuclear arsenal.) Max Boot, also at Commentary, reminds readers that power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader, not with the president, an interpretation of Iranian political dynamic not stressed when Ahmadinejad was president. Jeffrey Goldberg chimes in that the Iranian election was “fake.” Tobin rails about “useful idiots”—the Times editorial board in this instance—who prefer diplomacy to war. But one can sense the fear in the neocons: the broad spectrum of Western opinion is inclined to think the Iranian election result might be a good, not a bad thing. One can be sure a vast research enterprise is underway to find a quote from Rohani’s past that expresses something other than sheer joy at Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians. An editor at the war-hungry Wall Street Journal is already accusing Rohani of encouraging the  murder of dissident students in the 1990′s.

The panic reminds me of the one which pulsed through  neoconservative ranks during the emergence  of Gorbachev. Then the situation was more ambiguous—the Soviets didn’t allow elections. But the neocons were unanimous (or nearly: Joshua Muravchik was a notable, and solitary exception) in presenting Gorbachev as a greater threat than previous leaders because he seemed moderate, seemed to desire the turning of bad pages and exploring new possibilities. It was a core neoconservative tenet that Soviet totalitarianism was incapable of reform and forever on the march, and in selecting Gorbachev they had found a clever new tool to lull and trick the West. Norman Podhoretz published one column—I recall struggling to write an appropriate headline for it—devoted to the Soviet leader’s devilish and mendacious smile. The danger of course was that Ronald Reagan would drop his guard, which he did, finding Gorbachev’s desire to move past the Cold War altogether credible.

In holding this election, the mullah’s regime in Iran, with all its obvious brutality and structural flaws, has already proved itself more “democratic” than the dictatorship the United States imposed upon Iran for a generation after 1953. Not surprisingly, many Iranians remember this. I don’t know whether Obama has the fortitude to explore the Iranian people’s peace overture—because it is they who made an unambiguous election choice—or whether he will bow to various Beltway hawks. But the existence of popular will on both sides for something other than continued confrontation seems impossible to deny.

And the nuclear issue: it seems to me making a core value of American policy that Israel should have hundreds of nuclear weapons and its regional neighbors not even the right to enrich uranium will always be perceived as inherently unjust, and thus inherently unstable. Margaret Thatcher, expressing frustration at Israel’s efforts to stonewall the peace process once told a Times interviewer  ”[Y]ou cannot demand for yourself what you deny to other people.” The same principle can be applied to Israel’s and Iran’s respective nuclear programs.

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Gulf War Panel: We’re Being Purged for Contradicting the VA

Members of a heretofore independent panel on Gulf War Illness are accusing Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki of “shooting the messenger” by gutting their committee and slashing half its members in a recent charter rewrite.

A member of the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Illness told The American Conservative over the weekend that Shinseki was retaliating against them for their unvarnished, public criticism of the agency—in the press and on Capitol Hill. Most recently, members Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran and advocate for the estimated 250,000 vets suffering with Gulf War Illness (GWI), and Dr. Lea Steele, a longtime GWI researcher, testified with former VA scientist Steven Coughlin on the Hill. Both RAC members complained that bureaucrats and researchers in the agency were driven by an agenda that preferred viewing GWI as a psychological rather than physical condition.

TAC interviewed Coughlin and Hardie after the hearing. Coughlin said his bosses manipulated and ignored data that did not coincide with their agenda. Hardie concurred, saying that the RAC had been forced to deal with this VA bias for some time and that complaints about it had been ignored. In 2008 for example, the committee released a report saying that GWI was a physical condition caused by toxins, including pesticides and the pills that the soldiers were given to counteract the effects of nerve gas. Since then, committee members have accused the VA of trying to undermine their findings. (The VA’s critics say it is trying to avoid the massive expense of liability, a charge the VA has adamantly denied. Officials have also denied that the VA is trying to push the psychological explanation over the physiological one.)

The damage done to the 15-year-old RAC last month by Shinseki’s hand might forever take the teeth out of the scrappy committee, which is supposed to convene for a regular meeting this week in Washington. The changes to the RAC charter would ax six of its 12 members and replace them “in accordance with VA policy,” according to a letter to RAC chairman James Binns signed by Shinseki’s interim chief of staff, Jose Riojas. The letter was provided to reporter Kelly Kennedy, who wrote about it at USA Today on Friday. The measure also removes Binns—whom the committee called their “principled, fair, just, non-partisan, longstanding champion” of veterans—after a one-year “transition period.” The letter does not identify which other members will have to go. Read More…

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‘Starbursts’ from Harry Jaffa: On Rich Lowry’s Embarrassing Lincoln Screed

National Review editor Rich Lowry’s two most notably unwise statements are defending the idea of nuking Mecca, and his odd reaction to a Sarah Palin speech. But his red-blooded sort of militarist nationalism has a pretty long paper trail. After cheering the war in Iraq, he said more troops wouldn’t make much of a difference, then changed his mind and called for escalation, even after the surgecriticized Obama for not being tough enough in Libya, and has been calling for Syrian intervention since 2003. And yet fisticuffs with Al Franken were a bridge too far.

Bear in mind Lowry’s—and there’s no other way to say this—callous disregard for American lives and unintended consequences as he defends the president in large part responsible for the war that took the most American lives. He’s written a new book about Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Unbound, and has been conducting promotional interviews this week in which he repeatedly refers to him as an “apostle of opportunity.

Now that Lowry’s written the book, he’s a mind-reader:

“He certainly would have loved the constitutionalism of the Tea Party.” (with Ed Driscoll)

“I believe he would consider having a car company named after him a high honor.” (with Jamie Weinstein)

In contrast to today’s “debt-obsessed” GOP, Lincoln was “solutions-focused.” (on Morning Joe)

Being one of the most studied figures in history—there are literally dozens of new books on Lincoln every year—one might wonder what the purpose of writing this book was. He has a helpful explanation in this cover story in the National Review; it’s to claim him for the respectable conservatives like himself—”he is much more one of us than one of them”—and to exonerate Honest Abe from his critics on the right. And so the brave editor rides to the sound of the guns Schlesinger polls.

Read More…

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Social Conservatives Should Stand by Scouts

The Southern Baptists are not going to leave the Boy Scouts en masse after all. After the Scouts’ controversial decision last month to allow openly gay Scouts while excluding openly gay adult leaders, many had expected that the Southern Baptist Convention, which sponsors nearly 4,000 Scout units, would sever ties with the Scouts. But they stopped short of anything that drastic, while still expressing their disapproval.

The Associated Press reports:

While the resolution does not recommend that Southern Baptists drop ties with the Scouts, it expresses support for those churches and families that decide to do so. It also encourages churches and families who choose to remain with the Scouts to work toward reversing the new membership policy.

The choice is up to individual congregations, a few of whom have already severed ties. As an Eagle Scout, I would urge religious and social conservatives who disagree with the new policy to stick with the Scouts nevertheless.

Social conservatives should remember that the Boy Scouts is one of the few institutions in American life, apart from the churches, that even pretends to advocate for sexual restraint among teenagers. In the debate before and after the Scouts’ policy change, it has been almost uniformly ignored that the new membership standards reaffirm the prohibition of sexual activity of any kind for Scouts: “Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”

Even sexual teachings aside, the Boy Scouts still offers a number of countercultural goods: youth education centered around very “uncool” values like duty and honor; outdoor education and conservation; localism and volunteerism. No other organization can get as many distractable thirteen-year-olds to sit through a lecture on the local political system on a Monday evening, or tear kids away from video games long enough to build a park bench, as the Boy Scouts can. Front Porch Republicans, localists, and social conservatives alike should rally around anything that promotes the Scouts’ increasingly rare ideals.

The alternative is, of course, to support these ideals while withdrawing to smaller, more sectarian groups. This is also a mistake. The important recognition that the Boy Scouts is not just an extension of Sunday school has allowed it to cultivate a broad coalition encompassing Methodists, Mormons, and Muslims alike. The national reach of Scouting brings the advantages of superior summer camps, professional staff, and national events together for the kids who are, after all, the most important part of the entire enterprise.

As the culture wars continue to be fought by adults, churches shouldn’t punish the kids by splintering a great American institution. There aren’t many of them left.

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