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The Character Factory by Michael Rosenthal (Pantheon: $22.95; 281 pp.)

March 23, 1986| Michael Apted | Apted is a film director, whose latest film is "28-UP." and

As a small boy in England, I promised on pain of death to smile and whistle under all circumstances, preferably at the same time, to serve my King and Country, do my best at all times, and not pull wings off flies. I was a Boy Scout and, if Michael Rosenthal is to be believed, the product of a "character factory." His new book examines the roots of the Boy Scouts in England and the life of the founder, Lord Baden-Powell, or Baking-Powder, as he was sometimes called. He started the movement in 1908 at the height of his fame as a hero of the siege of Mafeking in the Boer War. The Scouts were born in a period of great national anxiety, amid fears that the Empire was collapsing and that the dreaded Hun was on the march, and fears that the social order was crumbling and sacred values were being destroyed. The citadel was under siege, everything the true-blue Englishman held close to his heart--honor, loyalty, obedience and his own innate superiority--was threatened. Baden-Powell and his Scouts came up with resolute answers, and his movement assumed a mythical status. It is this myth that Rosenthal sets out to debunk.

First the man: Well, he wasn't a military hero. Mafeking was a self-serving fiasco and in direct contradiction of orders. Told to offer an aggressive and mobile spoiling force against the Boers, Baden-Powell just set up camp and sat it out. When he tried the same thing a few months later at Rustenburg, no one was fooled. The great Lord Kitchener called Baden-Powell's bluff, yanked him out of the military command and put him out to grass in the South African constabulary.

Worse, there were allegations of racism, brutality and summary justice, as well as questionable sexual preferences. Rosenthal explains that Baden-Powell was a shameless plagiarist, stealing particularly from Ernest Seton, who had founded American Woodcraft in 1902. He took the ideas and structure and just changed the names. The Scout game, "Bang the Bear," was Seton's "Bear Hunt" and "Quick Sight" was "Spotty Face." Well!

The movement also was deeply suspect. At its heart, says Rosenthal, it was paramilitary. Baden-Powell was trying to create a children's army. Scouts were encouraged, for example, to breathe through their noses "as this prevents snoring, and snoring is a dangerous thing if you are sleeping anywhere in an enemy's country."

This young militia would fight to preserve the values of the Edwardian gentleman, the landowning public school boy eager to keep the social order in place and the working class on its knees. The Boy Scouts was the "character factory," and World War I was its finest moment, when wave after wave of young men went unquestioning and proud to their deaths.

This all seems a far cry from me and my friends freezing our butts off in a drafty tent on some blasted heath. It might not have looked like it, but we were having a good time, away from parents, out of the house, learning how to cook, tie knots and stalk Indians.

We didn't feel we were part of a class war. The class war was there, all right: in school, on the streets, on the factory floor, in the law courts. It is still there, but not with the Scouts. The values we were taught seemed decent, then and now, and it was all very mild and harmless, appealing to a wide variety of boys.

Rosenthal takes too narrow a view. For if the Scouts were born just of Edwardian military anxieties, how and why did the movement become international so fast? The British Empire based on these same values collapsed in disarray, but the Scouts survived and flourished.

Baden-Powell may well have been all that Rosenthal says he was, for the book is immaculately researched, but he had the flair, energy and worldliness to take ideas that were in the air and make them work. Baden-Powell seems to have committed the sin of success.

By choosing to ignore the long term in favor of the roots, Rosenthal has undercut the potential resonance of his provocative title. He hasn't shown that his "Character Factory" has any significance outside its birth pangs or that the child was in any way father to the man we know.

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