Column Date 2006-11-19

“Hey, Dad. I just got my merit badge in Piracy!”

The Boy Scouts of America has just taken a giant step forward.

The organization now gives out merit badges that actually have something to do with the world kids live in today.

If you were ever a scout, you may remember those traditional merit badges: for archery, leatherwork, basketry, insect study, wilderness survival, and (the one I always yearned for) bugling.

Not to mention the more contemporary badges for plumbing, dentistry, fingerprinting, salesmanship, and even one for something called “pulp and paper.” (“List the trees which are the major sources of papermaking fibers. Tell what other uses are made of the trees and of the forest land owned by the pulp and paper industry. Describe six of the major jobs in the pulp and paper industry.”*)

But here’s the exciting news: boy scouts in Los Angeles can now earn a merit badge in “Piracy.”

No, they’re not teaching the youth of America how to use sabers and hijack vessels in the Caribbean. This is “Piracy, 2006,” and it’s all about the unauthorized downloading of music and videos on the internet, and illegally copying CDs and movies.

To earn the “piracy” merit badge (an idea the Boy Scouts developed with the help of the Motion Picture Association of America), scouts watch a movie, and then discuss who would be hurt if the film was illegally copied. They can also act as role models for their friends who download bootleg CDs from the internet, or buy bogus copies of movies on the street.

Not exactly swashbuckling stuff. In fact, some people are afraid this new merit badge could wind up turning a generation of Boy Scouts into irritating little snoops.

We wouldn’t want that. So here are some other, more useful, ideas for “real world” merit badges:

The Offshore Company merit badge. Enterprising scouts study major corporations and calculate how much tax they avoid paying the U.S. government by moving their offices offshore. They learn that loopholes can be fun -- and as American as apple pie. (Includes a fact-finding trip to the Cayman Islands.)

The Comedy Movie merit badge. (“Write an essay on why farts are still funny. Learn how to get big laughs by falling down. Find out why words of more than one syllable will confuse your audience.”)

The American Election merit badge. Scouts start with a basic review of paper ballots and hanging chads, move on to a survey of electronic voting machine hacking, and then visit Florida to view their bi-annual ”Disappearance of the Votes” pageant.

The Petroleum merit badge. (“List the major oil producing countries and the despots who rule them. Search your family tree for relatives who may be wealthy oil sheiks. Research the salaries and stock options of 3 oil company CEOs. Learn what a cartel is.”)

And last but not least, the Contemporary Art merit badge. Scouts learn how to make the incomprehensible profitable. The badge itself, created by monkeys dripping paint on fabric, will be part of the Venice Biennale, and also be exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York.

You may not agree with all these new merit badges but, as the Boy Scouts say, it’s always good to be prepared.

* No, I didn’t make this up. You can find it in the Index to Merit Badge requirements, on the Boy Scouts of America website. Go to

©2006 Peter Tannen