Saturday, May 26, 2018

What does Freemasonry have to contribute to identity politics

The hot buzzword in modern pop-political philosophy has become "identity politics." As buzzwords go, it's not so bad. It clearly identifies its subject matter and there are real movements related to it. Feminism is one of the most obvious and often cited examples of identity politics, but there are many others from the gay rights movement to various ethnic rights movements, identity politics has been a mainstay of the leftist political landscape for the past couple of generations. On the right, things are a bit more complicated. Certainly, on the fringe there are identity politics movements, but outside of religious identity, most of these have not gained wider traction.

I should clarify a distinction between two types of identity politics: one is focused on dealing with overt and egregious oppression and one is focused on generally improving the role of and removing roadblocks for an identity group. The latter are really what this article is about, but in cases such as the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century US or the gay rights movement of the 1960s-80s, where there really isn't enough social equity to even open a dialogue, most of what I say toward the end of this article may not apply, or may apply in different ways.

Back to Freemasonry...

There are two obvious answers to the question: what does Freemasonry have to contribute in this realm? I believe that they are both wrong, but because they're such widely made arguments, at least in my own experience, I'm going to tackle them first and then move on to why they are wrong and what I think Freemasonry brings to the table.

Nothing

Because Freemasonry (at least as practiced in what most of the world considers "mainstream, recognized jurisdictions") explicitly disclaims any role in the political sphere proper, it is an obvious and, perhaps not entirely unjustified claim that we have no role in identity politics. We don't discuss politics in open Lodge; we don't use Freemasonry as a platform for our political advocacy; and our administrative apparatus (the Grand Lodges) are not politically active outside of their own internal structures.

We have always been here

Freemasonry, of course, has been what some have thought of as a nexus of identity politics for over 300 years! We're an all-men's organization (with some notable exceptions around "adoptive" rites and youth groups that are satellites of the main body of Freemasonry) and we have a strict requirement of a belief in a supreme being. We're arguably the oldest identity-oriented social structure in the West outside of religion (and perhaps some ethnicity groups in Europe). So it might seem obvious that we're not just able to contribute to, but are at the heart of the notion of identity politics.

Our Actual Role

But these are both misleading and ultimately untrue, though to different degrees. It's true that Freemasonry has no explicit role in the public political sphere, and this immediately tears down the second claim. But the first claim is only a part of the story.

Freemasonry has always had something to say about the translation of abstract philosophical ideas into the public sphere, through the transformation of the individual, and in this sense, it can speak to the dangers of identity politics and to the importance of identity perspectives.

First, let's talk about the dangers. Politics has a rough equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But the political equivalent is more nuanced. For every political position that is advanced in society, an opposing political position is empowered. This does not speak to equalities the way physics can, and that's because the thermodynamic-like properties of politics tend to be quite complex, and the A=B sort of equalities are quickly lost in diffusion through many competing perspectives.

We do know, however, that political movements empower those who are inclined to disagree with their aims (as might seem obvious). This means that creating an identity-focused political movement tends push fringes that oppose that view further into the mainstream. So, when women, for example, advance deeply women-focused political ideas such as feminist epistemology, fringe men's rights groups that were otherwise not taken seriously by the mainstream right begin to advance into the light of day.

But Freemasons have long known that a shared group identity can give an organization a profound capacity to give its participants new perspective on their situation. The reactive men's groups that form in response to feminism, for example, are not going to be focused on improving their capacity to support women's needs in society to equality and dignity, but as a group that affirms the value of the individual, Freemasonry can inspire men to contribute in those areas (as much more eloquently put by Wor. David Riley), thus improving both their own situation and that of women.

What we have to contribute to modern identity politics is a 300+ year old perspective on what works and what doesn't in seeking to improve society by improving the capacity of the individual to reflect on their role in that broader context, and any identity group that takes on that, much more complex and difficult challenge is going to find that the inherent resistance created by advancing agendas based solely on an identity do not go away entirely, but they are substantially reduced.

In short, what Freemasonry has to contribute to identity politics is a way of accomplishing the same goals, within the same groups, but without having to be oppositional. As a men's group Freemasonry does not need to oppose women and women's rights, nor do individual Freemasons. As a faith-oriented group, Freemasonry does not have to oppose atheists, nor do individual Freemasons. And as a continuance of Western ideals, Freemasonry does not have to oppose the vastly expanded interactions in our modern society between East and West, and indeed, many Freemasons have helped to enhance the value of those interactions.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Is Freemasonry a Good Career Move?

I'm often confronted with variations on the assertion that Freemasonry is a business networking opportunity. Let me be clear: it's not. But there's a related question to which the answer is more complex, and I think Freemasons don't promote this question enough: is Freemasonry good for your career?

To this, I give an unequivocal "yes". In fact, it's a great career move for many reasons, some of which I won't get into, here, such as the role of self-knowledge in professional life. They're all useful topics, but for now I'll just stick to the simple question of why you might get hired for a job because you're a Freemason.

Now, if you're thinking, "the hiring manager might be a Freemason, and so they'll hire me," then stop right there. Not true. First off, the hiring manager almost certainly isn't a Freemason. Since the 1960s, membership in Freemasonry has declined substantially, and there's no reasonable case to be made that one should expect to run into a fellow Mason at work. There are probably on the order of 100 Freemasons in my city whose work plus residential population is probably around a half a million. That's 1 in every 5,000 people you might run into that are going to be Masons. Good luck with that.

So why, then?

Because the Masonic Lodge is one of the most profoundly impressive leadership training systems in the world, even though far too few people within the Fraternity seem to realize this, or at least the avoid talking about it.

Think about it: you spend somewhere around 7 years (depending on jurisdiction) learning every facet of running the Lodge, from setting up the tables and regalia to organizing the caterers and candidates. Then you spend a year or so actually being the executive management in charge of the Lodge. You have to learn how to work with a Secretary and Treasurer to actually run the business of the Lodge. You have to learn how to manage volunteer labor. You need to learn what works and what doesn't when it comes to getting work out of people.

These are not just relevant skills, they're the kinds of skills that the majority of people will never learn! I know of less comprehensive programs that are entirely based on simulation and classroom work that cost a fortune! But Freemasonry tends to cost less than going to see a movie once a month and gives you a fully rounded experience. Is it draining and demanding? Of course it is, but it will be when you do these things in your professional life, and learning to balance professional and personal demands is yet another part of the lesson.

So that brings us to how you sell yourself on this basis. How do you tell an employer? Well, here's what I wrote up recently to answer that very question:

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Experiential communication

One of the hardest elements of Freemasonry to communicate to others is what it communicates. There are parts of the communication that are easy to understand. You can read exposes of the degrees online. You can chase the historical, philosophical, religious, educational, literary and technical allusions that they have to offer, and spend a lifetime in doing so. You can listen to lectures on their deeper meanings on YouTube and read the dissection of them by notable Masons, scholars, enthusiasts and raving conspiracy theorists alike.

All of this will have varying amounts of return on the investment of your time, and to some extent I think it would be worth doing for the person who is not and feels they never will be a Mason.

But after all of that study, you still won't understand what Freemasonry communicates!

That's a kind of bold statement, and it really does need to be defended, so let me first explain some technical details before I circle around to defending my claim.

In the 1960s, a man by the name of Noam Chomsky developed a startling linguistic theory. His theory, backed up by the first successful mathematical approach to all languages, demonstrated that all human languages together only covered a small subset of possible languages that might be developed.

From this arose the popular idea that even the set of all possible languages has its own limitation on expressing all possible ideas.

If we take that as given, then my statement about Freemasonry becomes a bit clearer. What I'm really asserting is that, while language cannot communicate certain ideas, the combination of language and an experiential setting that goes with it gives us the ability to communicate ideas that we cannot then divulge to others without the same combination of language and experience.

I call this "experiential communication," and it has been the secret hidden in plain sight of Freemasonry for hundreds of years. In fact, it is one of the hidden secrets of all initiatory organizations, religions, orders, societies and so on. Not all of them are communicating the same ideas, though. Obviously a Christian baptism is seeking to communicate something different from a Masonic initiation, but both are ideas for which language is (in my opinion) insufficient and always will be.

But, I hear the careful reader saying, "you said that this was true only if we took as given that there are ideas which cannot be expressed through language." This is true. And it should never be taken as an absolute given that what we Freemasons claim to communicate is truly impossible to communicate any other way. But what I will say is that, thus far, I have never even come close to finding a way to do so. I could write for ages on this blog about how I feel "connected" to the Brethren of my Lodge or how the degrees evoke a gestalt that I can't quite put my finger on and has lead me to a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the philosophies and other ideas that the degrees connect to.

But ultimately we come to the fact that I can never tell you what it is that I can't tell you.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The position of the Grand Lodge of Franklin with respect to recent developments in Georgia and Tennessee

Sunday, March 27, 6016 AL

Worthy Brethren,

Since its founding in 5784 AL (1784 by AD reckoning), the great State of Franklin has been seen world-wide as a symbol of the universal love and harmony espoused by our namesake, M.W. Benjamin Franklin. But in recent days, that harmony has been sorely tried within the distinguished halls of Freemasonry. A rift has appeared in our ranks over the interpretation of scripture and its relevance to our Craft. Specifically, the VSL which is a Great Light of Masonry here in Franklin admonishes a man not to "lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman," so there can be no doubt that such an act is in contradiction of the moral principles of our Craft... or can it?

We cannot fail to acknowledge that not all Christian orders within our sovereign jurisdictional borders concur with this assessment of the Holy Bible and more relevant, the Grand Lodge of Franklin has many a worthy Brother who are not Christian. Even within other Abrahamic religions, conservative Judaism, for example, has ordained homosexual rabbis and obviously this Grand Lodge is in no position to question their practice of their own faith.

Rather, this Grand Lodge takes the position that these are matters of sectarian religion and of profane politics. The purpose of a Grand Lodge is to oversee the regularity of the work of its Lodges and to represent their interests in the larger community of Freemasonry. That role does not require us to peer into men's bedrooms or to adjudicate their creed. Indeed to do so would rightly be deemed un-Masonic as it tears down one of the most fundamental of Landmarks: the universality of Freemasonry; that we do not accept or reject the political or religious views of the Brother we sit next to in open Lodge, but rather love him for the Brother he is, regardless of whether we agree or disagree in the profane world.

But our good neighbors in Tennessee and their neighbors in Georgia have taken such a position. As such a call has been made from some quarters for us to suspend recognition of these two Grand Lodges. We will not take such an action. To do so every time we believe a Grand Lodge has strayed from the Landmarks would result in a state of uncertainty on the part of all Franklin Masons. Rather, we will selectively fail to recognize the suspension or expulsion of any Georgia or Tennessee Mason for the sole reason of their sexual orientation or marital status. Any such Brother, being deemed worthy in the eyes of the Grand Lodge of Franklin by a committee to be appointed, shall be given honorary status as a Brother in this Grand Jurisdiction, should the Brother so desire.

This leaves the choice of recognition entirely in the hands of those two Grand bodies. Should they desire, they can suspend recognition of Franklin over what I am certain they will see as a violation of our jurisdictional rights. This is their choice, and we will not question their right to take such action, should they deem it necessary.

However, let us always remember that Freemasonry is about more than our inter-Grand Lodge politics. Freemasonry aims to make good men better, and as such we will now return to our Craft with the hope that we can proceed with that more sublime task and leave this issue in the background where it belongs.


Fraternally,

Washington C. R. Frater,
Grand Master
Most Allegorical Grand Lodge of Franklin

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Beyond conspiracy

I think that there comes a time in the career of every Freemason who earnestly pursues the Craft where he will focus on conspiracy theory and anti-Masonry in general. It's an itch... an irritant to any man who feels strongly about the good we do, and we want to explain to others why these ideas don't work. I still do that to some extent, but I've crossed a Rubicon of sorts.

A month or so ago, I engaged a conspiracy theorist directly online and he became... unreasonable. It ended in death threats from him, and I disengaged completely, of course. But it forced me to ask why I cared what he thought in the first place and what my goal was in engaging him in debate.

I think that it has become time for me to return to Freemasonry for its own sake, rather than trying to counter the antis. Yes, I'll continue to respond here and there if I really feel that there's value, but that will be much rarer and this blog will probably return to a more directed investigation of those six ideas that I brought up in the very first posting, here: Brotherly love, the spiritual bond of Freemasonry, the eternal edifice of the Fraternity, a sacred duty to mankind, stewardship of the past and present and  the allegories and ritual of Freemasonry and their meanings.

To that end, I'm going to put off part 2 in my Use of Knowledge series of articles and tackle a different set of ideas first. Expect to see a new series begin in the next couple of weeks about taking on responsibilities within the Fraternity. I've really been deep-diving into taking on responsibility and I think I have something to say about that that's more than just a surface-idea.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Use of knowledge, Part 1: Pike on Lucifer

One of the most common quotes that conspiracy theorists bring up, and one of the most confusing to Masons is Albert Pike's comments about Lucifer in Morals & Dogma, which go:

Lucifer the Light bearer. Strange and mysterious name to give to the Spirit of Darkness. Lucifer the Son of the Morning. Is it he who bears the Light and with its splendors intolerable blinds feeble sensual or selfish souls? Doubt it not!

Now, Pike is a scholar of esoteric interpretation of the highest order, so I'm absolutely unqualified to fully unpeel that, and the context from the book and from the degrees is certainly necessary, but here's my personal views just based on the quote alone:

Lucifer the Light bearer.

This is simply a translation of the Latin word, derived from lux ferre which literally means "to bring light". There's no interpretation at all, here.

Strange and mysterious name to give to the Spirit of Darkness.

This isn't all that deep, interpretation-wise. It is strange that the spirit of darkness has a name which relates to Light. In the Bible, Light almost always refers to the divine, starting in the very first passage of Genesis.

Is it he who bears the Light

Now Pike is getting into deeper symbolic waters. He's introducing the double meaning of "Light" both in the sense of the Bible and the history of the Western initiatic tradition where Light has generally referred to knowledge and understanding. So, this amounts to (if I can so boldly pare Pike down to modern lingo), "if Lucifer is the light bearer and we talk about Light all the time, WTF?!" and he continues...

and with its splendors intolerable blinds feeble sensual or selfish souls? Doubt it not!

Okay, so here's the punchline. You have this idea that knowledge and understanding come with this spirit of darkness. Is that true? Of course it is! Look at any aspect of life from physics to personal relationships. The more you truly understand, the more you are entrusted with potentially harmful capabilities. Physics can give you the key to solving the world's energy problems or building a bomb of horrific potential. Understanding personal relationships can lead you to helping others or to Red Pill-style manipulation of them.

So my own interpretation, here, is:

The Mason is engaged in a quest for knowledge and understanding, but beware: what you bring to that process is your moral compass, and those who fail to apply that compass and seek "feeble, sensual or selfish" ends will undo all of the work that they have done to get there and end up with nothing (being "blind" to the Light).

Doubt it not, indeed.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

When he holdeth his peace, is counted wise...

Conspiracy theorists often forget that by speaking out about something that they understand only superficially, they confirm their lack of understanding to the rest of the world. The most common example of this is the assumption that Freemasonry has a single organizational structure either in terms of its governance or the progression of degrees. When I tell them the truth, they are either left speechless or assume that I'm lying because it immediately disarms their entire rationale for despising the Fraternity.

But this is only the most common example. Interpretations of symbols is another common case where conspiracy theory goes off the rails. For example, a recent "Above Top Secret" posting analyzed the art of Freemasonry. Its conclusions were absurd, but it's important to understand why they're absurd. It's not because they're wrong. In fact, an argument could be made that they're not wrong because there's no such thing as "right" when it comes to interpreting Masonic symbolism. At best, one has a better claim to understanding the symbolism if one has been initiated, but that's only because they symbols are intended to relate to the initiatic experience.

So, here are a few examples from that article:

The compass and square ... As we can see the compass (Female) is on top of the square. Indicating that the female is the Stronger of the sexes.

First off, the interpretation of the Compasses (compasses is never singular) as female is arbitrary. I could make an argument that it does represent the female, but it's a thin argument (based on historical associations of circular vs. squared shapes in art). It's certainly not a slam-dunk assertion that this is the correct interpretation of that symbol.

As an example let me provide a second interpretation: the square is a tool for measuring the real world. Is this stone square? Let's check... But the compasses are a tool for measuring intent. You use them on paper to lay out abstracts. The abstract is above the concrete (no pun intended) because this is how we view our metaphysical situation.

That's my interpretation, but it's not "right" either. There is no right interpretation.

The all seeing eye is in actual fact. The Holy See. The Vatican. Because Freemasonry is just another extension of the Vatican.

This one is fairly silly, but I'll point out that this is contradicted by the fact that the Catholic Church has, in the past, sentenced Freemasons to death for their association with the Fraternity and still considers membership in the Fraternity to be a "grave matter" (otherwise known as a "mortal sin," preventing the Mason from receiving communion).

Another side point, the correct name for the "all seeing eye" is actually the "Eye of Providence" and it is not merely a Masonic symbol. Centuries before it was used by Freemasonry it was a symbol of the Christian conception of divine providence. It later became a generic symbol of the omnipresence of deity, and that is why Freemasonry alludes to this symbol.

[In the artwork depicted] The leaves represent fractals.

Fractals are a concept that really were not fleshed out until fairly late in the 20th century, and even their initial introduction as an abstract concept wasn't until the late 19th century. Freemasonry has been around for at least 200 years longer than that, possible 3 or 4, depending on how you measure and which historical evidence to take as indicating the existence of something that could reasonably be called "Freemasonry."

Symbols do not have to have just one meaning. It is what makes them so interesting.

This is the only insightful comment in the article, and yet the author does not appear to understand it...

There are 33 degrees in Freemasonry. Because there are 33 vertebra in the Human spine.

This would be fascinating... but there's a problem. There are many more than 33 degrees in Freemasonry. There are 33 degrees in the Scottish Rite... well, that's not strictly true, but there are 33 numbered degrees. But they're broken up into a sequence that has no mapping to the spine. As a result, I'm inclined to assert that this is a coincidence only, but there's certainly room for allegorical ideas about the spine and the Scottish Rite due to the presence of this coincidence. It just can't be treated as a sole interpretation.

Unfortunately, this is the point at which the author lost their own thread and started trying to interpret the sacred art of various world religions instead of the art of Freemasonry. It's sad, really, because it punctuates what might have been a passable attempt at giving one interpretation of the symbols of Freemasonry with what amounts to a rambling torrent of gibberish ranging from the Apse of St. Peter's Basilica to Levi's Baphomet (not a Masonic figure at all until it was associated with Freemasonry by the Taxil Hoax) to the Swastika to the Yin/Yang to various random examples of sacred geometry.

In general, here's a good rule: Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise. (Proverbs 17:28) If you are not certain that what you know is true, it is best not to say anything, but if you must, do not say it with an air of veracity and authority.