Monday, July 31, 2017

The Elitist Inside

What's wrong with being elitist if you are trying to encourage people to join the elite rather than being exclusive?
 —Richard Dawkins
Show me an elitist, and I'll show you a loser.
—Tom Clancy
I was on the /r/AfterLodge subreddit the other day as I like to interact with the hosts of that show. (If you aren't listening to it, do so. It's great.) One thread focused on the theme of cost as many Masonic discussion forums do. Masons and Money is a perennial topic but thinking about what was being said, I started to think, maybe it's not the cost that matters. Maybe cost is a reflective quality of whom we have in the Fraternity.

At the outset of speculative Craft in England, brothers joined for its networking potential. Looking at the names of past grand masters in both English Grand Lodges, you can see that the men were either in the mercantile class (new money) or in the aristocratic class (old money). Both of these classes found a very advantageous symbiotic relationship. The aristocrats, with money tied to land and title, had to make connections with new capital. The merchants, with all this new found wealth, wanted societal status. The networking potentials were boundless.

I will posit something that may not be true but it feels true. If you look at the buildings, the costuming, the beautiful medals and jewels, it is obvious that the membership drew from a wealthier strata. We had access to capital then that we don't have access to now. I think it's directly tied to who is now joining. Perhaps the breakdown in our membership numbers and our chasing positive lodge growth is just as the cliche says, it is the quality and not the quantity. But I would go further, it's not just the quality, it's that our lodges currently lack the quality of elitism.

I didn't join Masonry to be an elitist. My grandfather was a Mason (in fact, both of them were) and after I discovered he was, I wanted to be one too. As I've aged into this thing that has used up more than a decade of my life, I sometimes wonder if what I get out of it isn't what I'm putting into it. Sometimes I wonder if I am at the top of the pyramid and it's giving without receiving anything. It's not a level playing field as it was when the old money and new money needed each other.

Now, it is a constant tug of war to keep dues low, to defer maintenance, and to value "labor" over money by hosting pancake breakfasts to pay for our own fraternal activities. Yet, we are still shocked by the surprise of our candidates that the "initiation fee is so much lower than I expected" or that men pick up and walk away within a few years of joining. In a phrase, Freemasonry is a pedestrian affair.

Freemasonry is devalued so the common man can take a part and this is to our detriment. We don't have doctors, lawyers, and businessmen joining. And because they are not joining today, we have to pull out old lists of dead brothers of quality to appease our sense of greatness. If we want to rub shoulders with the elite, we must be elite. We cannot be pedestrian. We cannot be common. We cannot keep dues and expectations so low so as to not scare away the curious passerby.

Jason Mitchell of the Ars Latomorum blog has an interesting theory on this. To paraphrase, Freemasonry doesn't want or need you until you have established yourself in your career and in your family. To put another way, we want the living stone to be cut from the quarry first before we work on it. So often, the powers-that-be want to capture brothers young when they are most vulnerable to the distractions of life. The young members usually have little money and little time to dedicate. And those that do dedicate themselves to Freemasonry miss out on opportunities they could have pursued to make themselves better in life/career/family.

"But, but mercenary motives!!!"

I guarantee that a fair share of the readers of this article have been saying this. Mercenary motives is like internal not external, a cliche we can throw at celebrating the culture of banausic work of the common man. That culture which abhors networking as mercenary and yet, is more than happy to watch pin cushions collect title after meaningless title. Why? Why have we done this to ourselves?

And no, I don't want blue collar workers booted or barred from Freemasonry. But if you are too busy thinking about paying bills, or raising small children, or looking to be promoted, then any time outside of those life goals will allow you, future Freemason, to falter and those goals will go unmet. Again, we don't want you until you are ready.

Now that my rant is over, here's my list of solutions:

  1. Increase the minimum age to petition.
  2. Increase dues to a percentage related to "disposable income." 15% of 1.5 times the poverty line is a good start. Correction: 15% of (Adjusted Gross Income minus 1.5 times the poverty line.) Ultimately, you will want dues to price out all but those who have their acts together.
  3. Examine a petitioner for fitness by asking him where he is in life. If he is just starting out, he is not ready. We are the shapers of stone, not the miners.
  4. Expect more from our members. Each person should be "buddied" with another and both should ask how the other brother is doing financially or occupationally.
  5. Don't call networking a mercenary motive. Masonry is the OG social network. 
  6. Encourage Masons to think of leaving a legacy to the lodge. Freemasonry is a family. But even more so, it requires the brothers to think of their future. You can't leave a legacy if you don't have one.
This is just a small list of changes. What we need to consider is that just as men expect, before they join, a great organization, we as an organization must expect greatness from our future members. We are frustrating the purpose of Freemasonry when we race to the bottom, grabbing men who aren't ready just for the accountant friendly "number of Masons raised for year xxxx." We do a disservice to Freemasonry but we also do a disservice to these men. We throw them into a situation they are not ready to handle and wringing our hands when they leave. Break the cycle.

Stop being cheap. Let me repeat, STOP being cheap. Stop rushing guys to join. Stop devaluing the Fraternity and frustrating the networking advantages which come with Fraternal bonding. This is a privilege bought and paid for by men of quality, old money and new money coming together. We need to look up and build higher than them, not look down and moan about the crumbling footings that we have allowed to crumble under the weight of mediocrity. Make them proud and add your name to the list of famous Freemasons instead of sharing it.

What do you think? Leave your comment below.

CORRECTION: A very smart redditor pointed out my crazy math formula. I was attempting to use the formula for student loans payments for a Income Based Repayment plan, which is what is seen above. And yes, this would be a sliding scale which is currently disallowed in a number of jurisdictions.