I’m not at all sure how many of my readers are aware that this year marks an anniversary of some importance in the western world’s cultural history. Three hundred years ago, in 1717, members of four old lodges of stonemasons that had met in London “since time immemorial” climbed the stair to a private room in the Apple Tree Tavern in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood, and voted to create an umbrella organization, the Grand Lodge. That’s one of the first definite dates in the history of Freemasonry.
I think most of my readers by this point know that I’m a Freemason. Yes, I’m aware that this fact is enough to convince a certain number of people that I’m really one of the sinister space lizards from Epsilon Eridani, or wherever it’s supposed to be, that haunt David Icke’s paranoiac fantasies. A somewhat larger number will take this as proof positive that I’m a Satanist, or a male chauvinist pig, or a member of the worldwide Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy, or whatever their bogeyman du jour happens to be. None of these things happens to be true, but there’s a reason, an important one, why lurid fantasies of absolute evil so often get projected onto Freemasonry; we’ll get to that in a bit.
Freemasonry is a private club for men. It doesn’t receive any public money; those Masonic buildings you see all over the United States, ranging from little clapboard-sided structures in small towns up to grand and crumbling stone edifices in the old quarters of big cities, were all paid for by members digging into their own pockets. It isn’t a religious organization, although you’re not eligible for membership unless you believe in a Supreme Being, and it’s not a political organization; in fact, discussion of religious and political issues is strictly forbidden at Masonic meetings. It exists for the laughably old-fashioned purpose of personal moral improvement: as we say, to make good men better.
It also has secrets, after a fashion. Freemasons pledge themselves not to discuss the rituals of the Craft, as we call our elderly institution, with nonmembers. Mind you, Masonic rituals have been readily available in print for several centuries now; these days, a few clicks on the internet will bring you the complete texts of just about every Masonic rite you care to name—but a brother Mason who takes his obligations seriously will not discuss those rituals with you unless you’re also a member. A few other things, such as the private business of one’s lodge and the personal secrets of one’s brethren, are covered by similar pledges.
Lawyers, psychologists, and clergy have similar rules when it comes to the private business of their clients or parishioners, and such things used to be fairly common in many other walks of life. So why have the equivalent habits among Freemasons turned into a lightning rod that so often brings claims of evilly evil evilness down on the Craft?
We can understand this by taking a closer look at those claims—and in the process, we’ll be able to examine something of quite some importance in contemporary political life.
Let’s start with the condemnations leveled at Freemasonry by the Catholic Church. I have no doubt that these are generally made in good faith; certainly I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the Catholics who’ve repeated them to me; but they’re founded on a falsehood. The official position of the Catholic Church on Freemasonry, if I understand it correctly, is that Catholics are forbidden to join it because it’s a rival, non-Christian religion.
This latter claim isn’t true. Again, I have no reason to doubt the good faith of the Catholics from whom I’ve heard this, but the relevant officials of the Catholic Church know that it isn’t true. A church that subjects candidates for sainthood to the kind of rigorous scrutiny that the Vatican does will not have issued its condemnations of Masonry—and there have been quite a few of these, dating back to 1738—without a close reading of Masonic rituals, and if you read the rituals you’ll discover that Masonry isn’t a religion, non-Christian or otherwise.
Lacking access to the inner circles of the Vatican, where decisions of this kind are made, I have no way of knowing for sure what lies behind this particular act of bearing false witness against the church’s Masonic neighbors. Still, I can hazard a guess, because the Catholic Church, among its many other doctrines, makes a distinctive claim—it claims the right to exercise supervision over every part of the lives of its followers.
That’s a very common claim, all things considered. For good or ill, for honest reasons or dubious ones, plenty of belief systems insist on this same right. It’s as common in secular ideologies as in religious ones, in egalitarian traditions as in hierarchical ones. You’ll find it in social justice circles that run all their affairs by consensus, you’ll find it in authoritarian religious movements where the leader’s word is law, and in everything in between and out to all sides—and when you find it, you’ve found the one thing that consistently will not tolerate Masonry, and by and large you’ve also found the one thing that Masons will not tolerate.
Now of course the Catholic Church is far from the only organization that turns that claim into a rejection of Masonry. It’s an interesting detail of history, for example, that when Hitler, Lenin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power over their respective nations, one of the things they each did in the very early stages of their regimes was to impose a total ban on Freemasonry. Now a case could be made that with enemies like those, Freemasonry clearly has something going for it—but let’s look a little more deeply. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Islamic Republic of Iran in its immediate postrevolutionary fervor all claimed, and exercised, the right to control every aspect of their citizens’ lives in accordance with their respective ideologies. That made Masonry intolerable to them.
That’s by no means entirely unreasonable from their point of view. It bears remembering that a good many of the people who made the American Revolution—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Paul Revere, and a great many more—were Freemasons. (I had the pleasure two months ago of attending a Masonic ceremony in a Massachusetts lodge, where the elected officers for the next year were formally installed; part of the ceremony included the reading of a talk on the duties of lodge officers written by Paul Revere during his time as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.) Plenty of ideologies far more benign than the ones just named have also found Masonry impossible to tolerate, because those ideologies insisted on having the right to make and enforce rules for every part of human life.
Masonry defines itself as a separate sphere of life, outside the purview of all other institutions but those essential for public safety and the other basic requirements of social existence. What goes on in a Masonic lodge is nobody’s business but that of the brothers of that lodge, and the Grand Lodge officers responsible for seeing to it that the “landmarks of the Craft”—the rules by which we operate within lodge walls—are properly carried out. (The Grand Lodge officers also see to it that those essentials of public safety just mentioned are also taken care of; a lodge that plays fast and loose with the fire codes, or any other part of civil or criminal law, can expect to have its Grand Lodge come down on it with hobnailed boots.) Nor do Freemasons greatly care if people outside the Craft object to our rules, our rituals, our requirements for membership, our regrettable taste in neckties, or what have you. It’s a private club, full stop, end of sentence.
What’s more, the same separation cuts the other way. You may be a Christian, a member of some other faith, or you may belong to no particular faith at all, but simply find the existence of a Supreme Being more plausible than the alternative; you may be a Republican, a Democrat, an adherent of one of the thirty-one flavors of political radicalism from left to right and back around again, or politically apathetic; your skin color may be white, black, brown, or something else (like most institutions in our society, Masonry used to have problems with this, but outside of a few deep South states those are fading history today); you may be straight, gay, bi, asexual, or something else; you may support or oppose any of the various hot-button issues in today’s society—but once you’re inside the lodge doors, you’re a Freemason, full stop, end of sentence. In point of fact, I know brother Masons who belong to each of the categories just listed, and more. I’m a fairly good test case, for that matter; as a Druid and an occultist, a moderate Burkean conservative with a fondness for democratic syndicalism, and so on down the road of my distinctly eccentric beliefs, I’m far from anybody’s political, religious, or cultural mainstream, and yet I can count on a brotherly greeting when I go to a lodge even if everyone else there’s a Bible-believing Baptist on the one hand, or an enthusiastic liberal committed to social change on the other.
Masonry is a separate sphere, a private activity freely entered into by individuals, and that’s where the gap opens up between two tendencies very widely distributed in today’s society.
Consider the following statements:
“I should be free to do as I choose.”
“I should be free to make other people do as I choose.”
The difference between these utterances isn’t small—it is, in fact, the difference between liberty and tyranny—but it’s elided astonishingly often in America these days. On all sides of our increasingly fraught political landscape, the loudest voices generally insist that they ought to have the right to force other people to follow the dictates of some specific ideology.
I’m thinking here among other things of a post I wrote, back when The Archdruid Report was near its all-time peak readership of a third of a million page views a month. I was trying to explain Burkean conservatism to my readership, and the core example I used in that effort was the then-topical subject of same-sex marriage. I suggested that it was fair, reasonable, and appropriate to allow same-sex couples to marry, and equally fair, reasonable, and appropriate to allow people who had moral objections to same-sex relationships to refuse to provide commercial services such as catering for such weddings.
Notice the logic here: in both cases, I proposed that people should be free to do as they chose. Inevitably, I took flak from both sides. The religious and moral conservatives insisted that they ought to have the right to force same-sex couples to conform to the dictates of religious and moral conservatism, and not get married. The secular liberals insisted that they ought to have the right to force people with moral objections to same-sex relationships to conform to the dictates of secular liberalism, and provide commercial services to same-sex weddings. I’m pleased to say that there were also a significant number of people who rejected both of these views, and agreed that people should be free to do as they choose when there isn’t a genuinely compelling reason to deny them that freedom—but it was fascinating to watch the others try to finesse the fact that they were trying to deprive their opponents of rights they claimed loudly for themselves.
That statement, “I should be free to do as I choose,” isn’t an absolute rule, of course. It’s been pointed out famously that your freedom to swing your fist stops at the boundaries of my nose, and vice versa. More broadly, for human beings to live together in relative peace in a community, it’s been found necessary to impose certain hard limits on individual freedom, by banning such actions as murder and arson, and imposing penalties on those who commit them.
In democratic societies—I really do need to define that term, don’t I? The word “democracy” is not a synonym for “utopia.” It’s a label for a set of flawed but more or less functional human social customs that are widespread in the English-speaking countries and some other parts of the world’s human community, and less common elsewhere. Democracy is the worst of all political systems, as Winston Churchill once commented, except for all the others; it’s got a gallimaufry of problems, some of which are whoppers; but by and large, people in democratic societies can do as they choose rather more often than people in other societies, and certain other benefits unfold from that fact. That’s the justification for democracy: not that it’s perfect, because it isn’t; not because it privileges this or that fashionable ideology, because it doesn’t; but that it’s a little less bad than the alternatives, because it does a little better job of finding a livable balance between the opposing extremes of tyranny and anarchy.
In democratic societies, as I was saying, we have a specific custom when it comes to putting limits on freedom. We pass laws restricting what we do when it’s necessary or advisable—and sometimes even when it’s not—but laws restricting what we say are permissible only in certain very narrowly defined cases, and laws restricting what we think are completely out of bounds. Does that custom get violated from time to time? Of course. Democracy, again, isn’t a synonym for “utopia,” and it is not and will never be perfect; it picks its way across the uneven ground of time by veering first in one unbalanced direction and then in the other. The fact remains that when people look back at violations of that custom, they pretty consistently agree that those violations were mistaken.
In democratic societies, furthermore, we have another custom when it comes to putting limits on freedom. We tend to restrict governments, and government-funded bodies such as schools, from engaging in practices that most of us consider discriminatory; we tend to allow private groups such as churches and clubs much more freedom in matters such as who they choose to admit to membership and what standards they expect members to maintain. The logic here is simple enough: if it’s funded by the government, everyone (at least in theory) pays for it via taxes, and so everyone ought to have the opportunity to benefit from it; if it’s funded by people dipping into their own pockets, on the other, it’s not unreasonable that they should have the right to settle such details for themselves. Are there borderline cases and other problems to this custom? Of course, and the process of working those out has exercised courts and legislatures for centuries, in another example of that process of picking a path across the uneven slope of time.
These are the kind of compromises you make if you value a democratic society. Yes, I’m quite aware that the word “compromise” is practically a swear word these days, but that fact shows just how close to collapse our once-vital democratic institutions have come. Compromise is the lifeblood of real democracy. You want to do this, I want to do that; neither of us can have everything we want, so we come up with a compromise we can both live with. It’s messy, it’s awkward, it doesn’t satisfy anybody completely, but it beats the living bejesus out of screaming insults across the cratered and smoking no man’s land that passes for a political system today.
The temptation of tyranny is the desire to force something that isn’t a compromise down the throats of those who disagree. There’s a lot of that these days, and it’s every bit as common on the left as on the right. As a Freemason, again, it’s a source of wry amusement to me that hatred for Freemasonry is one of the few things that unites the extreme left and the extreme right. The rhetoric varies—to the left, we’re a bunch of privileged male chauvinist pigs puffing on cigars as we cook up plans to disenfranchise women and the poor; to the right, we’re a bunch of sinister devil worshippers puffing on cigars as we cook up plans to destroy Christianity—but what’s behind those lurid caricatures is the same furious rage, driven by the shocking fact that Masons have the unabashed nerve to do something they don’t like, and do it behind closed doors.
To the would-be tyrant, everything that isn’t compulsory should be forbidden, everything that isn’t forbidden should be compulsory, and nobody should ever be able to do anything out of the view of the enforcers of the one acceptable ideology. There’s no room in a tyranny for differences of opinion, much less the kind of healthy diversity of choice that leads some people to want to live one way and other people want to live a different way. It’s possible to say this in a different way, one that will raise a great many hackles: the essence of tyranny is the insistence that no one must ever be allowed to be wrong.
Freedom, in turn, means precisely nothing unless it means the freedom to be wrong—to make dumb mistakes, to try out bad ideas, to do things that somebody else considers immoral or unjustifiable or offensive. The earnest and angry social justice activists who insist that free speech only applies to those who agree with them are, if they believe that rhetoric, promoters of tyranny and enemies of freedom. So are the equally earnest and equally angry religious conservatives who insist that “error has no rights.” What’s more, dear reader, if you believe that the fact that you think you’re right about some issue justifies trying to make everyone else do and say and think what you want about that issue, then you might want to see about getting yourself fitted out with jackboots and an armband, because no matter what you think gives you the right you claim, that belief puts you on the side of the tyrants.
The traditions of democracy argue instead that no human being can be absolutely sure what those slippery words “right” and “wrong” mean in every case. That’s why we don’t just make one set of laws and keep them forever: we have legislatures to revoke old laws that don’t work well and enact new ones that we hope might work a little better. That’s why, if we believe in those traditions, we allow people to think whatever they want, even if we don’t like what they’re thinking; why, outside of certain very narrow exceptions such as libel, we allow people to say whatever they want, even when what they say offends us or hurts our feelings; and why, when the system works more or less as it’s supposed to, we impose limits on what people can do only when those limits are essential to public safety or the other basic requirements of community life.
We do these things for a number of reasons, but one stands out just now. A century from now, people looking back on our time may decide that the ones we consider offensive were right, you know, and we were wrong. That’s happened so often in the past that it’s an act of astonishing naiveté to insist it won’t happen again, and again, and again, even—or especially—with regard to those situations in which we’re most sure of our own infallible righteousness today.
So, dear readers, I’d like to encourage you to consider the possibility that if you don’t like same-sex relationships, your best response might just be not to get into one; that if you don’t like businesses that refuse to cater same-sex weddings, your best response might just be to take your business elsewhere; and if it offends you mightily that a bunch of guys get together one or two nights a month at a drafty old building in your town to perform rituals originally created by medieval stonemasons and raise money for assorted charities, why, go do something else that night, in the serene certainty that nobody is ever going to hold you down and force you to take the Entered Apprentice obligation. Give them the freedom to be wrong, and you know what? They may just extend the same simple courtesy to you.
On a different note, I’m delighted to announce two new titles hot off the press. First, the second volume of the collected Archdruid Report essays, The Ecology of Collapse, is now available from Founders House. Whether it’s a matter of reliving those thrilling days of yesteryear when it was just a few of us gathered around a virtual campfire, talking about the end of industrial civilization, or dipping a tentative toe into the blog before the blog you’re reading, you won’t be disappointed.
Second, the latest volume from Dark Mountain, Sanctum, is also now available for sale. The theme for Volume 12 is that nebulous concept, “the Sacred,” which fourteen essayists take on and make considerably less nebulous in the context of a planet in ecological chaos. I’m one of the authors this time — the third time I’ve had something in Dark Mountain — and my contribution is titled “Confronting the Cthulhucene.” Check it out.