When Ken Weene suggested I write a piece about Freemasonry for use on The Write Room Blog (and now on this page), I jumped at the opportunity. After all, I am an active Freemason who loves to teach people about what it is we do. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized I was overwhelmed. You see, Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons or Freemasons or simply Masons represent the largest, most complicated and dreadfully misunderstood fraternity in the world. People I know have called us a cult, a religion and a secret society. The following will explain why people think these things and will, at the same time, give you a reasonable introduction to Freemasonry.
No one is clear as to when the fraternity known as Freemasonry began. Our own, carefully preserved records claim we were around in the times of King Solomon, when the craftsman lodges of operative Masons began to turn away from the physical labour of building the temple at Jerusalem and moved towards the more speculative nature of the mind and soul, their working tools becoming symbolic tools with which to build a man with spotless morals and good character. Historical research, however, tends to suggest Freemasonry began in the 1300’s (when the first written records became available) and indicates the stories we use to teach our members are only complicated constructs.
Why the confusion? Well, originally, all the work presented to the initiate or candidate for admission to the Lodge was done strictly by memory. Vast lectures were learned word for word by one brother who would then teach it to a younger brother, and in so doing pass the knowledge along from generation to generation. Plays were put on with intricate costumes and great flair, all language being archaic in nature (and kept that way). There were no books to be passed down through the ages, just keepers of the work. If you were an authority seeking to destroy a Lodge—more about this later—all you would ever find were symbolic paintings and drawings that meant nothing to you. The real Lodge was kept safe in the minds of its members. Sometimes Lodges were even mobile, being set up wherever was safe and then taken down when the meeting was done.
There is also another reason the origins of Freemasonry are lost in the mists of time: all Lodges conduct their business behind closed and guarded doors—in secret! Why? What’s the big deal? After all, the only reason Lodges exist is to take good men and make them better. Could it be we are protecting the fact that our initiates are taught a beautiful system of morality that is veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols? No, it is generally understood that our system is taught via stories, poems, paintings and special symbols that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden, moral meaning. The problem actually goes back to the days when teaching a moral message, other than that approved by the Church, was forbidden and its purveyors persecuted.
Today, however, Masonic Lodges are not secret in and of themselves. They stand in the heart of every town of decent size in most countries of the world. You drive by these buildings every day. Some are ornate and some are plain. Almost all of them have our main symbol located somewhere on the front of the building. It is a square and compass surrounding the letter G, which stands for God …
And if our existence isn’t secret and our meeting times are usually posted on the doors, why do the rumours of secrecy still exist? Well, prejudice for one thing. Freemasonry was non-denominational long before separation of Church and State, making it a very unpopular organization. The fraternity, was, quite simply, a form of heresy. Secrecy was oftentimes all that stood between a Mason and prison time or even an untimely death. In fact, even as recently as World War II, Masons in Germany had to go underground. You see, they supported Jews like they supported all other people of the world, and because of this they were persecuted as fiercely as were the Jews. Why, until just a few short years ago, the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow any member to be a Mason.
They even went so far as to create their own competing fraternity—The Knights of Columbus. I, for one, am thankful that practice has been stopped. Still, persecution persists: many religions believe an organization that doesn’t follow their particular path of salvation must by its very character be an agent of Satan. And this attitude is the big problem. For a man to be made a Mason, he must swear that he believes in a Supreme Being. We don’t care who or what that is—other than he/she/it must punish vice and reward virtue. We don’t even care what book you study from, be it the Bible, the Quran or some other written work. Freemasonry simply urges you study daily from the pages of your holy book or from the words of your religion. We want you to have a strong moral guide from which to learn. Freemasonry will teach the initiate many lessons about morality, charity, truth, upright character, brotherly love and … but he will learn much more by studying his own religion every day. Some people (religions) just don’t like these practices.
Are such problems, mostly in the past, the only reason Lodges have secrets? No, Freemasonry has always been careful about what it reveals to the uninitiated. For example, we all take an oath never to reveal the secrets or mysteries of a Freemason. Why do we do this? There are several reasons I can’t share, but I can tell you this much: some of the secrets are nothing but ways and means of identifying another Mason when in public. These methods, if revealed to you, would seem foolish. All I can say is remember Hitler. In his day if you couldn’t secretly identify yourself to another Mason, you were as good as dead! I believe these secrets that we must keep also teach us there’s a time to hold your tongue, to keep silent. They make us think about what we say and how we say it, thus helping us maintain a favourable image of ourselves (and thus Freemasonry) when out in the wide, wide world. Because, yes, we are taught to take what we learn as a Mason and use it in our daily life so as to be a leader, to be someone people look up to, to be a man people know is of good character and morals.
And finally, what about the mysteries? What are they and why are they to be kept inviolate? Here you’ll find the strongest reason Freemasonry has been deemed a secret society. Most Masons never study the stories and lectures hard enough and long enough to figure out what the mysteries are. There has been many a book written about the mysteries of Freemasonry, posing hypothesis after hypothesis. But given all the hidden meaning in our teachings it’s really no wonder the average Mason doesn’t know quite what it is he isn’t supposed to reveal. So, do you know what he does? He says nothing at all. In truth, many never even divulge their association with Freemasonry. I was in Masonry for 10 years before my favourite uncle told me he, too, was a Mason. He belonged to a different Lodge than I did and had no reason to expect me to identify myself to him as a Mason. It was just a chance remark I made one day that twigged it for him. So he challenged me with one of our forms of recognition, and I passed the test.
If we, as Masons, don’t know for certain what we can tell you about our unusual fraternity, then who are we to cry out when someone says we are a secret society, a religion or a cult? Only education, spurred on by us Masons can do that. Here’s what I tell people: We are not a secret society; we are a society with secrets. Freemasonry is not a religion; it does have religious aspects. Our fraternity is not a cult; it does teach a moral system through the relating of ancient stories and through the description of certain symbols, like the square and compass.
May I finish with a poem? It tells about our obligations and some of the ways to recognize a Mason (you can find them all on the internet, by the way, I just won’t tell you them myself); it also gives one the sense that there’s depth and goodness at the heart of this thing we call Freemasonry.
The Old Master’s Wages
I met a dear old man today who wore a Masonic pin. It was old and faded like the man, Its edges were worn quite thin.
I approached the park bench where he sat, to give the brother his due. I said, “I see you’ve travelled east.” He said, “I have, have you?”
I said, “I have, and in my day before the all seeing sun, I played in the rubble, with Jubala, Jubalo and Jubalum.”
He shouted, “Don’t laugh at the work my son, It’s good and sweet and true, and if you’ve travelled as you said, you should give these things their due.
The word, the sign, the token, the sweet Masonic prayer, the vow that all have taken, who’ve climbed the inner stair.
The wages of a Mason are never paid in gold, but the gain comes from contentment when you’re weak and growing old.
You see, I’ve carried my obligations, for almost fifty years, They have helped me through the hardships and the failures full of tears.
Now I’m losing my mind and body, Death is near but I don’t despair, I’ve lived my life upon the level, and I’m dying upon the square.”
Sometimes the greatest lessons are those that are learned anew, and the old man in the park today has changed my point of view.
To all Masonic brothers, The only secret is to care. May you live your life upon the level, may you part upon the square.
About Clayton Clifford Bye
The Contrary Canadian, Mr. Bye, is a specialist writer who has published many books, stories and reviews for himself and others, but he now focuses on his work as a ghostwriter who listens carefully to the customer, skillfully drawing out the story they want to get on paper. You can find some of his work on Amazon and at his eStore. Contact him directly to discuss the book you want to write and to inquire about rates:
You never know what life will bring, especially if you are of the feline persuasion.
My first memory was of warmth as I cuddled up to birthmother and suckled a protruding teat. All was blackness, though I was much too young to be aware of the difference of light and dark. It was a coziness and comfort with need of nourishment, and it was wonderful.
Many of you know the story so I’ll merely do a quick mention. My ears heard a rumble and all warmth and comfort was gone. My tiny body shifted and stumbled among bits of trash and debris, in search of birthmother. I felt movement, and though so young, I forced my eyes open in hunt of freedom. Above me, the noise grew louder and light grew dim. I cried out, first a mere me yew, not audible to the outside world. As my heart beat rapidly, I drew every bit of strength within my kitty self and stretched my vocal cords to their limits – ME YOW, ME YOW, ME YOW and would not cease the plea for help. I was petrified and the noise filled my ears to the point I thought my ears would puncture from the volume.
Roughness scooped me up and surrounded my form. It held me firmly in its grasp. Wind rushed into open roughness’s open slits and I felt coldness. I shivered and squirmed in fright. Then I heard it. A soft purrish sound that brought me calm; a softness of touch and warmth as strange noises cooed in my ears. Thus began the connection between new mother and I.
Suppose I was never the easiest kitten to raise, nor cat to nurture. There was something left inside of me that would always remain feral. Something wild and untamed, which released itself to the unknown. To bottle feed me was a nightmare, I am sure as I clawed and scratched against the hands which held my milk bottle. Mother later told me she had to wear gloves for I clutched her hands with my sharp nails and would not let go. What caused Mother pain, brought me a feeling of safety and calm.
Interacting with Father was yet another issue, well at least for him. From what I recall, and I am sure you may verify it with Father, I would wrap my kitten body atop his face, getting warmth from his thick mustache and beard. As Mother told it, I would sit on his face, and she feared he would be unable to take a breath. Laughter stopped this from happening. They both saw my actions as hilarious and Father would open his mouth and shoo me away. Not funny falling off someone’s face, but guess I deserved that for my unthinkable actions.
Years passed and I grew into a young cat, yearning for companionship. We had moved from a climate that was warm and sunny year round to one of snow and ice. I huddled in my home, amid down blankets and overstuffed pillows. Spring arrived with an urge to explore and I snuck out into the world to explore the gardens, trees and grassy mounds. That is when it happened, I met a friend, Mr. Jeeters; a black cat with white paws from next door. Seems Mother didn’t take to Mr. Jeeters. She saw us together, snatched me up, brought me back into the house and locked the door. Well! Not much I could do but settle into the windowsill and watch the birds and squirrels.
Changes were taking place and as the days and months passed I found myself growing fatter and fatter. There was squirming in my belly that I’d never experienced and sometimes it hurt; as if I was being kicked from the inside. Whatever could it be? I wasn’t eating anymore than usual. Was I going to die? Were there parasites within my body? Why wasn’t Mother helping me? She kept telling me I was a ‘bad girl’ and I was pregnant. What the heck is pregnant? They say time takes care of everything. Suppose that is truth. I felt pain and knew I had to seek a shelter. The next thing I knew was my body was instructing me to push and push and push. One, two, three, four, five; six times in all these little balls of fur popped out of me. I looked upon them, cleaned them and fell instantly in love. My babies! My kittens! I’d never been happier in my life and purred with contentment. I had never felt such love, not even for Mother. This would be the only time I would ever feel this special love again and perhaps that was for the best. I had other avenues to pursue.
Which brings me to present times. I have found my calling in life; what Mother calls, my purpose. Or as I like to say, my purr-puss. I have found a love for music and knowledge. Who would have thought an old, set in her ways cat would love the spotlight or new people?
It happened one day when I was sitting on the computer table. I heard a strange sound and drew close to Mother. The sound continued and it was pleasing to the ear. Next were voices of what I found to belong to Kenneth Weene and Kerry Hall. They called my name and it excited me. They knew me! Just some cat and they loved me! I ate it up and wanted more, so I sat next to Mother while the voices rattled on and the strange sound, I now know as music, continued to play. I was in Punky Heaven. People liked me and I did not fear them. Not here, not now, not in this place. I was safe and could interact with other humans.
Thus, is the start of my fame as Punky, Radio Cat for It Matters Radio. I am a Diva. I am spoiled from tuna, sardines and kitty treats. And I am in love with life!
Please join me each Sunday at 3PM ET US, beginning in 2016. You can find my schedule @ It Matters Radio!
I also write a newsletter from my litter-box each month, well, with the help of Co-Host of It Matters Radio, Mr. Kenneth Weene. Guess I should mention that Mother, Monica Brinkman, hosts the shows and they are live, on-camera, so I try to behave.
One of the rights of passage after coming out is that first gay bar experience. It’s freaking intimidating. The fact people there could be attracted to you– and, more importantly, are encouraged to show it–is terrifying! Everyone in the room might gawk and smile the second you enter the bar. Worse, they might ignore you completely.
Walking in the front door of JRs, I half-expected rainbows and glitter to blast my face. In the movies, gay bars are extravaganzas, with drag queens swinging from chandeliers. Instead, I found myself looking at a normal place. It had a bar on one end, a small wooden dance floor in the middle, and a couple of pool tables on the far end. It was no different than most straight bars I’d frequented.
Except for the lack of women. Talk about a sausage fest. Guys, laughing and drinking, filled every cubic inch. Two really skinny dudes made out right next to me. I hugged myself; I’d never seen two men kiss in public. I gawked at my friend and wingman, Jason. He grinned.
“Trust me. In a few months, that will be you.”
I flinched and shrugged. In that moment, I figured I’d inch my way in and spend hours hiding in the corner just taking everything in.
Then I eyed a cute stocky Latino playing pool and all that wallflower stuff flew right out the window. He had a sexy goatee and bright hazel eyes that screamed, “I’m amazing! Come stare at me!”
That sounded good to me.
Trying to act all casual, I convinced Jason to grab a table nearby. Actually I didn’t have to convince him of anything. That’s one of the bonuses of being the newly out gay: you call all the shots. Bam.
Nerves rammed into me as I strolled across the bar toward the pool tables. First off, I was initiating project flirt. Second, a few pairs of eyes found me and I got self-conscious. I’d only ever been to straight bars. And when men stare you down at straight bars, it means they’re trying to be macho in front of the ladies. If you stare back, you get a terse, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
At JRs, the looks were followed by smiles and lip-licking. I reached down to make sure I was still wearing my jeans and v-neck t-shirt. Check. Still, I unconsciously covered my “junk” with my hands and scurried the rest of the way to a bar stool Jason pointed at.
Goatee Stud stood over one pool table, cue in hand. He was even more handsome close-up, with chest hair bursting out of his shirt. I gawked. And not in the coquettish way. I was in full on stalker mode.
I snapped out of Goatee Man Land and turned to Jason, who smiled devilishly.
“Crap.” I ran my hands over my face. I hadn’t even realized I was staring. I’ve always had this embarrassing knack of zoning out (or in).
“Go talk to him.”
“No way.” I was not ready for that level of commitment on my first gay outing.
In all honesty, the level of commitment would have been a big honking zero. I just didn’t want to be rejected the first millisecond of my first time in a gay bar. And I was supposed to be in observer mode only!
I settled for pretending to listen to Jason while sneaking glances at Goatee Guy.
My multi-tasking didn’t work too well. From out of nowhere, Jason shoved me off my chair.
Catching myself, I stood up. “Hey!”
“You are NOT going to just sit here and ignore me. If you don’t go talk to him, I’m doing it for you.”
Out of habit, I glanced at Goatee Cub. We made eye contact which I immediately broke.
“I don’t think I’m his type.” I shoved my hands into my pockets.
Jason stood up.
I threw my arms out. “No no no no no! What are you doing?”
“I’m telling him you’re in love.”
Jason and I had a staring contest. He winked. I said a few cuss words in my head, some at Jason but most at myself. If I’d just acted normal and unstalkerish, I wouldn’t be in this position.
Now I was faced with the big question: Do I potentially humiliate myself by talking to the guy or definitely humiliate myself by cowering away?
Put that way, the choice was easy. Without a word to Jason, I turned and made my way to the pool table. Sweat rolled down my back.
Goatee Romeo saw me and smiled. That helped my insecurity a little but kicked the sweating up to level 50.
I took a few more steps. He turned to one of his male friends and said, “Girl, hold my pool stick.”
Goatee Hottie turned back to me and grinned.
I stared at him for about five seconds.
He took a step toward me.
I bolted. Doing that thing where I nodded at some nonexistent person behind him, I race-walked around the table and up a flight of stairs to the patio.
Panting with embarrassment, I ordered a vodka, chugged it, and waited for Jason (I was NOT about to head back down those stairs). After seventy million hours, he appeared, shaking his head. “You wuss!”
I held up my hands. “I didn’t chicken out!”
“Yeah, right. Pussy.”
To make sure no one overheard, I leaned in and whispered, “He called his friend ‘girl’!”
I gestured wildly with my hands. “His friend was a guy!”
Jason face-palmed me. Then, like a parent, he led me to a stool, sat me down, and explained, “Lots of gays call their close friends ‘girl’. And it’s not ‘girl’. It’s gurl. G-U-R-L. With lots of Rs. Gurrrrrl.”
I winced. “But they’re guys! And he wasn’t like in drag or anything.”
Jason smiled. “So? Everyone does it. It’s no big deal.”
“It IS a big deal!”
Jason leaned back with a knowing look. “You’ll say it one day. Trust me.”
I pointed at him. “That will never happen!”
That was the vow I made that day. I liked being a guy. I liked sports and “manly” stuff. The idea of a male calling another male ‘gurl’ repelled me. With that one word, I had suddenly found Goatee Guy hideous. I never talked to him. And I swore I’d never say that word.
Fast forward two years.
I was sitting at a table surrounded by friends from a gay volleyball league. The group consisted of Jonathan, a prissy Asian who wore sunglasses as big as his head, Donovan, a model with a tongue so sharp, he’d made strangers cry with just his words, and Milton, a muscle-bound slut who I’d seen follow someone into a Chili’s bathroom.
Around those guys, I just sat back and watched. It was better than TV.
“So I called Gene a bitch at work today.” Donovan said. He paused for dramatic effect before adding. “In front of Paul.”
“Your manager?” Jonathan said.
Jonathan leaned in. “Are you in trouble?”
“Hell no. Paul loves me. Even called me later and agreed.”
“Is Gene hot?” Milton asked.
Donovan grimaced. “Hell no. Her shirt was longer than her shorts.” He took a drink. “She looked like she was wearing a night gown. When I called her a bitch and Paul just stood there, she sweat more than a whore in church.”
Jonathan laughed, high-fived Donavan, and adjusted his sunglasses. “You called her out.”
“Gurl, that is messed up.”
Every eye at the table turned to me.
YES! IT WAS ME!!
The word just slipped out. Years of being around it had desensitized me. Without even realizing it, I’d become the thing I hated most those years back.
And I didn’t just say, ‘gurl’. I said ‘Gurrrrrrrrrl’. My Rs were rolling all over the place.
I immediately clapped my hands over my mouth as the other three guys stared at me. It was like I’d ripped a huge fart right at the table.
“Did you just say what I think you said?” Jonathan hid his smile.
“No.” I looked around, hoping something in the restaurant would help me. A tree outside caught my attention. “I said squirrel.”
It was the lamest thing I’d ever uttered and I braced myself for the incoming verbal torture.
It never happened. I was so embarrassed and mortified, they couldn’t give me hell.
Instead, Jonathan, with his huge sunglasses and lip gloss (did I mention he wore lip gloss?), put a hand on my shoulder. “Girl, gay speak is just like an accent. You hang around British people enough and you’ll eventually start saying shit like ‘Bloody’ and ‘Let’s watch some telly’. This is the same thing. I even have straight friends who say girl. It’s just an accent. So get over it and embrace it.”
I didn’t think anything would help, but that made the most sense of anything in the world. Gay was an accent. There was nothing wrong with adopting an accent.
I nodded at Jonathan. “Thanks . . . Gurrrrl.”
It was the fastest Come-To-Jesus I’d ever had. And it worked. Just like that, my life became the gayest story never told.
About the Author
Cody Wagner loves to sing, mime (not really), and create. He writes about topics ranging from superpowers to sociopathic kids. His debut novel, The Gay Teen’s Guide to Defeating a Siren, will be out October 27th, 2015. He’s handing out cookie dough to everyone who grabs a copy. Check out his writing and see more of his wackiness at or follow him on Twitter @cfjwagner and Goodreads at
The American DivideEarly in my life, my father decided—correctly—that while I was quite intelligent I had some serious perceptual motor limitations. To put it quite simply, I was pretty much uncoordinated. The only question was which was worse, my fine motor skills or my larger muscle coordination. Over time the answer became clear: both.
To address that deficit, Dad bought me a special present for my seventh birthday. What made it special was the cost, far more than he usually spent. It was a Gilbert Erector Set—the fancy one complete with electric motor. His plan was that by building things with me he would get me interested in fine motor activates and that in turn would lead to improvement. Great plan except for fate; fate determined that I got chicken pox just before my birthday. Now, in most homes that would not have been a problem. Since Dad had already had Chicken Pox, there was no reason he and I couldn’t have sat on the floor and built bridges, houses, and especially those wonderful looking grain elevators that decorated the cover of the instruction manual.
However. reason had little to do with our lives, not when my mother was concerned. She decreed that I couldn’t sit on the floor to play until I was completely cured. A draft would assuredly do me in.
So, the alluring red metal box sat unopened for a few days, on each of which my older brother whined that it was unfair that he couldn’t play with this great new toy just because I was sick. In the end, his whining won my mother over and he—not I—got to open the shiny box, unwrap its treasures, and try—Dad happily participating—his hand at building things.
The drawbridge was not the first project, but it was the one I remember. They had finished building it a couple of days before I was pronounced well enough to play. It sat in a corner of the room where my brother could raise and lower the deck to allow imaginary boats to pass beneath or toy cars to pass over the river below. I, of course, wanted to take apart that bridge and build something of my own. It took two more days before I was finally granted permission to disassemble my brother’s bridge. No, he was not about to help.
By that point, Dad had tired of playing with this new toy. He no longer had interest in helping me. I struggled with a couple of simple projects—none anywhere near what my brother had accomplished—and put the Erector Set away. My occupational therapy having accomplished only frustration and a feeling that my brother was the favored child.
To be honest, I have no belief whatsoever that if I had played with that Erector Set, if our father had spent time with me screwing those little girders and plates together, that my perceptual motor skills would have improved. To this day, it feels somewhat miraculous when I accomplish any manual task.
In Boy Scouts, tying knots was a naught. At camp making lanyards from “gimp,” that plastic lacing so popular in those days, resulted in mess. In Junior High School, shop classes were a frustration and source of fear for my teachers; in metal shop I was given a minimum passing grade for staying seated on a stool.
“Kenneth, just don’t touch anything,” was a constant instruction in my life.
On the other hand, I was book smart. I read, read and read more. Also, I loved to discuss ideas. Abstractions lured me the way that balls and, yes, Erector Sets lured other boys. Academic teachers loved me even as shop and gym teachers echoed that mantra, “Kenneth, just don’t touch anything.”
It wasn’t a big problem in those days to be book smart, no stigma attached. Most people earned their livings doing hands-on work. Relatively few people went to college so the possibility that I would end up working with my brain didn’t upset anyone, especially not my Junior High classmates who relished those shop classes. While most of them spent print shop—yes, we were supposed to learn how to set type—happily learning a trade that might end working in the printing plants of publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers, I spent those class hours thinking about the novels I might someday write.
To be fair, I would have to hunt and peck them on a typewriter because nobody could read my scrawl: just another side of that psychomotor nightmare.
Of course, all this happened before what has been called the Third Industrial Revolution, the one driven my micro-electronics. During those earlier times, hands-on was the sine qua non of every product. Machines could not work on their own. Then came transistors and beyond that integrated chips. Just to add an icing on this new industrial cake lasers added even more precision to machine functions. Those talented hands were no longer so necessary. Even in more back-breaking work like mining and agriculture, mechanization was reducing the number of hands required.
If machines were taking on more of the skill in work, lower paid workers overseas could do the jobs at reduced cost even if shipping was required. And, yes, those same circuits made shipping cheaper as well.
Yet another factor diminishing the demand for skilled labor was market saturation. If the roadbuilding splurge of the Eisenhower years led to more automobile demand and sales, soon there were more cars on the road than we needed. And, with those integrated circuits and computerized quality control cars were being driven longer. Air conditioners were soon in every home; which meant that the demand for new equipment dropped. Worse for the skilled workers in America was that the new computerized equipment, cars for example, required less skill in making repairs. Circuit boards were snapped in and out. The fabulous American knack for tinkering was no longer needed be it in the garage or for appliance repairs. Who now, for instance, repairs televisions? Radios? And the list goes on.
Sadly, workers like those kids I went to Junior High with, the ones who excelled in metal shop, print shop, electric shop, and less so but even wood shop, are now less valued. In fact, such skills have become so less valued that those shop classes have been replaced. Another class I was forced to take—and in which I did spectacularly badly—was mechanical drawing. Making blueprints was considered an important, even crucial skill. Today computer programs quickly turn out blueprints that a skilled person would take weeks to draw.
While this computerized degradation of skilled labor was going on, other groups were demanding entry into the workforce. Women, Blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants were all looking for their places at the economic table. White men whose families had for generations earned their way with their hands and backs found themselves being displaced—not gradually but seemingly overnight. Threatened and in fact losing ground, it is no wonder that they were and are still angry.
On the other side, people like me, the ones who went the academic route, have for the most part been at least able to tread water. Perhaps, at some point doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and even clergy may be replaced by computers. But, that hasn’t happened yet. Still, it might and even some of us live with that threat hanging over us.
The sense of threat and anger fuels politics. When people are comfortable, they don’t bother with voting. Satisfied people simply go on from day to day, at least that’s true of the average satisfied person. But, the times are a-changing and people are no longer contented. Especially those people with that long tradition of hands-on working.
It is those people who have formed the swing vote that threw the last presidential election to Donald Trump. They are not “deplorable” nor inherently hateful, anti-feminist, or racist. They are threatened and angry because their world is getting smaller. They want that sense of satisfaction back. That sense that their lives will be good and their children’s lives even better.
Traditionally, the Democratic Party has tried to speak for those people. It has been the party of Social Security, minimum wage, and unionization. However, it has failed to address this new sense of threat. To a small degree Bernie Sanders tried. He spoke for free college for everyone, which sounds like it should help. However, there are many working people who have a sense that they and their kids don’t belong in college. When Donald Trump speaks of community colleges as a place for vocational training, he is coming closer to the comfort zone of many workers than talking about their kids taking more math, science, English, or especially foreign languages.
Quite simply, the Democratic Party has become the party of the intelligentsia, people like myself with our college degrees and graduate educations. It is not by chance that Bill Clinton presented himself and his wife as two brilliant minds for the price of one or that Barack Obama and his wife had such outstanding educations. The Democratic Party has become a party of thinking and theorizing.
The problem is that for those threatened and angry hands-on workers—yes especially white but those of other hues as well—intellectual arguments are just more proof that they are under attack. To add fuel to that flame, we have the Core Curriculum, a well-thought-out approach to better educating the young to work with computers and in the modern age but a clear threat to those who managed to survive school through rote learning and good shop grades. Another symbol for such people is the disappearance of cursive writing. While that may be a relief to the fine-motor-challenged like myself, it is just another way of telling those workers that their hard-won skills no longer matter.
Clearly, 2016 was the moment when political leaders could address the chasm between intellect and hands, between theory and praxis. I don’t know if Donald Trump understood what he was doing or simply stumbled into it, but he keyed in on just that issue. He positioned himself—no matter how illogically it may be—as the hands-on working stiff whose life was under siege. To her clear discredit, Hillary Clinton never saw the issue that was dividing the country. Since she had taken considerable time off to ready her presidential campaign, her failure to come up with positions that addressed the concerns of that significant portion of America, the part that had so strongly supported her husband, really speaks to her inadequacy as a candidate.
So, where can the Democrats go now? Better yet, where might a new political party go? The best answer may well lie in history. But, it is a side of history that most Americans don’t know and that many big businesses don’t want us to consider. Much of the growth of the American economy has not been a function of private investment. No, that is a myth. The government—often state as well as federal—has been the force—often indirectly but also directly—that has driven our growth and the development of new jobs and opportunities. I’ve already mentioned the road building of the Eisenhower years. However, everywhere we look there is the hand of government. Even the growth of semiconductors and integrated circuits would never have taken off were there not both pressure and investment from the military. Of course, perhaps the best example was in the nineteenth century when federal lands were used to finance and give purpose to the railroads.
The problem with the American economic system is that we have come to regard corporations as gods. We have this fantasy that they create jobs and new ideas. We want to believe that the pursuit of profits will always determine good decision-making. When there is a clear market, corporations do an excellent job. Why wouldn’t they? Years ago, when studying economics, I read about how in Russia the state-run businesses couldn’t make intelligent decisions. My favorite example was the production of only one size bra. Obviously, a private corporation would have been making a better decision as it tried to increase sales and profits rather than presumably limiting costs.
But, when it comes to seeing the future, existing corporations often are too busy playing it safe. Even when they do research and development, say in the drug industry, they are more concerned that every new product ends up making money than taking real development risks.
Looking to the future should be the goal of government. Of course, if there is too much link between existing corporations and government—certainly the case today—that function is compromised. Maintenance of the status quo becomes the goal. That is what has happened in America. As a result, instead of new growth in hands-on employment in manufacturing equipment for renewable energy and faster transport systems in America, those areas are being developed in other countries. There is no development of new techniques in damming, something that will be essential as sea levels rise. Nor have we been investing in new localized and indoors methods of agriculture as have the Dutch and other European nations.
Instead of calling for a new wave of American driven technology and resulting manufacture, the intellectual politicians of the left have focused on a more just society, one in which everyone receives at least minimal levels of freedom and purchasing power. Quite simply, justice—while one of the highest goals for any society—can only be pursued in a state in which people do not feel threatened. When humans feel under siege they are less willing to worry that the other person be treated fairly and more concerned that they not lose ground themselves.
Whilst I may not be able to do much with my hands or back, I do know that my fellow Americans who can deserve the opportunities and recognition that they desire just as much as those of us who hold PhDs and other degrees do. For now, that is the divide that must be addressed
It was Tuesday afternoons, two-fifteen almost every Tuesday for the school year – for my seventh-grade school year. They would leave – dismissed early from school to attend religious instruction. Most, the vast majority of my classmates would leave to learn about God, to learn about faith, to learn about dogma. Almost universally they were Catholics. The city in which I grew up was almost entirely Catholic – half of Irish background and half of Italian – but all Catholic and all scheduled for confirmation.
Off our classmates would go in mass exodus, and we – a small number – would huddle in our respective homerooms while being watched – as questionable minorities must be.
The remainder of the school day was designated a period for “guidance and moral education.” We were given neither guidance nor moral education. Instead, we huddled in our minority and did homework. My homeroom teacher taught English so we did English homework. Next door was a social studies teacher. His minority worked on geography and memorized facts about our city, Somerville, our county, Middlesex, and our commonwealth, Massachusetts. On the other side of our room was a math teacher; there fractions and equations held sway. Therein lay one of the basic moral lessons of my youth – free will may exist, but free choice does not.
So we, in our suspicious minority status, sat quietly and tried to appear compliant – to appear as a well-disciplined and obedient unity. There was only one problem: we were not a unity. For within our small number there was yet another division, another even smaller minority, a minority of one, of me, a Jew. The Catholics were gone; the Protestants – undifferentiated from the vantage point of the Vatican – had become the majority. I, I alone, was left – left to be different. “Hebe,” “Kike,” “Shylock”: I heard all those epithets and more while growing up; but the worst was “Jewww” pronounced with hash J and drawn-out W – pejorative in its correctness. Make no doubt about it; I was the hated “Jewww,” the killer of Christ, wearer of devils’ horns, killer of Christian children and consumer of their blood – ah, blood-libeled matzoth.
It was not easy being a Jew in that classroom, in that school, in that city. There had been a time when the numbers had been different. If Jews had never been the majority, they had once been a serious minority, but that had changed. Most had moved away – across Boston to Brookline and Newton – on the other end of the transit system. Only the temple remained to let the world know that they, a number of them – us, had once lived there. It was a solid building of granite and cement, a building as substantial as one of the many churches that serviced the rest of the community.
But, inside, within the people, within what survived of the congregation, little substance remained. Commitment had gone with the members – gone to those newer and wealthier communities. A few stragglers, a few professional men whose careers required them to stay, a few old people with neither the means nor the will to move: this was the congregation. And, it was led by a rabbi whose lack of standing was consistent with the temple’s ever diminishing stature.
Leo Shubow had nothing to recommend him. He wasn’t particularly learned, he lacked charisma, he spoke poorly, and, just to make things worse, he sprayed spittle with every sibilant. There were those who opined that Rabbi Shubow would not even had merited our small congregation were it not for his brother, a well-known and highly respected rabbi who not only led but also dominated one of the most important temples in all of Greater Boston. This successful rabbi had demanded a congregation for his inadequate sibling; presumably, it had been decided that he could do the least harm in our already failed flock.
My father, one of those professional men who felt that they needed to stay in Somerville, insisted my brother and I attend some religious education. For their part neither of our parents ever went to the temple except for those rare but socially mandatory bar mitzvahs and weddings. Very few adults did go to temple. At most services the required minyan was a last-minute miracle.
It was probably just as well that almost no adults attended services; Rabbi Shubow had only two topics on which he could comfortably sermonize:
The first was the need to support the just-born nation of Israel. He would particularly exhort us to give coins to plant trees there. Presumably he thought it would be too political to ask us to help buy weapons for the fledgling Israeli army. Nevertheless, underlying our understanding of the importance of those trees was our dread of the incomprehensible hatred that had become the irresistible tide of the holocaust. Even in our small community, each of us in some way was connected to the dead of Europe and to the precious saved – that minority who had survived the camps – and to those among them who were trying to make a new home – a refuge – for themselves in Eretz Israel.
His second topic had nothing discernable to do with Israel or Judaism. He was passionate about the threat of icebergs in the North Atlantic. I never learned if he had lost somebody to an iceberg-related sinking or had simply been traumatized as a very small boy by the end of the Titanic. Whatever the reason, he would speak at length – poorly, but at length – about the need for a better warning system to protect sailors.
His preoccupation seemed somewhat silly to those of us who bothered to think about those icebergs. The world was still reeling from the war. Oceans of blood had been spilled. Even if one were to think of death in the North Atlantic, it made more sense to focus on the torpedoes of the Nazis than on the icebergs breaking away from Greenland and Iceland.
I would probably have no adult thought of Leo Shubow were it not for a book that he suggested I read. That year – that year of confirmations – I read the book he had suggested. It wasn’t a very sophisticated book, but it did raise an interesting question. Could one be a bad Jew and still be a great Jew? Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer, was one example. Shabbetai Zvi, the false messiah, was another. But, the most important example was Baruch de Spinoza.
That book didn’t teach me much about Spinoza – the brilliant Sephardic Jew who had been expected to become an important rabbi but who, instead, was perceived by his community as doubting the very existence of God. Still trying to come to grips with the Inquisition that had driven them from Spain and that had killed so many of their fellow religionists, the Sephardic community in Holland was deeply religious, strongly observant, and extremely intellectual. Spinoza’s perceived apostasy was an outrage.
Ostracized and (very unusually for a Jew) excommunicated, he had made his living as a grinder of lenses, some of the best lenses available in Holland. He had also written brilliantly in his attempts to understand whatever he could of the essential nature of the world and to define mankind’s ethical obligations. Although he had remained outside the Jewish fold, Spinoza had become the spiritual father of the modern age. His simple abode was to become a place of pilgrimage for modern thinkers – perhaps most notably Einstein, who stopped there during his flight from Europe to America – his escape from the Nazis.
Spinoza ground lenses, at that time one of the purest mathematical activities. Using mathematical formulae, light could be forced into orderly behavior. Einstein went beyond that; he applied mathematics to the understanding of light and to the fundamental physical nature of the world. Shubow was not so brilliant. He could only worry about seeing the physical dangers in the natural world, but he, like Spinoza and Einstein, understood that the physical world could be known – that the dangers inherent in it could be understood and perhaps overcome.
Precision of mathematical and scientific thinking could give mankind control over nature. It was not necessary to invoke God, nor was it meaningful to think of God as intervening in that nature – given by Him or perhaps more properly synonymous with Him. To appreciate that order, to truly appreciate it, was to love God, to be – in Spinoza’s phrase – intoxicated with God.
But, mankind is often more intoxicated with itself than with God. It is our nature that we see threat in the mirror of existence and turn on our fellow humans over and over again. Human nature is not so predictable nor so beautiful. It turns us against minorities and thereby against ourselves. We may call it prejudice and hatred, for my part I call it Evil.
The Inquisition was rooted in Evil as was the Holocaust. There was Evil in that classroom, too. Sitting there on those Tuesday afternoons so acutely aware of being a minority within a minority I was at once both a victim of that Evil and a participant in it.
Rabbi Shubow had lived with enough Evil to appreciate the goal of goodness – to understand nature and use that knowledge to save man. Now I am older. I have lived with enough Evil to wonder if man is worth saving. And I have lived with enough of mankind to wonder if mankind can save itself. Perhaps it is enough to appreciate human nature, to study the psychological world, and to accept that our species may well reach its own self-doomed end.
There is creation, there is nature, and there is man. For all these there is order, that most divine of all possibilities. Order exists. I revel in that fact and I am too intoxicated with God to think of praying for heavenly intervention.