THE LONG ISLAND TOPIC
In a diverse world, fraternity finds a place
BY JASON KAUFMAN
Jason Kaufman, an associate professor of sociology at Harvard University, is the author of "For the Common Good? American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity."
March 21, 2004
Secret societies are everywhere in the news these days, from the best-selling "The Da Vinci Code" to the deadly shooting at a Masonic lodge in Patchogue. Everyone likes a good secret; add murder and silly hats and you've got a formula for mystery and intrigue.
Novels, scandals and conspiracy theories aside, though, the real secret of these fraternal organizations, which are nearly all for white men, is how they manage to survive in a society obsessed with multiculturalism and equal opportunity.
The Long Island shooting has thrust these otherwise fairly invisible groups into the spotlight. But to understand how they are able to endure, it's most instructive to look at their past.
These groups come out of a long tradition of parochialism. Freemasonry was once one of the most popular activities in America. The golden age of fraternity took off just after the end of the Civil War and lasted until the 1920s. The creation of copycat fraternities like the Fellowcraft Club in Patchogue, where the recent murder took place, was quite common, as was the invention of elaborate rituals like the one involving rat traps, a fake guillotine and a wooden plank that led to the death of William James of Medford earlier this month.
In the 19th century, the popularity of fraternalism hinged on something much more vital than pomp and circumstance. Commercial insurance was unavailable to all but the richest Americans. Fraternal orders provided much-needed sickness and burial policies for working families. Members would pay regular lodge dues or face expulsion; the money was then set aside for sick members or families of the recently deceased.
Many fraternal orders banned non-white and non-Christian men from membership. Although some black, Jewish and female fraternities flourished, most orders were segregated in one way or another.
American civil law actually defends this practice - private, nonprofit clubs have a right to discriminate. The Supreme Court has gone as far as to uphold a Pennsylvania Elks lodge ban on non-white members - and even non-white guests.
Many fraternal orders squandered their members' money. Some were organized as pyramid schemes; others failed because of poor planning.
A 1902 study of mutual benefit societies in Massachusetts found, for example, that some groups were spending as much as 78 percent of their revenues on non-service-related expenses. Under this system, furthermore, unmarried women, non-white men and even older fraternalists were denied insurance. Even younger members had to pass stringent physicals to qualify for coverage.
By the '20s, competition from insurance companies largely put the fraternals out of business. Those that managed to stay afloat began raising money for charity instead. The modern-day relationship between fezzes and philanthropy is thus no coincidence - it is the last gasp of American fraternalism.
Today, most fraternal orders have eschewed racial and religious discrimination, though most are still for men only.They are primarily older and white, and devoted to the mores of a bygone era. The allure of crazy costumes and rituals seems secondary to the promise of friendship and community - their new secret.
In the midst of a rapidly changing world, a certain kind of man looks for a more traditional social outlet. Many orders have their own members-only clubhouses, and some have their own bars.
Most fraternities raise money for charity, and many offer a unique brand of spiritualism - religion minus the references to a specific deity or religious tradition. Members have good intentions - they genuinely aspire to do good works and nurture brotherhood. The way they do it is simply a little old-fashioned, and sometimes downright quirky.
Deadly gunplay aside, fraternal rituals are ultimately no sillier than those of nightclubbing teens or back-slapping bowlers, but their antiquated style and parochial membership policies are increasingly out of step with contemporary America. Camaraderie and dress-up are one thing; discrimination and mock-murder another.
Conservatives worry that the waning popularity of fraternalism is evidence of a larger decline in American values, but history tells a different story.
Americans haven't stopped caring about their communities; they've simply changed format. Separate but equal may be legal in the voluntary sector, but America has largely moved in a different direction. "Same-sex" is now buzzword for marriage, not civic engagement.
So the fraternal orders will go on, as will the fanciful stories about brotherly bonding and ritual mischief. If you really want to know what exactly goes on behind the doors of a Masonic lodge meeting, however, you just will have to up and join one. Assuming, that is, that they'll take you as a member.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.