Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Trouble With Jesters

There has been much "who-shot-john" going on over at The Burning Taper for the last few weeks over the reporting of scandals involving the Shrine's Royal Order of Jesters. The Jesters are an invitation-only group within Shrinedom whose motto is "mirth is king," and is considered by some to be an inner circle within the organization. I'll leave you to discover the BTs blog entries on your own for the details, but there are at least two major investigations going on concerning the group involving prostitution and violation of the federal Mann Act.

On the one hand, for anyone to say they are shocked - shocked! - to discover Shriners having anything to do with prostitutes is intellectually disingenuous. Shriners, strippers and hookers have been keeping each other company for over a century. And while some of us can sit in the parlor and tsk over it being antithetical to the tenets of Freemasonry (which it is), the Babbitry of the past, combined with the Shrine's post-WWII excesses, has been institutionalized by both the Shrine and the public's perception. Lest anyone forget George Carlin's punctuating 1976 punch line, "Drink up, Shriners." Or 1960's "Bye Bye Birdie's" musical number in which a group of Shriners think a young lady straying into their dinner is the stripper for the evening. There is no wonder that a certain percentage of men who join the Shrine have specifically come looking for the Shrine they've heard about. They are looking for the secret society that has the strippers and the hookers and the county sheriff guarding the door who sees they get home okay. Not all men join the Shrine out of the altruism of helping crippled kids. I actually had a man try to sell me on Shrine membership by saying, "You can drink all night for five bucks, and besides, we un-f***-up the crippled kids!"

Something slightly less than the Masonic ideal.

After the Shrine parade in Salt Lake City on St. Patrick's day, about a dozen of us fez-wearing loud-mouths (all perfectly sober, I might add) drove to the suburbs to get their 1939 Yellowstone tour bus weighed at the local truck stop. Some Shrines get drunk and bring in the strippers. Salt Lake City guys get their bus weighed. It was bitter cold, and we drove through town acting like, well, Shriners, with the top down, yelling what we thought were zingers to pedestrians, and generally lowering the property values. You know, the stuff guys generally do as teenagers, and living up to the mission of putting some of the boy back into the man. At the truck stop, I had one of those defining moments, curiously. A man perhaps in his twenties came out and said he wanted to shake the hand of every Shriner in that bus. He had received free care from the Salt Lake Shrine Hospital as a child that had allowed him to walk.

So the Shrine is a conundrum to me. The hospitals are among the finest philanthropic missions in this country. And if they get paid for by grownups who sometimes act like high school imbeciles, well, maybe society needs to loosen its corset a bit.

On the other hand, I don't disagree with the sentiment of those who say that some of the Shrine's institutionalized excesses are at odds with Freemasonry's tenets of morality. I suspect that argument has gone on since the 1870s when the teetotalers found out the Knickerbocker boys were sopping it up in town because the Methodists threw the booze out of the lodge.

But on a larger level, these guys are living in the past. The stock 1920-50s characters of sad-faced George Babbitts, Willy Lomans and Crazy Guggenheims lined up at the bar, comparing lodge pins, pinching waitresses and sneaking out on the wife have largely passed on to the choir invisible. Such outlets of middle-class frustrations may have been a staple of the pre- and post-WWII culture, but it has not been embraced by the children of the Baby Boomers. It is arguable that men don't step out on their wives as much anymore, they just get divorced - or don't get married to begin with. Online porn and the Playboy Channel have brought voyeurism and private personal prurient gratification into the home. And STDs have helped to make the regular practice of playing rumpy-pumpy with professional girlz a less than harmless indiscretion. That hasn't stopped the business entirely, as Elliot Spitzer proved in New York by dropping 80-large to have his clock cleaned. But it's just not a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of activity in US society anymore. Which makes the activities of the Jesters not just un-masonic and illegal, but a sort of creepy anachronism for a group to be engaging in.

I don't have a problem with Brother Widow's Son posting the lurid details of the Jesters on his blog site. Thomas Hardy said, "If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst." And if a clot of idiots want to drag Freemasonry into the whorehouse by association and besmirch the fraternity by whoring it up with underage girls, they need to be exposed loudly, and their local Grand Master needs to give them the Order of the Boot. I'm not a Jester, and couldn't tell you what goes on at their gatherings with any degree of certainty. But I find it especially moronic and irresponsible for the Jesters to have an online shop selling tee-shirts featuring a cartoon Jester climbing a well endowed woman and burying his face in her ample balcony, in light of the current state and federal investigations into their behavior. If nothing else, it's a little like Bruno Hauptmann leaving the ladder outside of the Lindbergh house.

I keep coming back to the same conclusion over and over. The Shrine needs to split from Freemasonry. The two groups need to go their own way. I know there has been shrieking on both sides that such a split will kill membership on both sides, but I don't agree with that anymore. Men who believe in the aims of both organizations will continue to belong to both. The Shrine will be able to draw from a larger pool of potential recruits. And if Freemasonry returns to its pre-1843 roots, the way the rest of the Masonic universe has remained, combining its tavern-hall, social origins with its Enlightenment-era philosophy of tolerance and brotherhood, the two groups will get along just fine. The rest of the Masonic world never barred alcohol from the post-lodge experience, so they never had any need to create Shrines and Grottos to begin with. Outside of the US, it's common and perfectly respectable for the Master to announce, "the lodge is closed and the bar is open." There's no need to act like idiot children because they treat Masons like adults.

On another mailing list a Mason made the remark that those who were criticizing the Jesters had "determined the length of another Brothers Cable Tow. I didn't realize that becoming a Mason meant that Christian Morality governed the fraternity. I believe that the then King David had many Concubines and for that matter plural wives. . . Did the brothers do something that in the 20th and 21st century is considered in inappropriate? Well according to the laws of the United States yes. When I used to hire a lot of Mexican workers many of these workers claimed that they were married. These workers were usually found out to be minors and yet they had children of their own with a young woman who was underage and they claimed to be husband and wife. Some of these young people were under the age of 16, now who's morality are you going to condemn these people with..."

If ever there was an argument for the Shrine to clean up its act, or to move away from Freemasonry, it's right there, in a sociopath's relativistic defense of hiring 13 year old prostitutes to live by the motto "mirth is king."

5 comments:

Nathan Brindle said...

I'm not a Shriner for a reason, and you've pretty much detailed what that reason is.

Jeff said...

I was a Shriner, now I'm not, and you hit upon at least part of the reasoning.

Jake said...

Dear Chris,

As a Mason for twenty years I must say that I have never had much interest in the Shriners. I do know a Turkish Brother who told me that he found evidence of Sufi ideas in the ritual. I must admit that I was intrigued for a moment, as I have spent much time reading about Sufism and I've always been sympathetic to their philosophy.

The response from the Brother justifying the behavior of the Shriners & Jesters is scary. Is this the type of man that we are permitting to join our ranks? An individual can have as much ribald fun as he can handle, but he need not do under the banner of Freemasonry whereby our reputation is besmirched by his behavior.

If there are indeed principles of Sufism in the Shrine perhaps they can be emphasized and brought to the fore. If so, this Order could be developed into an Order with something to transmit to the candidate. It could be a true mystical intiatic Order and not just another sand box.

Nathan Brindle said...

Unfortunately, the Shrine doesn't seem much interested in the metaphysical or philosophical, except perhaps as experienced through the bottom of a glass.

I just don't see such a renaissance as you hope for occuring in Shrinerdom, but maybe I'm wrong.

It boggles the mind that an organization that can do such good through its charitable works can nevertheless be so base in its "playground" aspect.

I'm with Chris; I'm ready for the Shrine to go its own way, and I believe that's inevitable no matter what the result of this current contretemps with the Jesters.

Wayfaring Man said...

I drank all the beer they brewed in 1982 - that ship has sailed - but if I decided to have a night on the town, I certainly don't need a brimless hat to do it in.

I'm hopeful that we'll see The Split soon, although I'm not holding my breath.