The Soviets called it the Yezhovshchina.
The Great Purge. Named after and personified by the photo of Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police, who was suddenly erased from the public record when he and his fellow Bolsheviks fell out of favor with Stalin.
The ongoing drama within the Grand Lodge of Arkansas continues unabated. This is one of those "inside baseball" stories, and one could be forgiven for thinking that it was a discussion of backstabbing within a Middle School debating club, instead of the world's oldest gentlemen's fraternity dedicated to meeting and acting upon the level.
The widely circulated rumor is true, that former Deputy Grand Master, Patrick Carr has indeed been suspended for a period of 25 years, and Past Grand Master Jarrod Adkisson has as well, for 30 years. My understanding is that by giving them definite sentences instead of expelling them outright, they are precluded under Arkansas' Constitutions from appealing their sentences before the delegates at the annual communication. The assembled members of grand lodge merely are to vote up or down on the entire sentence, with no presentation by or on behalf of the accused.
Now this past week, the Grand Senior Warden, Aaron South, has been removed from his office and has been charged with violating his Masonic obligations on two counts, without specificity as to just what those violations were (thereby severely hamstringing any possible hope of defending himself intelligently in his Masonic trial).
In Arkansas, the concept of being forbidden to communicate "Masonically" to a suspended or expelled (or clandestine) Mason extends to any and all subjects concerning one's membership status in the fraternity - or anything else about it. Their Jurisprudence philosophy is very different from most other jurisdictions, where the concept is generally taken to forbid Masons merely from discussing ritual information, or at most, private lodge business.
In addition, Arkansas has an extraordinarily strict policy about electronic communications, and the situation has gotten so petty that their members are monitored for their comments and even "likes" on Facebook, and noting whether they are daring to comment on the Facebook accounts of suspended or expelled Masons. The policy was put into place by MW Ronnie Hedge, current Grand Treasurer, who was the Grand Master of Arkansas when the infamous license plate flap erupted in 2010 (which ultimately resulted in the entire grand lodge website being removed and shuttered for at least two years, making Arkansas effectively invisible to the online world). Online comparisons with Asia's "Hermit Kingdom" have abounded all week.
The current situation regarding Aaron South has become problematic in the wake of DGM Carr's removal because it was the Grand Master's expressed desire to advance the Grand Junior Warden around South to become the next GM next February. When South balked at the arrangement, a different tactic was apparently needed, and charges were then filed to get the him out of the way.
As a sideline to this episode, South was allegedly told that he would not be allowed to serve as Grand Master because he is also currently sitting as Grand Commander of the Arkansas Grand Commandery. The Grand Master informed his officers earlier in the month that he intended to issue a Recommendation in his report at next February's annual communication, specifically proposing that no presiding Grand York Rite officer could be elected to the office of Grand Master. This would be read and voted on the day before the election for Grand Lodge officers. The recommendation was clearly aimed at South.
(South would go out of office in the Grand Commandery line about a month after the GL's annual communication - although he could of course simply resign the position. It is perhaps useful to note the precedent of onetime Most Illustrious Grand Master of the Arkansas Grand Council of Cryptic Masons, Sam Lattin, who was serving in that position at the time he was elected and installed as Grand Master of Arkansas last year.)
One bizarre development in this situation is a rumor that was suddenly being widely whispered around the state, that South had an undisclosed felony on his record. Last Saturday, before being informed of any Masonic charges against him, he posted the following message on his Facebook page:
"My only "criminal" record was a speeding ticket in Little Rock in 1979. Brethren, I went directly from high school into the Navy Nuclear Power Program where I became a submarine nuclear operator. Then directly from the Navy into the civilian nuclear industry where I maintained a Senior Reactor Operator license throughout my career. None of this would have been possible with a felony record."
A subsequent criminal background check this week has dispensed with this nonsensical allegation. Nevertheless, he discovered his suspension on Monday somewhat accidentally, as his name appeared on the annual report of expulsions, suspensions, and reinstatements issued to secretaries, before he actually received his official notice on Wednesday.
In most internal situations like this, I usually pass up reporting gory details. I generally feel that it is the business of a grand lodge to conduct its affairs as it sees fit. But this differs a little bit from others that I've passed over in the past.
First, Arkansas Masons are being intentionally kept in the dark regarding the elected leadership of their own organization and the activities occurring in Little Rock. Two of the top three officers in the grand line who have been properly elected more than once to advance have been purged. As reported last week, the GL Facebook pages have been shut down, not merely converted to "secret," and conversations online are being monitored. Somewhat ironically, if you go to the GL website, there is a prominent button on the home page to "like us on Facebook." Clicking it yields a message informing that the content is not available "right now."
Second, what is happening in Arkansas is affecting other states. Neighboring Oklahoma, in particular, is failing to receive letters in good standing from the Grand Secretary of Arkansas when Masons attempt to transfer their memberships into OK lodges. There is a specific reason for that, and it's a disgrace. There is more on that coming.
Third, it cannot fail to be noticed that the Grand Lodge of Arkansas has been the center of controversies for quite some time. Simply an internal search of this blog alone will yield a series of stories from just the last ten years showing a disturbing number of unfortunate episodes involving the grand lodge.
Grand lodges that attempt to screw down the lids on information leaks and chain the exits shut are fighting a losing battle. The current situation in the grand line in Arkansas is motivated almost solely out of fear of their own members who might think differently than themselves. Masons are like any other large group that has an elected governing body. Sooner or later, the group with one point of view will be outnumbered and unelected by the other side. It is the ebb and flow of society. I suspect that if the men at the top of Arkansas' leadership would be brutally honest with themselves, they would admit that they were sitting in a lodge somewhere 20 or 30 years ago muttering the age old chestnut, "What this fraternity needs is a few more Masonic funerals." And what they fail to understand now is that they have probably become the very men they once felt that way about.
Transparency is no longer merely an optional management policy these days. Whether anybody likes it or not, it's being forced on organizations from every walk of life. Masonic secrecy is just like everything else we teach in the fraternity - a symbol. It is a symbol of our honor, NOT a mechanism to cover up dishonorable behavior. In the past, Masons who were tossed aside over private, petty piques and grudges were simply expected to walk away and find a new hobby. Now, more and more rank and file members expect better from their elected leaders. And Masonic secrecy is a pretty skinny tree to try to hide an elephant behind.
There's more going on in Arkansas right now than just a childish Machiavellian chess game in the grand officer's line. If it was just a few good Masons being sacrificed on an altar of protecting the status quo, I'd shake my head, offer my sympathy privately, and hit delete. "The politics of personal destruction" that popped up in election politics several years ago as a discussion topic is not new to Masonry, unfortunately. This fraternity has been spitting out good men from its ranks over petty politics for a couple of centuries, and men who have spent dozens of years in dedication to the service of the Craft have had their lives destroyed by events not dissimilar to what is playing out now. But the problems in Arkansas are deeper than just this.
It should be noted by all that the state motto of Arkansas is, "Regnat populus" - the people rule.
More is, tragically, yet to come. And I take no pleasure in typing that.