Friday, September 26, 2008

The Blitz Spirit

This is the seventh in our series of essays written by Masonic bloggers on the topic "Masonic harmony, unity and discord." Bro. Ben Rowe's article here gives us an international outlook on Freemasonry. Bro. Ben is a young Master Mason from Middlesex, England, near London. He is the publisher of The Chequered Carpet, formerly titled Middlesex Fire. My thanks go out to Bro. Ben and all who are participating in this writing project.

The Blitz Spirit
by Bro. Ben Rowe

Ah, that title got your attention, didn't it?

I don't know what Widow's Son wrote about me in the little blurb above this piece, whatever it was though, I'm certain that the ruder it is, the more accurate you would find it to be should you meet me in person. For those of you that have not yet come across my (criminally neglected) little blog, The Chequered Carpet (previously Middlesex Fire), my name is Ben Rowe, and I am a 22-year old Master Mason in England. I am a member of three lodges: Gooch (1238, Middlesex, Mother Lodge); Windsor Forest (6581, Berkshire); and Old Haileyburian (3912, London). My family has a bit of a history in and around Freemasonry, and I was initiated on my 21st birthday.

When Widow's Son first wrote to me about getting involved in this project about Masonic Harmony, Unity and Discord, I had absolutely no idea what I could write about. I've been thinking a lot more over the last couple of days, and I've got a rough idea of what I'd like to get into a little later on in this piece — but first I wanted to talk briefly about the announcement from North Carolina, coupled with my experiences at Berkshire Provincial Grand Lodge on Tuesday night.

I was absolutely delighted to see that North Carolina decided to formally recognise Prince Hall Freemasonry. Being from a very long way away, I have nothing further to add than that.

In England, all lodges are under the United Grand Lodge of England. England is then divided along the ancient county lines to form our Masonic provinces. These provinces are not Grand Lodges in the way that every State in the U.S. has its own Grand Lodge, but we do have a certain level of autonomy (almost a federal system, actually) and each Province has its own Provincial Grand Lodge (PGL) that administers each of the lodges and Masonic centres in its province, co-ordinates various province-wide charitable appeals, and awards provincial honours and awards (for example: Provincial Grand Sword Bearer, or Provincial Senior Grand Deacon, etc.) that are given to those brothers whom the Provincial Executive decides have contributed a great deal to the Province over the last little while. Of course, we all know that honours and promotions are not the be all and end all of Freemasonry — we are all brothers, all on the level, and all equally deserving of each other's kind regard. That doesn't stop the whole hulla-balloo being a lot of fun to watch.

On Tuesday I went along to the Annual Meeting of Provincial Grand Lodge, where all of the new honours were handed out. It's always a wonderful event, with many brothers from all over the country in attendance. On top of us rabble from Berkshire, we had in attendance Provincial Grand Masters and their deputies and assistants from at least ten other provinces — lots of chains and big impressive aprons to rattle!

The reason I mention this, in conjunction with the news from North Carolina? Of more than 500 brothers in the temple, and 420 or so that sat down to dine in the Festive Board afterwards, there was only one — just ONE — non-white brother in attendance. That fact really shocked me. Here I found a real example of 'unity,' in the most literal sense of the term!

Now, as I said, we have only one (regular) Grand Lodge in England — we don't have a divide between our Grand Lodge, and a Prince Hall equivalent; UGLE is for brethren of all races colours and creeds — so why do we have so few brethren from (that wonderfully obtuse term) ethnic minorities? Now, those that aren't particular fans of Freemasonry would say that we're all elitist white men, that we're all racists, that people not "like us" are not made to feel welcome — only the latter of those points is only partly true, and it's only so very slightly true that it's not really worth mentioning.

You see, I've never seen any extrovert racism in a Masonic lodge, or dinner, or from any brother mason in any situation. No brother has ever said that they "don't want black men in their lodge," no black, Asian or "whatever" brother has ever been told that they're not welcome — regardless of someone's colour every visiting brother I have ever come across has always been welcomed with open arms, and has been treated as just that: a brother. So why do I say that the "not made to feel welcome" is partly (however minorly) true?

The thing is, we're not getting the message of what we're about out to everyone. Many black people see the points of those that don't particularly like Masonry that I mentioned earlier — and believe it, because we're not doing enough to show them why those anti-masons are wrong. People of all colours are welcome, in my lodges, in my provinces and in my country — we're just not letting them know that. That's not entirely our fault, though. As we're told expressly not to go out recruiting, and as we're told that potential members should come to us first, there's no 100% successful way of getting that message out. Many provinces, such as Berkshire, are now having Open Days (as I mentioned in a blog post last year) where we open up one of our temples and let anyone off the street come in, have a look around, have a cup of tea and a chat and ask as many questions as they want. These are wonderfully attended by anti-masons looking for proof of our "crimes" — most leave with a positive view on us.

At other times our Provincial Grand Master has been on the radio to discuss what Freemasonry is about, and to take calls on a phone in, that sort of thing. Nothing hugely out there, but it's all slowly getting the message out that we won't kill everyone's babies, and kidnap everyone's wives and girlfriends. With regard to the "ethnic statistics" I mentioned earlier, then, I can only conclude that it's just a symptom of the past — and certainly not an indicator of our future. On the whole, those attending PGL are wardens and above in their lodges — people that have been in the Craft for 10 years or more (I was only in attendance as my step-dad was getting one of those honours I mentioned, and because I weasel my way into anything I can). The roles of Steward, Inner Guard and Junior Deacon in the lodges I visit are increasingly swelled by non-white brethren, a fact I observe with much joy. In ten years time, we'll see a very different situation at Provincial Grand Lodge, and all lodges through out the province, and throughout the country.

My initial thoughts aside I then began to think a little bit more, about wht harmony and unity is, how they can be achieved, and whether or not we're actually missing out on these grand and possibly undefinable benefits. Bro Widow's son asked me to do this to provide "an international perspective" — a service I'm very happy to provide, but without being sure whether I'm the best man for the job! I started thinking about Masonic discord in England, or internationally. I can honestly say that with the odd very minor exception of someone not happy with their officer's role, by experience of Freemasonry in England, and in my lodges, is very different to the experiences I hear about on the web. Are my experiences that different to the average America? Well, I spoke to a few of my American friends that I met through various forums and networking sites such as Facebook, and came to the conclusion that: no, things weren't that different to the ordinary mason, in the ordinary lodge, in the ordinary town. So what is different? Well, I re-read the sentence that I just typed, and noted something very important: the Internet.

We're all, online, given a monitor and a keyboard behind which we can hide — speaking to chaps thousands of miles away it's very easy to forget that they, too, are in front of a monitor and keyboard — in fact, it's very easy to forget, at times, that they too are human beings with wants hopes and fears. The Internet is a great "leveller" — the only problem is that, at times, it reduces us all to a lower level, instead of elevating us all to a higher one. The Internet can be a very combative place — so every problem and disagreement we come across is immediately amplified (I've been very guilty at times of wading in unnecessarily) and every tongue-in-cheek remark is liable to be misinterpreted, and mulled over for days. So what can we do?

Immediately my mind was drawn back to my now finished (thank the Lord) law degree, and more specifically my studies of criminology. Criminology, for the purposes of my course, was the study of the criminal mind, along with a philosophical discussion of the criminal law, on top of debates about freedoms, duties, the justifications for punishment — basically everything upto and around, but not including, the criminal law. One of my first lectures was the classical justification for punishment. In this we are told that punishment is used for many reasons, to reform offenders, as a deterrent, to incapacitate offenders — along with many others.

The one that jumped into my mind on this occasion was the facility that punishment provides as a form of denunciation, and to provide society-wide cohesion. Effectively, by providing society with a negative yard-stick, by denunciating certain people and actions as "bad" we are reinforcing good behaviour. But, not only are we doing that, but, if you think about it, everyone wants to be thought of as good. Deep down we all want to "fit in." Deep down, we all need a "bad guy": someone to aim our collective rage at, someone to be made an example of. We love films where the good guys win — we feel like we are on their side — their victories become our victories, their lows are our lows, their highs are our highs. By having a shared negative, by having a collective struggle, society is brought together — "harmony" and "unity" are created.

So, back to my title — the "Blitz Spirit." During the 2nd World War, London was bombed to buggery, but the people got together, and London became a united city. The legendary blitz spirit was born — we had a common enemy, and we would fight them, and we would win. After the bombings of the 7th July, that spirit arose again, but only for a very short while before people carried on with their lives and their petty arguments again. Everyone needs a villain.

In Freemasonry we have no enemy — there is no collective bad guy, there's nothing nasty that we, as a group, aim at. Instead, we all have positive goals and aspirations to aim towards — a lodge raising a certain sum of money together for a certain project, that sort of thing. Ten Pounds would say that if your lodge has ever had a disagreement with your grand master, for a month or two your lodge has never been closer — everyone has a collective negative target, that sort of thing. When everyone's just ticking along nicely, with past masters just rotating through the chairs (as we are seeing far too often in England) small bickering and arguments break out, over absolutely nothing — and the next thing you know, someone has resigned from the lodge. It's a great shame.

But more than that though, the "struggle" of Freemasonry is not an external struggle — it is an internal struggle with oneself struggling against his inner demons — to control his passions, to lead a better, more moral life. When we are only fighting ourselves, it is very easy to get wrapped up in that struggle — and so become disjointed from our brothers (who all have their own private battles).

When those private battles project themselves onto the Internet, as I said earlier, because of differences in custom, of understanding, of all sorts, it's very easy to see why everything suddenly can blow up in the way it does. I suppose I'm quite lucky in that the readership of The Chequered Carpet is still very small, and so I don't see the blogwars that we so often see on The Burning Taper — but I feel immensely privileged to have somewhere like the BT that I can come and see the views of my brethren from across the pond, and all over the world.

I would crave one thing though — one thing that could never, ever, be attained — there will be arguments online. Lots of them. There will be disagreements. Lots of them. People will fly off the handle and (at times) become parodies of themselves. As I'm sure my other brothers in this project have said, people are very different online to who they are in person. That is no fault of that person — it's a fault of the Internet. By putting a screen name up, or whatever, or just seeing someone's whole personality as words on a screen, we immediately dehumanise them. And we become angry at the things they say, because we don't understand them, and (at times) we reply with certain levels of bile and vitriol. No one, hopefully, is blaming us or judging us when we do this — but I know we'd all love it if we could stop. We just can't.

So, here's my plea: when you read something that you disagree with, feel free to let the red mist descend, and post some glib comment in return — be angry at the internet persona, disagree with and ridicule the nickname — but try your best to remember that behind that nickname lies a real person. A real, breathing person. Do not dislike that person — you have never met them. To steal a quote you often hear on very bad reality TV shows: "Don't hate the player, hate the game."

— Bro. Ben Rowe

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  1. Thanks for this brother - I really appreciated the opportunity.

  2. Ben,
    I too have gotten into the insane fighting on various blogs and boards that I visit. The things that are said back and force move past mean but enter the realm of disgusting. This is why I institute the following policy: I sit down and think about what I am saying. That is about it. My mind usually clears after I have thought through my own arguments. This goes doubly for online debates. (Maybe that is why there are no online law schools.)

    Also, don't worry about your "neglected" blog, your content is great and poignant. Some days, I just stare at my Analytics page like an idiot. I feel like a guy at the track watching the last race with no money. "Come on, go, baby, go"


  3. Ben,

    That was a nice read. You British folks write with such funny words - lol. Seriously - good job.

  4. Hi Brother Ben:

    Good job; I'd like to pick out one item for comment, where you said that there was only one non-white brother at Provincial Grand Lodge. This is not replicated in many individual lodges. Goliath Lodge started out an an all-Jewish lodge, but in the past 15 years or so we have initiated brothers of several different groups. Our last two initiates have been of South Asian origin, and our next initiate is of Pakistani origin. I am proud to say that I proposed our next initiate (who used to work for me). People like this will filter up the line until, by the time you are a very senior Master Mason and Grand Officer, there will be much more diversity at Grand Lodges and Provincial Grand Lodges. It's exciting.

  5. Thank you my Brother for a wonderful post!

    The biggest thing I took from your article was the sense of commonality and English identity you have in all being under the UGLE. What I didn't know was the the sort of "Federation" that eists in English Masonry whereby the Provincial Grand Lodges have much power and decision making ability. Yet it is not like our states where there is no central control or identity at all.

    And that is what I think adds to American disharmony, as you shall see when my posting comes up on The Burning Taper. The fact that the USA has no sense of American Masonic identity, that each state is its own little fiefdom, allows for such widespread differences and alterations to the Craft that there cannot help but be cross state rivalry and jealousy and condemnation of practicing the Craft incorrectly.

    The lack of American cohesion, of a national pride inside its Freemasonry, of any American identity in USA Freemasonry is the single largest factor which leads to its great disunity, disharmony and discord.

  6. That is what Halcyon is going to do within the GO USA, make our Freemasonry American in Nature.
    I firmly believe that ur American Forefathers were practing an American Form of Freemasonry that was different in Nature than British Freemasonry.

    There is and should be a National Flavor to our Freemasonry, as most western european countries have.
    Excellent post brother!

    I am pretty sure that religion and politics was spoken in the tyled lodge room before the tea party started...

  7. I did not know that you, 2 bowl cain, were associated with Halcyon. I had an article on your Lodge website under my real name - Frederic L. Miliken.

    The best to uou! Now I know why I always enjoy your comments!

  8. Top rate post Brother!

    Keep 'em coming.

    All The Best,

    Traveling Man

  9. To Brother Squire,
    thank You for the Love!
    yes I remember reading your paper in an open Lodge at Halcyon.
    If you go to the Halcyon web page, you can check me out under the brotherhodd page in the pictures with the Prince Hall Brethren.

    I just attended a PHA fundraiser for the master of a lodge whose house burnt down. Great fellowship was had between myself and the PHA.
    Thanks for the Kudos and we'll be in touch!

    I participated in PHA royal arch degree's as well. I helped the PHA's confer the HRA degree on Past Master Shadrack along with their candidates. We believe this was the first time a white man went through a PHA Royal Arch degree. The companions loveed it.
    great strides were being made between Halcyon and PHA.

  10. I am taking the Royal Arch degrees in PHA here in Texas. I am almost done. Now doing Knights Templar.


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