The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Boundaries of Peace and Prosperity

Originally posted August 6th, 2009 and updated on August 18th, 2009.

My brother just returned from Iraq this weekend. He is not in the Armed Forces, nor is he a contractor. He’s the lead singer and songwriter for a rock and roll band, and they were invited to go there to entertain the troops. I don’t talk about my brother much in public. It’s not that I’m not incredibly proud of him; its that he’s famous, and during a decade of the peak of his popularity, I found myself living in his shadow, whether I wanted to or not. I’m my own man, and in comparison to living under his umbrella, being my own man gives me a higher self-worth as a man. There are many people who only know me as my brother’s brother (some who would address me as his brother, rather than by my own name), and I’d rather be judged on my own merits.

Stewart Brand wrote that every American should go somewhere where real poverty exists, and see it firsthand, to better understand how good we have it in the USA. While there is some poverty in our cities, and in the Appalachian Mountains, and elsewhere, you are unlikely to find much real squalor here in the USA. We think we have real poverty, but truly poor people don’t have cars, TV sets, X Boxes, or household electricity, running water and food for that matter. I saw some real poverty in Jamaica, but the worst desolation I ever saw was in Africa.

I was touring South Africa with my brother’s rock band in 1996. We had a 16 day tour with only one performance on the second night, in Johannesburg. We spent the rest of the time touring various parts of the country, sightseeing. We had one night in Sun City, a casino resort in the middle of the bush. Two hours of driving from Johannesburg took out of the city and suburbs, and through townships, to a pretty remote area. At one point, I was looking out the window, and I saw an unforgettable sight.

Imagine a shack hastily erected with two-by-fours, pieces of corrugated tin, tarpaulin and sheet plastic, held together with nails, staples and duct tape. Now imagine a city of them. At least a mile of these shacks flanked the road, and spread back away from the road for about half a mile at least. The whole city was teeming with people, and yet I saw no running water, nor any sign of electricity. There was a cloud of flies hovering over the entire complex, and the people there looked utterly miserable. I couldn’t imagine how these people were able to live in such squalor, but I imagine they didn’t have much choice. Our tour guides seemed to regard such misery as commonplace and insignificant, but I will never forget it. “These aren’t our Blacks,” one of them said, “They’re migrant workers from Botswana. We’d never treat our Blacks this way.” He didn’t understand that whomever else these miserable people belonged to, they belonged to God, and were made in His image. If I saw such misery every day, I wonder how long it would take me to forget that.

Half an hour later, we arrived at what looked like a toll booth, except that our car was immediately surrounded by soldiers with assault rifles trained upon each of us in the car. The man in the booth asked us for our passports, and upon checking them against a list and returning them to us, waved our car in as the gate was lifted. On the other side were exquisitely landscaped gardens, with drunken German tourists staggering around bemusedly. Sun City has four hotels and two 18-hole golf courses. The amount of water needed to keep the place running is unimaginable. The whole place, deep in the African bush, is themed “Darkest Africa”, like a later Tarzan movie where Tarzan finds a lost city, and cavorts with Jane and Boy and Cheetah among its ruins. Except this place had bars, casinos, movie theaters, restaurants, and luxury hotels with big swimming pools. The contrast between inside and outside could not be more drastic.

Whatever gates exist throughout the world, we Americans live inside of them, so much so that we are not even conscious these gates exist.

We masons work inside a tyled lodge, with a brother outside the door, armed with the proper implement of his office. It has to be that way, because if the squalor of the outside were to intrude upon our business, we couldn’t function as we do. We have been doing this since that squalor was the uniform existence of mankind. Indeed, anything other than that squalor is an indication that the mission of Freemasonry has been successful. I’m not saying that repelling squalor has been the work only of Freemasons, merely that it is our mission to create something better.

Strife is poverty of a different kind, and my brother got to witness, if not the immediate violence of strife, a place where the boundaries keeping strife away from important work can be seen, a place where these boundaries are not impenetrable. Outside of the gates are men who are drunk on murder and fanaticism, who gladly relinquish their time on earth in order to take out as many of their enemies as possible.

Speaking as a mason, I will not speculate upon whatever justice compels us to be in their land. I will not offend my brothers who have a wide spectrum of opinion about this conflict by stating one particular perspective as the right opinion about what we are doing there. But, again speaking as a mason, I would be remiss were I not to point out that there is a barrier within which we live in peace, and outside of which people live in strife and misery. And that committed men and women give their lives to shield the inside from the outside, to the best of their abilities. These are our tylers, tyling the lodge that is our everyday lives. And that someone with an earnest and sincere heart, who wishes to live in peace, can knock on the West Gate, and with the consent of those inside, can join us if they are willing to do the work necessary to earn their place inside. This is not the place to say whether our foreign policy has increased or decreased the amount of strife in the world. But I will say that Freemasonry has ever sought to cultivate the gentler arts that are only possible when strife has been kept at bay.

When I first became a mason, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be a tyler. They miss a lot of what happens inside a lodge. It must be lonely. And a real lodge in the USA today does not have cowans and eavesdroppers just waiting for the tyler to lose focus to sneak by him the moment his sword is no longer at the ready.

The tyler is there to remind us that not all of the world is like the inside of our lodge, and until it is, we need a guard.

Freemasonry developed in a world torn apart with strife and ruined by misery and squalor. The idea that there could be peace, plenty, good humor, health and cleanliness is a masonic idea. Freedom requires peace, otherwise we are at the mercy of whoever is the most brutal. A good portion of humanity lives in a world where brutes make all the rules, and good men starve and die. It has ever been our mission as Freemasons to create safe places where good men can persist in their goodness, and ultimately to make the whole world that way.

A man has to know what the outside is like to appreciate the inside. A man has to tire of the darkness before he will seek the Light.

My brother talked to soldiers from private to general, both American and Iraqi. One Iraqi soldier had never seen a rock concert before, and my brother got to talk to him afterwards. My brother offered to take a photo with him, but the Iraqi soldier blanched with horror at the prospect. Afterwards, an intelligence officer told my brother that if anyone from Al-Qaeda in Iraq were to see the photo, the soldier along with his entire family would be murdered, to warn others not to collaborate with the Americans. That the soldier would continue to work with the Americans nonetheless shows incredible bravery.

Here is what Americans fail to grasp: the whole country sits on a large percentage of the world’s petroleum. In Kuwait, every citizen gets a large check from their government for their share of petroleum sales, and as a result, they are the richest citizenry on earth. There is so much oil in Iraq that something similar could take place there, if the citizenry there were to form a consensus that they wanted the money. Most of them don’t want the money. They are not motivated by wealth. They are not motivated by peace or safety or the opportunity to build. Those with any power are motivated by grudges against other tribes or ethnicities or religious sects. Those without power are motivated by sheer terror and immediate self-preservation.

Patches of ground, neighborhoods, small regions are controlled by men with assault rifles and improvised explosive devices. They would rather keep the Sunnis, or the Yazidis, or the Kurds, or the Shiites down than lift themselves up knowing their enemies would be lifted as well. When Saddam Hussein was in power, he lifted the Sunnis up and crushed the others, murdering anyone who challenged his status quo. He kept the minorities at each other’s throats until they were too busy hating each other to hate him enough to depose him. In a sick way, it worked. By having the market cornered on violence and terror, the state was able to get things done, albeit slowly and inequitably. Today, nobody is strong enough to dominate the rest, and peace cannot gain a foothold when mutual cooperation is too fragile to persist. Men with the ability to enforce peace are instead enforcing the domination of their group at the expense not only of all the others, but of themselves as well. When everybody loses, nobody wins.

The US military personnel that my brother spoke to talked in terms of acceptable levels of violence rather than of peace. If there are say 50 incidents of violence that take at least one life per day, that is horrible, but much less horrible than two years ago, when there were say 150 such incidents. I’m making up these figures, but the concept is there. The Iraqis have asked us to leave so that they can sort out their future for themselves. Time will tell how a lasting peace will form, and in the meantime, the military is more concerned with the immediate goal of reducing acceptable levels of violence. I read the police blotter in my town, and murders, rapes and robberies occur here, but very infrequently. We live with an acceptable level of violence. The question in Iraq is how much the violence has to be reduced for any nation-building to occur, and the answer is beyond my ability to reckon.

Again, this stresses why Freemasonry is so important, and why its goals are the goals of a world that wants to live in peace. Saddam Hussein outlawed Freemasonry, and today many of the religious fanatics in Iraq are hysterical anti-Masons. Imagine if the principles of Freemasonry had general support over there. Imagine if Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Yazidis and minority Christians and Jews lived in benign tolerance of each other, respecting each other’s beliefs and sitting in lodge together in Brotherly Love, spreading Relief and Truth. Imagine if the virtue of voting for one’s leaders had widespread support. Imagine if men there thought of themselves as builders, working on the great edifice of their nation, working diligently on shaping their rough ashlars into smooth ashlars, meeting on the level, living upright by the plumb, and trying themselves by the square. Imagine if men there lived by the 24-inch gauge, working so hard on perfecting themselves that there would be no time to worry about judging their neighbors.

Now imagine if a tiny fraction of Iraqi men meet in secret, in shops after hours, or in someone’s apartment. Imagine they set a guard by the door to keep out those who would destroy them and their cause, and shared ritual and fellowship together regardless of religious sect, political bent or social class. Imagine them eating a meal together, and pledging to remain brothers, and supporting the widows and orphans of their departed brethren. Imagine a small group of such men, committed to peace, and dedicated to rebuilding their ruined country. How bad would that be?

If you wonder why masons conduct their business in secret, it is because Freemasonry was born in conditions similar to the one I have described. I write these words in Charlestown, MA, in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument, originally built by the brethren of my lodge, King Solomon’s Lodge AF & AM, in memory of those who sat in lodge at a time where the tyler was not a mere ornament, with men who included those who faced fire at the Boston Massacre, who dumped tea into Boston Harbor, who fought in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill, putting their lives on the line for what they believed in. We should not forget that the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, General Joseph Warren, gave his life on those slopes in the hope that his sacrifice would lead to our freedom. How do you think an effective resistance to British rule was organized, if not by men experienced at keeping silent about the work they were engaged in, no matter how noble that work was?

Anti-masons in the USA talk about how too many of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions were masons, as if these two documents were bad things. They talk about how the Presidency and the Supreme Court had too many masons in their ranks, as if the history of these officers has been an endless string of disasters. I don’t believe that masons dominate our history the way that they do, but if you look at how masons have influenced the development of the USA, it looks like those who share our values have done a pretty good job. Masonic values are American values, and when we look at the misery of countries overwhelmed with anti-masons, I happily compare a nation that holds our craft in high regard with a nation that despises us. We should not thump our chests and point to the work we have done. Such boasting is unseemly. Most of the work has been done by non-masons who, if they behave like masons, only do so because they have discovered our virtues on their own without knowing that we exist, or what we stand for. However, every once in a while, we need to point out what happens in a region where masonic virtue is absent.

My brother had to wear a bulletproof vest and helmet whenever he went outside, and got to see bullet holes and barbed wire and other remnants of violent conflict. He was rudimentarily trained to respond if the armored vehicle he traveled in was ambushed. He is not a soldier, and neither am I, but he got a good glimpse of the commitment and professionalism of these men and women who face peril because their duty demands it of them. He came away awestruck by their service.

To those of you reading this blog from overseas, from a conflict zone, I want to thank you for tyling our lodge. Thank you for devoting yourselves, facing horrors I cannot imagine to do your part to ensure that I never have to face these horrors myself. Every mason should be mindful that the peace under which he lives exists because men and women have labored for centuries to make it so, and a generation’s carelessness can make it disappear. He should pity those who through no fault of their own live on the outside of the peaceful region in which we dwell, and we should strive to extend the interior of that region until it covers the globe. We owe a debt of gratitude to the current generation of people maintaining the barrier keeping peace within its borders, and we should shoulder whatever portion of that duty of which we are capable, each of us striving for a world of peace.

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