Saturday, April 4, 2009

Welcome to Pleasantville

Just the other day I watched the 1998 movie “Pleasantville” once again. This movie features David (Tobey Maguire), a disaffected 1990’s teenager obsessed with a "Leave it to Beaver" style 1950's television show. David, along with his sexually active sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) suddenly find themselves mysteriously transported to and trapped in Pleasantville along with its loving parents, old fashioned values, and an overwhelming amount of innocence and naiveté. The introduction of David and Jennifer to Pleasantville, with their 1990’s attitudes and sensibilities has the unintended consequences of disrupting the status quo of this two-dimensional world. Influenced by these two teenagers, especially Jennifer, the citizens of Pleasantville become more self aware and begin to change. This transformation is represented in this movie by the characters and their surroundings changing from black and white to color. All is not well, however, as the leaders of the community find themselves powerless to resist the changes occurring around them. David becomes the reasoned leader of this revolution, since he has an understanding of both worlds. He guides and counsels the characters on both sides of the cultural gap, which helps smooth the transition.

In a recent interview, Professor Margaret Jacob (The Origins of Freemasonry) described Masons of the eighteenth century as the vanguard of a remarkable social, cultural, and political change in the Western Europe and North America. Masonic lodges taught their members how to vote, stand and speak before others, and lead an organization. They were driven by the ideals of truth, justice, and democracy. New ideas about individual rights and freedoms were discussed openly in Masonic lodges; and the Masons who were having these discussions participated in the revolt against the ruling monarchies and ultimately became the leaders of the democracies that replaced them. Professor Jacobs surmises that Freemasonry thrived because Masons were the leaders of this new social, cultural, and political experiment. She argues that, if Masonry is to continue to thrive, it must embrace the social and cultural change occurring around us today and become its leaders.

Masonry outside of North America is beginning to grow and thrive as the ideals of democracy spread in their regions of the World and as each of their repressive regimes is toppled. North American Masonry, on the other hand, has become complacent and bound to the status quo. We are now confronted with a new crop of young Masons who, like David and Jennifer in Pleasantville, have different attitudes and sensibilities. These Millenial Masons tend to be more tolerant of other societies and cultures and have a desire to be more inclusive. A scan of the several Masonic Blogs and Forums on the Internet shows us that these young men are also angry and incensed at the perceived inequities which exist in some jurisdictions and the apparent resistance to new ideas.

Like Pleasantville, North American Freemasonry is in the throes of a generational change. This change is precipitated by the generation gap between the current leaders who are the stewards of Masonry and the new masons who will become the future leaders, a gap which exists because of the failure of the Baby Boomer generation to become Masons.

Our challenge, as Professor Jacobs suggests, is for Freemasonry to embrace the societal changes occurring today and to again become the advance guard leading society toward a new utopian future. However, I fear that this is beyond the capabilities of any Grand Lodge. Grand Lodges by their very nature are monolithic organizations who represent the will of the majority of their members. For Grand Lodge attitudes to change there needs to be a generational shift in the Grand Lodge membership. This shift is starting to occur in jurisdictions which have large urban populations and are experiencing growth as younger men become Masons. In more rural jurisdictions, the change may not be as pronounced. Such an asymmetrical shift has created the situation where change is occurring faster in some jurisdictions than in others, and like Pleasantville, all is not well.

As I see it, the question before us is not necessarily to become the catalysts for change but to determine how to manage the changes that are occurring in the world and their impact on Freemasonry. I believe that Masonic leaders need to become “reasoned leaders” like David in Pleasantville. We need to have a foot in both camps and understand the perspectives of our “Legacy” Masons as well as those of the Millennial Masons, we need to observe and listen to both sides, we need to expand on our communication skills in order to become aware of the issues and concerns facing Masonry, and we need to be the bridge that closes the gaps in understanding between those who have been the stewards of Masonry and those who soon will be.

The ways and means of communication have changed dramatically over the past 50 years. In order to become the bridges between the old and the new, we need to at the very least embrace the new technologies that allow us to connect with every Mason. This is not an easy task, and for those who are still tied to the culture of the 1950’s, the learning curve is the steepest. But, as Masonry is a life long process of educational enlightenment, the challenge of learning new technologies is well worth the effort.

In Pleasantville there was no great epiphany or final resolution to the problems created by the presence of David and Jennifer. There was, however, an accelerated shift from the status quo toward a more positive growth and development of the individual and the community. Like Pleasantville, Freemasonry today is faced with similar challenges, and like Pleasantville, I predict that the changes happening in Freemasonry will also begin to accelerate. Not changes to our principals and Landmarks, but changes to the way Freemasonry is practiced throughout North America; changes to the way the lessons of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth are presented and received.

As Wordsworth lamented, “The World Is Too Much With Us; Late and Soon”, or as Bob Dylan crooned, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Welcome to Pleasantville.

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