While they're not yet
extinct, these days the Shriners could be called an endangered
species. At the turn of the century, millions of men - possibly one out
of every five adult males in the United States - belonged to one or more
fraternal lodges. But as times and attitudes change, these all-male
social organizations are literally dying out. "The Black Camel is
advancing on us" say the Shriners, who have lost over one-third of their
membership since 1980. And it's hard to see where they'll find young
replacements for the members who leave in a hearse. It never occurs to
most of us nowadays to belong to a lodge. When was the last time one of
your buddies turned to you and said, "Dude, next week I'm joining the
Apparently, fraternal organizations offer things that nobody
wants any more: buddy-buddy fellowship, mumbo-jumbo rituals, and
frequent mandatory meetings. But even though we may not want to join
them, it's still possible to admire them from a certain (ironic)
distance. It's a bit like watching the last of the dinosaurs thunder off
into the sunset, doomed but glorious. We know the world may never see
their like again. The Shriners, the boldest and most in-your-face of all
the fraternal organizations, hold a special fascination for me and many
Most of us couldn't tell an Elk from a Rotarian from an Odd
Fellow, but we all know at least something about the Shriners: that they
wear those funny hats, that they support a network of charity hospitals
for children, that they've organized themselves around a
hokey Arabian Nights theme. And most of all, we know them from their
public appearances in parades and such, dressed as clowns, or teetering
on tiny mini-bikes, or tooling around in go-karts decked out as
miniature cars or trucks (or even, in the case of a Kansas crew called
the Wheatwackers, mini-threshing machines.) To a person with a
post-modern sensibility, red-fezzed Shriners present an irresistible
retro image. They're like walking, talking clip-art!
Though most of us have some idea what they look like, not many
know what the Shriners actually are. Officially, they're the Ancient
Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.), founded
in 1872 as a fun-loving recreational super-fraternity. A colorful Near
East theme runs through everything they do. Their 191 chapters or
"Temples" bear names like Sahara, Tangier, Damascus, Mecca, and Nile.
They surround themselves with Ali Baba trappings of pyramids, camels,
palm trees, and scimitars. Dressed in Bedouin robes, new Nobles are
initiated in a symbolic journey across a desert's burning sands to an
oasis, where thirsts are quenched with free-flowing wine. While real
Moslems shun alcohol, the play-Arabs of the Shrine have a reputation as
party-hearty drinkers. The Shrine's annual conventions are famous for
bringing together thousands of jolly, tipsy, boys-will-be-boys carousers
for a week of good-natured minor mayhem.
But rearrange the letters A.A.O.N.M.S. and they spell "A
MASON," a not-so-subtle clue that one must first be "a Mason" in order
to become a Shriner. If you're seeking a dark side to the Shriners'
frisky tomfoolery, here's where to look, because the Masons (or
Freemasons) are an older, larger, and much more mysterious group. For
centuries, outsiders have speculated about the Masons' secret oaths,
rituals, and handshakes, all based on legendary stonemasons who
supposedly built medieval cathedrals and Old Testament temples. (For
this reason, Masonic symbols include builders' tools like the compass,
the square, and the trowel.)
With members as illustrious as George Washington, Winston
Churchill, Mozart, Ty Cobb and Roy Rogers, you'd think the Masons would
be above reproach. But their secrecy and claims of ancient wisdom make
them a magnet for every paranoid theorist. Masons are lumped in with the
Trilateralists, the Bavarian Illuminati, the New World Order and all
those other bogeymen who are supposedly pulling our strings from behind
the curtain. A recent episode of "The Simpsons" perfectly captured these
fears, as the secret society of "Stonecutters" gathered to gloat over
their octopus-like reach into every aspect of life:
Who controls the British crown?
Who keeps the metric system down?
Who robs cave fish of their sight?
Who rigs every Oscar night?
We do! We doooooooo.
When you become a Shriner-watcher, you inevitably have to
confront the question of whether the Freemasons are a shadowy cabal of
masterminds or a sociable bunch of fuddy-duddy insurance salesmen. It's
fun to indulge in paranoia, and I'm as fond as the next guy of Pynchon
and Robert Anton Wilson and Smoking Man episodes of "The X-Files." But I
also try to look at the Shriners the way I do professional wrestlers:
drawing a line between Entertainment and Reality. And I just can't
believe these fraternal organizations are anything but a bunch of
harmless old coots who like to dress up and chant some ritual claptrap.
A little voice in the back of my mind pipes up "Sure, that's what they
WANT you to believe." But common sense suggests that if these groups
really had any powerful secrets, they'd have waiting lists of people
eager to join, instead of plummeting membership rosters.
The one power that Masons and Shriners do
control is the ability to keep women outside their Temple's doors. And
this seems to be at the heart of both their former appeal and their
current decline. It's as if men once deeply craved opportunities to
withdraw from the fearful presence of women. Nowadays, despite the
occasional noise about men-from-mars-women-from-venus, we just don't
have that anxious need to escape from each other. Men and women don't
inhabit separate spheres in the modern world. We bump up against each
other all day long, at work and at play, and we don't seem to have a big
problem with that. Whenever possible, men and women choose to be
together, whether it's in co-ed dormitories or on co-ed softball teams.
Sure, we sneak out for the occasional boy's night out or
all-girl-evening to bitch and blow off a little steam. But we don't
require formal clubs with frequent meetings and robes and regalia to do
Another conflict that keeps modern men out of the fraternal
life is society's demands on our time. We've all heard that life was
harder back in Great-Grandpa's day, but he did seem to have plenty of
leisure time to spend down at the lodge. Today we're busy with our
careers, busy with our families, and when we want entertainment, we've
got TV and videos and the internet right in our homes. After days full
of packed schedules and time conflicts, the last thing we want is the
Lions' Club or the Shriners making more irritating demands on our
Still, there are a few ways in which hip post-modern people
can relate to the Shriners. One of these is the appeal of Exotica. The
Shriners adore wrapping everything into a fancy package of Orientalia, a
fantasy world of camels and oases, turbans and fezzes, Poo-bahs and
Rajahs, and Most High Imperial Potentates. We are suckers (in an ironic,
tongue-in-cheek way) for Exotica from the really, really Far East:
bamboo-trimmed tiki bars, pineapple-garnished cocktails, and the
birdcall-laced sounds of Martin Denny.
The rituals of every fraternal organization are laced with
grandiose speechifying about returning to lost, mysterious, ancient
truths. We've read that kind of stuff before: on the backs of our
collectible 50s record albums, the ones with names like Taboo and
And we can certainly sympathize with the Shriners' urge to
escape every once in a while into an evening of costumed role-playing.
The Shriners play at being Sheiks and Nobles of a loyal, royal Desert
Brotherhood. We want to pretend to be what the Shriners themselves were.
We put on their cast-off fezzes (picked up at a yard sale or thrift
store) and dress in sharkskin suits or cocktail dresses, put some
Mancini or Dean Martin on the stereo, and sample a cigar or a martini.
And just for one night, we transform ourselves into ... confident,
prosperous, Cadillac-driving aluminum-siding salesmen, without a serious
thought in our heads except having a serious good time. And to our
surprise, it feels pretty darn good.
It's a crazy, mixed-up, one-step-removed way of being a
Shriner, but it's probably as near as most members of our generation are
ever going to get.