Secrets, Part Two   Leave a comment

Secrecy often emerges as a national issue in times of crisis. Recall the debate over the Patriot Act enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, and the kinds of broad governmental powers the Act authorized, including significant reductions of citizen privacy.  Secrecy can become central to state security, and exists in uneasy tension with the “need to know.”

President Kennedy declared in an April 27, 1961 speech that unjustifiable secrecy is repellent,  dangerous, and virtually un-American:

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.*

Of course, he was addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and also standing implicitly against the Communist bloc and its perceived threat to the West.  (You can listen to a portion of Kennedy’s speech on Youtube here.)  Nevertheless his points are well-made, and still almost painfully applicable today, in the wake of Wikileaks and similar events.

Yet secret societies, in spite of Kennedy’s assertions, do have a long and well-established place in the history of America, and many still thrive today.  They flourish at many colleges like Yale, with its Skull and Bones the most famous — or notorious — of several societies for college seniors.  Another similar and infamous example, though not affiliated with a school, is the Bohemian Grove.  Both have generated entertaining conspiracy theories, books, films, and news articles, all of which occasionally offer pieces of the truth.  Both exist, and both count among their membership some of the most powerful and influential people in the world.  Bohemian Grove counts among its members George H. W. Bush, Clint Eastwood and the late Walter Cronkite, according to a Univ. of California Santa Cruz website.**  Should we be worried?!

Opening Night at Bohemian Grove

Many sororities and fraternities also share elements of secret societies, depending on their charters and missions.  Still other similar organizations enjoy spotless reputations, such as the PEO Sisterhood, mostly public in its support for education, but still retaining some secret aspects.

Secret organizations are in fact particularly American, or were in the past.  At the nation’s founding, all but two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were by some accounts members of the Masons or other society.  In the late 1800s, roughly 40% of the U.S. population belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grange, Knights of Columbus, Order of the Eastern Star, or other secret, service, fraternal or social organizations.  The 19th century was in many ways the heyday of such groups, which have declined since, even as Americans began to lament the loss of community cohesiveness and devotion to public service, unaware of the irony.

To step even further back in time, secrecy was after all crucial to the survival of Christianity, which took form as a sect within Judaism, and within a generation was perceived as a threat to Rome.  Suspected Christians were arrested, forced to worship the reigning Roman emperor (who in some cases claimed divinity) and recant their faith, or face execution in various bloody forms, including by wild animals, in the Circus Maximus, Colosseum or Amphitheater.  Until the emperor Constantine in the 300s made the religion a recognized faith of the Empire, Christianity was often an underground practice, with the ichthys (sometimes called the “Jesus fish”) as one of its secret signs, by which fellow believers might recognize each other.

The range of contexts in which secrecy manifests can be surprisingly wide.  The discipline of keeping a secret sometimes serves as a test for membership in a group.  If you can keep a secret about something insignificant, then you may earn the right to gain access to the greater secrets of the group, because you’ve demonstrated your integrity.  Shared secrets are a key element to defining in-groups and out-groups.  In the Middle Ages, much knowledge was automatically assumed to be secret.  If it was disseminated at all, it appeared in a learned language like Latin or Greek which only literate persons could read and access, and as often it was a zealously-guarded guild or trade secret which only guild members knew.  Significantly, the Old French word gramaire meant both “grammar” and “magic book,”  and is considered the most likely source of the word grimoire, also meaning a magic book.  Inaccessible or secret language and hidden or secret knowledge were the same thing, and occult meant simply “hidden.”

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” — you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance  German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.  Note how these are often connected with the experience of initiation, discussed in a previous post.

It’s vital here to note that it is not secrecy itself but the nature of the secret that is crucial in assessing its significance accurately and dispassionately.  I continue to cite J.M. Greer for his lucid and keen observations about the importance and potentials of secrets and secrecy, and the influence of his thinking pervades this series of posts.  I mentioned in Part One that though we all take part in the web of communication, there are ways to see it from the outside and more objectively.   We can occasionally and briefly free ourselves of its more negative effects and minimize its compulsions, then return to it for its positive benefits of human solidarity and companionship. As I’ve mentioned, solitude can temporarily ease its influence, and grant us a clearer space for reflection.  Another group which experiences a consciousness apart from the web are sufferers of mental illness, who are sometimes involuntarily forced outside it.  There they may perceive the arbitrary nature of cultural assumptions and behaviors, the “blind spots” inherent in every culture  and human institution, and the hollowness of social convention.  Their unwitting shift away from the web can make their perceptions, words and actions bizarre, frightening and difficult to manage.  Clearly there is danger in breaking the web, or leaving its patterns of coherence that allow us to make sense of the world.

Greer observes:

To have a secret is to keep some item of information outside the web, so that it does not become a part of the map of the world shared by the rest of society. A gap is opened in the web, defined by the secret, and as long as the secret is kept the gap remains. If the secret in question is something painful or destructive, and if secrecy is imposed by force rather than freely chosen, this kind of breach in the web can be just as damaging as the kind opened by madness.  If secrecy is freely chosen and freely kept, on the other hand, it becomes a tool for reshaping awareness, one with remarkable powers and a range of constructive uses.**

An examination in the next post of the conscious use of secrecy for positive ends will conclude this series.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*A transcript of Kennedy’s entire speech is available at the JFK Library here.  (The quoted portion above begins in section 1, after the prefatory remarks.)

Bohemian Grove dinner image and article.

Grimoire image.

**Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge.  p. 116.


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