Four decades after the egalitarian '60s and some 225 years since the Declaration of Independence, American voters must choose between two members of an elite secret society. The lesson is that aristocracy still survives democracy.
I hope some journalist has the guts to ask John Kerry (Skull and Bones, 1965) and George Bush (Skull and Bones, 1967) whether they have any qualms about belonging to a secret, oath-bound network since their college days. Did they discuss Skull and Bones in code when President Bush called Senator Kerry to congratulate him on his primary victories? Will they agree not to leave the room if the reporter blurts out “322”, coded references to Demosthene’s birthday and Skull and Bones’ founding.
Am I scratching the blackboard yet, dear reader? Or are you smugly dismissing these questions as paranoid and unsophisticated?
I don’t consider myself a conspiracy nut, but is it really all right that four decades after the egalitarian Sixties, and some 225 years since the Declaration of Independence, the American voters’ choices in 2004 are two Bonesmen ?
The lesson is that aristocracy still survives democracy.
I was a member of a secret society during the same era as Bush and Kerry, at the University of Michigan, and can testify that these are profoundly lasting experiences. As a junior, I was tapped for the Druids, which involved a two-day ritual that included being stripped to my underpants, pelted with eggs, smeared with red dye and tied to a campus tree. These humiliations signified my rebirth from lowly student journalist to Big Man on Campus.
Soon, however, I became alienated. None of the bonding could make me feel I actually belonged. Perhaps I was an outsider by nature, an Irish Catholic descendant of immigrants, first in my family to attend university. The clubbiness had one purpose, as a source told Alexandra Robbins for her book on Skull and Bones. It was “to make the other people who didn’t get in feel bad.” But even as an insider, I felt bad, undeserving, resentful.
When I was tapped in my senior year for the most prestigious secret society, Michigauma, I decided instead to hide out in a girlfriend’s apartment, becoming the first refusenik in Michigauma history. But I still felt like something was wrong with me, that I didn’t have the right stuff, that I was blowing my future.
In summer 1960, I experienced the same self-doubt at the national convention of the U.S. National Student Association, which then was controlled by an older clique of student leaders who seemed, as they say, to the manor born. On the one hand, ambition inclined me to challenge the clique by running for national affairs vice president, a path I would eventually follow twenty years later. On the other hand, the radical civil rights and student movements, like the fledgling Students for a Democratic Society, were pulling at my heart. Should I work within the establishment or create something new and risky?
One night I came across a yellow pad left on a desk by the NSA leadership. At the top of a chart was written “Control Group”. On the left was my name and that of Alan Haber, a founder of SDS. On the right was a box marked “YAF” -- Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative group founded at Yale by William F. Buckley (Bones 1950).
Seven years later, it was revealed that the CIA secretly controlled and funded NSA, and that former editors of the Michigan Daily were among the spooks they recruited. I went south as a Freedom Rider and drafted the SDS Port Huron Statement.
In those years, George Bush was a Yale cheerleader and devoted Deke. John Kerry became a Navy lieutenant shooting up the Mekong Delta. Bush never seemed to question authority, while Kerry’s loyalties were shaken by war. But they both belonged to the vast, safe, surreptitious Affirmative Action Program for old boys.
It seems like a lifetime since those days, but we still suffer from many gaps based on privilege. The political system is a moneyed oligarchy underneath its democratic trappings. The vast majority of voters are like fans in the bleachers: We participate from the cheap seats, supposed to enjoy our place, and vote for whichever Bonesman we prefer. Our taxes even subsidize their corporate box seats.
Sometimes Bonesman fight over status. For instance, about 75 years ago, Dwight Davis, U.S. secretary of war, created the Davis Cup, and George H. Walker, grandfather of George W., volleyed back by establishing the Walker Cup. The differences today between Bush and Kerry are about as serious as they get, short of a duel. Karl Marx (London School of Economics) would describe the split a contradiction in the ruling class. Bush is the unilateral builder of empire, while Kerry stands for the multilateral alliances long preferred by most Bonesmen. Though both the Cowboy and the Brahmin may be quarreling members of the same old club, their differences are existential for the rest of us.
Ralph Nader doesn’t see this. Instead, he argues that the two parties are a duopoly within the same plutocracy. Maybe Nader is nursing resentment over not being tapped himself, but his is a dangerous blindness. The differences between Bush and Kerry over Supreme Court appointments, religious fundamentalism, civil rights, the environment, John Ashcroft and the future of Iraq are fundamental, dividing the two parties at the constituency level. Bush genuflects to the Christian Right while Kerry sings Kumbaya. The Bush people are scary and destabilizing, which is why the CIA types seem to prefer Kerry (covertly, of course). For the record, this November I am voting with the CIA. They represent the lesser evil in the choices before us.
But like Ralph Nader, I want democracy to mean more than a choice between two candidates chosen by dueling Bonesmen and their major donors.
I still stand for participatory democracy, the original 1962 vision of the SDS, which grew from our generation’s experience in organizing among the excluded, from the Deep South to the Peace Corps. Students in those days were drafted for war, but considered too immature to vote. Southern blacks and Mexican immigrants could be sharecroppers in the fields, but not equal citizens in the ballot box. For us, democracy meant who had the most votes, not who controlled the most money. It meant the free flow of information, not suffocation under corporate advertising and media.
We have always wanted more than the right to choose between two candidates already vetted by the establishment. We wanted a more direct voice in the decisions that affected our lives. We wanted a democracy of participation, not a democracy regulated by secret societies. We wanted all the closets emptied.
We are a more open and democratic country as a result of the Sixties and earlier generations of radicals. We owe the Abolitionists, not merely Abraham Lincoln, for the end of slavery, the suffragettes for the right to vote, the populists for regulation of Wall Street, the industrial strikers for collective bargaining, the environmentalists for cleaner air and water. In this election, the anti-war and global justice movements have helped shape the agenda over Iraq and trade. And the gay-lesbian community is turning marriage into civil disobedience.
Yet, it remains the peculiar character of America’s elite to absorb reform from below while remaining atop the pyramids of power. When a majority of Americans still feel inferior to Ivy League candidates, or identify vicariously with their dramas, we do not live in a democracy psychologically. That must eventually change. Closeted dynasties should have no moral legitimacy in a democracy -- which is why they have become increasingly secret.
Two years ago, students at the University of Michigan broke into, occupied and exposed the secret space of Michigauma, finding stolen Indian artifacts among the items hidden there. Michigauma moved off campus. When I heard the news, I wished I’d done that long ago instead of making such a private and ambiguous protest. It took a new generation to smash the old idols. Maybe Leonard Cohen is right, democracy is coming to the U.S.A.