Hoax, Deconstructed

(This is the extended disco version of the article that ran in the May 2009 issue of The Connecticut Freemason publication.)

Many readers know that for the last few years I’ve been assaulting the internet with my blog, The Tao of Masonry (https://masonictao.wordpress.com), on which I write articles about how Freemasonry has made an impact on my own life. On April 1st, I finally got to make an impact on Masonry, at least in Connecticut.

Like many people, I enjoy a good practical joke – especially when it’s played on somebody else. Back in February, I started setting up a prank for April Fools Day that was completely harmless, did not poke fun at anybody, and against all odds of prankery,  still ended up being amusing. But on reflection, there were some reactions to the prank that made me wonder about our fraternity.

The prank was set up as you can see elsewhere in this issue: I wrote a news article purporting to be from the representatives of Connecticut and Rhode Island, in which they announced the merger of the Grand Lodges of our two states to help control costs, and to consolidate the many Grand Lodge positions.

I got the idea for a merger between Grand Lodges back at our own Grand Lodge Semi-annual Communication in October. At the time, I noted that there were quite a few lodges not represented, and that there were fewer people in attendance than I had expected. I know that some of my friends out in San Diego will get a small van and make the eight hour drive up to San Francisco for their Grand Lodge meetings, and I wondered what they would think of people who couldn’t make an hour drive halfway across our state. Knowing how small the states are in this corner of the country, I made some jokes about merging our small states into a large one, and from this simple hint, the Grand Lodge of Southern New England A.F. & A.M. was born.

There were clues in the article that this was not to be taken seriously. Writing it as a news item from The Hartford Times should have tipped off an observant reader, as that paper went out of business back in 1975. Likewise, history buffs should have caught the names of the spokespersons, which were made up names that were connected with historic figures in our respective states. William Rogers, of course, is from Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. Thomas Ludlow is a compilation of Roger Ludlow, the founder of Connecticut, and Thomas Hooker. At least one sharp-eyed reader suspected the hoax based simply on reading those names.

After writing the interview, I got the idea to compound the hoax by creating a web site, to make  the Grand Lodge of Southern New England (http://glsneafam.wordpress.com ) look more “official.” The website has current news items from our own GL site, contact information, a page describing Freemasonry, and some information on how to join, all of which are typical of Grand Lodge websites.

You can’t have a Grand Lodge without an official seal; so I used the S & C graphics that Bro. Kyle Charette designed for our own Friendship Lodge logo. I found the picture of the “stately and superb” Grand Lodge building in a search of old photos of the UConn campus; the early 1900s style reminds me of quite a few lodge buildings around Connecticut.

So much for the technical details; now let’s look at the the aftermath.

The fake news item was published in the wee hours (3.33 am, of course) of April 1, and was spotted early in the morning by RW Simon LaPlace (Chairman of the Masonic Awareness Committee and head dude for the Grand Lodge website), who found the prank amusing, and wondered what would happen if he added to the fun by posting it on the Grand Lodge of Conn web page. I double dog dared him, and an hour later he had not only the link, but the entire front page of the Grand Lodge of  Southern New England site up. WIN!

Knowing it would be just a matter of time before the calls started coming in to the Grand Lodge office, he informed the secretary. Marje didn’t fall for it, mainly because she knows that if she didn’t type it or file it, then it didn’t happen. He also informed our new MWGM Art Carlstrom, and then settled into enjoy the show. According to him, he didn’t have long to wait. The emails and phone calls started coming in from people who were wondering what it was about and when it had been discussed – after all, our GL annual communication was only two days previous, so they should have heard something about it, right? I mean, who could possibly believe this for more than a minute, right?

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Initially, I had expected to fool people who don’t live in or near Connecticut; after all, most of us are rather parochial in our Masonry, and barely know what is going on at the other end of our district, let alone in foreign lands such as Putnam or Greenwich. It’s not unusual for US Masons to have no idea what’s going on in other states. This is not a failing, it’s simply a result of having fifty separate and sovereign Grand Lodges, each with their own rules, regulations, culture, and problems.

What I had not expected, however, were how many brothers here in Connecticut would take the prank seriously; especially those who really should have known better. But some of our members believed that they had missed out on this huge decision (apparently while they were socializing in the hall?), or missed hearing the rumors that invariably precede such decisions. And therein lies the most fascinating part of the prank, and leads to several important questions:

What happened to our critical thinking skills? Are Masons inherently lacking a sense of humor? Why would those who should know better actually believe the story? And what does their reaction say about the organization and its members?

To illustrate, allow me share some of the reactions.

The first concern was raised by a Grand Lodge officer, whose response was to ask what it was about. After being informed that it was a hoax, he seemed unclear on the concept and went on to ask who Thomas Ludlow was. He then suggested that the site be taken down ASAP so nobody else would see it and take it seriously.

Another GL officer asked why he hadn’t been informed of this decision.  Several more District Deputies, Masters of lodges, and other members called or emailed the Grand Lodge office and various Grand Lodge officers to ask questions about the merger. Several lodges even passed it around on their email list, and it was a topic for discussion at lodge meetings that night. For the rest of the day, Grand Lodge officers (including me) fielded calls and emails, explaining that it was just an April Fool prank.

Most of Grand Lodge officers, when asked about the merger, replied to the caller “What day is it?” You’d think it would have ended there, but at least a couple of people were confused by the fact that on April 2nd, the Grand Lodge of Southern New England website was still up (although the picture was off the Connecticut Grand Lodge site),  as was the news report on The Tao of Masonry. As much as a week later, one of my counterparts in another district told me that the Master of his lodge had been asking him questions about it. And two weeks later, I heard that a Past Master from another lodge was still telling people about it and wondering how it was going to affect the fraternity. After all, it must be true if the site is still up after April 1st, right?

More interesting were the reports of people who not only believed the original news of the merger, but who also believed the contrived April 2nd story as to why it failed: Ostensibly because there were too many tax and legal issues to straighten out, the “rumors” were that the real issue was of Connecticut and Rhode Island not agreeing on which designation (“AF & AM” or  “F & AM”) to keep. At least one person was reported to have said something like, “Yes, that’s just the kind of thing that Grand Lodges would argue about.”

Hey, wait a minute – that’s probably not so funny.

I was amazed at the number of people who confessed to being out of the loop, even though they had just been to the Grand Lodge session; almost all of them used the excuse that they had left early, or had been in the hallway socializing for most of the afternoon session.

Here are a few of the emails we received:

“Tom, you’re with the Grand Lodge. What’s the scoop?”

“Is that [the merger] for real? I’m surprised we did not talk about it [at Blue Lodge Council] last night.”

“Maybe I haven’t been paying as much attention lately, but how is it that something of this consequence could be taking place without any prior notice or fanfare? I heard/saw NOTHING about this as a proposal.”

“[…] the Merger column with your blog; Is that true? Are we really merging? Didn’t stay long enough to hear it… had to leave, got paged from work.”

I fielded a few calls and emails, myself, including one from a brother who wrote “Tom, I can’t believe that you are the only one reporting on this.”

Really? Just me? What a scoop, eh?

One of the Grand Lodge officers from the eastern part of our state said that the brothers in Rhode Island thought the prank was very funny, and nobody reported anyone taking it seriously – at least, not seriously enough to contact their Grand Lodge. Likewise, those up in Massachusetts were also amused. Nobody took it seriously there, either; although some of their people were reported to have said that the clue to them was that Massachussetts would never join something that was initiated by Connecticut, anyway.  “We would come up with the idea, and then allow Connecticut and Rhode Island to join” was, I think, how they phrased it.

There were a number of people who did not get the joke even after it was explained, or who did not find it amusing. Their reactions were typically expressed as: “You can’t do that,” or “The Grand Lodge shouldn’t have allowed that on their website,” or “They better have a talk with the guy who made that up.”

While I admit that practical jokes aren’t for everybody, the idea that it “shouldn’t” be done makes me wonder just how seriously we are expected to take our Masonry. More to the point, I’m happy that the Grand Lodge officers in my state can take – and express – amusement in what was a very harmless prank. Humor is one of those little social lubricants that help us to all get along; and a gentle spoof on a serious state of affairs can help to ease the tension of the situation. The economy is down right now, fraternal memberships have been down for a generation, and many jurisdictions are wrestling with issues of retention, management, and education. My prank simply called attention to these issues in a light-hearted way, and I was glad to see that it led to some interesting discussions on Masonic web forums around the US and UK.

But what are we to make of those people who took the hoax itself seriously? Can you imagine a project as huge as a merger between two Grand Lodges remaining a secret? Apparently a number of my brother Connecticut Masons can. This is distressing on some level because it means that a large number of people believe that they could have been out of the loop for something this important. That is both disquieting and sad because it points to a lack of connection with the organization.

A merger between lodges within a state is generally a year-long affair, from the initial idea to the discussions between the lodges, to the final voting, name changing, informing the rest of the members, and packing away the old furniture. And along the way, of course, there is the talking and gossip. Face it: despite our reputation as a secret society, most of the Masons that I’ve known love to gossip. I can’t even imagine my brothers planning a cookout in total secrecy; if you don’t know what’s going on in your lodge, chances are it’s not because they aren’t telling you, it’s because you’re not paying attention.

Now, one might believe in the reality of a “Grand Lodge Merger” because the idea is, on some level, plausible: Connecticut and Rhode Island are small states, membership has declined in the last generation, and economic times are hard right now.

Yet, most people figured it out in the first minute and found it amusing, as I had hoped they would. Why did others not pause to say, “Hey, I never heard any rumors about this. I’ve never seen any Grand Lodge officers from Rhode Island visting. We were talking about redistricting only last year, and nobody brought this up. Hmm, something’s fishy about this news article… oh, wait a minute – it’s April 1st.”

My brothers, to believe for more than five minutes – hell, even one minute – that something this big could suddenly just happen isn’t an issue of being humor-impaired; it’s an issue of having a disconnect with the organization itself.

And this raises the question of how and where we connect to the organization; how we, as Masons, see our places within our own fraternity. Do we make an effort to stay current with our knowledge and awareness? Can we – or should we – be expected to keep up with the events and goings-on of our organization, or are we content to just glance at a trestle board once in a while? And are we conscious of how our being knowledgeable benefits the organization as a whole?

It’s possible that I might be reading too much the reactions. But what concerns me is that most of the people figured it was a joke because they knew it was April 1st. How many more people would have been taken it seriously had I done this a week or a month sooner? And what does that say about our people and our organization?

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