It started with a email request from a fellow Berkeley professor--a computer science professor of my generation. I had been highly recommended, and would I please come and lead a discussion on the Communist Manifesto as someone who could "provide some fresh insight into Marx - historically as well as politically and scientifically. Someone not so blinded by the political manifestations of his economic theories as to be unable to reflect on the very real genius of his original analysis and the revolutionary novelty of his ideas." Such flattering words are always nice to hear. The organization was the "reading group at the Bohemian Club." Additional bait was to be "a wonderful dinner in the Club's beautiful City Clubhouse."
My first thought was "no": Michael Reich or Manuel Castells or Shannon Stimson or a host of others on the Berkeley campus know more Marx than I do, and the Marx that I know--Marx the economist--is a weaker and less profound thinker than the Marx the sociologist or Marx the political analyst that the others no. My second thought was "yes": I wasn't scheduled to be out much in the evening that month, and it was true that I never had been to the Bohemian Club.
I cleared the date with Ann Marie. "Be sure they're not still an exclusionary organization," she said. "Naah." I thought. The most aggressive and competent senior Republican in California--Ward Connerly--is Black. Both of California's senators are female. The CEO of Hewlett-Packard is female. It is the third millennium, after all. Maybe a decade ago they would have excluded women. Maybe two decades ago they would have excluded Blacks. Maybe three decades ago they would have excluded Jews. But surely not today.
But I asked. And you could have knocked me over with a feather when the answer came back: "yes, we exclude women, for it is our essential nature to exclude women":
The group is... very definately [sic] all male because the club is a Gentlemen's Club.
I won't go into my own background, but suffice it to say, there are many clubs in this country that would not have me as a member because of my ethnic background or the profession of my father. The Bohemian Club is not one of those.
It might be an interesting field study for you to see what kind of man belongs to such a stereotypical bastion of the "ruling class," yet is genuinely interested in reading and discussing the Communist Manifesto...
I didn't know whether I should be more...
...surprised that the Bohemian Club still thinks that women have incurable cooties...
...dumbfounded that Berkeley has computer science professors of my generation who want to be "Gentlemen"...
...astonished that anyone would think it "Gentlemanly" in this day and age to belong to an all-male club...
...insulted that anyone would think that scruples at doing favors for exclusionary institutions could be overcome by his pointing out that he was offering me valuable access--a "field study" of "ruling class institutions"...
Moreover, the tone of the email felt awry. The first email had been him asking me to do him a favor. The second stressed that he was a gentleman, part of the ruling class, trying to do me a favor.
And then I realized what was going on. In asking whether his organization was an exclusionary one, I had disrespected him. And his response was to start playing a status one-upmanship game.
This often happens in email. Think of it: everyone writes their email in the core of their own personal space. Normally, whenever we enter anyone else's personal space--their home, their office, or their table at a restaurant--we are somewhat deferential. But email messages are written in our personal space--where we expect to see deference and are feeling most comfortable, confident, and dominant--and delivered to their personal space. Hence the frequency of flame wars on the internet and email between people who would get along perfectly well if they met each other in the real world.: everyone expects to be dealt with with the degree of respect and deference that they are accustomed to receive in the core of their own personal space. And everyone deals with others with the degree of dominance and superiority that they are accustomed to deal when in the core of their in personal space.
In addition you have to consider that, as Ann Marie says, meetings between groups of males usually have as their subtext the establishment of a dominance hierarchy. I thought of an experiment I read about once, long ago. Two butterflies were each trained to think that a hilltop was "theirs" by being let out to flutter about on alternate days (and kept in darkness for their "off" day). Then they were both let out together. We don't think of butterflies as the most aggressive and territorial animals. But each of these knew that it was on its home turf and should not back down. Antennae and legs were ripped off in the struggle that followed...
Probably if I'd thought about it for a day, I would have answered differently. But I decided to play the status game back:
Then I regret that I cannot accept.
Please reconsider your membership requirements.
It is almost the twenty-first century. In this age no Gentleman would blindly follow the customs my Lord, Carter, Anderson, Bradford, and Winthrop ancestors followed in Boston in the nineteenth century.
Afterwards I felt smug. My brother pointed out that in the real ruling class institutions of Wall Street, a "gentlemen's club" is a strip show, and that you can get fired for taking people to one these days. My sister said that I was a saint. And for a while I slept the sleep of the self-righteous.
Then one day I was driving my six-year-old daughter, and she was processing the news. "Dad," she asked, "those people in Afghanistan who don't think girls should go to school. You're working to change that, right?"
A few minutes later: "Dad, those people who don't think girls should go to school, they're far away from here, right Dad? Everyone in San Francisco knows that it is unfair to keep girls from doing things just because they are girls, right Dad?"
I didn't tell her that that is something that some people working in the next building to me do not know.