Magazine June 6, 2011, Issue

A Club for All and None

When you learn that mothers have been banned from joining a parenting organization specifically convened for fathers, you know there are two possible reactions:

1. So? It’s a free society. We get to set rules for our private organizations, or the courts would be full of suits from people who were invited to a poker game and insisted everyone break for a hand of whist. Seriously, who plays that anymore? 

2. Bigotry! Exclusionism! Apartheid! Intolerance! Sexism! Trans-fats! Vivisection! Vaccines cause autism! Steel does not melt! But mostly bigotry and possibly homophobia — who’s involved?

As it turns out, it’s not mothers being banned. It’s fathers. A piece by Elizabeth Lesly Stevens at BayCitizen.org relates the tale of the Golden Gate Mothers Group, a clutch of moms who have decided, in that clubby way of some people, to limit membership to moms. The reasons are rather obvious, no? Women are more likely to express themselves about the experience of expressing themselves if there’s not some guy in the room. It doesn’t matter if he’s a cheerful doting galoot or a spindly beta-male who quit his Web-design job so he could hand-mash organic pears for little Justin and carve blocks made from sustainable wood. The experience of being a mother is different from that of being a father, and while it’s great for each side to reach some syncretic holistic point of mutual understanding, sometimes you just want to complain about men’s inability to fold towels correctly. Thirds! Not halves, thirds! Would it kill him to learn? 

Most men would say: Fine. To paraphrase Groucho, most men wouldn’t want to be a member of a group that wouldn’t have them because of their member. There are memories of childhood: When the other kids wouldn’t let me in their club I said okay I don’t want to belong to your stupid club anyway and I’ll make my own and it’ll be better and you can’t join and you’ll be sorry. Most of us never got around to forming it, but the idea persists: If you object to the rules governing an organization, perhaps you oughtn’t to belong. But spoilsports delight in insisting that the Carnivore League should put vegetarians on the board of directors, in the interests of inclusion. (Vegetarians, who have differing opinions on eating eggs, are already diverse and therefore do not need readjustment.) 

Modern twist: The fathers in the San Francisco example are gay. This complicates matters, since the calculus involved in the Grievance Equations are baffling to the layperson. Feminism usually trumps everything, unless there’s multiculturalism involved, in which case Islam trumps discussion of women’s rights, lest you be Islamophobic, which is racist. Unless you’re gay! Wild card. But you’d better not be one of those apostates like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born socially liberal critic of Islam, because she encourages the wrong people. You know, the “some of my best friends are Dutch-nationality apostates living under a death threat” types who really hate Muslims. You wish there were a smartphone app for it all — just punch in the groups, and let the phone connect to a vast database of New York Times editorials and NPR feature stories and tell you who’s right. 

#page#It would be gratifying to ask the SF moms why it’s okay to expose their children to this sort of Hate. No doubt they would blink several times, as if you’d just said there was an ear of corn growing out of their forehead, and genetically modified corn at that: Hate? What do you mean? Well, you oppose homosexuals. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the marriage debate, it’s that any rationale you may have is simply a tissue draped over the molten bolus of Bible-based hatred. Also, since shellfish is excoriated in the Old Testament, how do you feel when someone calls your kid a “shrimp”? They would insist that this is different, and it is — but for a second they might see the error of ascribing Hate where there is none. Realizing that one’s opposition isn’t really an upright bag of ambulatory evil can have a remarkable effect in the way you argue with others. 

Like the author of the story, I was reminded of the recent crisis at the Century Association, a tony New York snoot-clique whose members were riven by a proposal to cut ties with a London club, the Garrick. It didn’t admit women. If a fellow from the Century found himself in London in need of a bolt-hole to escape from the proles, he could drop by the Garrick, but women were forbidden. A throwback to horrid sexist Victorian times — you know, when they were ruled by King Victor. One member who protested the move wrote that “institutions like these have a character that is the product of their history.” True. That’s the problem, isn’t it? History, with all its accumulated notions and ideals that confound our attempts to rewrite behavior. Since the Garrick declined to detonate decades of tradition to placate the Yanks, the clubs went their separate ways. Good. You like to think there’s still a place in the world where gouty men can fall asleep in a wing-backed chair with the Times in their lap, an ancient waiter deftly removing the empty port glasses from their boneless hands. If the Queen showed up, the doorman would express his regrets. Terribly sorry, Your Highness. Club rules. 

But not America, and not when it comes to your so-called freedom to associate. Inclusion matters. Diversity matters. Breaking down gender barriers matters. Fighting the preconceptions of heteronormality matters terribly, for heaven’s sake. Doing away with the tight, narrowly defined cliques that keep out the less visible members of society matters so very, very much. Except when it doesn’t. Meeting adjourned!

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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