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Beleaguered Augusta
The poor members of the Augusta National Golf Club are beleaguered with the attentions of the American politically correct press. This is not a recent irritation but one that has come and gone since feminism became a political issue in America, waxing and waning according to the emergence of more pertinent issues of national importance. Indeed, it would appear that on a quiet news day political editors turn to Augusta for pious column inches.

The current assault is novel for it is conceived and directed from within the former membership itself and more shrill than usual because it comes from a man who used to head up a major American TV network and who can therefore be assumed to have PR savvy. But it is also unique in that the issue has resulted in questions concerning editorial rights and pressure group press censorship. More importantly, it has raised questions about the fundamental rights of freedom of association. The debate has been created because this former TV network CEO has resigned from Augusta National over its absence of women members.

The basic issue can be expressed simply enough. Is freedom of the right to associate a fundamental human right or a social privilege?

Doubtless like the media mogul concerned at Augusta, I expect to have the right to associate with whosoever I chose. If I chose to become a member of a golf club it is inevitable that I impose restrictions upon myself because my freedom of choice becomes limited to others who have also chosen to become members of that golf club. Doubtless being discerning like the media mogul concerned, I will have studied the constitution of the club and, given that I accept the principals of the constitution, I can anticipate association with other members who have likewise accepted that constitution.

Should I, or the media mogul concerned, sometime in the future find myself troubled with some aspects of that constitution; I have to make a choice. On the one hand, I can resign and find myself a club with a less troubling constitution. On the other hand I can try to persuade my fellow members to change the constitution of the club by constitutional means. It would be unethical of me to try to impose my will on my fellow members by anything other than constitutional means and quite wrong of me to engage any other agency in usurping the constitution.

Golf clubs in general have garnered the collective reputation as bastions of conservative, inflexible values resisting change and immune to public opinion. I am not familiar with any club that fits this stereotyping. I think it fair to say, however, that most of those who devote their leisure time to the mental rigours of golf are not the sort of people who readily accept the whims of public opinion or bow to pressure groups. Social conventions may be respected but such people are not likely to respond too compliantly to the mores of political correctness.

PC is the consensus of society. Not only is gauging consensus tricky but consensus is also something that can be easily manipulated. At its least offensive, although nonetheless distasteful, it is called spin in certain political circles. At its most offensive it is called propaganda. In either case it is simply an attempt by one faction of society to persuade the rest of society to think in a certain way, or rather to embrace certain beliefs. It is not easy for the ordinary man-in-the-street to form a pressure group to generate spin and mould social consensus. For the boss of a media empire it is a trivial matter that merely requires the co-operation of his minions, all of whose wellbeing are dependent upon him.

We can look back at history and be glad that men of determination and power exercised their capacity to spin with sagacity. Slavery was abolished, women got the vote, child labour was dispensed with and public health and safety laws were put in place by pressure groups of one or other political persuasion. But history is also splattered with the blood products of the spin that enabled nazism and stigmatised less sophisticated cultures in the progress of imperialism.

Minority interest groups are always easy targets for anyone with self-aggrandising motives and a simple-minded political agenda. With a bandwagon already rolling it is a particularly easy matter to hitch a ride. The members of Augusta have been especially vulnerable for decades and the bandwagon rolling against them has been gathering momentum for years. They are an especially interesting minority group but, irrespective of their wealth as individuals or their social standing in the US, they are nevertheless just a bunch of blokes who formed a golf club and built a golf course on which to indulge themselves.

Had they been a group of artisans with their own nine-holer they would have attracted no attention whatsoever, unless, of course, you happen to attract the attention of someone with a political agenda to exercise. And thereby hangs the moral in this story for if you are a train spotter or a stamp collector belonging to a club with a restrictive constitution, beware! Remember John Donne's words 'never send to see for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee'.

I personally deplore sectarianism and exclusivity, whether it be on the basis of religion, race, creed, colour or gender. But I do support the right of every individual to associate freely within the law. Abdication of that right is not only irresponsible it is also uncivilised for, together with freedom of speech, it is at the very heart of democracy.

©    11 - DECEMBER 2002

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