Mensa Politics & History

“Perverse Trajectory” from Mensa International Journal, March 1995

   I read with particular interest the letter from John Lamb [IJ, Jan/Feb p. 3] concerning the dedication of Mensa to some cause that would benefit humanity. This issue has arisen many times, at least since the internationalization of the society in 1964. Always, the call for action founders on endless debate over the choice of cause and on the concept of Mensa as essentially a social club run for the benefit of its members. One or another opponents of social activism raises the question, “Why should my dues contribute to someone else's cause? If I want to ... [e.g., save the environment] there are plenty of focused organizations to which I can contribute.” The point is a good one, but it need not end the matter there.

   Around 1970 (as AMC Chairman) I found a way of reconciling the dominant activity of Mensa – social intercourse among its members – with the worthy desire to do for others. In those days, before its ill-conceived revision in 1982, Mensa's constitution included as one of its three purposes, “Research in psychology and the social sciences.” Among the many disimprovements the revision brought was the narrowing of scope to “research in human intelligence,” a less well-defined and intellectually respectable concept. It was clear enough in 1970 and, with the political upheavals that have taken place throughout the world in the last half-dozen years and are continuing, should now be obvious to every intelligent person that the world does not suffer from a shortage of intelligence but from lack of the political traditions, structures, and concepts that will apply that intelligence constructively and humanely. Thus, research in the social sciences, focused on intelligent social behavior, is far more important to humanity, as well as to Mensa itself, than research about human intelligence, a highly abstract concept.

Diverse Values

   The “real world” and the Mensa microcosm share the characteristic of lacking a “mission statement” or a coherent goal. This is not a weakness but an essential fact; attempts to adopt a closed purpose have all too frequently led to totalitarian or oppressive regimes. It is the diversity of individual missions and goals that are the strength of any well-functioning society. To give substance to this statement, consider the variety of ultimate values that people hold:

   The political process, for good or ill, is the way in which we resolve, as a society, the diverse individual goals. In a good society with good politics, the process is fair and encourages diverse contributions to the common welfare.

Politics as a Neutral Process

   I first spoke publicly of the concept of a neutral connotation to “politics” and the need to perform politics in an exemplary way at the Houston Annual Gathering in 1971, and a summary of my conclusions and hopes constitute the major part of my final report as AMC chairman in the May 1973 Mensa Bulletin [which should be required reading for all national officers].

Mensa's Fundamental Metaphor

   The problem for Mensa is challenging, both conceptually and practically. The fundamental Mensa metaphor is that of a round table of individuals of equal worth and dignity. Yet since 1975 the quality of our politics has been deteriorating and belying the society's ideology. The erosion has been piecemeal, but a characteristic and significant step in the downward course can be identified as an example: the 1982 comprehensive constitutional revision changed the nature of Mensa officially from a unitary, transnational society, to which all members belong on an equal basis, to a hierarchical society of national societies (with a minor exception) in which insiders preempt control from the members. It isn't necessary, although it is customary in the military/corporate culture, for a society to be thus organized. I have in my files a worm-eaten sheet of quadrille paper (dating from ca. 1966) sketching an entirely non-hierarchical structure for American Mensa. This plan can be revised to meet changed conditions and turned into a practical document. Rather than search for some external good cause, Mensa would do well to devote itself for the next five years to recovering its ideology and developing internal institutions, customs, and lore that truly embody its ideals.

   Such a course ought to be pursued, in the first instance, for the benefit of Mensa itself, not for “the benefit of humanity.” Ironically, such a course, if successful, is more likely to benefit humanity than would looking for a “good cause”. Consider, we will not be heard on any public cause until we achieve respect for our own performance, until we show — not merely declare — that we know better than others. We cannot achieve that respect unless we can set a persuasive example. We cannot set such an example unless we produce our own political discourse in a manner that others view positively. (We have done exactly the opposite.)

   It should be clear to everyone now that the production of good politics is of fundamental importance to the whole world. Mensa's mission, therefore, should be to explore new methods of doing politics for the sake of its own good health in the reasonable expectation that if we succeed the word will get out and the world will be drawn to us. Specifically, I would reject public advocacy and rhetorical public relations. Indeed, that internal reform is close to what actually happened in the late '60s. Of course, we did not wholly succeed, for there is no standard of success in an ongoing process, but our trajectory was directed upward. Since 1979, however, Mensa's direction has been perverse. This isn't hindsight on my part; at every turn I spotted the danger signals contemporaneously, as my copious files will show.

Sander Rubin
2030 Gauguin Place
Davis, CA 95616-0542
(530) 753-7263

Examples: These issues are not new; they go back to the Greeks of some 2500 years ago. You can judge for yourself by reading Sir Karl R. Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies where a quotation from Pericles clearly describes the kind of government suitable for Mensa.
Aldo Aulicino, editor of the International Journal, has referred me to a fine example of direct democracy, the sort of thing Mensa ought to be testing out in its political experimentation. [This site seems to have since disappeared (11 Dec 97).]
I am working on an unusual scheme for democratic decision-making involving a chance element that might diminish abuses of conventional voting processes.
Progress has been slow but in January, 2001, a beginning was made by establishing a discussion group at Yahoo!

The word “lacking” was changed to “having” in the published version. The paragraph makes more sense in this original version. Go back

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Revised: 26 Aug 95, 19 Jan 96, 20 Mar 96, 24 Jul 98, 15 May 00, 04 Feb 01, 22 May 03, 15 Feb 05
Copyright © 1995, 1996 Mensa International Limited, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2003 Sander Rubin