Mensa: 1973 Annual Report

This is the seventh and last annual report I shall make to the members of American Mensa, three as Treasurer and four as Chairman. Unlike previous reports, this one will be almost wholly personal and will comprehend decades rather than a single year.

Words & meanings

I am reluctant to make any report at all, for the word has a way of confounding meaning and concealing reality. In the minds of readers, words take on meanings never intended by their author; witness the endless discussion and exegesis that develops around any large body of literature. I would much rather show than tell, but for this ultimate report I feel I must try to make explicit what has so far been conveyed only by implication over the years. I want to write, for the first time, about my motivations, how they have influenced the policies of American Mensa, and in what directions I hope those who now will lead our society will take us. Much of this is history, unfamiliar to recent members, which should be known if we are all to learn from past errors.

Individual, society, & technology

My background is in technology, but I cannot remember when I first became concerned with the problem of the individual’s place in society. I do remember in college having to deal with an impersonal organization and a sense of alienation from the institution of which I was a temporary part. Such feelings have, in the 1960s, inspired disruptive and radical movements, but in the late 1940s one coped alone. The institutions of technology, which have been so much the pride of the country, were particularly a source of difficulty. Unlike the arts, which rest strongly on individual creativity and craftsmanship, the best products of technology are the fruit of the anonymous efforts of many intelligent and dedicated specialists. The technological superstar is all but unheard of, and strong ego drives are generally an impediment rather than a goad to productive work.

Yet, almost all of us have a strong need to have our individuality and uniqueness recognized by others. I suspect, for example, that much of the psychological impetus behind the recent minority and women’s movements stems from feelings of frustration at being treated as an edition of a stereotype rather than being known and understood as a complex human being. For some reason, people cannot deal with certain kinds of complexity and come to view each other through fuzzy lenses, filtering out much important detail. This idealization (and falsification) works not only against members of certain groups but also for certain individuals. Although lately there has been widespread cynicism about leadership, people of prominence often enjoy public idealization of their qualities. Thinking about such matters has had much to do with the style and direction of Mensa in the last half-dozen years.

Joining in 1961

I joined Mensa by correspondence with England in 1961, before there was any organization in the U.S. I had spent a memorable year in London some time previously and thought it would be fun to join a British club of bright people. The following year, 1962, Victor Serebriakoff visited the U.S. to try to put American Mensa on a semi-independent basis. I cannot convey the flavor of Victor’s talk to the small group of members that gathered in a New York hotel room, but I remember feeling good about his ideas of an open society of intellectual peers using their collective intelligence for the benefit of humanity. A few months later I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and in due course volunteered to become proctor for Mensa testing and became one of the founding members of the Washington, D.C., group.

The first AMC

Shortly after returning to New York City in June 1964, I was dismayed by the state of Mensa government. A small, self-selected group of members was running the national organization and another small group was noisily accusing the first group of high-handedness. The major issues of the moment were writing the International Constitution and American Bylaws and holding the first American election. I decided to test the in-group by offering my services to the Committee to work on the data-processing requirements of the society. [See Reform of the First AMC table (2004)]

In the November 1971 issue of The Mensa Journal I wrote about my findings. The in-group had, indeed, alienated the government of Mensa from the membership. Two examples should suffice for explanation. All AMC meetings were closed to observers on the flimsiest of excuses. A major concern of the Committee was forbidding to local groups the inclusion coinages of the name Mensa in the titles of their local publications. I did not find the out-group more palatable; theirs was a strategy of shrill provocation, wild charges, and personal attacks.

The Committee was actually composed of one strong-minded, ego-driven man [John Codella] and a number of well-intentioned but weak people who accepted his domination while rationalizing that they were mitigating its effects. In fact, the Committee was almost ineffective. I developed a strategy of political jujitsu using my adversary’s strength against him. I kept coming back to the Committee with reasonable proposals and getting increasingly extravagant and devious rebuffs until it became too palpably embarrassing for the Committee to refuse my offers. I have used this same strategy many times since, always successfully.

From the inside, the Committee looked no better than from the outside. My position as Data Processing Officer was that of a hostile member, but I kept my peace for a year. By mid-1966, however, I was ready to pursue a more active plan. To loosen the AMC’s grip on perpetuating their own control of the society, I worked within the Committee toward having the local secretaries attending the 1966 Annual Gathering organize the Election Committee for the 1967 elections. Once again, I used jujitsu. The Bylaws had been written in so self-serving a manner that it would have been publicly embarrassing to the Committee to assert their right to name the Election Committee without consulting the local secretaries. I did not know it at the time, but this arrangement was to become the key to my own acquisition of great influence within Mensa.

For the 1967 election, the in-group was putting forward a professionally well-qualified accountant for the position of national treasurer [Ed Boe]. This man made the mistake, however, of speaking in contemptuous terms about the membership (something to the effect that when we're elected we can run the society as we wish and don't have to listen to them) in a private meeting attended by the New York member of the Election Committee [Bob Sokal]. He may deserve high marks for candor, but his statement drove the Election Committee member to ask me to run for the treasurership. With some reluctance, I agreed.

At this turning point, I will interrupt the chronological narrative. Two ironies struck me about the composition of the original AMC. A majority of the Committee were not New Yorkers but people from elsewhere who had come to New York to practice their professions. New Yorkers have been characterized as arrogant, but I could find no correlation between origin and attitude. More striking, the overwhelming composition of the Committee was people whose backgrounds were in people-oriented fields, communications, and the liberal arts. Advertising and sales people, teachers, attorneys, psychologists, and like professions were amply represented. One would thought there would have been no lack of sensitivity to the needs and motivations of the members, yet I could find preciously little. A large number of members had joined Mensa because they were told that it was a round-table society, one that belonged to its members. But the techniques used to run the society came across as authoritarian and manipulative. The members had been told of the scientific interests of the society, but the prevailing notion of research was a kind of Madison Avenue mass-opinion survey. (In recent years, only a small percentage of the members have been involved in psychological research, but it has been of a rather more significant sort.) Ironically, the humanizing and liberalizing trend in Mensa has come largely from the minds of scientists and engineers like George Atherton [long-time editor of The Mensa Journal] (in England) and myself.

Intentions & techniques

Before returning to history, let me comment on intentions and techniques. From the beginning, I wanted to find out whether it were possible to create a society of peers. Mensa members are presumed to be equal in intelligence but are different in every other quality, yet the society’s ideology (like that of the Declaration of Independence) appeals to a broad notion of equality. Under what conditions can such an ideology be realized? For many years I have spoken privately of the experiment I have been trying to perform with Mensa. The hypothesis was that certain techniques would make an egalitarian society possible. The experiment has, perforce, been uncontrolled, but now that I bring it to a close, I am satisfied that I have been on the right track.

I have consciously rejected two techniques of government, the charismatic and the legalistic. Charismatic leadership induces the consent of the governed through emotional appeal. It is virtually self-evident that such a source of consent is inconsistent with both the exercise of intelligence and the presumption of equality. As a practical matter, this kind of government stirs the resentment and opposition of many and limits the scope of the society to the vision, or lack of it, of its leader. Egoless leadership is one element of the required technique.

We Americans seem to have a mistaken belief in the efficacy of law. Our intentions are sound enough. Publish the rules for all to follow, and all will have an equal chance. It should be evident, however, that laws are often written with partiality and administered unevenly. Law has frequently been used as a weapon with which to beat an adversary rather than as a way of achieving justice. Law is necessary and good law is important, but even bad law can be made to serve good people and bad people can corrupt the best of laws. I concluded that reliance on the law had little relevance for my experiment.

Example & Function
The techniques I chose seem weak but are actually incredibly strong, government by example and government by function. The force of example is positive but can best be illustrated by a negative case. Congress last raised its own salaries by 40% in a year when government policy was to limit industrial raises to 6%. Whatever legitimate justification the new congressional salaries may have had, the thing was certainly a signal for lack of restraint by any group that could strike for a bigger slice of the pie. Anyway, all this is ideological explanation; what actually happened?


Real reforms require real changes, not new laws and more words. AMC was weak for two reasons. Intermensa [the British-based corporation that officially embodies international Mensa] controlled the purse at the source, upon receipt of the members’ dues, and doled out through its American agent a portion of the receipts to AMC. In effect, AMC was at the mercy of the American agent of IGC [International General Committee - the predecessor of the International Board of Directors - also based in London, as was natural since Mensa then was still tied to its origins] for any power to act on behalf of the American members. Secondly, AMC had little practical relationship to its own local groups. The principal publication was the Mensa Journal, edited in Britain, and the AMC published only an Activities Bulletin attempting to cover nationwide material in a single monthly mailing. A large amount of money was spent sending the Journal and Bulletin by first-class mail which also limited the practical size of these publications. A lot needed to be done.

  1. Early in 1967 I called together a group of members with differing Mensa-political views in my living room with the aim of presenting a bill of grievances to the IGC. I took advantage of the instability of both American and International elections to be held that year. By the summer of 1967, with a new AMC in office, Stuart Friedman and I were able to go to London to negotiate and to return with a rather crudely-drafted but quite useful agreement as to future relations between IGC and AMC. This agreement gave substantial autonomy to American Mensa, set the pattern for other self-sufficient national groups, and forced IGC to reconsider its own functions.
  2. I pressed to completion an old plan to qualify our monthly publication for second-class mailing to obtain funds for my next project.
  3. I developed the local-group newsletter subsidy in substantially the same form as it is now administered.
  4. As treasurer, I began to work through attorneys and accountants to settle Mensa’s tax status with the Internal Revenue Service. When, after a year, not much had been accomplished, I took personal control of the work, prepared the necessary documents and saw it through to the final determination.
  5. I began full publication of our annual financial reports in the Bulletin as a step to establish credibility for the AMC.
  6. I laid the first plans for separating the functions of Mensa as a membership society from those related to education, science, and charity. The last step in this work, the granting of tax exemption to the Mensa Education and Research Foundation [MERF], is being pursued by Marty Miller of Philadelphia and is expected to be completed this year [1973].

Nine Functions

With the replacement of the original AMC, less tangible but nonetheless important reforms were also possible. Committee meetings were opened to members, whose views were welcomed. We started asking: Is there a way to make this suggestion work? instead of: why won’t this suggestion work?

With my election to the chairmanship in 1969, I became responsible for more things but fewer projects. In June 1969 we announced a policy of decentralization of Mensa. So far, this policy has led to some changes in the Bylaws and some additional roles for the regional vice chairmen [RVCs], but later this year [1973] we will be ready to try a substantive step when the RVCs become responsible for the allocation of a specific amount of funds for the benefit of the members in their regions.

We established the post of Services Officer to make explicit the obligation of AMC to provide services to Mensa members. In May 1970, we clarified the nature of Mensa government by publishing a list of nine functionsAMC performs, none of them impinging on the freedom of the members to make what they will of the society. We have been able to show the society’s gratitude to the handful of loyal employees by establishing an insurance and pension fund several years ago. During the past year, through the generous aid of member Arthur Pogran, a professional personnel administrator, we were able to give our employees the security of a negotiated set of wage and salary rates established according to standard practices.

We have twice renegotiated our agreement with IGC, most recently last summer jointly with the British Mensa treasurer. Based upon a separation of functions and respect for each others roles, our relationship with IGC continues good. We recognize that Mensa is fundamentally an international society and that we have an obligation to support its international activities through both the allocation of funds and the encouragement of individuals who contribute their efforts to international functions. There will be an IGC election later this year, and I expect to give my support to that panel which most clearly understands the functional role of IGC, not necessarily the one that makes the most attractive political appeal.

Some failures

We have had some non-successes and some failures. Oddly enough, the data processing with which I had started has languished. Our membership record maintenance system is finally in reasonably good shape, but it has been far more costly than it should have been. In this area, it has sometimes been necessary to make commitments simply to stay in business each month. I believe that by the end of the current renewal period we will finally be in a position to consider major cost-reduction steps.

Our most notable failure was our attempt last year [1972] to set up a Mensa book club with the cooperation of the Book Find Club division of Time, Inc. Our intentions were good. We had hoped to develop a new channel of communication among members by establishing a broad panel of member- reviewers. Although we said from the outset we would abide by the impartial judgment of the marketplace, we got a lot of nasty mail accusing us of nefarious ideological bias. I’ve forgotten all the nasty letters but still remember with pleasure the critical letter from a gentleman from New Hampshire. It was brief and simply said, I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I am afraid you have misjudged the wishes of the members. He was, of course, right both in fact and in the way he put it.

An engineering metaphor

In electrical engineering there is a specialty which deals with the control of complex systems. The rigorous mathematical theory is not applicable to human societies, but I believe that certain insights derived from engineering are germane. Certain configurations of systems with large inertial elements become unstable when driven with too much applied force. I have tried to understand the natural rates of the movements within our society and drive it with the right amount of pressure to produce results without instability. Systems that have too many internal interconnections are both hard to understand and hard to control as hidden interactions take place. I have tried to eliminate redundant connections by emphasis on specific functions, division of roles, and a central goal of serving the members. Above all, the behavior of the governor is constrained by the nature of the system it is governing.


This report has been very personal, but I do not want to leave the impression that I have been solely responsible for the changes that have been made. If I mention certain names, I do not mean to slight others, but there have been a few people who have been particularly helpful to me. Margot Seitelman and her assistants, Rita Levine and Sylvia Liss, have relieved me of many burdens and have shown a concern and a willingness that far exceed the literal requirements of their jobs. Stuart Friedman took the entire responsibility for organizing the local group structure and [for] vastly improving the communication among the local groups with AMC. Marvin Garbis, Esq., tendered valuable legal services in the final stages of procuring our tax determination. Terry Kuch rendered a variety of contributions including the editorship of InterLoc and many initiatives in improving the internal operation of AMC. Art Gardner, volunteering his professional qualifications, put the society’s financial house in solid shape.

Freedom, coöperation & government

For many years, I have seen as a major weakness in American society the idealization of unrestrained individual freedom. There is no good that, taken to excess, is not also evil. The trouble starts at the top, not the bottom. When the fortunate few use their power to pre-empt an ever greater share of the common wealth, their example does not go unattended. When I am asked to justify Mensa, I usually speak of the value of its fellowship, the good work done with prisoners, its concern with gifted children, and other well-known aspects of the society. Privately, however, because I know to say it would sound presumptuous, I think that if we can really learn to govern ourselves in a humane and decent way we will make a specially valuable contribution by our example.

I have a warm feeling of having done much, but there is more that remains to be done, and it is time to let others carry on the work. I will enjoy watching you build further. It is a good time to retire.

Sander Rubin

To reach me press here.

Transcribed from The Mensa Bulletinof May, 1973. Headings added May 1995. Minor additions appear in brackets.
Corrected typos: 25 Mar 99

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