Early this September, citizens from Tuscaloosa, Alabama filed a case of voter fraud in the City Board of Education election. A young law school graduate who had never been to a school board meeting before won Tuscaloosa’s District 4, predominantly with support from University of Alabama students. Local residents claim a secret society called the Machine publicized the election on campus and brought in ineligible voters. The Machine consists of a small group of Alabama students involved in Greek life, yet locals and alumni express concern that the group may soon spread its influence even further and push a privileged white agenda. The Machine is one of dozens of secret societies across college campuses that influence various aspects of college life. More importantly, the Machine is miniature compared to the large-scale undercover operations across the world.
Humans have an obsession with exclusion; hence our love for secret societies. From the clubs we created as children with covert handshakes to large-scale international online hacking organizations, these societies are everywhere. Clandestine clubs are abundant, and we have long believed in their hegemonic power. With groups like Anonymous and the Illuminati, societies like Skull and Bones or The Machine, and undercover government groups, it seems as if there is at least one secret society in all spheres of today’s world. These covert groups and traditions even influence life here at Tufts.
Secret societies date back as far as human history does. In ancient Greece, the mysterious Pythagoreans came together over mathematics and cosmology. The ancient Romans also had religious mystery cults—to this day historians do not know the details of the rituals or beliefs and are left guessing at the meanings of the frescos left behind.
The history of the Middle Ages is just as rife with secret societies. The Freemasons were a secretive group of stonemasons and other craftsmen who shared information about their trade. The group used secret handshakes to identify members and met in private, member-only lodges. The Freemasons became suspected of conspiracy and violence and were eventually condemned by the Catholic Church in 1738 due to fear that they would soon gain control of all the European governments. The Heaven and Earth Society, or Tiandihui, of China was a secret society rumored to be a violent and revolutionary force similarly on the very brink of complete authority. The Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Ordo Templis Orientis, Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, and many others were all secret orders dreaded for their supposed incredible power and influence over their time.
According to various sources on Internet forums and beyond, these ancient secret societies still have memberships today and have covert influence over every aspect of modern life. The Illuminati are cited as the masterminds behind deaths of John F. Kennedy and Tupac and are the supposed reason Barack Obama and Kanye West rose to fame. The Illuminati were founded during the European Enlightenment by a group of radical free thinkers. They grew in number and were largely outlawed in the late 1700s across Europe. Yet many people today believe that the group has members such as Barack Obama, Kanye, the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II, Jay Z, Bob Dylan, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Jim Carrey, and Willow Smith. Conspiracy theorists argue the group is trying to establish a “New World Order” and that many of today’s pop stars and politicians derive their success from ties to the Illuminati.
What is different about today’s Illuminati from the renaissance-era group is that they are thought to have expanded their influence from Europe to the whole world. With the power of the Internet and the ability of immense programs such as the NSA’s surveillance program to remain undercover, it does not seem too improbable. It is interesting to note that both Tea Party fanatics and young, urban African-Americans are in the demographic that believe in the Illuminati’s inevitable world domination. Typically these demographics oppose each other in all other sectors; it seems the Illuminati are not merely a fringe conspiracy.
Most interesting are the undercover organizations that demonstrate real and irrefutable power. Anonymous is a modern secret society with just as much conspiracy theory clout as those from the Middle Ages. Anonymous is an informal collection of internationally-based hackers who have met in the depths of the Internet on forums such 4chan and Reddit. The group is known for attacking certain organizations they disagree with, though sometimes the group seems to hack a site as a show of power. What they’ve been able to do so far is impressive: they’ve hacked the websites of Sony’s PlayStation network, Fox television, PayPal, and the C.I.A. Last year, Anonymous began attacking Israeli government and business websites, forcing the sites offline, posting usernames and passwords publicly, and deleting some online information. They slowed the working of many important internet sites and tossed thousands of unsuspecting civilians’ usernames and passwords online to the public. No members of Anonymous have been identified, and thus far the hacking targets and plans of the group have largely been kept secret. At present, the group has no unified leader. The presence and power of Anonymous makes theories about the Illuminati seem only more reasonable.
Today’s pop culture is similarly obsessed with secret societies and their current or potential power. Popular books such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight unveil secret societies that have supposedly existed for decades. Movies such as Inglorious Basterds, The Avengers, National Treasure, and the Bourne movies reveal furtive government workings. T.V. shows such as Covert Affairs, Castle, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Bones, and Game of Thrones have plotlines that revolve around these concealed organizations.
In today’s world, where it is easier to make something public than it is to keep something private, the value of a secret has skyrocketed. The ability to remain concealed gives undercover organizations the illusion of more power than those that are out in the open and equates to worries of worldwide hegemony. But rumors of the Illuminati have been around for thousands of years, and thus far we have avoided succumbing to the “New World Order.”
Secret societies of a different type play a large part in college life. Every group on campus has secret rituals. Fraternities and sororities have secret handshakes and make pledges swear to keep the pledge process private. Every club or sports team has undisclosed initiation rituals and traditions that are hidden from newcomers or the whole populace at large. One could even argue that the most furtive traditions of these groups are the most coveted.
Tufts even had its own secret societies in its history. The Mathetician Society, which discussed philosophical topics of the day, dates back to Tufts’ beginnings. However, almost immediately the group split and the Elm Tree Society was formed. These two societies existed before fraternities came to Tufts and then died out with the advent of fraternities. The PT Barnum society was another undercover group of students who used to pull pranks around campus and sign their misdeeds. But they too seemed to have died out. In the 1950s there was a resurgence of the Mathetician Society, and it flourished for 10 years before dying out again. But who’s to say it doesn’t still exist undercover, covertly influencing the current Tufts experience?
We certainly think societies like the Matheticians or the Illuminati or the Machine maintain a stronghold on our lives. They rig our elections, choose our favorite musicians for us, and threaten those who rise to power without them. Yet perhaps the greatest source of their power is our belief in them. The fact that we acknowledge their existence legitimizes these clandestine organizations. Their greatest strength may be our interest in them and our fascination with their ability to stay in the shadows. Our worries about the existence of secret societies may be what keeps them alive.