The episode identifies itself in its opening moments as a spoof on The Da Vinci Code. During the episode, a couple of groups seek the fabled Jewel of St. Teresa of Avila, which is prophesied to lead to an era of peace.
In an encounter at the foot of the Springfield sign atop Springfield Hill (reminiscent of the climax of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest), sleuthy Lisa—accompanied by Principal Skinner and Comic Book Guy as ‘the Brethren of the Quest’—are confronted by Mr. Burns. Burns explains that a group of high-ranking Freemasons have been searching for the Jewel of St. Teresa for years. In fact, he says, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and King George III conducted the American Revolutionary War just to cover up their entirely amicable association, as they searched for the Jewel. Burns goes on to claim: “I joined the Freemasons before it was trendy. That’s my eyeball on the dollar bill. That’s also my pyramid.” (See image above.)
It is unwise to read too much into a Simpsons episode: the writers simply do things because they’re funny. But it is also unwise to just pass over details in The Simpsons as if they were totally unimportant, either: the writers are famous for working cultural references into their episodes, sometimes quite subtly; if nothing else, a Simpsons episode is an expression, intentional or not, of the cultural Zeitgeist. What, if anything, does “Gone Maggie Gone” have to say about the way that Freemasonry is perceived by the general public? How is this different from the depiction of Freemasonry in its guise as ‘the Stonecutters’ in “Homer the Great”?
The Image of Freemasonry in The Simpsons
I found it interesting that, in “Gone Maggie Gone,” the writers saw no need to explain who the Freemasons are: the writers just made the reference, with the assumption that the audience would know who ‘Freemasons’ are, in the same way that they expected the audience to know who Ed Begley, Jr. is (Begley also showing up briefly in the episode). At least for the Simpsons writers, the Masons are sufficiently well-known to need no introduction.
It was nice to hear Burns refer to joining the Freemasons as now being “trendy.” I wish I had more hard data on this issue, but the notion that Freemasonry is becoming popular again certainly fits with my anecdotal experience, as I see a substantial number of men in their twenties and thirties entering the Fraternity through my mother Lodge in Florida over the last couple of years, and the Lodges and affiliated organizations that I have been visiting in New York City over the last few months.
Of course, having Burns as a Mason does lend at least a slightly sinister cast to Masonry. I was happier when Grandpa Simpson casually identified himself as a Mason during “Homer the Great.”
It is interesting to see how the two Simpsons episodes reflect two different caricatures of Freemasonry. The Stonecutters of “Homer the Great” are heirs to a noble tradition that they have sold out for drunken entertainment. As their Chapter leader, Number One (voiced by Patrick Stewart) tells Homer immediately after his humiliating initiation: “You have joined the sacred order of the Stonecutters, who since ancient times have split the rocks of ignorance that obscured the light of knowledge and truth. Now let’s all get drunk and play ping-pong!” When the Chapter brothers discover that Homer’s birthmark identifies himself as the prophesied ‘Chosen One’ of the Stonecutters, they elevate him to a high rank of leadership—but when Homer tries to lead them into a variety of service projects, the entire membership of the Fraternity defects to form another self-centered fraternal group: the No Homers Club.
In “Gone Maggie Gone,” the Freemasons are shown in the light of the currently popular stereotype, as devoted to the pursuit of secrets and mysteries. Masonry, in this view, is the possession of men like Burns, who hold power, but not a decent character. (At one point, Burns is talked into giving Lisa and others a ride on the skids of his helicopter. During the flight, Burns’ lackey Smithers asks Burns if it feels good to help people. Burns’ response: “No. It feels … weird.”)
What Masons Can Learn From The Simpsons
Of course it is the case that the image of Freemasonry in these episodes is shot through with inaccuracies. (Hey, lighten up, fellas: it’s a cartoon, not a documentary on Discovery Channel or The History Channel.) However, rather than catalog these inaccuracies, it might be worthwhile to consider what these episodes have to say that might have some relevance. What might Freemasons have to learn from these caricatures? Several things come to mind.
First, Freemasonry would do well to look to its noble traditions, and emphasize the unselfish service to others that is a core value of the Fraternity. I have been fortunate to see several lodges and affiliated Masonic organizations of my acquaintance engaged in such service, often in secrecy. I think that this is closer to the norm than The Simpsons would lead one to believe—but one cannot emphasize enough the need for us to remember that our fraternity is supposed to be about something, and service to others is a central part of that something.
Second, we would do well to remember that, in point of fact, part of the mission of Freemasonry indeed is, as Number One put it, to “split the rocks of ignorance that obscured the light of knowledge and truth.” Real Freemasonry uses different language and symbols, but the mission of the Masonic Fraternity is actually rather well expressed in the language of the cartoon episode.
Masons would do well to remember two things about our fraternity: (a) Masonry is supposed to change the individual Mason, to help him on a journey to knowledge and truth that will require serious inner growth; and, (b) Masonry is supposed to help the individual Mason to affect society for the better, dispelling ignorance with knowledge and truth. Not for nothing did the Masons of an earlier era establish public education in different nations. Not for nothing did Grand Lodge Masonry emerge during an era that is now known as the Enlightenment. No, Masons do not possess the secrets of the Pharoahs—but they are supposed to possess a degree of personal enlightenment that is more valuable than any external secret. What are we doing, as individual Masons, as particular Lodges, and as Grand Lodges and affiliated organizations, to further that goal?
Third, we do need to correct the notion that Freemasonry is about gaining unfair personal privilege and power. I have already mentioned the implication of having Mr. Burns as the example of Freemasonry in “Gone Maggie Gone.” In “Homer the Great,” the power trip is even worse, with Homer Simpson (after his initiation as a Stonecutter) obtaining preferential treatment in everything from getting his plumbing fixed to receiving a massage chair at work. In my experience, lodges do emphasize that a desire for preferential treatment is an unworthy motive for entering the Fraternity; we need to emphasize this even more, and counter this image in the mind of the public, as well.
The Buddhists say that ‘one can learn from a stone.’ I hope that we as Freemasons can learn from a cartoon show.
“Homer the Great” episode: episode code 2F09; season 6, episode 12, first broadcast January 8, 1995. Written by John Schwarzwelder. Available online at http://wtso.net/movie/402-612%20Homer%20the%20Great.html
“Gone Maggie Gone” episode: episode code LABF04; season 20, episode 13, first broadcast March 15, 2009. Written by Billy Kimball and Ian Maxtone-Graham. Available online at http://wtso.net/movie/448-2013_Gone_Maggie_Gone.html