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Alternative Culture Articles

June 17, 2001

San Francisco Bohemian Club:
Power, Prestige and Globalism

By Peter Phillips

For much of the world, July 14th is celebrated as the end of a flagrantly out of touch French monarchy; the date in 1789 when the people of Paris rose up and marched on the Bastille, a state prison that symbolized the absolutism and arbitrariness of the Ancient Regime.

July 14th 2001 is, ironically, also the first day of summer camp for the world's business and political aristocracy and their invited guests. Between 2,000 to 3,000 men will gather at Bohemian Grove, 70 miles north of San Francisco in California's Sonoma County-to sit around the campfire and chew the fat-off-the-record-with ex-presidents, corporate leaders and global financiers.

One might imagine modern-day aristocrats like Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld amid a circle of friends sipping cognac and discussing how the "unqualified" masses cannot be trusted to carry out policy, and how elites must set values that can be translated into "standards of authority."

Private men's clubs, like the San Francisco Bohemian Club, have historically represented institutionalized race, gender and class inequality. English gentlemen's clubs emerged during Great Britain's empire building period as an exclusive place free of troublesome women, under-classes, and non-whites. Men's clubs were the place where English elites could co-mingle in homogeneous harmony. Copied in the United States, elite private men's clubs served the same self-celebration purposes as their English counterparts. As metropolitan areas emerged, upper-crust white males created new clubs throughout the Americas. These private
men's clubs continued the European traditions of elitism, race superiority and gender exclusion.

The San Francisco Bohemian Club was formed in 1872 as a gathering place for newspaper reporters and men of the arts and literature. By the 1880s local businessmen joined the Club in large numbers, quickly making business elites the dominant group. More than 2,500 men are members today. Most are from California, while several hundred originate from some 35 states and a dozen foreign countries. About one-fifth of the members are either directors of one or more of the Fortune 1000 companies, corporate CEOs, top governmental officials (current and former) and/or members of important policy councils or major foundations. The remaining members are mostly regional business/legal elites with a small mix of academics, military officers, artists, or medical doctors.

With a historically all white membership, the Bohemian Club became sensitive to civil rights issues in the 1960s and gradually admitted a few men of color. Today they remain 99% white. The Club does continue to maintain its exclusive gender practices. Other then allowing women to work in food service, the shooting range and the parking lot at the Grove-which was forced on them by the California Supreme Court-they have remained defiantly a male-only organization. Class discrimination continues as well. New Club applicants must be sponsored by two existing members before being considered for admittance.

By the early 1880s, Bohemian Club members began conducting summer camping trips to the Sonoma County redwoods. The summer encampments proved so popular that the Club began purchasing land along the Russian River in 1899. By the 1960s the Bohemian Club owned 2,712 acres, including a 1,500-year-old grove of redwoods, adjacent to the small town of Monte Rio.

The Bohemian Grove summer encampments have become one of the most famous private men's retreats in the world. Club members and several hundred world-class guests gather annually in the last weeks of July to recreate what has been called "the greatest men's party on earth." Spanning three weekends, the outdoor event includes lectures, entertainment, rituals, plays, theater, friendship re-affirmations, lots of hosted camp parties, political discussions, sideline business meetings and huge amounts of food and alcohol.

Bohemian Grove offers daily lectures known as "lakeside chats." The Under-Secretary of the Navy may give an off-the-record speech on military budget issues, or the President of Mexico may address global free trade.

Whatever the topic, those present emerge with a sense of insider awareness of high-level policy issues and political situations which are often yet-to-be, or perhaps never-to-be, publicly articulated.

One such chat in 1994, given by a University of California political science professor, warned of the dangers of multi-culturalism, Afro-centrism, and the loss of family boundaries. He declared that "elites based on merit and skill are important to society. Any elite that fails to define itself will fail to survive. We need boundaries and values set and clear." He went on to conclude that we cannot allow the "unqualified" masses to carry out policy, and elites must set values that can be translated into "standards of authority."

Foremost at the Bohemian Grove is an atmosphere of social interaction and networking. You can sit around a campfire with directors of PG&E, or Bank of America. You can shoot skeet with the former secretaries of state and defense, or you can enjoy a sing-along with a Council of Foreign Relations director or a Business Roundtable executive. All of this makes for ample time to develop personal long-lasting connections with powerful influential men.

On the surface, the Bohemian Grove is a private place where global and regional elites meet for fun and enjoyment. Behind the scene, however, it serves a very important function similar to 18th century French Monarchy scheming or the 19th century empire building of the British. The Bohemian Grove is an American version of race, gender and class elitism. It is the human process of building insider ties, consensual understandings, and lasting connections in the service of class solidarity. Ties reinforced at the Grove manifest themselves in global trade meetings, party politics, campaign financing, and top-down democracy. In a sense, they live in a self-made Bastille surrounded by power, prestige and privilege, and united in their fear of grassroots democracy.
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Peter Phillips is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and Director of Project Censored. He wrote his dissertation on the Bohemian Club in 1994.

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