Private Clubs and the Sour Pleasures of Resentment

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by Theodore Dalrymple

Some years ago, I sat next to a pleasant Norwegian lady who had just moved to London. Her father had been against the move.

“How,” he had asked her, “can you bear to live in a fascist country in which they still permit men-only clubs?”

“And how,” I replied, “can your father bear to live in a fascist country in which men are not allowed to belong to men-only clubs?”

Unlike many modern people, the Norwegian lady saw the point: that a society in which people are not permitted to form voluntary associations whose membership they choose must be a highly dictatorial one.

But in England, a group of prominent women, including Cherie Blair, the wife of the former Prime Minister, has signed a petition to “force” the Garrick Club to admit women as members, which it has so far refused to do.

The Club, which is nearly two centuries old, is named after David Garrick, the famous eighteenth-century actor, and has long had theatrical and literary associations. Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope were members, for example.

The petition contains the following words: “We believe that membership of the Garrick cannot be consistent with a commitment to equality and diversity.”

This suggests to me that the women, though prominent lawyers, are not very intelligent, or at least not very careful with their words: for by definition a club is committed to inequality and, if not quite to uniformity, at least to exclusivity.

A club to which everybody could be admitted would not be a club at all, but more like a voters’ roll, a street meeting or a mass demonstration.

The whole point of a club is to bring about an association of people who enjoy each other’s company and share some kind of interest: that is to say, to exclude the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. One might as well complain that a philatelists’ or a bibliophiles’ club is not open to bikers.

It is perfectly obvious that the prominent women who have signed the petition do not propose, if they gain entry, to allow their nannies or cleaning ladies to join with them. They are not suggesting that the Garrick open its doors to the hoi polloi, to dustmen, political fanatics, ex-prisoners, wife-beaters, drug addicts, boxers or the mentally handicapped, to mention only a handful of the potential categories of the membership of a truly inclusive institution.

They are complaining only that they are not admitted, and it is obvious that their petition breathes resentment. How can any club not want them as members?

The women are all prominent, probably belonging to the top 0.1 per cent of the population as far as income and influence is concerned. This illustrates to perfection the fact that resentment is an emotion that can survive any privilege, any income, any success, any personal power or influence.

It is like a pain that cannot be assuaged by any analgesic; it is a stone in the shoe that cannot be ignored.

That is why, perhaps, so many successful people actively try to destroy the means by which they made their ascent, for resentment lies behind much of the urge to destroy what exists.

Resentment is one of the few emotions that can, and often does, last a lifetime. Few of us have never felt it. In many cases it may well be justified: indeed, it would be surprising if someone could go through life without ever having suffered any injustice whatever that might conceivably justify resentment. Very few people, I surmise, have never felt resentment.

The trouble with it, however, is that it is as destructive as it can be long-lasting. It can be kept going at will, fondly incubated forever. It is destructive either of contentment and happiness, or of the willingness to do something to improve our situation.

It is not without its sour satisfactions, which is why it can last so long. At a lower level of ability than the 300 petitioners obviously have, whatever is resented provides a perfect explanation of personal failure.

Insofar as it provides such an explanation in advance of any possible effort, it actually hinders the making of effort in the first place. With carefully nourished resentment, a man can go through his life blaming someone or something else for his failures.

This enables him to be a failure and to feel morally superior to the world at the same time. If only the world had been just, what might he not have done! But it isn’t just, so he is a failure.

This cannot apply to the 300 petitioners, however, all of whom have been successful by most people’s standards. And yet they are still resentful. Why, and what psychological benefit does their resentment bring them?

If they were not resentful, they would have to face up to the fact that, whatever their own merits and their own contribution to their success (which must have been great), they have been fortunate in their lives.

The appropriate response to this would be gratitude that they have lived in such a time and place that their efforts have been duly rewarded.

But gratitude for one’s good fortune, which is often confused with complacency, is not a fashionable emotion. There are so many unfortunate people in the world that it somehow seems wrong, unfeeling or callous to be both fortunate and to acknowledge it.

Therefore, one must invent reasons to be resentful, thereby joining the unfortunate, the downtrodden and the oppressed. In that way, one can enjoy both the sweet fruits of success and the sour fruits of resentment—the best of both worlds, in fact.

The petitioners’ resentment blinds them to the obvious corollary of their complaint: women’s only clubs or associations could not exist, at least if any men wanted to join them.

According to their principle, private voluntary associations ought to be forced to accept as members anyone who felt himself to be unjustly excluded.

A Christian or Moslem club or association could not admit only Christians or Moslems, for to do so would be to discriminate on religious grounds.

A law to prevent discrimination in private associations would mean that the very idea of private associations would have no application, and a certain kind of illiberal liberalism would have achieved the point of dictatorship.

I have, however, thought of a swift remedy for the petitioners’ resentment: a two-week sojourn in Afghanistan.

First published in the Epoch Times.

4 Responses

  1. I know a few people who would blithely deny that equation of male-only and female-only on the grounds that males are never and never feel unsafe, whereas women need female-only spaces in order to be safe and be themselves, as well as that the men use their male-only spaces to conduct business and this excludes women from power, whereas when the women do the same they are building their power and the exclusion of men doesn’t matter because men already have all the power.

    Now, this framework is pretty hard to argue with if you are insane and/or accept all its premises. OTOH it seems stuck in the 1960s, seems to assume women are all shrinking violets who feel unsafe yet at the same time are all powerful and could totally handle the [assumed] power hot house of a men’s club, and even assume that power arrangements are cooked up in such clubs to the exclusion of many other arenas to which women have access and where they can be identified and influenced just as well.

    I wonder what powerful women felt when they realized all they could do in these places was drink, no longer even smoke, or play rqcquetball, or discuss football, or cars, or golf…

  2. This was an interesting piece. While I am all in favor of clubs that are the exclusive domain of women or men, I believe Mr. Dalrymple is at least partly mistaken in his argument that clubs, when selecting their membership, discriminate solely based on a shared interest, background, or level of achievement. I believe that among some clubs, not least those for the more eminent members of society, this hasn’t always been the case. Having said this, I agree with Mr. Dalrymple that people should be free to associate with whomever they choose and that the preferred solution is not to compel the offending group to admit you, but rather to form your own. As the old saying goes, if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em. In fact, I happen to remember reading an old newspaper column on this topic, which I share here for Mr. Dalrymple’s and others’ reading pleasure:

  3. ‘A group of men sat down one evening a couple of years ago for a discussion. They covered many weighty subjects: whose turn it was to buy, whether the house should pop for a round, whether they should call their wives.

    Finally, by chance, the subject of private clubs came up. It developed that none of the men at the gathering belonged to any private clubs.

    “I was in the NCO club in the Army,” said a meter reader, “but it wasn’t worth staying in for.”

    “I’d like to join a private club,” said a young lawyer, “but I won’t see my way clear until I get a car fast enough to catch an ambulance.”

    “Frankly,” said a liberal journalist, “I wouldn’t join one because they discriminate.”

    “Not all of them,” said a conservative policeman. “Some of them let in liberals like you, and that’s enough to keep me out.”

    A black city employee said he tried to join a couple of clubs, but when he walked in and asked for a membership application he found himself filling out a form for a job in the kitchen.

    Someone raised the question: “Who needs them? What do you get out of them?”

    It was suggested that they serve a useful purpose by making members feel like insiders and the non-members feel like outsiders.

    “So does the Bridewell,” said the policeman.

    “Clubs represent status and influence and acceptance,” said the lawyer, “and don’t we all want that?”

    There was a moment of silence for thought and for recalling whose round it was. Someone finally said, “Why don’t we form one? Then we’ll be the insiders and everybody else will be the outsiders.”

    It was not a simple thing to do. The lawyer said he would obtain a not-for-profit charter from the state.

    “And my office is on LaSalle Street and it has a leather sofa. A club needs a leather sofa. It can be the headquarters. The club can be my client. I’ve always wanted a client.”

    A name was selected. One man liked to fish for perch in the lake. Another kept a gun at home in hopes of slaying a burglar. This became:

    “The LaSalle Street Rod & Gun Club.”

    Everybody chipped in a few dollars and some impressive stationery, with a club crest on top, was ordered. Every member paid for his own emblem to be sewn on a sport coat.

    Another meeting was held and officers and board members were elected. As it turned out, everybody was an officer or a board member.

    Then came the most important part. “I open this meeting,” said the president, “for membership recommendations.”

    “Mrs. President,” said the meter-reader, “I submit the governor of Illinois for membership.”

    “Blackball,” someone shouted.

    The rule — drafted on the spot — held that one blackball was sufficient for rejection.

    “Mrs. President,” said the cop, “I submit all these people.”

    “Which people?”

    “Every name on the society page of this newspaper.”

    “Blackball.”

    “And I submit Judge ––––––––––––.”

    “Blackball.”

    Before the meeting ended, most of the prominent people in Chicago were submitted. All were blackballed. One man — the bartender — was accepted after he bought a round.

    During the following weeks, letters were sent out to all of the rejects. The letters stated simply and bluntly: “Dear Mr. –––––––––––, Your name was submitted for membership in the LaSalle Street Rod & Gun Club. You were blackballed. This is not final, however, since the application committee will meet again in one year.”

    The reaction was subtle, of course, since one doesn’t go yapping it around that one has been rejected somewhere.

    But calls came into the club’s headquarters. They were answered by the club’s president, who was also the lawyer’s secretary. She was elected president because she’d type the blackball letters free.

    A prominent industrialist had an aide make discreet inquiry and was told only members could obtain information.

    A judge hinted that he felt there were racial or religious restrictions, but he was assured that most races and religions were represented. This was true, as the only nationality not represented in the club was the Rich.

    A political figure, angry at being rejected, asked whether the club did any civic work. He was satisfied when told that a yearly scholarship was given to a needy person.

    At the next meeting, in order to provide this statement with substance, a policeman member was awarded a week’s transportation expenses on the bus to his night school law courses.

    Recently the club achieved its major social coup — the reason this story is now being told.

    “I know a guy,” said a member at a meeting, “who got a promotion in his job and he is going into “Who’s Who in America.”

    “So?” someone asked.

    “So, he doesn’t belong to any clubs. He wants to list a club. Let’s vote him in.”

    The man was accepted and bought a round.

    Somewhere in the new issue of “Who’s Who in America” is this man’s name. And after the name is this information:

    “Clubs: LaSalle Street Rod & Gun.”’

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