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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Jeff Jacoby

Augusta’s business

A free society values freedom of association - including men-only clubs

reuters/istockphoto/globe staff illustration

NOW THAT the 2012 Masters tournament is over, the hounds of political correctness have stopped baying at Augusta National Golf Club over its membership policies. The gender-grievance industry is moving on, looking for a new target to harangue.

Yet as the Augusta National brouhaha recedes, there are some things I wonder about.

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To begin with, why would a Republican candidate for president weigh in on an issue as insignificant as whether a private Georgia golf club offers membership to women?

No one was surprised that President Obama wanted the world to know he disapproves of Augusta National’s policy. This is a president, after all, who has made a point of rebuking everyone from Cambridge police to “millionaires and billionaires’’ to Supreme Court justices.

But why did Mitt Romney offer an opinion? “If I could run Augusta,’’ he told reporters in Pennsylvania, “which isn’t likely to happen, of course I’d have women into Augusta.’’ What he should have said is that it isn’t the job of the president - or a would-be president - to pass judgment on the lawful choices made by private individuals and organizations. When Romney is asked about the Mormon Church’s policies, he firmly declines to comment. “You’re going to have to go talk to the church and ask what they think about that,’’ he recently told an interviewer. He should have given a similar response when asked about Augusta National. It isn’t necessary to turn everything in American life into a political issue. How refreshing it would have been to hear the GOP front-runner say so.

Then there is the clanging double standard that treats Augusta National’s no-women membership policy as an egregious offense against common decency, while serenely overlooking - or even embracing - institutions that exclude men.

At a pre-tournament press conference last week, reporters hectored Augusta National’s chairman, Billy Payne, about the message his club’s rules supposedly convey. “Don’t you think it would send a wonderful message to young girls around the world,’’ wondered Lawrence Donegan of The Guardian, “if they knew that one day they could join this very famous golf club?’’ Karen Crouse of The New York Times demanded to know what Payne would tell his own granddaughters. “How would you explain leading a club that does not include female membership?’’

Unlike the reporters, Payne resisted the temptation to grandstand. Perhaps he figured it would be futile, amid so much PC sanctimony, to observe that the existence of a men’s golf club - like the existence of the Ladies Professional Golf Association - is not something that has to be “explained.’’ Still, the point cannot be made often enough: If we wish to live in a free and diverse society, freedom of association is indispensable.

Not all discrimination is invidious. Coed golf clubs - like coed gyms, coed colleges, coed business networks, and coed summer camps - are great for those who value them. And all-male or all-female venues are great for those who value them. Augusta National should no more be pressured to admit women as members than Wellesley College or the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Junior League should be pressured to admit men. In athletics, education, and recreation, such a multiplicity of options makes America richer, not poorer. Billy Payne’s granddaughters are far better off growing up in a country that has room for them all.

In the commotion over Augusta National’s membership policy, much was made of the fact that IBM, a sponsor of the Master’s Tournament, is now headed by a woman, Virginia Rometty. Previous IBM CEOs had been offered club membership, the critics said; how could Augusta National do any less for Rometty?

In reality, the elevation of a woman to the helm of IBM is just more evidence of how inconsequential this whole ginned-up flap really is. It used to be said that without access to elite social clubs like Augusta National, women could never penetrate the “old boys’ network’’ and its monopoly on power. Tell that to Ginni Rometty and the countless other women who wield influence in America. We live in an era when women are senators, governors, and Supreme Court justices; when they lead giant corporations and are awarded Nobel prizes; when they are space-shuttle commanders and Ivy League presidents. Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, American women today can succeed at virtually anything. Why would any serious person fret over what a golf club does?

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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