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Monday, February 24, 2014

"We were, for the winter term, 'barbs' -that is, 'barbarians,' since 'all who are not Greeks are barbarians.'"

Well, Caitlin Flanagan's good but odd anti-fraternity piece starts with butt bombs, and I am left wondering (somewhat against my will), what happened to the butt bomber? Did his endeavor cause lasting injury of some sort? But we will never know, because Flanagan quickly moves on to Serious Things - the history of frats, their legal organization and clout, and then what I think is the real source of her outrage, the harm they inflict on women. I'm not sure about this, because there do seem to be points where she worries about the fate of the boys, but her tone in those sections remains even, whereas the final discussion of Wesleyan's handling of its fraternity rape cases is a kind of crescendo of anger. She is also oddly silent on the question of sororities, which may simply be because they're less physically dangerous and people aren't serially falling out of their windows, but also I suspect because whatever harms they may cause their members, the main point is that they don't perpetrate sexual violence.

Being an unsociable dweeb myself, I don't have too much native sympathy for Greek organizations, so it's easy enough for me to accept Flanagan's point that fraternities should be reined in by universities. There is a darkly comic irony in this imperative for places like Wesleyan, which are so progressive in their rhetoric and yet so dependent on the support of a few fraternity alumni that they can't bring themselves to cut ties with the frats that flout all their progressive commitments. Well, too bad for Wesleyan. What I was more interested in, however, was Flanagan's history of fraternities, which suggests that far from some kind of arch-conservative tradition, contemporary Greek life is actually some kind of perfect storm of all the worst elements of 1960s political radicalism fused with '70s/'80s individualist consumerism (something very like David Brooks's bourgeois bohemians as college students):
American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing. The doctrine of in loco parentis was abolished at school after school. Through it all, fraternities—for so long the repositories of the most outrageous behavior—moldered, all but forgotten. Membership fell sharply, fraternity houses slid into increasing states of disrepair, and hundreds of chapters closed.
Animal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ’80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene. The casting of John Belushi was essential to the movie’s influence: no one had greater credibility in the post-’60s youth culture. If something as fundamentally reactionary as fraternity membership was going to replace something as fundamentally radical as student unrest, it would need to align itself with someone whose bona fides among young, white, middle-class males were unassailable. In this newly forming culture, the drugs and personal liberation of the ’60s would be paired with the self-serving materialism of the ’80s, all of which made partying for its own sake—and not as a philosophical adjunct to solving some complicated problem in Southeast Asia—a righteous activity for the pampered young collegian. Fraternity life was reborn with a vengeance. 
I wonder if this is accurate? It would explain why Greek organizations are one of those rare objects of mutual disdain on the left and the right, but which nonetheless manage to evade suppression by a united political front since everyone finds a little shred to sympathize with in them. The left finds that it can't paternalistically condemn their unrestrained drinking and sex (which may, after all, be empowering to some), while the right can't bring itself to deny that freedom of association extends to their activities (for where then would the PC Police not be permitted to intervene?), and so the Greeks carry on. This history would also explain why this piece will find favor with conservatives and liberals alike, but result in no action.

At least one aspect of Flanagan's argument is questionable:
That pursuing a bachelor’s degree might be something other than a deeply ascetic and generally miserable experience was once a preposterous idea. American colleges came into being with the express purpose of training young men for the ministry, a preparation that was marked by a chilly round of early risings, Greek and Latin recitations, religious study, and strict discipline meted out by a dour faculty—along with expectations of both temperance and chastity. 
It's true that colleges used to have narrower aims, but bad behavior of the "fun" variety long precedes the inception of fraternities. Consider, for example, this 1808 letter from a Yale tutor to his friend, detailing the student situation at the college (the "war"):
To be very brief, Mr. __ has been rusticated, (for rolling barrels down my stairs,) for the term of two months. Sophomore __ has received the darts of Dr. Dwight's quiver, until they were exhausted, for cutting bell-ropes and blasphemy, but without any harm; he yet stands unhurt "amidst the war, &c." Freshman __ has been suspended for crimes of almost every name. Many others stand trembling in "fearful looking for of fiery indignation." In short, there appear to be more devils in college at present than were cast out of Mary Magdalene. I have been honored by a broadside at one of my windows, which popped off without ceremony six squares of glass. No matter; you were honored in the same way. I congratulate myself on having obtained the honor. "Fiat justitia ruat coelum," is my maxim. But the devil does not extend his dominion over students alone. The august body of tutors have occasionally acknowledged his power. Last evening they met at the "Luxembourg" to read "Dialogues" for the January exhibition. 
As to college affairs, they go on much in the old way. We had many convulsions last quarter, many furious "spasms of infuriated" Sophomores and Freshmen... Mr. Fowler's door almost split to pieces with stones; my windows broken; Freshman __ publicly dismissed; Sophomore __ and __ sent home; T , Sophomore, rusticated three months; and W, Freshman, sent off. Nothing but wars and rumors of wars. This term there appears to be some disposition to enter into a treaty of peace; at least, a cessation of hostilities is agreed upon.
The difference here seems only partly that the college may act in loco parentis with respect to these "devils," but more prominently that it could afford to be quite liberal in its expulsions and "rustications." In principle, modern colleges could be so punitive without being simultaneously paternalistic, but they choose not to be.

15 comments:

Phoebe said...

Just read the (fascinating!) Jewish-frat story, but have not yet gotten to the (less fascinating to me, in principle) Flanagan one. But here's a question I've long had about fraternities and sororities, which your use of "unsociable dweeb" reminded me of: *Are* these the popular people? Or are they the people who care most about popularity, but who (as I remember people saying derisively in college) need to pay for their friends? I suppose it largely depends where you go to school - if Greek life is everything, or if it's only of interest to a handful of students. But at our college, my impression was that the closest thing to "popular" would have been, say, the proto-hipsters who may have worked in the Cobb coffee shop.

Miss Self-Important said...

As far as the women go, I've been under the impression that they're highly sociable people who would eventually have made about as many friends without the sorority, but the process of friend-making typically takes longer than the duration of freshman year (or freshman fall), and sororities speed up that timeline for the socially impatient. They did not for the most part strike me as people who "needed" to pay for friends, but who were willing to pay if it made the natural processes of sociability move faster. (There is a series on this in McSweeney's, written by an Ole Miss freshman who is both an unusually good writer and a member of a sorority, though a lot of the overlap is boring.) What drives men to fraternities though, I really don't know.

As for the Cobb hipsters, I think that's part of what Flanagan suggests in her article - if you're committed to something politically counter-cultural, Greek life looks hyper-conservative to you, even if you're temperamentally suited to it (that is, not a dweeb). On the other hand, if you're starting from any religious or politically conservative worldview, Greeks look libertine and disgusting.

Phoebe said...

The McSweeney's series looks interesting. (Finally got to the Flanagan article, and I have some thoughts...) But re: sororities and popularity, my anecdotal impression is that it's sometimes a bit as described in this somewhat gratuitously nasty Into The Gloss post: girls who are awkward or unpopular in high school gravitate to sororities because it's the obvious place to reinvent yourself as the opposite.

Now, there are really two different kinds of dweebs (wow, "dweebs," not a word I think I'd ever used before, but it seems apt), and I think this goes for both sexes. Some are either content in their dweebishness or simply too daunted by alternatives. Others, meanwhile, secretly wanted to be popular all along, but got stuck in whichever social box in high school (or middle school, etc.) and chase after the first opportunity to perform non-dweebishness once in a new setting. I'd think fraternities and sororities would draw a mix of the non-dweebish and the second variety of dweebs.

And finally, re: Cobb, were these people so liberal politically? That had never been my impression. The Chicago Criterion guys were fairly hipster (one now runs a street-fashion blog in China!), and that was kinda-sorta their crowd, no?

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, here is the anecdata I have on this front: nearly all the conventionally popular girls at my high school eventually joined sororities at whatever Large Midwestern State School they attended, but so did some less popular but aspiring-to-it girls. So perhaps it's a combination of both as you say. However, I never thought of the aspirants as dweebs, but more like also-rans for popularity who would've played that role as well if they'd won it.

The much greater divide to my mind is between women who temperamentally or constitutionally can feel comfortable acquiring 35 same-age "sisters" very suddenly and relating to them as such, and those who can't. Those who can are all highly sociable people to my mind, whether or not their particular high school social ambitions were fulfilled. Maybe I find this divide more important b/c it's more relevant to me than the divide between actually popular girls and also-rans, since I can't imagine any pleasure in sorority activities. But I also think there is a more universal difference in college: popularity doesn't work the same way among 30,000 students at UT-Austin as it does among 1,000 at Suburban High. It's really more about having friends and the college-y experiences they facilitate than being more popular than the pre-meds who live in the library. But both groups are equally foreign to one another in a way that is not true of popularity in high school.

Chicago's Greek scene may not be so typical, at least compared with a place like UT-Austin. I'd think your second-degree dweeb type would be the only type available there, with no alpha-girls to pave the way. The Cobb-ites had various degrees of explicit political interest but were intent on being counter-cultural as a social matter, and at least a perfunctory political worldview came with that. (All the ones I knew of via my husband the former hipster were quite far to the left, as was my husband at the time.) If asked why they had not considered joining a sorority, I imagine their reasons would include the political antipathy to Greek organizations, but that could very well be a high-brow justification for more basic social distaste for doing a lot of pink things in large packs and listening to uncool music.

I'm still unsure about the men. The social lives of men (among one another, not with women) are mysterious to me.

Pudge said...

I hope we can all agree that U of C, where ultimate frisbee players occupy the top of the social ladder and sorority girls the bottom should not be taken as representative of anything but itself.

I would say that especially at a larger institution, being popular means less about occupying a specific place in the typologized social hierarchy and more about being fun to party with. Going Greek might be no guarantee that you will be there for the fun parties, but in many cases it represents a plausible path to said end and is probably a more plausible path than just carving out a social circle from scratch.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that's what I was less clearly trying to convey about the difference in the meaning of popularity. I'd also add that places where Greek life is stronger are often places without competing established student groups like robust student publications or music and arts societies and political clubs to provide alternative pre-made social circles for non-Greekish types.

Pudge said...

I guess since we are merely comparing impressions I can't disprove your assertion that Greek life flourishes where there are fewer social alternatives, but it rings false to me. I would assert on the contrary that at your major land grant institutions there are cliques of nearly every type and flavor including groups of political, arts, and science enthusiasts.

To my mind the general appeal of Greek life is precisely the opposite, namely that it provides an opportunity to get drunk with a broader swathe of the campus community and to avoid being suffocated by being always surrounded by a group of peers who have exactly one thing to talk about.

Then again, we are both relying on our own inferences about what appeals to people we have barely ever interacted with, so perhaps my construction rings just as false to you.

Miss Self-Important said...

Maybe. I wouldn't insist on my point, just a suggestion. But places where Greek life is weak seem to have in common the existence of not just other types of social groupings, but very strong and longstanding institutional alternatives like the Lampoon (and really all the older societies) at Harvard or the eating clubs at Princeton, which only admit some students as members but involve many more in their social activities (parties). In some cases, these institutions are almost indistinguishable in their function from frats and in other cases they do have some additional tasks beyond partying, but the important thing is that they're not frats, lack the national organizational structure of frats, and view themselves (and are viewed) as better than frats. I'm not sure that the state schools with which I'm familiar (the University of Illinois, basically) have these kinds of longstanding alternative social options. Or they don't have enough of the to create real competition with frats for a share of the college's social life.

However, it may just be that certain kinds of schools simply appeal more to the sorts of people to whom Greek life does not appeal (Chicago would certainly seem like one), and so this discrepancy is more a matter of the composition of the student body than the way its social life is structured by either Greek or not-Greek groupings. If that were the case though, you'd think that Wesleyan would be totally Greek-free, given the kinds of students it draws.

Anonymous said...

I have read the Atlantic article and I have been not particularly impressed. We lived in the dorms until the last year of College and our drunken anarchic behavior made the Fraternities cited look positively sober. We dropped watermelons and water balloons from the upper balconies upon unsuspecting pedestrians, thus occasioning the zig-zag approach of the wary to the dormitory entrances. From the tenth floor manhole covers were dropped in a scientific inquiry as to how deep the cover would embed itself in the turf, depending of course on how the iron cover hit the earth-edge on or flat. Bottle rocket duels in the hallways; water fights with field expedient precursors to supersoaker guns; keggers on the floor; dropping M-80 firecrackers to detonate just outside of the windows of the floors below. Toilet seats were shellacked early in the morning to inconvenience early risers during final week; phenolphthalein was added to the grape drink in the food hall in one storied exploit turning everyone’s urine purple and occasioning a rush to the med service-the ground being prepared by a rumor of a new type of STD. The only reason no one was killed rappelling from the balconies was that most of the participants in that sport, unlike the roof surfing in the elevators, were well seasoned rock climbers.

And this was in 1972. We thought the Frat rats and the TriDelts were Sunday School paragons and did not invite them to our Dormitory games.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ok, and this demonstrates that frats are good?

Anonymous said...

No. But the anguished handwringing horrorshow of the writer is, overdone. Every generation invents sex, drinking, abuse and squalid behavior. We had athletes in Beast Barracks, Frats on Rotten Row, Engineers that could barely string together sentences at the end of their education and the humanities major that counted one-two-many and thought themselves numerate. It was the print media equivalent of "Fire is hot, film at eleven." We were living the life of "Animal house" a good ten years before it burst upon the scene. A generation before us the University would not have tolerated such a blatent efflorescence of excess. The generation after swung the pendulum the other way. If the writer was to examine the current Dorm scene, I suspect that she would have found just as much excess as she could stand. Meh. I'm shocked, shocked to find that !misbehavor! is going on in here!

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, the point that people have always misbehaved at universities is what I tried to suggest with the letter from Yale. However, I think Flanagan's concern is not simply "shenanigans" but violence of a more sadistic nature - rape, brutal forms of hazing, and death. These things are newer - not in the sense of never before having existed on Earth, but never before having been routine events at universities. University students in Europe in the 14th-17th centuries also killed each other and their professors and started deadly town riots. But, these were not like our universities, and the decline of school violence was one of the (very minor) turns of modernity.

What you proudly describe of your own dissipation notably omits these forms of violence, so I'm not sure you've quite gotten to the heart of Flanagan's criticism. You're saying essentially the opposite - we misbehaved and it was fun, b/c it was harmless, no one was killed or damaged by it. If they were? Would we want something done about it then?

In general, dorms are more tightly controlled than off-campus residences b/c of university liability. I don't think that people are regularly falling out of dorm windows and dying.

Anonymous said...

It came close to death several times; for example our mindless messing around on the elevators and the balconies. And we did (we being the more active Dormies) cooperate with the administration in quietly documenting and rusticating (love that word) several students who made US nervous. In retrospect they should have gone straight to jail. Do I regret my time in that particular college, only somewhat. Do I whip out the Cautionary Tales at every excuse, no. Some things you had to be there to appreciate or understand. Would I revisit that behavior. In moderation. (brewing beer, not dropping melons for example) I just felt like for what ever reason (political, class struggle, indignation ) the author focused on the Greek system and turned a blind eye to the Dorms. Of course I have not lived in the dorms since '75 and things have likely changed utterly. I moved off campus and changed both my catalog of habits and laundry list of vices.

I regularly follow your blog. You are an excellent writer and sound like someone that would have been enjoyable company over a Pizza and a pitcher of beer-in the day. :)

Miss Self-Important said...

I think Flanagan's focus on Greek houses rather than dorms stems from the present reality: a substantial increase in oversight of on-campus housing relative to unofficial off-campus space since the '80s. Dorms are now supplied with more Responsible Adult presence: RAs, faculty families or dedicated housing bureaucrats, student life "liaisons," etc. Partying and shenanigans still go on in them, and with that still come rape and sexual assault charges. But there are natural limits to how many people you can squeeze into a dorm room for a party and how much alcohol you can smuggle in before you're noticed and punished. These limits are vastly extended by off-campus housing, especially when the off-campus housing is organized for the purpose of debauchery. For those not involved in Greek life, these opportunities to become deranged outside of immediate college control still exist "in town" and there are periodic outbreaks of mob violence following that pattern (for example, at Ohio U and UMass-Amherst in recent years), so it's not all on the frats. But I still think you're evading the question about whether there is a line between harmless fun and systematically violent and even deadly fun, and whether there is reason to try to curb the latter that isn't simply an effort to be a killjoy.

Miss Self-Important said...

And, for what it's worth, I think I'm a lot more fun to have pizza and beer with now than in the day, when I was yet to be born. But not a pitcher. That's excess.