Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Not long ago, I found an old letter to the editor that I wrote, and (thank god) never sent, from back in my college days, defending that redoubt of callousness and misogyny, the greek fraternity. The argument wasn't that godawful--amounting to "it's different for a bunch of socially inept nerds in engineering school, we need to drink irresponsibly, waah!"--but I know the style, the sort of precocious, self-affirming, fake-earnest crap that I'd later associate with bullshit-reasoned libertoonian writing, and I'm embarrassed that it ever came out of me. I have strong thoughts about going back and burning it, but on the other hand, it's my moral duty to belittle this kind of thing, maybe even more so now that I've gone and caught myself doing it, twenty years ago. In my limited defense, my conscience was making noises even in that one about people who might live beyond a bubble of other straight middle-class white dudes, and, generally speaking, I tried to talk to people sometimes at that age, cultivate some empathy, read freely, and accept that I might be wrong, and some would say that I generally grew the fuck up over time. Also in my defense, even if the fraternity system in general can be a hiding spot for a whole lot of college-guy nastiness, I think it was much better in my microcosm, and these sorts of things make a more easily assailable target than, say, college sports. The basic thing is that if you get a collection of pigs in one place, then they'll act like a bunch of pigs. A bunch of drunken geeks like we were? Some were better people than others, but I mostly spent those days sitting around with my friends making sarcastic jokes at their expense and mine. Good times.

People have made a lot of assumptions about this over the years, and one that's galled (because it's true), is that an organization like this is pretty inauthentic at its core. The design of a fraternity isn't really to accomplish anything other than pulling in students before it knows them especially well, and jam them into a sort of friend-making boot camp. I can't come down on whether this is fundamentally a bad thing or not. Some of them became real friends and some didn't, and if an opportunity comes your way to get to know people you have a good chance of getting along with, then why not take it? Especially if you're a dork in engineering school. (And there's the 2012 version of the argument.)

The trick to indoctrinate new guys is to build experiences together, make them hang out with each other and also with the people in the group. That was most of the hazing we gave, and the purpose of all of it, and if I had to show up and fetch beers for a month, or if I got encouraged to try and get away with things that were funny and harmless, then hell, it was nice when it was my turn to drink and laugh. It's pretty obviously a knockoff of military initiation, or gangs, or the clergy, or high school, or any group that makes a case for its bureaucratic existence rather than just its members. And the format of the rite is similar. Set a group of people apart from the rest, push them into a shared experience that's hard to understand in any other context, and let them join fully when they start to bond. It's team-building, in the horrible corporate sense. If my fraternity had conducted this with anything but mock-seriousness, then I'd have been deeply offended, but when it comes to human organizations, mockery is the exactly appropriate response to an abundance of seriousness. (And this may be how they got to me, the sneaky bastards.)

It's an adage that as empires crumble, life tends to go on for most of us--meet the new boss and all that. I hate to take that one too far: it's terrifying how much they can take down with them (and have taken down), but there's truth too that the failure of power structures most seriously threatens the empowered. [It's a thought that often pops up with me whenever the "ready flow of credit" is allegedly held at gunpoint by the financial establishment, but of course it applies generally to straight middle-class white dudes too.] I don't want to beat on Debt much more than I already have, but I find the historical contention interesting that when externally imposed institutions or governments lost their local grip, as he says they did for much of the middle ages in much of the world, then civilization tended to replace them with persistent hierarchical arrangements, where people were guided by tradition into castes, instead of by institutions. The roles in that arrangment are passed on by collective habit, and over time become difficult to confront. Inequality is assumed instead of coerced, and you learn it at birth. I'm not convinced this makes a better world, and in fact, it unnerves me that this is the only alternative that's much panned out on a civilizational scale, but the argument was that it was somewhat less violent.

You can't really escape it, and it's a topic that I periodically wander back to, maybe moreso than your typical engineering nerd. We are initiated into the game before we even get a chance to question it. The fact that we share non-genetic information from one generation to another, one group to another, that we pass it on, is the very essence of what makes us human. We're pulled into existing conversations before we even know how to talk. To really re-think things, you'd need to make a clean and thorough break from ten thousand years of evidence of other people existing, and who'd get to be the architect of that experiment anyway? In the real world, if there is a better and more fair way to organize humanity, it will be because a tradition of such practice emerges slowly, and we will still have to initiate people to get up to speed with that improved starter packet of information. Even if the guiding idea is a rejection of system, you still have to initiate people into the tradition of challenging it. You have to be conditioned to reject authority. Is it any wonder this species is so fundamentally confused?


switters said...

So my iTunes salute to MixMasterMike has become crowded with songs from my college days, circa early 90s. And I was curiously thinking about frats and other orgs during my time there. I'll get the names wrong and I'll have to spell out phonetically the ones I really can't remember.

The Wittenberg University Fighting Theology Majors!

Chi-0s were characterized as rich sluts.
Fijis were rich, pretty well-behaved gents, many alums of private schools.
ATOs were jocks, like everywhere else. My dad was an ATO, but I never took advantage of MY LEGACY!!!
Delta Nus were... wait, that's Legally Blond.
DGs were rich good girls.
Witt didn't have TriDelts.
Betas were pot heads.
Sigma Nus were... if there was a chapter, and that's what is was, they were... low key rich boys fond of the grape. Or was it a sorority?
ADPis were un-classically-attractive Mean Girls.
Then the gals whose beauty was surpassed only by their being very smart.

There were a bunch more. It was about a 50% school. I'll add addenda as I recall, if you don't mind, because I enjoy reminiscing. Keep in mind: These are not stereotypes; THEY ARE REAL.

And you should send the letter in. Funny.

Keifus said...

Yeah, like half the students at RPI were in 'em too. It was hard to avoid. Not really a joiner type, I actually made it a year and a half before I gave in. (And they did gather some individual character, didn't they? Some of them were full of pigs and loudmouths.)

They used to have these gigantic parties. Each house would have one or two big floor-to-ceiling rippers a year, and you could plan your weekends around that sort of thing if you were friendly with people. RPI was cracking down on these parties in '93 or '94 (which is what I was writing about), had been for years, following a few inevitable incidents where kids got tragically hurt.

And hell, it WAS bad, and I know it. The drinking and partying would sometimes wreck people even then, almost certainly more often than I'd prefer to believe. ANd yet I wouldn't take those days back. Some of the best times of my life, even now knowing some of the connections I missed.

They are probably cracking down on something even today, so maybe I could send that letter in to the school paper, if they still print it. Unsettle the helicopter parents a little at least. I didn't actually finish it though. I hope it was because I realized I sounded like such a horrible little twit.

switters said...

Yeah, missed connections. There was this guy I really liked, lacrosse player, non-frat, big burly fella. outdoorsy, smart, funny, earnest, laid back. We hung out for 3 straight hours drinking on a beautiful Wittenberg spring day talking about everything. We had hung out before but only in passing. I guess you could say we fell in love in those 3 hours.

Anyways, did I mention that this happened THE DAY BEFORE GRADUATION?

Just that one time. He's one of those guys that I bet figured out exactly what he wanted to do early and is doing it and is very content. And will beat you to death with one of those netted hockey stick thingies if you're stupid.

Keifus said...

Well, I'm not (especially) stupid, but I am certainly an idiot.

Here's one that doesn't haunt me so much: I remember during the last week of school, a girl I knew approached me and revealed that she'd had a crush on me for four years (a Pi Phi, the princess house). I liked her pretty well, and although I really can't say that I ever returned the crush, it is a connection that would have greatly improved four years of being in bachelor's hell. (I will tell you that I took her feelings for granted a bit, and I still loathe myself for that. So it haunts me some.) That last month, I'd contracted mono, which put a big dent in the parties and the crushes anyway.

I was in AEPi. Although it's a national Jewish fraternity, they are, probably for legal reasons, technically non-exclusive, and they have exactly one rogue chapter that has always been totally secular. I think they hated their gentile unit, but I think that's perfect. A misfit and outcast house from the beginning--clearly my kind of people.

(Why I got drawn in to certain online communities is left as an exercise to the reader.)

It occurs to me sometimes that I might not always be your best advocate, switters. It's been a solid year, and that your soul's settling back in is obvious in your writing. Don't let me catch you drinking to remember either, motherfucker.

switters said...

Fuck you! I'm rather enjoying remembering sober because I'm not starting off at an "advantage" of melancholy that alcohol so easily and readily provided, free of charge, unless you count the total void of hope worth the price of admission on the tab. Let me cram some more metaphors in there to mix. But don't think I don't know for sure that it's out there doing crunches and the Insanity! workout program, waiting for me to mouth off to it so it can hit me in the back of the head. My simple goal is to be the first alcoholic in history to never relapse.

Anyways, my last minute crush revealed was Alexandra, a student from Quito. She was... stunning, and brilliant. However, I had had a huge crush on her but she was so intimidating and dated the best looking guy on campus, a student from Sweden. No details, but we hung out quite a bit. She wanted me to move to South America and work for her father. Dang. I could've been known for holding the most amount of cocaine in my stomach instead of holding the most amount of beer there.

Does Gamma Phi Beta sound familiar as the sorority of hot brained babes?

Please don't worry about causing me to want to drink. If I want to drink, I will. But I don't want to.

If you don't already know it, Fatboy Slim's remix of "September" is worth a listen.

Keifus said...

Yeah, sorry about that. Odd thing to be reminiscing about is all.

A belly full of cocaine? Some job that'd be--you gotta make sure to put it in condoms first, I think. Or else I need to watch more tv.

I'm about detailed out too.

Fatboy slim... Yeah, I keep pushing that direction, but it's like Xeno's goddamn paradox. Oh wait, you mean the artist!

Keifus said...

Just for the record, I was in fact referring to Xeno, one of the lesser-known Epicurians, who observed that no matter how brightly colored the food you consume, it all comes out know.

As for Zeno, let me point out that that series actually converges--Achilles eventually catches up with that smartass tortoise.

[Keno's paradox, if you were wondering, is that the house always wins.]

Mighta been a good thread to get the greek letters right.

switters said...

Interesting. I've used Xeno/Zeno/Szcheno/Zseneaux's paradox to explain how addiction is overwhelming, getting from point A to point B, etc., without getting to point A.1. The problem, other than thinking that I'm the most profound thinker ever, is that they don't understand the paradox any more than they understand Pythagorus' nutty assertions. Which means Bill Clegg's Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man is nothing short of terrifying in its, well, brutal honesty.

This Old House Hour this week takes a tour of a house built in your neck of the woods back in 1690ish, with a massive central hearth, not a fireplace per se, but a complicated system of smaller fire pits. Mesmerizing. So it prompted me to put New World in the old netflix queue and give it another look. And I continue to be amazed at how many movies I've not seen sober in the last 10 years.

Find time to watch Deadwood.

You're a good friend.

Keifus said...

Sometimes, maybe. Thanks.

I'll try and give it a watch if I ever have uninterrupted hours, which is a tall order. I don't watch a whole fuck of a lot of tv, even though, somehow, the thing is always on.

I find Zeno to be surprisingly apt in a lot of situations as well.

Inkberrow said...

Confessions of Zeno? That book's also about habits and addictions, from smoking to self-servingly edited memory-retrieval, and including our habit of or addiction to assigning deterministic force to habits and addictions.

For the record, I was (am?) a member of that great granddaddy of all national fraternities, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Our founder at the University of Alabama, Noble Leslie DeVotie, was the Confederacy's first Civil War casualty after he fell off a boat closing in on Fort Sumter. We had but three national sororities at my school, known affectionately and with some justification as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Our own Hell Week was certainly rigorous enough---it's an odd experience, not speaking for five days---but I'll never forget the horrible sounds from the neighboring Phi Delta Theta house's basement wall---straight out of the Omega House scenes in "Animal House".

I didn't think I'd be posting something on this topic ever, thanks guys!

Keifus said...

I live to serve, Inky. Good times, eh?

40POTUS said...

switters: "Does Gamma Phi Beta sound familiar as the sorority of hot brained babes?"


Hot brained babe