Okay, since injury and death at the hands of our universities' Greek culture is clearly becoming the story of the year, let's begin by getting one thing straight.
We're not going to get anywhere with this subject until we excise the phrase Greek culture.
Small groups of people who bond over cruel and obscure rituals are not a culture. They are a cult. You might have vaguely in mind that your kid is at a university dealing in some high-level way with "Western civ." But if your kid is in a fraternity, chances are that his university life is founded on that perennially greatest threat to civilization, the tendency of smaller and smaller units of humanity to dig deeper and deeper into paranoid obsessions having to do with totally bizarre identities, with secrecy, and with absolute loyalty. And, ultimately, with violence.
Here's a recent account of what it was like to try to cover Chico State University's notorious cults for the campus newspaper:
By the end of the semester all I wanted to do was, in the immortal words of Al Pacino’s character in Scent of a Woman, take a flamethrower to the place. It culminated with being thrown out of the Greek council for being a member of the Orion staff – not for something I wrote. The presidents then sent me an e-mail stating that the Greeks would no longer talk to Orion reporters because of “Misrepresentation of facts, quotes that do not accurately represent our Greek Community, headlines that are sensational and do not accurately reflect what is currently happening in the Greek Community and positive articles about our Greek Community countered by negative articles in the same issue.”
They did, however, state that “representatives of the respective councils will submit a written weekly update to the appropriate editor/reporter” which they expected us to print. How thoughtful of them.
In the time I spent covering them, the pattern became clear: if something looks bad for the Greeks, it must be someone else’s fault. Alcohol poisoning? Everyone else in Chico does it. Hazing? People are picking on us because we’re Greeks. Give a quote that makes someone look bad? The reporter shouldn’t have printed it – they’re out to get us. Stupid behavior in general? Point the finger somewhere else.
Our "Community." Right.
Any outsider, anyone who has not been branded and paddled and water tortured and made to drink himself close to death, is the enemy. Your cult is the good cult; everything it does is superior, good, and true. Naturally, having been found unworthy of initiation into the mysteries, outsiders don't understand you. Evidence against you is lies by enemies "out to get us." You will compel the jealous press to accept your propaganda or you will shut the door.
Hell of a community.
UPSTATE COLLEGE KIDS TORTURE STUDENTS TO MAKE FRIENDS headlines NYU's paper, stating the obvious in covering the latest sadomasochism out of SUNY Albany and Geneseo. Ari Lipsitz tries to understand the sickness ("Look, we’re all about freaky, but..."), yet simply cannot - the writer ends seriously confused.
The writer is confused because this is a perverse world to which you do not have intellectual access unless you too are perverse. If it would never occur to you to have a tube inserted in your rectum and wine pumped in until you have to go to the hospital and be saved from alcohol poisoning, you will never understand the great and mysterious cults of America's universities. If you can't comprehend how a university with a long and violent hazing tradition can respond to the initiation beating death of one of its students by blaming the student, you will never grasp the transcendence of loyalty to the group.
I am not sure why we don't call this what it is. An editorial writer in the SUNY Binghamton paper, surveying the filth and degradation of life there, did just that in 2005: “This isn’t a playground," he wrote of his school. "This is a madhouse." In the same New York Times article that quoted that editorial, university administrators expressed shock at the breadth of the problem, and other observers noted the Sicilian-style omerta that keeps injured, humiliated people from telling anyone that they are suffering.
It's not that we're unaware of the cultic tendencies of postmodern America. Almost any novel by our most high-profile novelist - Don DeLillo - features cults. (Start with Mao II.) DeLillo is haunted by the degradation of America's common culture into cult -- a degeneration most obvious at the moment in the post-election secession movements. We can laugh at the nuts in Texas all we like, but we ignore the tendency toward hatred of outsiders and loyalty to madder and madder groups at our peril.
There is an intense synergy between the cult of the frat and the cults of football and basketball, a mutual intensification based upon shared manias for loyalty, hatred of outsiders (here, opponents on the field or court), and the delectation of violence and pain. In the age of YouTube, we're able to watch almost immediately as coaches, players, and fans, under the divine inspiration of team loyalty, openly pummel the people around them. Of course we can laugh at the fact that one of the worst attacks on a player by a coach took place at a school called Holy Family University. But we laugh at our peril.