Thursday, April 10, 2014

Greek To Me

Caitlin Flanagan is our new hero, and not only for her prose style.  Here is the lede to her cover article in the current Atlantic:
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him — under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself — to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
The rest of the story is mordant, sometimes funny, and -- especially if you have a child in college, or who may yet go there -- absolutely terrifying. It is called "The Dark Side of Fraternities," which pretty much tells you what to expect.  But holy cow does Flanagan deliver.

One undergraduate in eight is part of the so-called Greek system.  Fraternities are, as Flanagan depicts them, distinctly dangerous places -- tumbledown hellholes devoid of adult supervision, devoted to binge drinking, bodily injury, sexual sadism and, of course, rape.  Worse yet, they are defended by aggressive and well-funded national organizations, and exist in an uneasy tension with the administrations of their host bodies universities.

We ourselves attended a college with neither football nor frats, and so know of these exotic subcultures only by reputation.  Animal House, one of our all-time favorite movies, certainly contains its share of drinking, drugs and sexual misconduct.  (And so, we hasten to admit, did our own frat-free undergraduate experience.)  Like most people, we figured this is what frats are all about:  the customary bad judgment  of youth, same as it ever was.  Risky, but also sort of innocent.

Flanagan paints a darker picture.  Her article describes injury after injury, death after death, rape after rape.  It describes the national organizations which defend tooth-and-nail the independence of their various houses from university supervision -- but which have also devised a diabolical system for abandoning  those houses to avoid legal liability.  Meanwhile, the universities are torn between responsibility for the welfare of their students and the funding that comes from their frat-affiliated alumni.  (Not to mention the fact that, without frat houses, some schools would have to build more dormitories).

Needless to say, we rushed to the Internet searching for colleges without fraternities, planning our own little boy's future.  They do exist; all of the Seven Sisters qualify (although of course our son is unlikely to matriculate at six of those).  So do many others, especially among small and highly selective liberal arts colleges.  On the other hand, Flanagan's article includes a long and detailed look at a deeply disturbing situation with a fraternity connected to Wesleyan in Connecticut, which she claims has finally become as exclusive as its students always used to insist it was.

Although Flanagan doesn't mention it, Egg readers may be interested to remember that fraternities are tax-exempt under 26 U.S.C. 501(c)7.  (So are country clubs, of all things.)  We mention this in the hope that the next time somebody with a hate-on for Christianity begins arguing in favor of taxing churches, you can steer the conversation toward the sleazy beer-soaked deathtrap that is apparently the typical college frat house.

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