Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lest The Old Traditions Fail

Congrats kid, you're in.

An old friend of mine sent me a link to a Rolling Stones article about hazing at Dartmouth.

I read it through and at first I become defensive.  Many of the hazing incidents went far beyond what I experienced as a pledge.  There wasn't the same level of depravity described in the article, though some of it seemed true.  The "drink until you boot" phenomenon was a standard part of pledge period.  It wasn't a big part of my pledge period, because I had mono that spring and couldn't drink.  When I ran into a former brother  - whose job it was to make the pledges recite their "names", drinking until they vomited - he mostly remembered that I drank water instead of beer.  He had assumed I had opted out of drinking because that was something you could do.  He was surprised to find out I had a medical reason for not drinking.

There was indeed many gross things about pledging.  Sink night - described in the article - is especially rough, or it was for me because I had mono and started shivering uncontrollably.  I can remember Ernest Hemingway's grandson throwing up on me and thinking, "Oh, good, at least it's warm."

But the general atmosphere of pledging was of mostly verbal abuse combined with binge drinking.  I don't remember any real acts of barbarity.

And so the article at first left me cold.

But then I remembered the conflicting feelings I had about my fraternity.  While I had few conflicted feelings about the rugby club, my feelings about Dartmouth have always been conflicted.  I bought into a lot of the fraternity sense of besieged entitlement.  When I went to a banquet to honor last year's national championship rugby team, I was struck by how aggressively anti-college many of my contemporaries (all fraternity members) remain.

The "whistle blower's" fraternity - SAE - was always one of the most egregious hazers, along with the African American fraternities.  And while I was there, SAE was always one of the lamer fraternities.  I can't recall ever going there for a party.  And I also remember that the brothers who got "into" harassing pledges the most were usually the biggest losers in the house.

If anything the hazing experience tends to draw cruelty not from the strong but from the weak.  

My own memories of being a brother during pledge period were that after the first year, when sophomores tended to lay it on, I really withdrew from pledge hazing.  I remember from my own sink night, when I was shivering uncontrollably, the Vice President of the frat stayed up with me to make sure I was alright.  He kept checking in on me until the sun came up.  

I'd like to think I learned more about brotherhood from him than from the various acts of shared misery that usually makes up pledging a fraternity.  

But I think what happened instead was that I simply withdrew a lot.  Part of that was in my nature.  I just wasn't very out going.  And I know now I suffered from depression on and off from my time in college until I began teaching.  Mostly it was a depression brought about from idleness and a lack of direction.  But now I wonder how much if any of it was caused by my experiences in my fraternity.

I returned to my high school to teach.  About every other week I run into my best friend from high school; our kids do scouts together.  When I went in to the rugby banquet I stayed with an old girlfriend from high school.  Every New Years I see another old friend from here (and before).  

I don't keep in touch with anyone from Dartmouth.

When I was being hazed, I didn't think much of it.  As it began, I tried to think of myself as a samurai, someone immune to pain and degradation - I was watching a lot of Kurosawa movies back then.  I remember trying to sit like a samurai in front of a huge phalanx of beers we had to drink.  One of the brothers kept shoving me down as a tried to sit on my haunches.  I kept popping back up.  To me the whole thing was hard, and hard was OK for me.  I had wrestled, done a NOLS course, played rugby.  I liked hard.  I ate hard.  The fact that I was being yelled at and made to vomit was not a problem (except for the mono thing, that sucked).

But I can't help but wonder now how my time might have been different.  Jon Bigelow was one of the best rugby players I ever played with.  Legs like oaks, massive boot, was selected to the US national team after senior year, but chose not to go because he was tired and beat up.  Bigs was in a frat but then dropped out.  He was still captain of the team, active in the outdoor club and when I see him on occasion, I am genuinely happy to see him.

I think maybe he had a secret I could have used.  

I had friends in my house and others.  I spent a ton of time in my house.  I drank, but maybe because I never became inured to vomiting I rarely got sickeningly drunk.  I did not have a "bad" experience in my fraternity.  I was not traumatized by the hazing that went on (and it was hazing).

But was my essential disconnect from my Dartmouth experience tied up in my experience in a fraternity?  Maybe it was.  I can't be sure.  It wasn't like after graduation my life became sun-kissed and awesome again.  

As a teacher and a father, I know that hazing is wrong.  But I also know that shared hardships build bonds.  My friend who sent me the article played for our arch-rival Harvard.  But we also played together for three years in Santa Monica.  We were in each other's weddings.  Rugby is hard.  And that hardness brings teammates close together.

There isn't anything wrong with hard.  But there is something wrong with cruel.  And the problem with hazing is that hard becomes cruel in a split second; it's inevitable.  The logic of hazing is that the weakest people being hazed inevitably become the harshest hazers themselves.  

There is no escaping that logic, which is why hazing can't really be reformed, and why efforts to reform it are ultimately doomed.

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