Fraternities: Anachronisms Whose Continued Existence Cannot Be Justified

March 24th, 2015

I never pledged a fraternity, and, in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong: it was tempting in those first weeks of my freshman year at the small liberal arts college I attended.  The campus was abuzz with fraternity life when I arrived, and all of us newbies were getting “dates” to attend this or that function with any of the many fraternities that promised “brotherhood” and “friendships that last a lifetime,” not to mention an active social life while you labored through the four years of collegiate life.

I was rushed by four or five houses, and I took a fancy to one that, most probably in my innocence and naiveté, I would have pledged.  A few days before the bids were offered, however, a couple of the brothers from the fraternity paid me a visit in my dorm.  They informed me, in the most solemn of terms, that I had—“most unfortunately”—been blackballed by one of their fraternity brothers on account of my being “too radical.”

I had no idea what a blackball was (the brothers gently explained its devastating existence, whereby one sole fraternity member could vote to keep out anyone from the hallowed membership). But I was far more surprised to be considered “radical,” since I was, at the time, a tee-totaling, God-fearing, most ardent supporter of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.  (Consider the irony that being too conservative was “radical” back in 1964.)

In any event, I licked my wounds and proceeded to live the life of a GDI (God-damned Indie) for my four years at Gettysburg, while would-be friends from my freshman dorm pledged the frats of their choice and succumbed to the ritual of sometimes brutal hazing that then led to the presumed social lives of their dreams as brothers in one of the thirteen fraternities on the campus at the time.

About a third of us managed to avoid the ritual, and yet somehow most of us were able to get our share of dates and otherwise live fairly normal social lives, albeit free of some of the “hijinks” our fraternity classmates were reportedly engaging in.  What I was told I missed out on were nights of sexual ribaldry and drunken stupors along with the alleged “camaraderie” that could not be duplicated outside of a fraternity.

Nothing of course could be further from the truth.  While I remained relatively free of the drunken stupors, I did form several lasting male friendships.  I also had a few meaningful relationships with members of the opposite sex, without the kind of misogynistic sexual abuse that the fraternity jocks could be overheard clucking about from time to time.  (These were pre-date rape times, but the practice was no less prevalent.)

Fraternities on a small campus like mine were the norm.  But it was a perverse norm, accentuating all the sexist and degenerative aspects of late male adolescence that enlightened young men and women now regard as an anachronistic oddity.

And they represent an even more repellant form of “bonding” now, in the age of feminist equality and sexual liberation that most millennials implicitly accept as right and just.  My sons did not even consider fraternities when they were in college a decade ago, albeit both were and are active socially and maintain strong bonds to friends of both the male and female persuasions.

And yet despite all of the indicators to the contrary, these anachronistic modes of promoting the youthful macho-man image of the Playboy mold continue to exist and even flourish on many college campuses.  Every year, seemingly, some scandal or outrage is revealed.  This year’s was the report earlier this month that a pair of dudes from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house on the University of Oklahoma’s campus had sung a racist song in the presence of their female dates that heralded the fact that no African-Americans would ever be accepted into their fraternity.  The young men were promptly expelled from the university, and that action has produced the predictable backlash from liberal groups demanding that the students be re-admitted in the name of freedom of speech.

Whatever the merits of that demand (I am far from convinced of its legitimacy), the irony of it is that it ignores the underlying problem.  The real issue isn’t whether those two students should be permitted to remain in school; it’s whether their fraternity–or any fraternity–should be allowed to exist on any college campus.  While I am not advocating Congressional legislation to that effect, I do believe that every college and university that has these behemoths from a long-past bygone era in their midst should consider closing them down.

Fraternities promote sexism and they prohibit non-conformity and individualism.  They promulgate elitism and they reject inclusion.  They are an analog to the culture that often exists in military units, wherein everyone must march to the same drumbeat and boot camp is where you lose your identity in favor of the corps.  But military units have at least a presumed legitimate function, that being to secure and safeguard the homeland.

Fraternities have no such legitimacy.  They do provide a social life (one, however, that most definitely can and does exist independent of them), but that meager benefit is far outweighed by the negative effects of sadistic hazing, sexist rituals, and self-inflated machismo.  And when you add racism and homophobia to the list of ill-effects that flow from them or are promoted by them, their continued existence under the auspices of academic institutions of higher learning is an outrage.

Boys will always be boys, but college should be a time when they are taught to be responsible and morally upstanding men.  Fraternities foster adolescent behavior in its most undesirable and unattractive form.  They encourage conduct and promote life styles that most of mainstream society rejects, or at least finds distasteful.  Their continued existence should be limited to “grandfather” allowances until all those currently members of recognized fraternities have graduated.  Beyond those few years, colleges and universities (and the country as a whole) should be free from the scourge of their existence.


Republicans Run Amok in Letter to Iran

March 18th, 2015

There was a time in the not-so-distant past of the nation’s history when matters of foreign policy were deemed beyond partisanship.  Presidents were accorded the constitutional prerogatives to negotiate treaties and otherwise engage in diplomatic endeavors without fear of the kind of back-biting and game-playing that was all too common in domestic affairs.

The thinking then was that the United States needed to speak with one voice when dealing with foreign leaders and their governments.  And it made sense (and still makes sense) for reasons far beyond image.  Presidents have cabinet departments and agencies (State and the CIA to name but two) that are heavily populated with professional staffers who provide detailed intelligence and knowledgeable advice to the president (and not to Congress).

Thus, for anyone other than the President (or those acting at his behest) to issue statements of policy or to go so far as to issue formal communiques that contravene or usurp presidential prerogatives in matters of foreign policy was unheard of.  Yes, resolutions that dealt with foreign policy issues could be debated in Congress, but those resolutions, if passed, were never binding on a president’s authority and were certainly never an attempt to diminish that authority and responsibility.

All of that tradition, along with much of the respect for the office of the presidency in our constitutional system, was cast to the winds last week by forty-seven Republican members of the Senate when they signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran informing those leaders, in essence, that any deal struck with them by President Obama wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

The letter came about suddenly, and it was signed, sealed, and delivered quickly.  It had been drafted by a freshman Senator from Arkansas named Tom Cotton, who had been elected to the Senate in 2014 after a single term in the House of Representatives.  Senator Cotton, at the age of 37, is the youngest senator.  He is an Army veteran and a lawyer.  He served in the Iraq War in 2006 and the war in Afghanistan in 2008.  The letter he wrote to Iran’s leaders was not Mr. Cotton’s first foray into the crafting of such documents.  In 2006, he wrote an open letter that was published in the New York Times in which he called for three journalists, including the Times’ then-editor, Bill Keller, to be imprisoned for espionage for revealing the details of the Bush administration’s program to monitor the financing of terrorists’ activities.

With those credentials, Mr. Cotton was apparently embraced by 46 of his colleagues in the Senate when he presented them with the letter to the leaders of Iran.  The letter was sent and got major play in the U.S. media.  It was thought to be the first such attempt by a large number of Senators (or members of Congress) to influence the foreign policy decisions of foreign leaders in their dealings with the United States.  The letter warned that any nuclear deal struck by the Obama administration could be scrapped by a new president.  Its purpose, presumably, was to deter Iran from entering into any such agreement.

Reaction to the letter was harsh.  The New York Daily News, in a banner front page headline, called the signatories “Traitors,” which, while perhaps a tad hyperbolic, probably wasn’t far from the mark if the letter could be interpreted as an attempt to betray the country’s interests in keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  (Weren’t the Rosenbergs executed for nothing less in 1953?)

And, as might be expected, the letter was used by Iran’s leaders for propaganda purposes, thereby ignoring its presumed actual purpose.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, called the letter “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.”  He went on to characterize the letter as a reflection of Washington’s decadence.

“All countries, according to international norms, remain faithful to their commitments even after their governments change, but the American senators are officially announcing that at the end of the term of their current government their commitments will be considered null and void,” he added.  He concluded by expressing continuing support for the nuclear negotiations, thereby completely negating the impact the senators presumably hoped the letter would have.

Or was their motive perhaps entirely unrelated to any reaction by Iran?  Let’s remember that this is the same party whose then minority leader (now majority leader) Mitch McConnell spoke in 2009 of doing everything it could to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one term president.  What is it about this party that so detests seeing the opposition in positions of power?  What brings about this level of disdain, with the result that the good of the country is subverted to the goal of making the other party look bad?

Is there any other way to interpret the Cotton letter?  Sure, it flows from an ideological point of view that is clearly opposed to the president’s.  But whatever happened to being the “loyal opposition”?  Think about the renegade stunt pulled by the senators’ colleagues in the House of Representatives just a week before the Cotton letter was sent.  In total defiance of the Obama administration’s efforts on Iran, the Speaker (John Boehner) invited Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu to address the House.  It was yet another insult aimed directly at the President, and, as might be expected, Netanyahu again warned (as he has since 1996) that Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons (must be a pretty broad “verge”).

It would all be laughable if it weren’t so telling and so pathetic.  These Republicans hate the man and his party far more than they oppose his policies.  They vote against programs that they previously supported (a health care insurance mandate, a carbon tax), and they oppose initiatives that under a Republican president they would have whole-heartedly supported (economic stimulus bill, middle-class tax cuts).  Some say the issue they have with Obama is his skin color.  I think it actually goes deeper than that.

They just don’t want any Democrat in the White House.


E. Haig’s Review of Capital Stage’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn”

March 18th, 2015

If Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is a feminist play, it certainly isn’t one that Betty Friedan would endorse.  The play, which was considered for a Pulitzer Prize when it debuted in 2012, seems more a refutation of Ms. Friedan’s views than an endorsement of them.  Instead, Phyllis Schlafly, hardly a proponent of the women’s liberation movement, is the more quoted, if not admired, historical figure in the two-act play.

Under Shannon Mahoney’s deft direction, and with a fine ensemble cast, the current Capital Stage production of the play is a first-rate audience-pleaser.  This production goes for laughs first, and it elicits many of them.  Still, much of the conversation after the opening night performance we attended last weekend focused on the play’s message, and, simply stated, it’s a complicated one.

The story concerns the paths that the lives of two women, erstwhile roommates, have taken in the fifteen or so years since they made strikingly different choices.  Catherine left what was apparently a significant romantic relationship to pursue a career as a writer.  Gwen stepped into the relationship with the guy Kathy left behind and married him.  The play takes place at the point that Catherine has returned (from London) having authored two published books on feminism.  She has achieved the kind of success that Friedan might have endorsed, having become a celebrity of sorts (a panel member on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” TV show).  Her return was prompted by her mother Alice’s heart attack (and the need she felt to be there for Alice).

As the play opens, Gwen and Don are renewing their relationship with Catherine in the couple’s home, where they are parents to a thirteen year old and a three-year old.  Gwen is a confirmed “housewife” in the Phyllis Schlafly tradition.  Don is the dean at a local community college.  Things are awkward from the outset, due to a phone call from Catherine that prompted the get-together.  It seems that Catherine said some things that Gwen found strange, although the precise details of the phone call only come to light later.

Over the course of much of the play’s first act, Catherine and Gwen, joined by Alice and Avery, a 21-year old student at Don’s college, engage in a review (led by Catherine) of the development and history of feminism.  Much of this part of the play is pedantic (or at least undramatic), with Avery reacting as a hip, if naïve, millennial to the history lesson Catherine provides, and Gwen responding in Schlafly fashion to suggestions that her choice was self-diminishing.  As they talk, Alice weighs in with thoughts from an earlier generation, and Catherine grows less convinced that her choice (she is still single and childless at the age of 42) was the right one.

And all the while, Don is the foil for both Catherine and Gwen.  Such drama as the play contains (it isn’t “heavy” in this regard) revolves around the way the two women relate to a guy who is a classic under-achiever, a would-be slacker were it not for his position as the dean of a second-rate college.  As the women reconsider their choices, Don remains unchanged, as incapable of commitment as he is to self-advancement in a career.  In essence, he represents the worst of both women’s choices.  One classic line about him underscores his role and the women’s dilemma he represents.

“I am ready and willing to embrace mediocrity and ambivalence,” says Catherine at one point, “you’re just not letting me.”

The Capital Stage production is a lot of fun, even if the post-performance conversations confirmed that it is also provocative and controversial.  The cast is uniformly excellent.  Each member of the ensemble has star-turn moments.  Megan Pearl Smith (Catherine) and Kelley Ogden (Gwen) convey the play’s theme effectively in their self-reflection and in the agonizing reappraisals that ensue.  Sam Misner (Don) is alternately funny and pathetic without scene-stealing in either mode.  The two surprises, if that is the right word, are Madilyn Cooper (Avery) and Phoebe Moyer (Alice).  Together they add immeasurably to the production’s humor while providing no small amount of its gravitas.


The Wonder of Daylight: What a Difference an Hour Makes

March 12th, 2015

A funny thing happened over the last weekend.  It suddenly was still light at 7:00.  Just a day before, darkness had descended on my part of the world (here in Sacramento, CA) by that hour, but then, suddenly last Sunday, as I walked from my office to my car at around 7, I did so in a definite glow of sunshine, twilight to be sure, but not pitch darkness as had been the case just a day before.

What caused this miraculous occurrence was, of course, the resumption of Daylight Saving Time, that glorious event that causes us to lose an hour of sleep on one Saturday night to gain an extra hour of sunlight for the next eight months.

And here in Sacramento, the timing couldn’t have been better, since we are now into our early Spring anyway, with our “nasty” winter temperatures of mid-50 highs seemingly in the past as we enjoy day after day of temps upwards of 70 and higher.  (Never mind that we are in the third year of a major drought that will have serious consequences for our farmers this summer; we’re just happy to have winter behind us.)

Daylight Saving Time has been with us for almost 100 years (first introduced by federal legislation in 1918, then repealed a year later and left to the states to enact).  It is currently recognized in 48 states (only Hawaii and Arizona are holdouts).  It kicks in earlier now (by almost a month) than it used to, and lasts a week longer (into the first week of November), which is fine by me.  How can you not want more daylight?  Isn’t it natural to feel more energized when the sun is shining?  Think about what makes rainy days so gloomy.  It can’t be the fact of the moisture, since, as we know all too well, we need the water to live.

No, the reason rainy days tend to be a little depressing is that our sun is hidden from us, making it just a little (maybe even a lot) darker.  Darkness induces lethargy; it makes us sleepy.  Think about it: who, other than little children, likes to sleep with the lights on?  If you study various cures for insomnia, and believe me I have, one of the basics is to make sure your bedroom is dark.  Lights are energizing, and sunlight is the ultimate light bulb.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have lived in his later years by the rising and setting of the sun, meaning he probably got a lot more done in the summer than in the winter, since, at Monticello, the hours of daylight varied from only nine hours at the onset of winter to a full fifteen hours at the start of summer.  Of course, he lived before the light bulb invention, which has made working by one’s desk into the late hours of the night much more convenient.  (Working by candlelight was probably more of a disincentive back in the day.)

But in terms of feeling energized, nothing beats having the light from the sun.  And this Daylight Saving Time idea is a pretty neat trick, giving us a sense of longer days just by moving the clock ahead one hour.

It’s mostly psychological, of course.  We don’t really add an hour of sunlight with DST.  We just move it from the morning to the evening.  But, since most of us (especially those of us who work a traditional 9 to 5 shift) think of the enjoyable part of our day as starting when we get home from work, the trade-off of added daylight in the evening for a later sunrise is a no-brainer (unless you live in Hawaii or Arizona, apparently).

I’m told that farmers don’t like DST, partly because it makes their early morning chores more difficult (who wants to milk old Daisy in darkness?).  And there may be others who regard late night lightness with disdain.  I have a friend who turns in every night at 8:30 (and rises at 4:30).  She must not like the late sunset that we get in June and early July, when it is still light past 9pm.

For me, give me those evening hours of sunshine.  I just can’t get enough of it.  I used to especially love it when I was a kid and my buddies and I would play baseball games that lasted forever.  Even now, it’s so much easier to schedule a round of golf knowing that even a slow round won’t be ruined by darkness.

Of course, on another level, it’s kind of silly to obsess about the setting of the sun and wanting to have more time to do things in daylight.  I mean, in the end, what are we doing with all that added time?  What should we be doing with it?

In his “A New Earth,” Eckhart Tolle urges us to discount time entirely.  His view is that obsession over time is a way to avoid living in the moment, which, he professes, is the path to that sense of oneness that, he claims, is the best way to free ourselves from the stresses and anxieties that keep people like him in business.  It’s a curious perspective, at least in the real world.  (Eckhart does acknowledge, somewhat paradoxically, that we do need time as a means of providing organizational structure in our lives.)

Time is fleeting, even as it is constant.  No one, even Mr. Tolle, has suggested an alternative to the 24-hour day or the passing of the seasons or the aging of the body.  I tell my law students that time is their ally until they abuse it, by which I mean that they can benefit from structuring their lives around time or destroy their lives by completely ignoring it.  (I don’t preach Tolle to them.)  They, like all of us, only have so much time (in a given day, in our lives) to do whatever it is we undertake to do.

Daylight Saving Time doesn’t change that reality.  But it does make the time we have seem more invigorating.