Fraternities as Bastions Against the Cultural Totalitarians

The University of Virginia’s fraternity row. Photo credit: Daily Mail

by James A. Bacon

Back when I attended the University of Virginia many moons ago, I was a GDI — an acronym for a God-Damned Independent. During the fall rush my first year I attended two fraternity parties on Rugby Road and found nothing entertaining about hanging out with people whose sole purpose seemed to be getting sloshed. Those two experiences were all I needed to needed to convince me that I would never join a fraternity. 

As much personal disdain as I had for the Greek system, it never occurred to me to want to abolish it. It never occurred to me to insist upon imposing my values upon others. My philosophy has always been to live and let live. If the frat boys wanted to spend their colleges years in a drunken stupor, that was their choice and nobody’s business but their own (and their parents).

But we live in a different time now. We live in an era in which cultural totalitarians presume to tell everyone else how to live. And the cultural totalitarians are taking aim at fraternities and sororities as evil institutions that reinforce class stratification, elitism, discrimination and cultural appropriation, and, thus, must be abolished. I now find myself in the anomalous position of defending them.

A case in point at UVa is a column published recently in the Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper, by columnist Noah Strike. Young Mr. Strike finds it abominable that dues amounting to thousands of dollars a year make fraternities “inaccessible” to students with less financial means. He also describes them as “hotbeds of racism, violent sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance.” As examples of “abhorrent racist and disrespectful behavior” he cites fraternities that hosted “culturally appropriative events” featuring Native American headdresses and Mexican cultural items.

Writes Strike:

Greek Life organizations are relics from a social environment which no longer exists — one where the partition of people based on predefined genders or socioeconomic statuses was culturally acceptable and encouraged. They represent apparatuses of discrimination and violence which have — for decades — lacked true, meaningful accountability from the University administration. They are factories of classism, discrimination and violence — they have repeatedly shown their very existence is contrary to the core values of our University.

The University, he urges, must rein in the “social anarchy” of Greek Life organizations by requiring them to disaffiliate themselves from national chapters, by removing their formal recognition, or, like Harvard, by actively discouraging student membership.

Now, the views expressed are those of just one person. It is hard to know the degree to which Strike’s sentiments are shared by others. But given the prevalence of the underlying assumption in this piece — that of ubiquitous  classism, racism and sexism — it’s a good bet that many students, faculty and administrators share his animus. Indeed, Strike cites numerous universities where fraternities are increasingly questioned or under assault.

I could recite the defense that fraternities mount on their own behalf. They forge bonds of friendships that last a lifetime. They participate in charitable events. They provide opportunities for leadership within the organization. They create communities for students who might otherwise be lost in a large university where they are just another name, just another tuition check.

I could also observe that fraternities address social needs that, in their absence, students would find other ways to indulge. Young people like to party, get drunk, take mood-altering drugs, and have sex. If you banned the fraternity and sorority parties where they do these things, they would find alternative venues for doing them. If you drove the partying, drinking, drugs, and sex out of the fraternities, you can be certain that someone would find a way to relocate these activities to a Hampton Inn, an Airbnb, or someone’s rented house — places where university authorities have no sway at all. The Greek system provides a modicum of self-regulation that would be sorely missed.

But my primary defense of fraternities is that they are NOT controlled by university authorities. They are autonomous and mostly self-governing. Accordingly, they do NOT conform to the leftist pieties regarding race, gender and class. Thank God (I say that despite being an atheist) there institutions still exist that are predicated on the belief that men are men, and women are women, and that gender is not endlessly fluid. The great thing about America is that allowing men to band together with other men, and women to band together with other women, in no way impinges upon the right of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, or other gender permutations to band together with whomever they wish.

To be sure, fraternities do embody a certain social stratification. Not everybody can afford to join one. But there will always be social stratification. Social stratification is a universal feature of every human society that has advanced beyond the social-gatherer level of social organization. Every effort to elimination social stratification has led to violence, bloodshed and the creation of new forms of social stratification based on new distributions of power. In the real world, if you ban one form of social stratification, another arises to take its place.

In the leftist world view that Strike embraces, it is not sufficient to live and let live. All social institutions must be brought into conformity with correct views and values. This view is totalitarian in the sense that it reaches into every corner of society, and everyone must submit to the coercive power of the university, in this case, or the government in other instances. No one is being hauled into gulags or concentration camps. But when you see how progressives are infusing Critical Race Theory into our public schools, reeducation camps may not be far off. Fraternities and sororities are a source of pluralism in our society, and they must be defended.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

17 responses to “Fraternities as Bastions Against the Cultural Totalitarians

  1. In my day at a Boston area college (1970-74), the atmosphere was quite different. No one would have cared less if a student posted a sign with the “F”’word on her dorm room door. We did have a very active SDS and they would have made Herbert Marcuse look like a weenie. Around 1973, America and Vietnam were winding down. The school had frats but most ignored them as outdated. Then the animal frat went to Boston’s
    Combat Zone of strip clubs and hired hookers to entertain pledges. The SDS found out and really protested.

    • I know this is a long shot (and also off-topic) but do you know Jonathan Richman?

    • Ah, the SDS. A group from one of the New England schools showed up on my little campus with a table, a clipboard, and a keg. A small crowd of future Baconites stood by jeering.

      Signed up, got a paper card, and never heard from them again.

      Alas, know your audience.

  2. Sorry, I do not.

    • Thanks. He was regionally famous in and around Boston in the early 1970s for forming a band called the Modern Lovers. I’ve always wanted to meet him.

  3. hmmm… did Jim B defend hazing as something that was good and wrong to regulate?

    I always found fraternities problematical. Some were good but others were just this side of totally lawlessness and I always wondered why some of them were allowed to be on campus. Off campus… katy bar the door.

  4. Regarding Fraternities at UVA in the 1960s.

    In my experience with Fraternities at UVa in 1960s, the alleged negative stratification and drunken scene arguments I have heard for years, are largely bunk. Instead, fraternities, in my experience, are an enormous positive. Learning how to drink, how to socialize, how to get along with, and succeed, among other highly competitive people is a great advantage for all university student graduates, no matter their background, and those strong skills and those strong relationships often last a lifetime.

    And the idea that these kids were all rich and privileged is also bunk, given the large number and variety of fraternities at UVA in the 1960s, and the very different backgrounds of the many students who joined fraternities. And yes, fraternities do tend to select members they feel comfortable with, admire, respect, and want to be around, and more often than not, they would come from surprisingly different backgrounds, despite all the myths and elitist talk to the contrary. What is the matter with that?

    Cost was never an issue at UVA that I remember. In fact, likely it was cheaper, even much cheaper for some, to belong to a fraternity than not to belong to one, food wise, and housing wise, and drinking and socializing wise. I never recall any fraternity brother not being able to join due to cost. A significant number of mine were attending on very low budgets, even after including scholarships and jobs on side.

    Historically up to at least the 1960s, Fraternity members gave back far more to the University financially wise, and time wise, than non-fraternity people, on average, during attendance at UVA and long after graduation. This is not to criticize non fraternity people, nor to suggest that many did not contribute enormously to UVA back then and long afterwards. Like so much today, this fraternity bashing in just more of our culture wars of hate and envy, that drive us apart and try to tear down what has worked so long and so well for the benefit of so many in the past, the destroyed Boy Scouts being any example, and now the Catholic Church apparently.

    And, yes, Fraternities create friends of lifetimes, among men and women alike, real friends who often support and enrich one another for lifetimes. What is wrong with that?

    I applied and was accepted at four college without any intention of joining a fraternity at all. I applied initially selected one different from UVA. At that point, my then high school history teacher drove me to UVa for the express purpose of his taking me to a party at his UVa. fraternity. That history teacher had a profoundly positive influence on my life. The fraternity party invitation was only one of the irreplaceable gifts he gave me that have lasted a lifetime, though I joined a fraternity different from his.

  5. “If you can’t go Greek, go freak!”

  6. Right on!

  7. See what I mean, envy and and hate. Plus also raw ignorance. We are all human after all, though many can’t stomach it, given their prejudices and insecurities. Human nature never changes or adjusts, for most of us live in a gray, little and static worlds of cheap movies and mindless stereotypes and prejudices they can never escape because of their fears and insecurity, so they just walk around blind, dumb, deaf, and clueless and narrow minded for their lifetime, never to escape they little cramped closets they inhabit all their lives, poor devils.

  8. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I was in the cheap Greek. Alpha Phi Omega. National Co Ed service fraternity. Dues were 25 bucks a semester. No house. Just greek letters and community service. We would tip a few back on Friday and Saturday night. About 180 members would perform 8,000 hours of community service a year. I was the President! I must say for 25 bucks I learned a great deal about leadership, service, and friendship. Extremely valuable to my success in the education field. Met my wife in APO. My favorite project was SHARE. Self Help and Resource Exchange. For 15 bucks I would deliver a grocery cart full of nutritious fresh, frozen, and canned goods to anyone. We did this all over the New River Valley. Customers ranged from the needy to James McComas President of VPI. Still going 30 years later.

  9. I was a member of a fraternity at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s. Some of my brothers came from wealthy families, some did not. I was far from rich. In fact, I worked at a paying job the entire time I attended UVa – not just in the summers. Most times I had two jobs. For example, I was a waiter and a research assistant for a professor. I mowed lawns and moved furniture for Student Services. I volunteered at the Girls Attention Center as a tutor. I also took out VELA loans to the extent possible.

    It was cheap to live in a fraternity. I think it’s fair to say that we were the Animal House of the day. In fact, Animal House came out while I was in the fraternity. And yes, I did manage to drive my motorcycle up the back stairs of the fraternity house one day. We loaded the “tube room” soda machine with beer and sold the beer for a quarter a can.

    The big difference between the movie and our house was the accommodations. The movie showed much better living conditions than we had. But it was cheap. Room and lunch and dinner 5 days a week was far less expensive in the fraternity than it would have been with off campus housing. I’ve been back to my old fraternity and it has been completely remodeled. Today, it is very nice. They no longer burn plastic milk crates in the fireplace. There are no purloined wheel chairs in the party room attic to be used to try to roll down the stairs to the main level. There are no holes in the wall of the landing where the heads of wheelchair pilots broke through the plaster.

    In the almost 40 years since I graduated I have stayed friends with many of my fraternity brothers. One is a long time emergency room physician in Virginia Beach. Another is a nationally known microsurgeon. They are on Wall Street, music producers, developers, salesmen, etc. Some have fallen on hard times. Several have spent time in jail. My fellow brothers and I have pulled together to help them, usually with money – but sometimes with hard discussions and wake up calls.

    As for being a hotbed of racism, my fraternity was one of two (out of maybe 45) that was integrated in the late 1970s. As for homophobia, one of my brothers came out of the closet and has stayed in the circle of friends that he was in prior to coming out. Nobody cares.

    The fraternities at UVa have off campus houses that are owned by the fraternities themselves. If you don’t like them, don’t go to the houses. It’s as simple as that.

    • “If you don’t like them, don’t go to the houses. It’s as simple as that.”

      Careful, there, you could end up “cancelled” if you keep spreading such radical ideas…

    • Ah, sounds so familiar to my time in the early ’80’s. Cheap room and board, even cheaper if you were the house manager. I too worked multiple jobs year round including some time with Chip Chandler and Student Services. Remember dirt bikes going up the front stairs from the ground floor to the attic as well as the “soda” machine on the back porch that certain townies took advantage of, and burning couches in the front yard.

      That being said, the house was also racially diverse and I actually had two roommates of color that are friends to this day (despite the many practical junks of particularly poor taste we played on one another). More important are the lifelong bonds forged with contemporary brothers, alumni and even the younger members that compose the typical spread of doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs who now nearly forty years later are there to help when needed.

      I have also long maintained that the most important part of a UVA education (at least at that time) was learning how to remain erect at a cocktail party after one or two too many gin and tonics. Things in the corporate world haven’t changed that much and knowing how to socialize without offending is invaluable when dealing with those who might be your boss or in a position to elevate yours.

      From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill, we’re gonna get drunk tonight.

Leave a Reply