Greek God Complex

The appalling details of the latest easy outrage from the so-called Greeks matter less, finally, than do the circumstances around which they are considered. Or, alas, not considered. Because sororities and fraternities are anachronistic at best and politically reactionary at worst, the options available to them for misbehavior — racist, sexist, homophobic 21st century versions of panty raids and bathtub races — are the singular options available toward being considered at all. Their tiresome self-perpetuation of a hollow pantomime of themselves is a distraction, finally, from what they are about. And what, exactly, are they about?

A hundred years ago, the future journalist and Nation magazine editor Freda Kirchwey answered the question. A student at Barnard in 1912, she wrote: “The admission must finally come [to realize] that fraternities are reactionary and useless, affording little more than pleasure to those in them, nothing better than excitement to those outside, and by their mere presence preventing the college from its very birthright of democracy.”

So that trying to distinguish the accidental or unintended foolishness of organizations from their purposeful foolishness is challenging. Messing up seems beside the point. But what, finally, is their point?

It is the assertion of a totally manufactured and baseless exclusivity. It is simultaneously the promotion of values that not only ignore the rules and cultural assumptions of democratic striving for community, but which insist that Greeks be allowed to play by different rules.

What characterizes the behaviors of fraternities and sororities 100 years later is that they are still organized largely to distract, to take energy away from urgent social and political engagement, and to reinforce a race to the benign that is realized in the purposeful default promotion of a lame and mocking status quo. More ominously, what defines a system of goofy self-regard, pretend privilege and self-aggrandizement is its contrived elitism.

However hollow and clumsy, the Greek system of self-selection seeks to esteem their community and to undermine our community, and the collective mission of democratic public education. However comical in its aping of real economic and class elites, it does its sincere best to contradict the transformational mission and values of our experiment in higher public education for all.

Which is to say, by way of echoing Kirchwey, that sororities and fraternities are, by design, organized in opposition to participation in democracy.

But what about “service” or charitable work that Greeks perform, of which they so eagerly remind us? It is typically low-risk and always pointedly apolitical, a red herring meant to run interference on the actual malign lack of purpose. And of course, their service can be accomplished independent of their existence.

If you doubt me, consider this singularly ridiculous question. You hear almost nobody ask it because it’s so clearly out of bounds of discussion. I’m happy to ask it. Where do Greeks come down on the urgent social and political issues of the moment: the assault on public education, the longest illegal wars in U.S. history, the struggles of Dream Act students, marriage equality, economic and labor justice?

Crazy, right? The deliberate meaninglessness of Greeks excludes them from even hearing these questions, and from expectations the rest of us might have for engaging them. Again, we are reminded, over and over, of all that

Greeks are not. Easy conclusion? They are a whole lot of not, really, anything at all. And yet it is worse.

Nothingness and meaninglessness as a model of active social self-organization is indeed quite meaningful. How, for instance, to sustain it? After all, somebody else standing there, whole groups of people, watching others do actual work — for example, protesting racism to registering voters — becomes obvious. Solution? Play dress-up, throw parties, prop up big letters, brag about “tradition” and “excellence,” all toward mimicking the behaviors of the business, cultural and political elite which you aim to someday join.

Here’s how Lambda Theta Delta, the transgressor of the predictable moment, responded to the reception of its dumb video: “We want to ensure [sic] everyone that this video does not represent the views of the collective house.”

Beyond the weirdly mischosen verb (they mean “assure,” though the poetry of ensure implies more) this official fraternity statement — repentant, almost hyperbolic in its shame — seems clumsy, and brings attention to my question. Any honest discourse about blackface or the routine expression of misogyny, racism, homophobia and other anti-democratic ideologies needs to ask, finally, not what “the views of the collective house” of fraternities and sororities are not, but what in fact they are. The answer seems the same today as when offered by Kirchwey.

Andrew Tonkovich is a lecturer in the English department, He can be reached at atonkovi@uci.edu.