Friday, September 28, 2018

Vic and Jerry and “Frat Boys Need Not Apply”

            Vic and I were the political equivalent of what one of my fraternity brothers had years before called “bundling-board buddies”: associates on the anti-War Left in the late 1960s and 1970 at the U of Illinois (Urbana) and that far “in bed together,” but/so we would not fuck each other (over), but neither would we act out any love. 

            At best, Vic and I were polite to each other, so it’s unlikely I arranged for him to speak at the fraternity where I was an alumni brother, but appropriate for me to be there to hear his pitch. Anyway, speak Vic did, and very well, and his argument against US fighting in Vietnam was cogent enough that he got some volunteers for “The Movement” and an indication that the chapter as a unit would support resistance to the War.

            And then he got a kind of question from one of the house officers, the immediate past president if I remember right: Jerry. Jerry told how after a fairly formal appointment he’d gone over to an ad hoc Movement HQ to volunteer. “And I was wearing my blazer and slacks from the meeting I’d been at”; and he’d been sent off with some sneers about the Movement not wanting his type. And Jerry politely asked what I’ll crudely put, «What the fuck was that about?!» And Vic chuckled and said, more or less “Hey, we’ve got prejudiced people on the Left same as everywhere else,” people who’d judge others by their clothes and living arrangements — and Jerry should go over again and tell them he was going to resist the War and they should just tell him what work he could do.

            Vic was smart and an effective politician, and Jerry in his own way was a good organizer and would help the cause. 

            One other guy from the house was ex-Marine ROTC  (there is such a thing), who helped me with “marshalling” at a couple peace marches and provided the backup muscle to stop our possibly Government-Issued Anarchist and Potential Provocateur from starting a fight with the Champaign-Urbana contingent of the FBI and other armed and nervous agents of Law’n’Order. Another house officer — the current president, I believe — provided one of the great images from the Student Strike of 1970 on the U of I Urbana Campus. He marched around the very large Engineering Quadrangle, alone, with a picket sign proclaiming, “ENGINEERING SCHOOL ON STRIKE!” 

            There weren’t many, but my former fraternity chapter was one of the “radical houses” among the U of I Greeks, and a high point of the strike was when Pan Hellenic endorsed it, and the president thereof, from a balcony of the Illini Union announced to the crowd below, with a slight pause, that “Illinois student aren’t going to stand for this … shit anymore!” (quoting from memory).

            Times change, and student cultures change; but there were “radical houses” during The Troubles of 1970 or so at the University of Illinois, and there is nothing intrinsic in fraternities or sororities to prevent that, although most of the fraternities were conservative, and at Cornell about that time one could see at least one militantly conservative fraternity in action on racial issues. 

            The key variable we noted at the U of I (Urbana) at that time was less living unit than age: older students tended to be more militant. Part of that was being closer to graduation and the draft for guys and for women with bothers and friends and lovers who could be drafted. Part was just being older and knowing more: most 18-year-olds probably should be pretty conservative until they know enough to be knowledgeable activists. Anyway, the leadership and hard-core of the activists tended to be older students: juniors and seniors and graduate students.

            “Effective politics is coalition politics,” and for the US Left ca. 2018 this means, I think, mostly getting the secular and religious Left together. On a much lower level of importance, though, is getting across the general principle of excluding no one unnecessarily. If people on the Left can look at the Right and think, “Goll dang and thank God, those guys can act dumb with their bigotry: they’re missing out on a lot of conservative Blacks and Latinos!” — and other groups. Even so, the academic Left may be missing out on a few or more “Jerrys” in just dismissing “frat boys.” 

            The correct terms I believe are still “frat rats” and “dorm rats” (cf. “gym rats” and “lab rats”); and the rule is still to take recruits where you find them, wherever they live. 

            If you believe fraternities are essentially pernicious, okay, work against fraternities. But they’ll be around for a while, and it might be better to work against bad behavior and systemic problems, without snarky and lazy personal attacks like casual use of “frat boy.” 

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