When I was a student at Northwestern University, I kept a fraternity paddle in my dorm window.
Emblazoned upon it, rather than Greek letters, were the initials “GDI” — God Damn Independent — and a knight holding his thumb to his nose and blowing a raspberry.
I displayed it because fraternities are such a big deal at NU and, being among the self-excluded, I felt a certain public pride was in order.
It boggled me, I explained at the time, how anyone, finally freed from parental authority, would run directly into the arms of organizations set on constraining and abusing them. ”I didn’t come to NU to crawl across the Quad at midnight, my hands tied behind my back, rolling an egg with my nose,” I used to say.
Agreed, the Greek system is large, and many, perhaps most, fraternities and sororities indeed focus on good works, fellowship and the joy of learning. But we all have biases and, to me, that’s a smokescreen, a fig leaf to cover their true purpose: extreme partying, sneering contempt for anybody outside of the charmed circle, and exactly the kind of insular bigotry that got Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s University of Oklahoma chapter in such trouble after a video surfaced of members singing a racist song, celebrating the unwelcome black students face at SAE.
What’s surprising is they seem to think their problem is an exception that can be banished by apology and programs, and not a flaw intrinsic to elite, self-glorifying groups.
Blaine Ayers, the executive director of SAE, based in Evanston, said last week that the frat is “taking steps to ensure that this will never happen again.” A four-point program will do the job.
“Never happen again.” Now there’s a vow we’ve heard before.
“This type of action is detestable and completely unacceptable,” Mike Zissman, president of SAE at Washington University, wrote in 2013 to black students taunted with racial slurs by SAE members. “This will NEVER happen again.”
“Never,” in this case, being about two years.
In 2008, after a chapter of SAE at the University of Texas was ordered to pay $16.2 million to the parents of a freshman killed during one of its hazing rituals — when not abusing outsiders, frat members enjoy abusing each other — their lawyer noted, optimistically, “They want to make sure this never happens again.”
Anyone vowing something will “never happen again” is already lying. SAE, with its 3 percent black membership, is talking about overt racism “never” happening again — though maybe they were just referring to never being caught again — because it’s easy and meaningless. Notice they didn’t vow they’ll up their black membership to 13 percent; that would take effort, and could be checked and the lie discovered.
Room doesn’t permit me to parade a century’s worth of empty frat vows of “never.” Well, one more dusty example.
On Oct. 15, 1905, pledges to Delta Kappa Epsilon were gathered at Ohio’s Kenyon College. Among them was Stuart Pierson, 17, who, in the process of his DKE initiation, was run over by a locomotive and killed. A coroner found he had been chloroformed and left on the railroad tracks by his would-be frat brothers, who thought they were familiar with the train schedule but, as it turned out, weren’t.
“May such a Fraternity tragedy never happen again,” piously intoned a Greek publication chronicling the incident.
Forget vows of “never.” Remember what the Kansas City Journal wrote about Pierson’s death: “It is almost inconceivable that boys who are sent from respectable homes can become so criminally brutal or idiotically careless.”
That’s an evergreen phrase, truer than “never happen again,” and certain to be useful to frat spokesmen now and into the future.