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.

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