NOT MUCH OF A JOINER

As a freshman in college I pledged a fraternity. There was an anxiety-filled rush period followed by a ceremony followed by a partying binge.

During the binge, Sandy Shaefer took me aside and told me my new opinions, and here's what they were. We're friends of the Pikes, rivals of the SAE's. The KA's were a bunch of hypocrite rednecks, the Sigma Nu's were a bunch of preppy mama's boys. Our group always wins this event and that event. Such and such group tries to win this other (unimportant) event. It's important to get our people into student government offices and captaincies of athletic teams. And so on and so on. At the time I did not hold those opinions, but they quickly became my own. In retrospect it is surprising and embarassing just how quickly I came to believe in and embrace the attitudes I was handed that pledge night.

The sad thing is that although this kind of thing isn't always as blatant as the college fraternity example, it isn't all that unusual either. One of your old friends becomes a doctor. You ask him about some controversial medical issue. His answer sounds like an A.M.A. press release, doesn't it? Someone you know marries a member of a fundamentalist church and is suddenly starts referring to evolution as "just a theory." Old buddy joins a union? He's voting the union's interests in the next election.

My college fraternity took a group of well-educated, intelligent men and reduced the diversity of opinion on any issue from forty to just one, and did it in a matter of days with practically no coercion. Naturally we asserted that we were the one group that didn't conform to some mold or other. I suppose that all the guys that joined the other groups told themselves the same thing.

There were advantages to being in a fraternity. If you were running for student council, your brothers were obligated to support your campaign; and you had a certain number of guaranteed votes. Votes could also be gleaned from little sister organizations and through informal alliances with other fraternities. So political advantages went to the "team players" as opposed to those with strong individual personalities or convictions. In this way, men of inferior substance were shoehorned into office.

We also told ourselves that the fraternity built character and encouraged academic excellence, but our academic files were filled with old tests from all the professors and we knew that many of the professors were just going to use questions from old tests. Our study files amounted to little more than a collection of cheat sheets. We drank heavily. We pilfered from each other. Cheated each other at cards. We snaked our buddies' girlfriends. We were short-sighted and perpetually behind in our financial obligations. We gloated when we won and we whined when we lost. Somehow we managed to convince ourselves that we were the men of character and that all others were somehow lesser.

There was certainly no doubt that we ourselves were worthy men. After all, we had in the course of our pledgeship passed a series of gruelling tests of manhood and worthyness. I know that to an outsider plucking an olive off a block of ice with my butt cheeks doesn't sound like much proof of anything, but all ordeals are self-referential. By that I mean we all believe that whatever has happened to us justifies what we want. Every propellerhead thinks proper credentialling is all-important. Every warrior/biker/athlete thinks a man who doesn't get into a couple of fistfights a year isn't really a man in full. Every politician who gets fifty-percent-plus-one vote thinks he's got a mandate. Every driver with a radar detector views his stack of unpaid speeding tickets as his pedigree in the master race, and every frat rat who can light a fart thinks fart lighting should be fifty percent of the civil service exam.

Maybe I was the only one who sincerely believed in it. All the other guys knew it was b.s. and were just waiting for me to catch on so they could go home.

I look at groups differently today. Political parties, religions, pop-philosophies, unions, professional associations, sports franchises all seem a little like cults to me now. How can a group speak with one voice and claim not to have subsumed all opinions save one? How can somebody join a political party knowing that he is obliging himself to support a platform half of which he is likely to disagree with? How many members of the United Presbyterian Church know or care about the differences between their beliefs and those of the heretical Presbyterian Church of the United States?

It's too bad that I had to waste four years of my life in order to learn a fifteen-minute lesson.

RTJ--5/3/2000


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