Note: Despite my strong feelings on the subject, this post is not about whether or not Judge Brett Kavanaugh should or should not be seated on the Supreme Court. Nor will it reflect on the separate and important moral questions of whether his alleged horrible behavior is disqualifying, and if so, how long these acts should follow a person around. Instead, I wanted to reflect on my earliest memories with “That Guy” that Kavanaugh appears to have been in his high school and college days.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when it happened. It was the first time I had seen something like this, but it clearly wasn’t the first time he did it. And judging by her reaction–putting her head down and quickly moving away through the crowd–it wasn’t her first time experiencing it either.
The “it” in question, that moment, was my neighbor (who I had more or less tolerated up until that point), your stereotypical frat boy, Chris, grabbing a girl’s ass as she passed us in the bar. I had been in college a few years at this point already, and it was my first–and last–time out with Chris.
After the briefest of jaw-dropping moments, I scolded him. “Dude. That is NOT OK.” (Or something to that effect). A few of the other guys looked around awkwardly, a few mumbled half-hearted “yeah, not cools…” but he brushed the whole incident off. To him it was perfectly acceptable behavior. To me, it was rapey, entitled, male bullshit that should have been left in the 50’s. It was also emblematic of a larger problem of toxic masculinity that had been fermenting–and continues to ferment–inside the walls of fraternities from coast to coast in America.
By my third year of college, when this took place, I was no stranger to “frat bros” or their general horribleness. Part of the problem is the simple act of getting a bunch of horny young men together with excessive amounts of alcohol. A larger part of the problem is that these boys are entitled, wealthy elites who were born on 3rd base but think they hit a home run. Most are born into wealth. Fraternities exist to keep the generational wealth ticking over, creating a “brotherhood” to continue giving an unfair advantage to those already born into it. They are expensive and selective, maintaining a particular WASPish “standard” of generations who came before them. On average, they achieve lower GPAs, and yet have a 36% higher future income than other graduates. And actually, that rather undersells the issue. From a since deleted post on Cornell’s website:
Fraternity men represent a very small percentage, only 2% of the male population in the United States. However, that 2% is a very powerful group of individuals. Fraternity men have gone on to hold many of the top positions in our nation, from the business world to the political arena.
Approximately 80% of the top executives of Fortune 500 companies are fraternity men. 76% of current United States Senators and Congressmen are fraternity men. 100 of 158 cabinet members since 1900 have been fraternity men. 40 of 47 Supreme Court Justices since 1910 have been fraternity men All but two United States Presidents since 1825 have been fraternity men.
A bit too honest for us plebs who have learned how to use the Internet, eh? “The Power of 2%” was repeated almost word-for-word on the University of Tennessee’s website. I guess “The Power of 1%” was a little too on the nose.
During my time at the University of Tennessee, it quickly became apparent how destructive fraternities were, not just to the student body, but beyond, despite being a small minority of the total male population (roughly 14% today). From a purely aesthetic point of view, you could see a frat bro coming a mile away: dressed in identical pastel polos, sunglasses (complete with adorable straps!), khakis, and sandals. And they bred common ideologies: more conservative, more insular, less inquisitive and thoughtful than their fellow non-Greek students. They drank–and to excess–more often, and were generally not pleasant to be around.
And there were a string of controversies surrounding them while I attended. Members of the Alpha Epsilon Pi were known to regularly sit on their porch and grade women who passed by. The University took no action. White members of Kappa Sigma dressed up in black face. The University took no action. Speaking of Kappa Sigma, they would regularly wipe their ass with dollar bills, then leave them on the sidewalk in front of their house, laughing hysterically at any poor bastards who stooped to pick up the loose dollar. It takes a real entitled sack of shit to literally laugh at poor students who think they just got lucky with a free buck. Of course, the University turned a blind eye.
Not to be outdone, Kappa Alpha brought homeless men off the streets, gave them alcohol, and had them fight for their entertainment. Somehow that incident didn’t bring the national spotlight, but the next one did: Pi Kappa Alpha’s fraternity was suspended after a student was hospitalized from an alcohol enema (AKA “butt chugging”).
According to the University, all of the aforementioned chapters are currently members in “Good Standing.”
As of this writing, combining fraternities and sororities at the University of Tennessee, there are four suspended, two with deferred suspensions, one with a social probation, and and four with disciplinary probations. Many of the frats in good standing are with an asterisk, to represent “minor” violations such as underage drinking.
This is just a small sample of one large, public university in America. My recollections only scratch the surface of the daily horrific behaviors inflicted on other students (including their own members!) by fraternities. These are institutions that perpetuate wealth, inequality, entitlement, abuse, harassment, binge drinking, an “us vs. them” mentality, and minimize effort, studiousness, curiosity, and inclusivity. Moreover, they create a culture that not only lacks empathy or sympathy for their fellow non-Greek students, but actively denigrates and antagonizes them.
In short, it’s an institutional and a generational problem.
To bring this back to the man of the moment, Brett Kavanaugh, we all know “that guy.” Maybe he’s no longer the rapey, binge-drinking monster he’s been credibly accused of, but that is quite besides the point.
The wealthy high school or college party boy who drinks too much and refuses to take “no” for an answer? The one who, when called out on it, either responds in entitled anger or laughs it off as a joke? Yeah, I’ve met plenty of them. And I am no longer surprised to find out that they were in a fraternity.
Whether you’re a local businessman or nominated for the Supreme Court, being in a fraternity during your most formative years has to effect you. We saw it during Kavanaugh’s testimony, flying into a fit of rage at the possibility that a seat on the most powerful court in the land would be denied to him because of his actions. This sense that Kavanaugh could rely on his “brothers” to help him out, to give him a job regardless of qualifications (or disqualifications), was drilled into his psyche from an early age. Most outsiders see it as appalling behavior. He considers it normal. And that’s the problem.