Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Note to Fraternities

Recently, I met with members of a local fraternity as part of a series of sessions sponsored by State College Borough.  A representative of the police was there to tell fraternity members about the laws and ordinances—under-age drinking, noise, public urination, etc.—that tend to dog the party-oriented fraternities located in our residential neighborhood.  My role was just to introduce them to the neighborhood and to encourage them to participate in the life of our community.   However, as I walked to the meeting, I realized that the discussion we really needed to have—and for which there is no venue—is about what is happening in the United States and the world and what it might mean for their generation.
            I came to State College in 1968 as a junior at Penn State, having spent the first two years at Shenango Valley Campus in my home town.  It was a time of turmoil.  Earlier that year, the country had witnessed two assassinations.  In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee, sparking a series of race riots in large and small communities across the country.  Then, on June 6, Robert F. Kennedy died after being shot while campaigning for President in the California primary.  The country, already on edge due to an unpopular war in Vietnam, was shaken.  A sophomore at Penn State-Shenango, I was working at a fast-food restaurant and had night-watch duty during the riots. 
            The political turmoil was accompanied by social revolution.  African-American rights, gay rights, women’s rights, the youth revolution—all converged on Baby Boomers as they entered their college years.  Woodstock punctuated the revolution in the summer of 1969.   The Selective Service draft lottery, which gave every man born between 1944 and 1950 a draft call-up number, put an exclamation point on the year in December. That spring, anti-war demonstrations erupted across the nation, closing Penn State’s University Park campus for a time and resulting in the killing of four students and wounding of nine others by the National Guard at Kent State University in May 1970. 
            These things were on my mind as I walked to the fraternity to talk about the challenge of fraternity members living (and partying) in a residential neighborhood.  It had been a difficult winter, marked by the British vote to leave the European Union, increased Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war and apparent interference in the U.S. election, which saw Donald Trump elected as the 45th President of the United States, despite losing the popular vote by almost three million votes.  The first weeks of his tenure were marked by a barrage of personal invective and untruths from the new President, threats by his staff against the press, and a barrage of executive orders and memoranda that challenged the direction of domestic policy over the past decade.  Ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov remarked that it appeared as if the world was preparing for war.  It was a rocky start, to say the least. 
            JoanBaez, remarking on the nation-wide women’s marches that attended Donald Trump’s inauguration, said that she “was struck by how many really young people [attended]. When I look back at the civil rights and peace movements, was it really this young?”  She added that, in an era marked by lack of empathy, “we need to make up for that, double-time, {with} our own empathy. That’s the only way we’re going to make it through.”
            Since then, the world has become even more uneasy.  Syria’s Russia-supported dictator, Assad, used poison gas on his own citizens, prompting the U.S. to bomb the Syrian airfield from which the gas attack was launched.  Then, North Korea’s dictator continued to test long-range missiles with the announced goal of becoming able to use atomic bombs on the U.S. The United States, in turn, announced that “all options” are open against North Korea.  As Vice President Pence said this week while on a trip to South Korea, “The era of strategic patience is over.”
            These are issues that, in all likelihood, will dominate society over—and, perhaps, well beyond—the next four years. This will be the background against which current fraternity members and other undergraduates will study and prepare for their lives as leaders in our communities.  This is the context that will shape their opportunities and perspectives as they start their careers and their families.
            Meanwhile, the party culture remains very much alive at Penn State.  According to the February 6 issue of the Daily Collegian, ( )  eleven rapes were reported in the first month of the spring semester. Then, in March, a young student died as the result of a fall during drunken hazing at a fraternity.  The University closed that fraternity and put restrictions on the others. However, during “parent week,” most of the fraternities disobeyed one or more of the nine restrictions imposed by the President (one disobeyed all nine).  It remains to be seen what the university will do in response.
            Meanwhile, what should the community—the full-time residents among whom the fraternities operate—say to these young men?  What are our expectations of privileged young men who are seeking credentials to lead our businesses, professions, and communities?  What are our expectations for how the university should prepare them for leadership and citizenship? 
            Not since the 1960s has the public had so strong a need to be engaged in society, to challenge assumptions and to demand standards.  We stand on the very edge of civilization, a time when a 33-year-old bully from North Korea and a 70-year-old bully from the U.S. hold nuclear destruction—and our fate—in their grasp. The lesson of the 20th century should have been that destroying life is not the way to peace.  The goal of “strategic patience” was to avoid war by creating room for more civil change to take place.  As Wendell Berry wrote in response to the Boston Marathon murders, “The solution, many times more complex and difficult, would be to go beyond our ideas, obviously insane, of war as the way to peace and of permanent damage to the ecosphere as the way to wealth” (Our Only World, p. 19). 
            My message to the fraternity men is simple.  This is your world, your future.  If there is a war, you are the ones who will fight and die in it.  If there is peace, you will be the generation of leaders who sustain it.  Either way, you will live out the result. Peace requires constant care, vigilance, empathy for the struggles of others, and involvement in the community.  It requires constant awareness of how our actions affect others.  I encourage you to turn down your music, set down your bottles, and listen, instead, to your world.  Then, act accordingly.