Frat Boys

People in positions of power, or of athletic dominance, can grow dependent on being able to exploit the system and then getting off: we are finding it translates into dead US troops as much as disoriented strippers.
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A little over two weeks ago, 60 Minutes interviewed the President (about Iraq) and the Duke Lacrosse parents (about DA Nifong and the progress of the case against their children).

At the time, I thought it a telling juxtaposition of subjects, one that served to highlight the entitlement of frat boys of all ages and their enablers. More recent events have convinced me this culture is alive and kicking.

Bush has always tried to position himself a Texan, a cowboy to the ranch born. But he's as much a product of Andover, Kennebunkport, Harvard and Yale. He hit the trifecta of entitlement: he was a white guy, wealthy, and the proud possessor of a Deke ring, known then (and still) as the fraternity of jocks and partying. Though he was less an athlete (he played rugby and stick ball) than a cheerleader, his bonhomie was a natural lubricant to the social networking that made his eventual unexpected rise in politics so smooth.

The Duke Lacrosse team springs from similar elites. Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann and many of the other players grew up with prep school spoons; some, like Bush, had priors (drinking and behavior infractions); they were known on campus as the ultimate fraternity (LAX), recruited athletes in a particularly white sport.

It's impossible to grow up like that and not have it imbue everything you do.

The frat boys I knew in college were in disguise as long haired hippies who seemed to only know their way around a dope deal and a Dead concert. But two went on to run a legendary NY disco and then a chain of hotels, one took over a clothing empire, others were the sons of real estate barons who controlled some of the major buildings in the city. It was my first up close and personal of a group whose wealth and privilege combined with entitled attitude made for impressive networking heft, even during the sixties.

I was more of a Grouchette: once I got into the sorority of my choice I deactivated: I had trouble reconciling the sixties message of tolerance and inclusion with the exclusive, pretty, like-minded girls who were my sisters.

But as a scholarship student less than a decade before, my husband had been a recruited athlete and a member of a fraternity at a large, public university both of which permitted him entrée to an entirely new group of friends. The rationale for students who still join fraternities and sororities is that at large schools they smooth the way to housing and take the sting out of having to figure out what to do on Saturday night. My youngest son (of four), also a recruited athlete, has been the only one to pledge a fraternity in this generation (basement drinking and hazing still part of that process) mostly from team pressure. (He also left as soon as he got in, a single room in the house across the street apparently even more persuasive.)

Being a recruited athlete at a school like Duke can open many doors, not only during college, but long after. Athletic teams and fraternities in their best iterations can be forces for positive change. But like fraternities, athletic teams have a culture of unity, one where conformity and listening to a coach and to each other (and blocking everybody else out) can mean the difference between a well-oiled machine, one that wins tournaments and a bunch of also-rans. The code of omerta, of sticking together, of hard work, yes, but also expected slack in other areas (academics, for example), is legendary and I don't need to repeat the tropes about dumb jocks which in a place like Duke is rarely true anyway.

Take a look how that culture can translate to politics. Bush has surrounded himself with powerful men who protect and serve with single minded devotion in a White House where fraternal loyalty is prized over clear, informed thinking. On 60 Minutes his posse wasn't present in body (busy working on the SOTU) , but they were there in spirit, his lines cribbed from a script they give him each and every time he goes out in public. (To be fair to the executive branch, the Republican congress spent most of the past six years in the dugout with them.)

This week, Bush's brotherhood closed ranks against one of their most faithful, Lewis Libby. Apparently cutting and running, as long as it's not from Iraq, is just fine with these guys. Yet they have no problem with violating the rights of Iraqi citizens, prisoners of war, American privacy, the clean air and water and our checkbooks in service of an economy that still favors their elite brothers (Halliburton, the energy lobby etc.)

And even though we now suspect that DA Nifong overreached on the indictment counts and might even have obstructed justice, seeing the smug, Duke parents sitting on the living room couch defending their sons was chilling too. Not one parent seemed to find it objectionable that even if their sons were technically not guilty of rape, the boys had created an climate of misogyny, that they had hired strippers, that there had been underage drinking and when things had gotten out of hand, that none had come forward to tell the whole, sordid story. (I understand thus far this has been a case largely tried in the media and all the facts are not in. Nevertheless, only one mom briefly acknowledged that the woman might have been in fairly desperate straits.) Also, until this incident, despite numerous faculty complaints, the Duke administration had routinely looked away from the rowdy players. Athletic prowess replenishes the coffers of a powerhouse like Duke: often alumni loyalty dollars go towards the team rather than the university itself.

These were a President, parents and children of privilege, and I found myself thinking as the 60 Minutes ticked by and nobody was going to apologize, that years of others--or his own-- belief in a child's mythology and in favored treatment from those around him could transform anyone.

Ok, so old news right? Boys will be boys? Do we look the other way, ceding to the no boy left behind movement that, among other things, positions elementary school teachers and reading lists as female-centric and disadvantageous to males? Does nature plus nurture trump personal responsibility too?

Exclusive clubs (be they athletic or political), ones you are elected to or ones you are born into, have a way of letting the smoke get in your eyes and giving you the illusion that the rules are just a little bit different where you are. Right now, the newly empowered Democrat pledges in Congress are as guilty as anyone of allowing the Bush brotherhood to continue to hold sway. (This is doubly disappointing since there are so many powerful women in the Congress.) The earmarks, the lobbyists, the foot dragging on troop withdrawal makes them every bit as responsible and will have important, heavy consequences. They, like the Duke parents, are pointing fingers elsewhere instead of owning up to their obligations.

There's a huge difference between a fraternity or house party or, indeed, a monstrous war. But people in positions of political or cultural power, or of athletic dominance, can grow dependent on being able to exploit the system and then getting off: we are already finding it translates into dead US troops as much as disoriented strippers.

Really, it all boils down to feeling that the other person doesn't matter as much as you do.

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