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Cruise, Booze, and The News
Today's Animal House, misinterpreted.


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Jonah Goldberg

Maybe it’s the salt water in my veins or the nitrogen bubbles in my brain, but I’ve yet to recover from the National Review Cruise. My “sea legs” haven’t left me yet and I still feel as if I’m on the boat. In fact, all day I’ve been pitching back and forth like a drunk Shriner who can’t get the coke machine to accept his dollar bill.

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Still, the cruise was great. But getting there and back was the sort of experience that would have gotten me to give away the plans for the Normandy invasion if I were a captured American soldier. Therefore, according to the Old Testament strictures of my people, I have sworn vengeance on US Airways for at least seven generations. They cancelled our plane. They lied about our options. They seemed to enjoy this. In fact, if I were to chronologically catalog the mishaps, foul-ups, petty annoyances, and profound insults we suffered at the hands of the accursed US Air DMV rejects and waitresses in the sky, it would read like the begats in the Old Testament. The delayed plane begat the second delay. The second delay begat the third delay. The third delay begat the cancellation. The cancellation begat the first lie. The first lie begat the second…oh, you get it. The gist of it is that it took us more than 30 hours to complete what should have been a four-hour trip.

Anyway, I’m still digging out from a very discombobulating trip. I have piles of newspapers to read, and while I was gone I learned that my e-mail box will hold only 1,000 emails. My apologies if anyone got a “mailbox full” message (I will respond to all of the provocative hints, quizzes, and perceived errors in my column in an upcoming corrections G-File). My stock portfolio nose-dived again while I was gone. One stock I own, Nexmed — which is essentially developing a fast-acting cream version of Viagra (check with your broker before doing anything) — has plunged to $8 a share. It turns out that in an early test-study mishap, Alan Dershowitz rubbed a gallon all over his body like suntan lotion and grew so giant-sized he destroyed the lab.

Regardless, I don’t feel I can write about President-elect Bush right now because I’m just not up to speed on the goings-on. But there was an interesting article on the front page of today’s Washington Post that seems more apropos and more importantly, requires almost no work on my part. It seems that there is a growing movement among college fraternities to ban alcohol on their premises. Largely driven by huge insurance premiums and — according to nobody I believe — declining academic standards, many national fraternities have just given up tapping the Rockies or whatever.

It’s one of these classically imprecise stories which says both A and Not A are true. One the one hand, “Some leaders believe the organizations had lost their relevancy for a younger, more sober generation.” And in the next sentence we are told that fraternities are going dry because they are being held responsible for the “rising concerns about the incidence of binge drinking on college campuses.” So on the one hand, frats (and spare me the “don’t call them frats…” e-mails) are cutting off the liquid cheer (not the detergent) because these kids today aren’t drinking anymore; and on the other hand, they’re getting rid of the booze because this generation has a tendency to drink more than Ernest Hemingway with a bad flare-up of gout. From an explosion of sobriety to an outbreak of binge drinking, in just a dozen words.

Anyway, that’s not what I like about the story — and let me be clear, I do not like the idea that there is an unchecked outbreak of sobriety out there. No, what I like about it is that once again the mythology of generational politics is taking it in the neck. If kids today are playing canasta in their dorms rather than playing beer pong in the Delta House basement, it is tragic. But the fact is that baby-boomer types think college kids will always be rebellious in precisely the way they were. And that’s never the case. It turns out that college students are largely contemptuous of most of the causes and concerns that most baby boomers simply assert are hallmarks of youth. Sure, some kids support Ralph Nader and stage sit-ins; but they usually turn out to be the sort of kids-of-hippies who are actually following in their parents’ footsteps, not rebelling. The rebellious kids are the ones who know how to shop for the best 401(k). Most female college kids tell pollsters they don’t want to be feminists because their value systems bar them from smelling bad and shrieking like cats in a blender.

But I bet that drinking isn’t declining that much. In fact, perhaps the most common instigator of campus riots and protests is an administration’s attempt to curtail drinking privileges. A college education, for good and bad, has turned into a four-year entitlement to make an ass of oneself while you learn a few things on the side. Try to take that away, and many kids start acting like a French labor union when the government tries to slash the free-cheese subsidy.

Personally, I think it’s nuts to cut back on campus drinking too much. To paraphrase Hoover from Animal House, college drinking has a long history of existence in the community (which is ultimately why anti-drug-legalization conservatives say alcohol is different from, say, opium). College kids will drink at night as surely as they will sleep through their 8:30 A.M. biology class the following morning. If you force them off campus, then they will drink off campus, and that is not a good idea (or they will lock themselves in a room away from prying, and partying, eyes and drink more smuggleable spirits like grain alcohol). Obviously, insurance is the real driver here. Schools and fraternities can’t carry the costs, so they want to shift the liability to bars off-campus. The net result will be more drunk driving, which is precisely what the schools claim they want to avoid most.

If binge drinking and excessive buffoonery are big problems, there should be bigger penalties for excessive buffoonery. But I do know one thing. In the words of a great American:

You can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, …isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!

OK, I gotta go lie down now. The coke machine still won’t take my dollar.



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