The Corner


Yale’s ‘Culture of Drinking’

Old Campus at Yale University (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

One of the more useful axioms of the justice system is this one: If the law is on  your side, argue the law. If the facts are on your side, argue the facts. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, put somebody else on trial. See: The O.J. Simpson murder trial, which turned into an effort to convict one of the cops on the case of racism.

Today my alma mater is on trial for its “culture of drinking.” A recent New York Times story paints Yale College as overrun with rich white preppies (absolutely true, at least in the 1980s when I and Brett Kavanaugh attended it) who sometimes join fraternities (true) which in turn encourage heavy drinking (true). The DKE fraternity to which Brett Kavanaugh belonged was strongly identified with drinking to excess and also with jock culture.

But so what? Administrators at Yale when I was there (1985-89) were well aware of the many keg parties and evidently decided that it was better to try to encourage students to drink on campus rather than off. Students holding parties would seek and obtain approval from college heads (then called masters) beforehand, even though virtually every freshman, sophomore and junior was under the legal drinking age. The masters would simply require that a wan little photocopied sign advising us that the legal drinking age was 21 be taped to the wall of the room where the party was being held. These signs looked so absurd as swarms of underage youth slammed down their beers that I thought there were posted solely for ironic purposes, but it turned out they were the university’s idea of policing drinking. All neighborhood bars around the Yale campus also served alcohol to minors without checking ID at the time. In short, alcohol was everywhere and most of us eagerly indulged.

Drinking too much at Yale was what nearly everyone did. It existed independently of “bro culture” or “frat culture” or “privileged white-preppy culture.” You could just as easily do an alarm-raising “culture of drinking” story about Yale’s a cappella singing groups. I don’t strongly remember the fraternity tap night but I well remember tap night for the singing groups — the Whiffenpoofs are merely one of many. A couple of members of the singing groups I knew got really seriously drunk, maybe even blackout drunk, to the point where friends of the passed-out student would be discussing how to put him to bed in such a way that should he vomit, he wouldn’t choke to death.  (One student in my class did die under such circumstances after a night of massive drinking.) Such was the crazed atmosphere of “tap night” that people who weren’t associated with any group would get drunk in solidarity. Any excuse for heavy drinking — tap night, Halloween, the weekend (defined as Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon) — was eagerly seized. To say that Brett Kavanaugh sometimes got drunk on campus would be to say that Brett Kavanaugh was like most Yale students in the 1980s.

I didn’t know Kavanaugh and have no idea how much he drank, but for the nation’s news organizations to put a team of Inspector Clouseaus on this “culture of drinking” is as silly as the 1980s obsession with seeking out information on whether this or that public figure had ever smoked marijuana.

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