Boots and Rallies
Last Friday night, I was strolling home from the Nugget Theater where I’d just taken in “American Sniper” (2014). I was a little underdressed, so my timbers were shivering a bit, and my head was lit with a myriad of ethical considerations provoked by the film I’d just seen. What are the allowances and concessions we must make to those who kill for their country’s security? Is sniping a dirty mode of warfare? Did the film-makers deliberately dehumanize the Iraqi and snipers in order to swerve off the tines of moral relativism? How has our culture grown to recognize and understand the impact of returning soldiers upon families since Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon?
Just about all my attention was seized in this cluster headache of “right” and “wrong,” but not so much that I did not spy out of the corner of my eye something absolutely queer. Like fickle goblins fitted in parkas stealing across the lawn by the light of the moon, I spotted a pair of girls outside Butterfield holding a large rectangle of familiar proportions and walking at an unusually brisk pace.
I quickly tamped down my ballooning stream of moral aporia as I swiveled on my booted heel and chased these two gremlins down. I caught up and turned the first around by her shoulder.
“Is that a composite?”
“Oh. Uh. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaa...” “I’m going to take this from you. Whose is this anyway?” I flipped it over. “Zete. 1983. Huh. You know, this is a profoundly shitty thing to do.” I let them go without a further word. If you don’t know what a composite is, they’re those big, framed, plaque-type things hanging on the walls all over the insides of fraternities and sororities with little pictures of all the members. In the first place, they’re extremely expensive to put together, but that’s overshadowed by the immense, non-monetary value they have to the house. Now, you may stand somewhere far out in Dartmouth’s vehemently anti-Greek contingent and therefore believe that any crime done to a fraternity is a punch in the favor of justice. If this is so, there is nothing in my following complaints for you. Please take this moment to set down the paper you are holding and return to your joy-filled, righteous lives, lest they be threatened by unwelcome syllables of dissenting opinion. If you’ve been following “Boots and Rallies” closely, you will already know that I have some pretty severe ideas about stealing at Dartmouth and what kinds of trauma I believe ought befall those who take part in our persisting, sad tradition of petty larceny. Stealing composites, however, is categorically more revolting than pocketing the occasional Courtyard Cafe sugar cookie. This is because of the sequence of events that must occur in order for the act to take place. At least half an hour before I apprehended this pair, they must have left their respective dorm rooms in order to “go out.” They might have visited 10 Greek houses, or just one. They definitely came to Zete last, where they must have stood on the cold porch and knocked on the door. A brother would have opened it and let them in, at which instant the peculiar social contract of visiting a Greek house would have been set into swing. Visitors are allowed entrance into the warm, private home and sleeping quarters of about twenty of their peers, unfettered access to as many free beverages as they can keep down (all while allowing Greek houses to shoulder institutional liability if they do become ill) and an affable scene of music and bouncing camaraderie. In return, guests are obligated to nothing. This inevitably foments a culture of gross entitlement as visitors forget how good they’ve got it, and the feelings of gratefulness and respect rapidly flicker out into oblivion. With this warped pathology in full bloom, this heartless sticky-fingered duo would have been welcomed within the walls of Zeta Psi, where they commenced to thoughtlessly gorge themselves on the expensive generosity of their fellow students as if it were their birthright until the clock struck midnight. At which moment, they departed for home, and as a note of thanks, they chose to rob their benefactors of an irreplaceable artifact. Showing up at someone’s door and openly violating their hospitality by stealing from them is historically one of the worst things a person can do — it is literally how the Trojan War got started (look it up). What troubles me more, though, is the unshirkable thought that one or both of these degenerate young women I caught is likely in the habit of raising her hands during class discussions concerning ethical issues like the ones raised by “American Sniper.” For college-age kids, morality consists of having strong, spirited opinions about lots of political and social issues — politically correct or not — but almost never in the habit of responsibly monitoring one’s choices and actions. “Right” and “wrong” are topics for English papers and op-eds, but not the sort of thing you’d drag into reflection on your daily conduct. That seems retrograde to me. So I can’t help but feel weird imagining that drunk mouth — the one smiling “Yaaaaaaaaaaa” at me — that same mouth in the classroom, turned stern and uttering terms of strongly-worded contempt for actions, policies and people that are in fact deeply ambiguous. It is an endlessly strange feature of people that they can be so duplicitous, even (or especially) unto themselves, that they can have such strong moral opinions and rant with such booming judgment. Meanwhile they commit daily acts of wrongdoing like it’s nothing. Which is why it’s a such a dang lucky thing I’ve never done anything wrong. Otherwise this column might come across as a tad hypocritical.