Surreptitious societies not a secret worth keeping

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April 11, 2008

9:49 AM

“I just finished reading an article about secret societies,” said a student outside Swem Tuesday. “And now I really want to be in one.”

He was speaking, of course, about “Peeking Into Closed Societies,”
The Flat Hat’s recent feature on all things furtive at the College. I was eavesdropping on him, just as those clandestine men and women of the night are eavesdropping on all of us, all the time, everywhere. Or so they’d have us believe.

As a freshman, I would’ve committed many a felony to infiltrate the ranks of a secret society. Young, impressionable and even less able to grow facial hair than I am now, I believed that members of these sub-rosa organizations were among the elect. These, I thought, were campus puppeteers, pulling strings from above and making things come to life.

Turns out they’re just regular people, though. Sometimes they bake cookies or adorn umbrellas with their logos. Almost four years later, they haven’t lived up to the hype I gave them.

Those who oppose fraternities and sororities, for instance, often claim that such groups exist purely to exclude other people. They say Greek life indulges our twin social urges: to identify with a group while setting ourselves apart from the masses.

If that’s true, then secret societies address only the latter urge, placing an even greater emphasis on exclusivity.

Most campus groups market themselves through positivism. They are known for what they do. Secret societies, however, embrace negativism — they thrill and entice because of what they are not, what they don’t do.

Consider the fact that, at least at the College, many of these
societies are avowedly masculine. According to Tuesday’s article, at least two of the factions consist entirely of men, with others suspected to be male-only. The Alphas, in fact, formed as an all-female group just to mix things up a little bit.

Thus, secret societies have a habit of catering to stereotypical machismo. They propagate the idea of a good old boys’ club — smarmy white guys plotting world domination in their spare time. Cuban cigars, belly laughs, maps freckled with color-coded thumbtacks. You know the drill. Imagine the adrenaline rush of their veiled meetings and it’s easy to see the appeal. For some reason, doing anything surreptitiously makes it feel about 10 times more important.

It’s tempting to say that this is all in good fun, but by all appearances the societies take themselves very seriously. Their names — Bishop James Madison Society, the Sevens, and especially the Society — are portentous and solemn. With their elaborate crests and Latinate slogans, they boast a love of ritualism, an inborn respect for tradition.

As The Flat Hat noted, the Sevens hung a banner to “express condolences” in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. Gosh, thanks, guys. The earnest grieving of our community wasn’t enough. We really needed to hear it from you.

Beyond secrecy itself, though, there’s no motive for their hush-hush proceedings. They’re not communist sympathizers in the era of McCarthyism. They’re not oppressed schemers in a fascist police state. They’re just liberal arts students — students who, as you or I might, get a kick out of concealment for its own sake.

Why should we glorify them? After all, wouldn’t a truly secret society aspire to utter invisibility? If these groups were secrets in the strictest sense of the word, no one would know of their existence. They would have no names, no need for crowns and daggers. But such anonymity would drive them mad. They want the campus abuzz. They crave our speculation.

The meek, philanthropic face of such clans is, as I see it, a facade, a weak claim to legitimacy so they can keep doing what they do best: priding themselves on knowing something we don’t.

Of course, even as I write this, I worry about the potential consequences. What if I was on the verge of an invitation? What if, through some powerful underground connections, a secret society could have scored me a great job in the midst of our economic recession? Am I missing out on something?

If you don’t see me in these pages next week, you’ll know why. Some cadre of elites has sent their covert ops squad to abduct me. Greater forces have stifled my voice. Please, show your support. Send help. Anything but cookies.

Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.

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