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Mark Twain and the boys of Theta Tau

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Last year, when the disturbing videos first emerged from the Theta Tau fraternity, I thought of a passage from the fiction of Mark Twain. A front-page article in a recent Post Standard reminded me of it again.


One of Mark Twain’s characters, a mysterious stranger from another world, reflects on humanity: “For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug…weaken it a little, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” What Twain is describing here is satire, the humor that threatens regimes and deflates egos; it tells us that the emperor has no clothes.


Satirists are like the prophets. They howl in the wilderness, “Make straight your paths.” Twain understood that satire works best when it’s aimed at the powerful and the privileged. Using all their tools—wit, irony, occasional vulgarity, and rage—satirists tear down one world and point toward a better one. And like prophets, satirists never relent or regret. No matter how many stones are hurled, no matter who heckles or threatens, satirists remain committed to their vision of what’s just and true.


The boys of Theta Tau—as well as their defenders—have tried to represent their behavior as a form of humor. It was a parody, or a satire, or maybe a “roast.” Though poorly executed, they explain, it was only meant as a prank. They insisted that their behavior, though boorish and vulgar, wasn’t meant to offend; it was just supposed to be “funny.” As further rationalization, these soon-to-be engineers pointed to their clumsiness as writers and the lack of time they had to prepare. Ultimately, they admitted to being, in their words, simply “young and stupid.”


“Young and stupid,” may explain barbed-wire tattoos or nighttime bungee jumping. It doesn’t quite explain a video where students mime the sexual assault of a Down Syndrome man confined to a wheelchair: he’s “drooling” we’re told, so they won’t need to “use any lubrication.” That’s not the sweet, uninhibited voice of youth we hear in that video; it’s something a lot darker. And, for what it’s worth, we rarely accept impetuosity as a defense for the bad choices made by poor kids, or young minorities and immigrants. We expect them to pay for their mistakes—a look at our prisons proves the point. Only the children of privilege—young people at prestigious universities, studying to join one of the most lucrative professions available, for example—those are the kids who get to be “young and stupid.”


In any case, as young and as stupid as the boys of Theta Tau may be, they’re still not satirists, not even clumsy ones. Like all sorts of activists and artists, satirists enjoy the spotlight; they don’t avoid it. I’ve known many brave and talented students in my 25 years of teaching and when they perform, they do it in the open. They stand in front of crowds of strangers, on any number of stages: musical, theatrical, or political. They don’t fear the hostile reaction of someone who disagrees. They put their names on essays and artwork and ideas of all kinds. These boys of Theta Tau performed in relative anonymity, in a darkened basement, and posted their performance on a restricted website.


So if it wasn’t satire, what did we see and hear on those videos? Mark Twain would call them practical jokes, “cruel and barren of wit.” Practical jokes, according to Twain, have no higher ambition than to exchange pain for pleasure. In much of Twain’s fiction, he attacks this use of humor and the men who enjoy it. Twain’s jokers—“loafers” he called them—sit in front of general stores or they prowl backwater streets, looking for someone to bully, or mock, or torture. Pap Finn, Huck’s drunken and abusive father, is Twain’s finest incarnation of this particular kind of nastiness. When a Black professor arrives in St. Petersburg, Pap complains, he had “the whitest shirt on you ever see…and the shiniest hat…and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.” Pap sees, standing before him, a changing world, and as Twain tells us earlier in the novel, Pap “ain’t the kind of man to stand for it.” He pushes the professor off the street and into the mud, and celebrates his triumph; the gathered crowd relishes the spectacle.


We seem surrounded by Pap Finns of late. Our president mocks a disabled reporter, or the appearance of any woman who offends him, or he denigrates the intelligence of a Black member of Congress. And the crowds cheer. Rosanne Barr describes Valerie Jarrett, an African American member of the Obama administration, as a child of the “Muslim brotherhood & Planet of the Apes.” And then she claims it was only a joke. And while neo-Nazi thugs beat protesters in Charlottesville, their fellow thugs laughed and chanted obscenities. The Theta Tau videos seem to be adolescent versions of these more public outrages.


I’m sure that many of the young men of Theta Tau feel that their own foolish behavior betrayed their better selves. They don’t help their cause, however, when they make excuses. As their fraternity brothers mocked gay people, the disabled, women, Jews, racial minorities, and immigrants, they either joined the fun or laughed from the sidelines. No one did anything to stop it. If these young men are sincerely interested in atonement, they ought to confront the seriousness of what they did and not dress it up as humor. The world that waits for them is not a frat house. The American that’s coming is filled with precisely the people they mocked so casually—no matter how many Pap Finns try to stop it.

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Mark Twain and the boys of Theta Tau