The Explainer: Barbarians

That was a scene from National Lampoon’s “Animal House” which glorified fraternities as a boozing, womanizing, but essentially carefree and extremely fun, college institutions. Because of that, authorities were portrayed in the film as paranoid party poopers, with a killjoy attitude towards freedom and fun.

But today, fraternities, once more, hog the headlines. An initiate has died. Demands for justice seem to be falling on deaf ears.

What drives people to belong, and who risk life and limb to do so? And is this a situation fratmen have coming to them, or part of a larger, violent, instinct in our society? That’s what we’ll try to get to grips with, tonight.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Church, Club, and School


When Cris Anthony Mendez died, the reactions were intense. Manifestos were written, denouncing hazing. Statements were issued, condemning fraternities. Analyses poured forth, to explain why students risked life and limb to join fraternities. Investigations were promised, but hampered by witnesses going into hiding. Secret meetings by fraternity members were held to figure out damage control. Students held an indignation rally on the UP campus. Off-campus, speeches were made, existing anti-hazing legislation was criticized and amendments were proposed.

We have been here before; we’ve been shocked, angry, insistent on justice, before. Why are we in the same place, all over again? One reason is, fraternities are design with survival in mind.

Fraternities are one of the few institutions that have an institutional memory, and which cherishes traditions. They are organizations that serve, for their members, as part of the bedrock of society. I’ve long pointed out that our society, at least for the upper classes, and the middle class which tries to copy the upper class, is defined by three institutions. They are, church, club, and school.

All these institutions require a rite of passage. For Christians, your initiation into the religion begins with baptism. For schools, you have ceremonies to mark your passage from grade school to high school and when you finish college. For clubs, they invariably mark the acceptance of new members with some sort of ceremony, which at times requires some sort of hazing.

Think of it. Weird ceremonies, peculiar costumes, claims of occult or other kinds of specialized knowledge, hanging out, networking and getting drunk: men love it, and they choose certain faiths, go to certain schools, set up and join certain clubs, to find excuses to wear wacky disguises and learn secret handshakes.

I once met a gentleman who recounted to me, with great pride, how he participated in the hazing of Ferdinand Marcos. He told me how Marcos nearly died. How he and the others who took part in the hazing, took it as a sign of future greatness that Marcos lived. He told me all this, at a time, after Edsa, when the Marcos name hadn’t been rehabilitated by amnesia yet; and I will never forget how he spoke of the Upsilon reunions in Malacanang, with such fondness.

Long before most of you watching tonight were born, fraternities not only existed, but had initiations notorious for the violence of the hazing.

There’s a reason behind the existence of frats, and their rituals. And oddly enough, it has something to do with a freedom you and I take freedom for granted today. The freedom of association.

The oldest fraternity in the world is Phi Beta Kappa, which holds immense prestige as an honor society.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded in 1776, and it was the first collegiate organization to adopt a Greek-letter name  in the USA. Phi Beta Kappa stands for philosophia biou kubernetes — “Love of learning is the guide of life.”That was an era, after all, when education was in the Classical mode, and Greek and Latin were the languages of knowledge.

The history of Phi Beta Kappa points out that at the time it was created, freedom of association was a rare, if not impossible, thing to exercise. Students who wanted to debate any issue was severely restricted within college premises, so students gathered in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg To maintain their freedom, the students who formed the society adopted an oath of secrecy, a badge or key using symbols that couldn’t easily be understood by non-members: mottos in Greek, a language even more inaccessible than Latin; an initiation; and a handshake.

By the 19th century, fraternities had come to bear different priorities in mind. The priorities weren’t love of learning, or freedom to engage in intellectual discussions. Instead, the priorities revolved around power: either gaining, and maintaining, professional influence, or obtaining and protecting political power. Often, it involved both: professional influence as a means of securing political importance.

For example, Kenneth York, writing in the Michigan Law Review in 1952, wrote of the origins of fraternities identified with the profession of law.

The history of that peculiarly American undergraduate social phenomenon, the Greek-letter society, is readily accessible and requires no  general review. By 1869 such associations were no longer particularly novel. In that year a group of students at the University of Michigan  Law School formed a secret society along the lines of the conventional undergraduate organization for the purpose, it was asserted –with a  rather engaging candor– of controlling “politics.” Once formed, the society wrote several schools in the East in search of some national organization of similar bent which it might join, only to learn that there  was none. Hence, by accident of default, the first professional fraternity, Phi Delta Phi, was formed and for 30 years or so remained alone in the field, in the meantime extending to 30 schools.

Now bear in mind where American frats were headed, and became, by the 20th century.

And let’s go on a little detour to see what served the purpose of frats, before frats were established on our shores.

Before the fraternities, there were the Masons.

Before our independence in 1946, it could be argued that one major means for political connections to be forged, was through being a Freemason. In Spanish times, this secret society dared question the Catholic Church, and it was also color blind, a radical idea in any colonial society. Urban Ilustrados like Rizal and members of the provincial principalia like Aguinaldo, found Masonry a congenial place for Enlightenment thinking.

But Masonry had a bias for the gentry, and that’s one reason other societies would arise, such as the Katipunan, with even more radical ideas. Andres Bonifacio himself had been a Mason, and a member of Rizal’s La Liga Filipina. But he would go further. The Katipunan’s rituals, it’s ranks, its love of secrecy and the pomp of ceremonial, was heavily inspired by Masonic rites.

Masonry continued to be heavily intertwined with politics up to independence in 1946, and it remains very significant in the legal and military professions. But after independence, political connections were forged through other kinds of secret societies. That is, by means of fraternities. It was a generational shift, accompanied by the rise of new institutions.

Our Masonic generation went to Catholic schools where their friar teachers couldn’t prevent their learning radical European ideas. Our first fraternity generations, on the other hand, went to public schools, including the state university, established by the Americans as a means to counter the power of the Catholic Church, besides its being the democratic thing to do.

Filipino students in the public schools, besides trying to copy American-style rhetoric, also learned American-style networking. And they learned, soon enough, that in America, fraternities were an important part of professional life and the power game.

Ferdinand Marcos was, in many ways, the exemplar of this new generation. It’s no coincidence that when he was a college student, fraternities were coming into their own in the University of the Philippines.


The frat Marcos famously belonged to, Upsilon Sigma Phi , was established in 1918. It  is the oldest fraternity in Asia. Other well-known frats were established in UP more or less in the days when Marcos was a student. Beta Epsilon was founded in 1929; Tau Alpha (engineering) 1932; Mu Sigma Phi and Phi Kappa Mu (medicine) and the Portia Sorority (Law) in 1933; Sigma Rho, the law fraternity to which Cris Mendez was seeking admission, was founded in 1938; Alpha Phi Beta in 1939.

We also know, that extreme violence during initiations was a part of fraternity life even in the first decades of such organizations. This scene, from “Animal House,” graphically demonstrates how the initiations Filipinos copied, were based on pretty harsh American rites.

But let me suggest to you, that the reason fraternity hazing has been so violent in Philippine frats, is something more deeply cultural.

In our 13th episode, I quoted an observation by the war hero Gen. Vicente Lim. He was talking about the military, but he might as well have been speaking of our society as a whole.

Here’s part of a letter he wrote on February 1, 1941:

I noticed that non-commissioned officers following the line of least resistance to acquire obedience to their orders use their fists and do bodily harm to subordinates. Abuse of authority is rampant in this Army; the whole structure of our discipline is based on fear… fear of loss of money; fear of privilege taken away; fear of the power behind authority… A man can be led, although I admit it to be rather difficult and tedious, in the right direction through sound reasoning and confidence in the leaders


That letter can be found in this magnificent book, “To Inspire and To Lead,” and a deeper look at hazing, its brutality, and its motivations, can be found in a book by an American.

In “Closer than Brothers,” the American historian Al McCoy looks at two classes of the Philippine Military Academy and asks why one class remained loyal to democracy while a later one enthusiastically served a dictatorship. But McCoy wrote something directly relevant to us tonight.

From the perspective of the alumni, the ritual hazing of incoming plebes remains the defining moment of their life at the PMA. In subtle and yet profound ways, hazing served as a transformative trauma–coloring subsequent Academy experiences and uniting the new class through a sense of shared suffering. For the first few months, plebes were subjected to constant harassment-an unbroken sixteen-hour regimen of running, recitations, drills, and punishments under nameless, powerful upper-classmen.

And this is what we’ll take off from, when we return. The rite of passage is meant to help form a bond. But why does that rite of passage so often require running the risk


 II. Secret Societies


That was another scene from National Lampoon’s “Animal House.”

This is an editorial cartoon that appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It was referring to the death of _______. Our Explainee, tonight, was very upset with this editorial cartoon.

Explainee, could you tell us why?


In 1972, writing in Asian Survey, Carol H. Cespedes and Eugene Gibbs wrote a journal article titled “The New Middle Class in the Philippines: A Case Study in Culture Change.” They wanted to examine the rise of a class of people they described as a “growing class of people who are neither rich nor poor, who have in two generations become educated, achieved a place in business  and the professions. and lost their ties to the land.” To do so, they zeroed in on one such family. That family included a young man named Jesus:

“In college I became a member of the Alpha Phi Omega but I didn’t tell my parents. I waited until after the initiation. My mother knew because she saw all the red spots on my body. She didn’t say anything because that is college life. The initiation is very difficult. It is both mental and physical torture. We don’t want a high and proud man to become a member because it would ruin our good name.”


That was one fratman, justifying the initiation he had to endure. This willingness to endure pain and humiliation, and then pride in surviving the ordeal, is something non-frat members find hard to explain.


Prof. Luis Teodoro wrote this scathing description of fraternities, and what drives students to join them:

Why such promising young men should in the first place join a fraternity, thereby risking life or at least limb during initiations that they know are violent, as well as in inter-fraternity confrontations, has been attributed to fraternities’ meeting “real needs.” One of these has been identified as the need to belong, which implies the hankering of immature minds for the anonymity and unanimity of the herd, as well as the relief from the burdens of thought an authoritarian organization (fraternities are not democracies) offers. Fraternities in short offer something, though on a lesser scale, a church or a political organization like the Nazis offer, and which the home cannot provide.


In UP, there are often two sides to student politics: the fraternity-oriented political parties, and the parties of the Left.

What Teodoro doesn’t say, of course, is that the Left, would benefit from the abolition of the frats. He also cleverly avoids pointing out that while the student organizations of the Left don’t look to get beaten up by fratmen, they do glory in being beaten up by policemen. And that Leftist political rivals of the fraternities could as easily be accused of hankering for the anonymity and unanimity of the herd, except they can say, with some justice, that at least they have the sacred scripture of Marx to guide them, which fraternities don’t.


A blogger I enjoy reading, “The Warrior Lawyer,” takes a less patently politically-charged look at the frat phenomenon.

The movers and shakers on campus are oftentimes fratmen. The administrators, up to and including the Deans and, now and again, the President, are often affiliated with this fraternity or that. The alumni are fiercely loyal to their frats and maintain ties long after they have left the university. U.P. frats therefore wield considerable clout beyond the geographical boundaries of the school. Their members occupy influential positions in both the public and private sectors. For instance, at least nine (9) of the 23-man Philippine Senate are known to be frat or sorority members from U.P. (Villar, Honasan, Arroyo, Pangilinan, Gordon, Escudero , Angara, Ponce-Enrile and Pia Cayetano). Others have a father, sibling or spouse who are fratmen (Roxas, Defensor-Santiago).The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is a U.P. fratman.


He then goes on to explain why students invited to join fraternities, are willing to undergo the ordeal of initiation.

There are many attractions to joining a frat, despite the well-publicized dangers. A large and diverse campus like U.P. Dilman, with a student population of approximately 25,000, can be intimidating, specially to new students far from home. Frats provide a sense of security, belonging and some stature, however dubious , to its members. Many also boast of a formidable network of alumni which one can tap into after graduation.


And this –the networking importance of fraternities- brings up one reason they keep getting into trouble. They are an outmoded institution, a vested interest, out of step with the needs of our times.

Randy David has long been arguing, that our society is undergoing a crisis of modernity. The crisis comes out of our traditional values turning out to be incompatible with our aspirations to be modern. Modernity, as David pointed out, means institutions that operate according to impartial rules.

For example, what should matter more, merit or connections? What happens, when connections end up putting a few people ahead of the interests of everyone else? You have the crisis in modernity David was referring to.

Knowledge is power. Not only what you know, but who you know, confers power.

This crisis has actually been there for some time. Even if you try to establish a modern institution, the people who make up that institution, often operate to age-old values, and demonstrate behavior drilled into their minds by society.

When we return, the power and allure of fraternities –and why violence characterizes them.


My View


The most basic distinction in any society is between us and them. The word barbarian was coined by the Ancient Greeks, to  describe non-Greeks as uncultured brutes.

Members of fraternities supposedly call non-frat members barbarians. Today, public opinion says the true barbarians are the fratmen who end up killing their own in initiation ceremonies.

My colleague in both the Arab News newspaper and, Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, says in the United States, Greek letter societies are being abolished. The reason is, they have become unproductive, even undemocratic, institutions.

But let me sound a note of caution. The origins of fraternities lay in aspiring to something we take for granted. That was freedom of association.

Yes, there’s the right of the state to defend you and me, from harmful associations. But invoking the right of our government, to defend the whole, by outlawing the relative few, carries a whole set of dangers.

You want all fraternities abolished today? What is to stop the government from going on and abolishing any organization it dislikes, such as the League of Filipino Students, one of the political forces the fraternities compete with for power in UP politics? Nothing.

Besides which, outlawing any organization is a sure-fire way to make people want to join it. Abolition is not the answer. Exclusion is. Simply pass a law, making any member of a fraternity, social or civic organization, ineligible for public office, unless they resign and renounce their affiliation first. Strip the association of the prestige that attracts the Alpha Males, and more peaceful types will join it.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.