Everyone at Princeton knows that eating clubs, in essence, aren’t about eating at all. The term “eating club” is either a terrible misnomer or brilliantly crafted doublespeak meant to obscure what the clubs actually represent: academic interests, extracurricular activities, class, race, socioeconomic status, political inclination, athleticism, theatricality, musical taste, penchants for water sports, for hot dogs, for the American flag, for a mounted cannon, and so on. Eating, as you see, is the least interesting function of eating clubs.
And every eating club invests in cultivating its distinct persona. Some openly so—Quad has rebranded itself as the “friendly” club, and Charter usually attracts more engineers—and others in a hushed manner. Stereotype is too strong a word, but it’s no secret that some clubs are clustered around people with certain commonalities.
Among them, Ivy and Terrace seem to me—after having been a former member of both clubs—to embody not just different ideals but diametrically opposed sensibilities. Every year after spring bicker, Princeton suffers from an annual hangover that we have not yet learned to prevent. Instead of a hangover cure, we get articles like this diagnosing the politically fashionable disease of the season.
Nearly every article about Princeton eating clubs has a similar repertoire. It begins with a hat-tip to F. Scott Fitzgerald by citing a passage from This Side of Paradise:
“Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive mélange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic, vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards; Cap and Gown, anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful; flamboyant Colonial; literary Quadrangle.”
But these monumental epithets, however quotable, are grossly outdated. Fitzgerald entered Princeton in 1913 and left in 1917 to enter the army. And it’s worth mentioning that Fitzgerald himself was a member of Cottage. (Fitzgerald received bids from Cap, Quad, Cannon, and Cottage.) Given that he never had an extended firsthand experience of other clubs, we shouldn’t be so naive to take his descriptions beyond stylized speculations or faint sketches.
Besides, reading that passage always made me squirm a little bit because Fitzgerald, who is an alumnus after all, makes no effort to understate his own continued hyper-awareness of class and social capital in Princeton’s eating club scene. If the book were about another school, such small-time status games of college kids would have given me a chuckle. But in This Side of Paradise, I could never detach Fitzgerald the author and Fitzgerald the “tool.”
Fitzgerald came across to me as the kind of alum who just can’t move on—always wearing orange to work, flaunting Princeton gear in public, casually name-dropping their academic pedigree. Therefore, flowery prose notwithstanding, the oft-quoted passage has never given off the pleasant scent of a celebrated literary quote. What I sensed instead was a puerile odor of the young writer’s own anxieties as a recovering participant in Princeton’s traumatic social scene.
In the aftermath of spring bicker, I want to contribute my own partial and woefully incomplete take on this uniquely Princeton phenomenon. Ostensibly, this system looks similar to the kind of high-school drama that troubled our own anxious adolescences. For freshmen, faculty members, and outsiders, eating clubs don’t look radically different from fraternities and sororities at other schools.
This brings us back to the ingenious nomenclatural gambit of whoever came up with such an ambiguous name. Yale’s “secret societies” exude an aura of walled exclusivity, and Harvard’s “final clubs” connote a sense of terminal achievement. But “eating club” sounds as blameless as “dining hall.”
I’m by no means a representative sample of Ivy or Terrace, but I can offer a personal and non-hysterical account of spending time—each for about a year—in two antipodal clubs: as a member of Class of 2017, I was in Ivy from sophomore spring to the near end of junior fall; then, before finishing the fall semester, I withdrew and spent one semester away from Princeton; after rejoining the Class of 2018 as a junior, I was in Terrace until senior fall.
Since I didn’t hold any officership, I was never privy to the inner bureaucracies of either club—I have no intention of going over the police line of this mystery. But I do believe that my yearlong memberships gave me just enough fodder to offer some useful observations.
With that preamble, here are some short and easy sketches. If Ivy is Manhattan, Terrace is Brooklyn. Ivy has Wine Nights, and Terrace has Fine Beer Wednesdays. If you crave for a parody of Ivy members, watch “Gossip Girl”; meanwhile, you can see Terrace’s prodigal son in “The Big Lebowski.” If the fanciest night at Ivy should remind you of a Gatsbyesque soirée, your wildest night at Terrace should give a taste of indoor Burning Man. I’m sure the founding members of Ivy wanted Ivy’s afternoons to resemble Seurat’s pointillist grace. Terrace’s founders would much prefer the ecstatic bacchanalia of Hieronymus Bosch paintings.
Terrace calls its prospective members womblings, and Ivy calls its hypothetical members bickerees. Terrace members often call the club “Mother,” and Ivy members call it, well, Ivy. Ivy has butlers (more like waiters), and Terrace doesn’t have one (but who needs one?). Ivy has a green room, and so does Terrace, but if you’ve been to both, you would never mistake one for the other. The most shocking fact about Ivy: there is no soda machine. What’s most shocking about Terrace? I’m afraid to find out.
Bicker should be a good point to start talking about Ivy. Ivy’s bicker process is a series of ten interviews spread out over two or three days. When you arrive at the foyer on the Sunday before the first day of spring semester, you are instructed to fill out a little sheet. In my year, it had slots for your name and five pieces of information about yourself—anything like your hometown, extracurricular activities, gap year experience, Olympic achievements, spirit animal, SAT score, or campus squirrels.
Once you fill out the card and send it upstairs, the members come down and call bickerees’ names one by one. Of course, members are not allowed to interview someone they already know—“dirty bicker,” as they call it, is sternly penalized. Once your name gets called, you smile, approach to shake your interviewer’s hand, and thus begins one of Princeton’s most zealous social high-wire acts.
Of course, it’s ludicrous to think that you could know someone through just one interview. So basically, your job as a bickeree is to refashion your persona pronto so that you and your interviewer would “hit it off.” Don’t worry, the little card you just filled out does magic because it conveniently short-circuits an awkward buildup. Be at once coy and politely blasé while making ironic comments about the bicker process.
Like a diligently prepared McKinsey job candidate, I knew I needed to tell—forgive me for using this phrase—a “personal story.” For me, it was two years of (mandatory) military service in the Republic of Korea Army, which I had just come back from. It may sound exciting except that I served in a U.S. Army base stationed in Seoul—probably the safest place on the entire Korean Peninsula in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.
I felt deceitful about selling this experience because I’ve never been the kind of person to be excited about guns and uniforms. I would have gladly stayed away from the army if there weren’t a troubled neighbor so close by. In fact, my favorite part of the quarterly rifle training was eating free snacks while waiting for my turn. And I violently avoided physical duties to secure time to read. If I successfully acted like a humorless dullard, I thought, they would think I’m worthless as a soldier and let me live in peace.
Soon after an interviewer called my name, however, I was fully engaged in social hucksterism. I wasn’t lying but telling only the spiciest parts of the military life and my experience as a platoon leader, which must have made me sound like a goddamn war hero. (For some reason, senior officers thought it was a good idea to make me a platoon leader. They must have assumed that I possessed the discipline to control other soldiers like well-behaved caged animals—which officers themselves treated us like—because I go to a nice school. As an act of civil disobedience, I turned our platoon into the Planet of the Apes.)
Needless to say, you also need some “soft” selling points, right? By that time, I was nominally the co-president of the Princeton Molecular Gastronomy Club. You’ve never heard of it? No wonder. That’s because my co-president, who was the only other member, and I were too lazy to recruit anyone else. At least we were decent enough to never ask Princeton for money.
Many interviews end with this question, “Why do you want to join Ivy?” Having a good answer wouldn’t help much. Just like the Princeton admissions interview, the question exists only to filter out potential serial killers.
The process is full of fluff, and I wasn’t so naive to think that the interviewers and I had already become friends, but it helped that I liked them. We indulged each other with thespian formality and a pleasant, but careful, dose of humor. (Once I had to climb up the fireplace to pose for the interviewer’s Instagram.) The vibe of bicker is at once dynamic and artificial: topics were studiously non-controversial, the interview tone dutifully curious, and the manner laboriously polite.
In the end, bicker is like giving ten consecutive elevator pitches for your startup where the product you’re selling is you. For the members, it’s the classic hiring heuristic, “Can you work with this person?”
After you’re done courting the interviewer, he or she will go upstairs to write an “inside card” about you, which is supposed to be some kind of vote. There are also “outside cards,” filled out by your friends in the club to vouch for you. How much do such “votes” actually matter? I haven’t got a clue. It all comes down to the bicker committee whose selection criteria I know nothing about. From what I’ve observed, if Ivy bicker is a democratic process, it’s as democratic as the Electoral College—it’s technically not a fraud, but often things don’t quite add up.
At the risk of sounding like an apologist, I should debunk one unfounded rumor about the Ivy bicker. Having been on the other side of this mess during fall bicker, I can vindicate Ivy from its most common charge: none of the members were told to ask what the bickerees’ parents do or, for that matter, any question to elicit their income level or socioeconomic marker.
Soon after I joined Ivy, however, it became apparent that the fact that you passed bicker doesn’t mean you gained full admittance to the club. Unless you’re the kind of person who has been a habitué of Ivy since your freshman year, it remains an unwelcoming place to new members unless you put in considerable effort.
What most frustrated me was the in-group exclusivity. Many members of Ivy are “affiliated” in one way or another, and so was I. But even after we all became members, some just refused to venture outside of their circles. One member once put this very succinctly, if not melodramatically, to me, “Ivy is not a group of individuals. It’s a group of groups.”
The demographic makeup—I was the only Asian male in my year—was strange but not terribly disturbing at first. But this changed as I came to understand how selection in the bicker process works.
The nature of the Ivy bicker isn’t egalitarian, but neither is it strictly aristocratic or meritocratic: it’s curatorial. In other words, selecting a class of Ivy members is akin to curating a major art museum in an ill-conceived manner. The museum would be filled mostly with canonical North American and European art pieces. Then, the passably liberal-minded curator fills up its mezzanine with Oriental Art and its annex with works by feminist and queer artists. The museum often features special photography exhibitions on the urban working class, invites guest speakers from advocacy groups, hangs multilingual signboards, and distributes audio guide players—narrating tours in mistranslated foreign languages with every nuance lost. It’s not exactly a celebration of diversity but rather a fetishization of it.
Was I being paranoid, self-pitying, self-victimizing? Was I a social misfit? I am definitely not a hyperactive extrovert who jumps in delirium when I meet new people, but I do like talking to people about interesting topics. I know I wasn’t alone in this case because in my year, at least two international students dropped. A few Asian members told me that they had considered dropping, and those who did drop went independent or joined, curiously enough, Terrace.
Recently, my friend sent me the result of anonymous reviews of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) dining experiences at Princeton, including eating clubs, conducted by the Asian American Student Association (AASA). Out of four reviews about Ivy, here are three reviews that were neutral-negative.
At first I felt very accepted, but over time I realized that there were differences in background that separated me from a good contingency of people in my eating club. I.e. ability to travel, attend big life events, general life interests. I think if I invested more time into the club, I might feel more comfortable there, but I’m not sure. All in all I think I just don’t fit into the eating club scene as much as I thought I did. I did meet some really genuinely awesome people because of Ivy though.
Community: The club is well-attended on nights out but not the best for those expecting people to eat or work there often. It’s the last stop on people’s nights out which is great but it’s definitely not warm. But if you’re into cold vibes at times, I would say this is the club for you. To be more specific, people are definitely nice around here, but it’s not a part of the club culture to be super proactive and super tight with everybody.
My favorite was the shortest review, a one-liner:
I feel we are probably the most diverse club on the street.
Irony always does the job.
I was a little heartbroken by the first review because the anonymous reviewer turns the blame on himself/herself—on his/her inability to “fit into” Ivy. (Coming back to the museum analogy, one can imagine a bronze humanoid sculpture, standing forlornly in an unvisited annex, lamenting the empty crowd, but unaware that she was installed at the museum’s dead-end wing, and nobody told her this: what’s to be blamed isn’t you; it’s the museum’s inept choice of placement.)
Reading those reviews was a reassuring salve, proof that I wasn’t the odd one. The first review accurately sums up my experience at Ivy. Each time I entered the building, I felt like I had entered the wrong bathroom: first, surprised looks from both parties; and while I was doing my business, I felt a twinge of discomfort at what’s supposedly my place. Of course, the natural response when you walk into the wrong bathroom is to walk out and find the “right” one. But what was the right one? And why was this the wrong one?
One day, when I was expressing my unease to one senior member—an Asian American who also confessed that he didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the club—he told me that I should nonetheless stay because “Ivy is an anthropologically interesting place.” Back then, I thought the phrase had a profound ring to it. But looking back, it smacks of over-dramatization, whispered as though cautiously offering a profound secret, elevating the pseudo-complexity and allure of the arcane institution that is Ivy. Back then, I decided to stay for a year because I thought what I found troublesome was Ivy the club, not the people inside Ivy.
What goes inside the polished facade of Ivy? How extravagant was it? One telltale sign from the beginning was that speakers who were invited for special occasions were ridiculously A-list—David Petraeus, for example—often matching the prominence of baccalaureate or commencement speakers. Most member’s nights were elaborately planned parties, but I particularly remember the night of Speakeasy—themed in the style of the Jazz age—when a professional vocal jazz ensemble played such good music that I thought none of us boors quite deserved it.
How affluent is Ivy? Belying the reputation of Ivy as the bastion of the American gentry and “old money,” one can still sense Veblenesque anxiety in the air. While some are indeed excellently but quietly dressed, others unabashedly flash jackets with a fist-sized Moncler label—a misfired signal of wealth. One girl had strong opinions about silverware.
Now, I can’t pretend anymore that “I”—this moralizing and quasi-reflective “I”—was so detached from Ivy from the beginning. After all, I was that shameless hustler who gladly exploited the hackability of bicker. I was susceptible to the same prestige-seeking game, which all of us participants of Ivy bicker, succumbed to. And even now, when I look at the classic green Ivy hoodie—the one with the owner’s class year stamped in a white leaf-shaped logo—it looks irresistibly chic.
At one Princeton event in New York, a middle-aged alum, wearing Ivy’s green and gold-striped necktie, approached me and my friends. The second question he asked us was, “Which club are you in?” I guess you can take a man out of Ivy, but you can’t take Ivy out of a man.
We, former and current Ivy members, tend to over-identify ourselves with the club. We roam the campus with that green Ivy hoodie. While doing so, we feign an air of nonchalance as if we are oblivious to the meaning of the hoodie’s ownership, which we tend to grossly over-interpret, only to put off others. At first, we’re proud that we earned that green hoodie. But soon, it’s no longer us who own the hoodie; it starts to own us. As you hinge your identity on Ivy, your new persona becomes familiar to everyone else but foreign to yourself.
At Ivy, we liked to talk about the club a lot. No, not about what we do or eat in the club but about the club itself, its history, stature, tradition. We are self-congratulatory. We are the only club that puts a superfluous article—an uppercase “The”—to read “The Ivy Club.” We know Ivy isn’t the most liked club, but we wave away any criticism with a knowing grin. The reputation of Ivy isn’t damaged by such accusation because it has learned to thrive on the same sinister glamor that draws bankers to Goldman Sachs and engineers to Palantir.
Once I was in Ivy’s quaint library under a meditative mood, and it dawned upon me that I wanted to have an actual meal that didn’t feel like a trial, a study session of privilege. Soon after, there was a series of incidents at which I was justifiably indignant. The sense of inclusion I hankered for was unattained. Besides my friends I had joined with, most members didn’t go beyond nodding acquaintances exchanging polite inquires. So I silently departed the club.
Then I joined Terrace.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald left no word about Terrace in This Side of Paradise. Terrace was no more than ten years old when Fitzgerald entered Princeton, and it wasn’t until 1920—the same year This Side of Paradise was published—when Terrace’s clubhouse was remodeled to its current form. Despite its late beginning, however, Terrace would become one of the most progressive eating clubs.
Terrace was not only the first club to abandon bicker for the sign-in system, but also the first (along with Colonial) to accept women in 1969. In contrast, it wasn’t until ten years later, in 1979, when Sally Frank ’80 sued Ivy for refusing to accept women that the club became co-ed.
Terrace’s egalitarian and commune-like ecosystem takes place in its cavernous clubhouse—its interior is sprayed with phantasmagoric murals, and the tap room in the damp basement resembles a dungeon. It is inhabited by good-humored hedonists, carefree bohemians, proud minorities—many of them with distaste for luxuries and social stratification.
Officers share openness for both high and lowbrow cultures and serve as at once the ambassadors and vigilantes of indie music. And every weekend, Terrace provides Princeton students a haven where we can all gather at the end of a night out. The venue’s artisanal musical offerings are a refreshing alternative to the stock Spotify playlists we have been hearing for the rest of the night.
The transition from Ivy to Terrace felt radical. Take fashion, for example. Ivy formals were haute couture shows, but during Terrace formals, no more than half of the members wore actual formal attire. Once I wore a blazer, jeans and a wooden bowtie, only to meet two other people with wooden bowties. One time at formals, the officers greeted the members in animal costumes and bathrobes. Terrace’s social fabric is appliquéd with varicolored identities and laced with the peace symbol.
True to Fitzgerald’s words, Ivy was “breathless.” But Terrace was breathable.
During my time at Terrace, however, I always felt a pang of guilt about my lukewarm commitment to the club, mostly because I reckoned that my former membership in another club disqualified me as a bona fide “Terran.” Recently, one former member provided a constructive critique, pointing out to me that Terrace could be a difficult place in its own way. While she approved of the club, she had felt that she wasn’t “alternative” enough to be a Terran through and through. A few of my friends echoed this feeling, suggesting why some members, including me, remain encouraging bystanders to the end.
Near the end of senior fall, many of my friends went independent, so I followed their suit.
At Princeton, joining an eating club is like being a meat-eater: it’s a commonplace practice that has become the norm, but we feel there’s something morally iffy about the whole enterprise. Most of us have an inkling of guilt but not so much to quit it completely. We are aware enough to problematize it, but ultimately, we are unsure whether it is as immoral as protestors make it out to be.
This moral ambivalence has been a Princeton tradition as old as the clubs themselves. A passage from This Side of Paradise, not as frequently cited as his description of each club, reveals the longstanding controversy—the book was written nearly 100 years ago—over eating clubs:
“Heard the latest?” said Tom, coming in late one drizzly evening with that triumphant air he always wore after a successful conversational bout.
“No. Somebody flunked out? Or another ship sunk?”
“Worse than that. About one-third of the junior class are going to resign from their clubs.”
“Spirit of reform and all that. Burne Holiday is behind it. The club presidents are holding a meeting to-night to see if they can find a joint means of combating it.”
“Well, what’s the idea of the thing?”
“Oh, clubs injurious to Princeton democracy; cost a lot; draw social lines, take time; the regular line you get sometimes from disappointed sophomores. Woodrow thought they should be abolished and all that.”
This passage is likely to be based on an actual event in 1917, when the sophomore Richard F. Cleveland—son of Grover Cleveland—lead a boycott against the clubs. The result—according to the March 15th, 1917 edition of The New York Times—was “one-fourth of the members of the sophomore class have signed an agreement not to patronize or accept an invitation to an upper class eating club.” It faltered for two reasons. First, there was an alumni backlash. Second, a few weeks into the boycott—on April 6, 1917—the United States declared war on Germany, hence the draft.
The historian John Lewis Gaddis reveals that even George Kennan, in the week of bicker, went into hiding when it became apparent to him that he would not be considered for membership in any of the clubs he wanted. In a letter to his sister, Kennan wrote, “In a veritable transport of false pride, self-pity, and thirst for martyrdom, I absented myself every afternoon from the campus, lest somebody ask me to join a club.” When one friend chased down Kennan and urged him to join, he reluctantly accepted and joined Key and Seal, only to resign after a semester.
To this day, we question our own judgments in partaking in a purportedly harmful system. Does it signal any moral failure on our part? As far as I’m concerned, if there is any failure of judgment in one’s decision to join a club, it’s less a moral failure than an epistemic one.
If you think about it, from the moment we entered Princeton, the default choice—and social expectation—was to join an eating club. The institutional prose of Princeton’s admissions website describes eating clubs as “dining halls and social centers for their members, providing a comfortable place to relax, study and socialize.” And to the outside world, the eating club system is a celebrated Princeton tradition. So we never actually “opt-in” to join an eating club, but we “opt-out” to go independent.
If we were to redesign Princeton University from scratch, should eating clubs be part of the blueprint? I don’t think so. It’s a design flaw—mutated uncontrollably out of its design specifications—we’ve learned to live with. It’s possible that eating clubs are the metastasized forms of the Greek system, banned in 1853; now the tumor has grown too large to remove without causing quite a bit of institutional hemorrhage.
If the clubs aren’t going to change, is there a point in wailing the same song every year? Well, there again is Fitzgerald’s answer: Burne Holiday, the character who leads the eating club reform in the passage above, believes “it’s a logical result if an intelligent person thinks long enough about the social system.”
But since Fitzgerald’s years eating clubs have changed. In the spring I joined Ivy, Eliza Mott, the newly elected Ivy president, was featured in The New York Times for becoming the second female president of Ivy. And last year, Ivy had a black female as its president. You could argue that such changes are mere symbols, no different from tokens. I’d like to demur. To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, “there is nothing ‘mere’ about symbols.”
Since last year, the Princeton senior Kyle Berlin, who coined the term “ritualized hurt,” has organized fake bicker events to satirize the system. Named St. Archibald’s League, it has become a cause célèbre in eating club reform circles. In the past, when the “Hose Bicker” movement came about, I respected the cause and supported my friends who were participating in it. And last year, when my close friend Leila Clark led and passed the eating club demographics referendum, I endorsed it wholeheartedly.
However, the tenor of Berlin’s event and opinion pieces, published in The Daily Princetonian every year with calendrical punctuality, somehow threw my mood out of kilter. I was confused by my own negativity because at first blush, it didn’t look much different from other eating club reform movements. So I went back to read his first piece on the issue, “Ritualized Hurt,” published on February 5th, and identified some confusions Berlin was harboring. Contra Berlin, I argue that the term “ritualized hurt,” though tantalizingly quotable, is misleading.
In the article, Berlin asks some deeply existential questions, (“Why do we exist so apart from each other?”) so I buckled up for some profound revelations. But much to the dismay of my deprived soul, Berlin only offers a partial answer resembling an oracle. (“To all these questions, one must look at least partially towards Prospect Avenue.”)
Berlin writes, in a dramatic gush, “What we need now—at Princeton and in the world—is a moral revolution.” And we hear Berlin’s battle cry, “Let’s roar, Tigers: enough is enough with this system that separates and hurts us. In an age of division, let’s unite.”
Except for a neat handle, “ritualized hurt,” I wasn’t terribly informed about how to address this dire issue and heard no constructive—only destructive—solutions. (On the other hand, the leaders of the “Hose Bicker” movement had a solid agenda.)
So I went to read his most recent opinion piece, “Setting the Table,” hoping to enlighten myself. This piece begins with a gastronomic imagery. (“There is something sacred about eating, about the basic act of breaking bread with another.”) However, after reading a sentence with a faux-hesitant “I think,” (“In large part, I think, because ritual makes it…”) and another using the word “dear” with a lack of sincerity (“…even and especially my dear friends in the exclusive mansions…”) I became deeply troubled by the rest of the article because his bias was clear this time. Near the midpoint, Berlin writes, “I wonder what it is that will finally bring it toppling down. For make no mistake, it will come toppling down, sooner or later.”
Ooof. The tone is set, this time, in full prophetic affect. Berlin is not happy, and he is waiting to see it demolished. With all his good intentions, however, Berlin imagines a Manichean universe, which precludes him from considering an entente cordial with the stakeholders. Some may want a radical change, but we must be wary of over-correction. Because, after all, hyper-correcting the Greek system led to the creation of eating clubs. Therefore, Berlin’s facile vilification of Ivy is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick.
Such a picture sets a nice dramatic tone to the problem, but it blurs the kind of clear vision a deft surgeon—and an able activist—needs in order to inflict a surgical strike to a tumor. Here, Berlin addresses the tumor but offers no medicine. Instead he resorts to exorcism, his own “ritual.”
Let’s talk about Berlin’s ritual, St. Archibald’s League. Ethan Sterenfeld wrote in this publication last year that St. Archibald’s League was “sometimes billed as ‘performance art.’” To borrow Samuel Johnson’s words, the performance is both good and original, “but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”
In rhetorical salvos like this, guilt strikes us. The pernicious side effect of this performance is that it shames every participant of the system so that Berlin excludes even those who could have been his allies. Such a tactic has no room for tolerance, sympathy, decorum and respect but only for self-righteousness and envenomed sarcasm, thus isolating the bulk of the student population. (Additional points off for bad naming, a clear ad hominem jab at one specific group.) This is self-indulgence masquerading as social justice.
Berlin continues, “Ivy Club doesn’t have to worry about suddenly being inundated by the likes of me.” Wrong. Here again, Berlin trots out his antagonism but his words have a clueless ring to the nature of bicker. Ivy would welcome the likes of Berlin—the modern-day rendition of young Richard Cleveland and fictional Burne Holiday—a fierce contrarian, an aspiring activist-cum-intellectual, an avant-garde piece for the contemporary wing of Ivy’s museum, evidence of its fortitude against century-old criticisms.
Ultimately, this movement is self-defeating: the people who Berlin tries to console—those who were hurt in the aftermath of bicker—can’t find comfort in Berlin’s crusade because under Berlin’s searching eyes, they are pagans who had committed the sin of bicker. And people like me, born-agains, wince a little because according to his unforgiving dictum, we still stand no chance of salvation. Not even Sally Frank, the patron saint of eating club reformers, would have survived Berlin’s Inquisition.
Berlin’s annual ritual thereby becomes a ritualized hurt of its own, doubly flogging those who were just tattered by, to use his own catchphrase, “ritualized hurt.” At the end of the article, Berlin writes, “But let’s get cooking—and let’s finally set the table with enough places for everyone.” But a table for whom? Berlin has set the table, but not everyone is welcome.
During the first couple of weeks I became independent, I was foraging for food around campus like a famished raccoon. Once my friends and I joked that it might be possible to live off of Princeton’s excessive supply of free food, so I experimented with it in a playful spirit of masochism.
Self-imposed puritanism turned out to be more fun than I thought, so I grew to enjoy my hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Then one day during intersession break, my friend invited me to his Spelman room and brought out of a dish of oranges. Like an anesthetized monkey, I swallowed each piece slowly, thinking in my numb mind, that this was the first piece of fruit I had in the month of January, also recalling that my last two meals were three bottles of Soylent.
After my brain was charged with fructose, something hit my mind, like a koan would knock a Zen monk out of slumber: this heroic breed of people—those who went straight to independent plans after their sophomore years—has never given an iota of damn about petty issues like bicker and club passes. Not only were they a few thousand dollars richer for that, but they were living in a building designed by I. M. Pei and equipped with a full kitchen.
Maybe these people, I thought, are the winners of this system. I looked at my friend who was stirring soup on the stove with a Buddha smile, and I turned to a window overlooking the Princeton campus. Perhaps the sages in the high towers of Spelman knew it all along—shaking their heads as they watched us mortals scurry off to Prospect Avenue.