Hazing for Politicos

28th Jul 2007

If you want to go places in the Yale Political Union, first you have to get through Inquisition Night.

It’s late at night in the basement of Morse College. The room is completely dark, except for several candles arranged in a triangle on the floor. Inside this triangle stand Frederick Mocatta ’10 and Matthew Klein ’09, both impeccably dressed in suits and ties, with their backs to the assembled members and adult guests of the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Right. In one corner behind the POR members is a bar—amply stocked, although the hors d’oeuvres plate, instead of a knife or a server, has only a plastic ruler. Mocatta and Klein are candidates for office in the Yale Political Union, and they are here to be interrogated.

The exchange turns into a pissing match, with each trying to one-up the other’s conservative bona fides.

The chair of the POR, resplendent in a tuxedo and wearing a gold medallion (passed down from his predecessor) around his neck, asks Mocatta and Klein to name the “three political philosophers who have had the most influence on your intellectual development.” Mocatta, a UK (and U.S.) citizen and an Eton graduate, offers the Earl of Beaconsfield, Michael Oakeshott, and Sir Keith Joseph. “Conservatism is a broad church,” he explains. His Tory moderation draws snickers and hisses from the audience. Klein names Socrates, Hobbes, and conservative economist F. A. Hayek.

The chair lets his party members do most of the questioning, calling on them by titles such as “Chancellor of Cards and Games” and “Necromancer and Purveyor of High Dudgeon.” After a member asks Mocatta and Klein how each applies “the philosophy of conservatism to your life,” the exchange turns into a pissing match, with each trying to one-up the other’s conservative bona fides. Klein interned for Illinois Senate candidate Jack Ryan. Mocatta interned for the Shadow Solicitor General. Klein avows his admiration for Newt Gingrich and Barry Goldwater. “I, too, am a Goldwater man,” interjects Mocatta, and adds Dwight Eisenhower and Nicolas Sarkozy for good measure.

Toward the end of the interrogation, the two are bombarded with a rapid-fire list of “dichotomies” and have to make instant choices:

“House of Stuart or House of Orange?”

“My party or my union?”

“Pinochet or Allende?”

“SweeTarts or Smarties?”

“Yale diploma is worth the paper it’s written on or otherwise?”

As a finale, Mocatta and Klein are presented with a concoction described as “the elixir of life.” Mocatta refuses—he has a Chinese exam tomorrow morning—but offers to drink it after taking the test. The members of the Party of the Right are not pleased.

This is Inquisition Night, a signature event of the Yale Political Union, as it took place last December on the Yale campus. Currently comprising seven parties that span the political spectrum, the mostly student-run Political Union, founded in 1934 in imitation of organizations at Oxford and Cambridge, is unlike any other student group in this country. It invites prominent guests every week to keynote a debate in which students make rebuttal speeches. Speakers this past year included Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, and Rev. Al Sharpton. Eminent past members include William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, John Kerry ’66, George Pataki ’67, and many others.

The union holds Inquisition late every semester, the evening before elections, so the parties can interview the students running for union office. Candidates spend the night traveling across the campus from ornate residential college function rooms to dank basements, where they face a barrage of questions from members of each party. The questioning starts out as a sort of tyro Meet the Press, but soon devolves into an outlandish mix of equal parts academic thesis defense, FBI interrogation, and the Nickelodeon show Double Dare.Inquisition drags on long into the night, usually until 2 or 3 a.m., well oiled with copious amounts of junk food, liquor, and obscure political and pop culture references.

Yes, it’s hazing. But, says Alexandra Charrow ’07, a past speaker of the union, “we haze in a very philosophical and intellectual way.” This is, after all, a political union.

Every party has its own approach. The Tory Party floor on Inquisition Night is the epitome of civility. A huge Union Jack hangs on a wall in the stately Saybrook College Athenaeum Room, and in between interviews, party members huddle around the board game Diplomacy. One newly inducted member, Tyler Dos Santos-Tam ’10, observes that he’s “heard that the other parties joke a lot. I’m glad the Tory Party maintains its gentlemanly demeanor.”

“Name the hottest members of each party. Do not be heteronormative!”

The Independent Party is the largest in the union, with well over 100 members and a mission to “Hear All Sides.” Perhaps for these reasons, its members do ask serious questions during Inquisition. They pay particular attention to candidates for the union’s vice presidency—the office whose portfolio is the booking of guests and is thus the most important post in the Political Union hierarchy.

With all of the lights turned off in the Independents’ Inquisition room and with halogen lamps shining directly in their faces, Helen Rittelmayer ’08 (POR) and Harry Greene ’08 (Tory) exhibit the poise of politicians. Rittelmayer lists the qualities she’d look for in guests: “Provocative, persuasive, and prominent.” She suggests anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean, the inspiration for the film Dead Man Walking.Greene earns points for humor when he describes meeting Antonin Scalia. “I got to serve Justice Scalia a glass of port,” he recalls. “As Tory Party provost, that is the greatest achievement.”

After the business of job qualification is completed, a member from the IP floor moves that the party segue into “dichotomies and impersonations.” The first task required of Rittelmayer and Greene: “Name the hottest members of each party. Do not be heteronormative!” (Greene points to a hirsute member of the audience and says, “I’m sort of a beard guy myself.”) Then Rittelmayer is asked to impersonate a Southern preacher and Greene to impersonate William F. Buckley Jr. as a Southern preacher. Both candidates have to demonstrate how they would “seduce” potential guests into speaking at the union. Finally, they are asked to name all the spectators in the room, their class years, and whether each is a “Jew” or “non-Jew.”

The highlight (or low point) of the Independent Party’s Inquisition doesn’t take place until later at night, when Mocatta and Klein are grilled. One of the party members surprises them—and his colleagues—with transcripts of the infamous instant-message exchanges between Mark Foley, the disgraced former congressman, and a teenage congressional page. Klein is ordered to play the part of Foley, Mocatta the page. “Completely naked?” asks Klein, doing his best to deliver an auditory leer. The exchange continues for only a few lines before the entire room erupts in fits of laughter. Eventually, the chair has mercy and orders the two to desist.

“We’re discussing the weight of the vice chairwoman’s boobs.”

For the Progressive Party (“Putting the Ogre Back in Progressive”), prurience always takes precedence over policy. Last year, the Progs introduced a novel Inquisition concept: the roving party floor. They rented a large U-Haul van, loaded the trailer with chairs, blankets, and beer, and drove around downtown New Haven all night picking up candidates and interested spectators. That same year they also had candidates drill holes into the heads of baby dolls, an act that a candidate from the POR (known for converting several members to Catholicism and its position against abortion rights) was allegedly unable to bring herself to complete.

This year, the Progs, though no longer on wheels, are true to form. “We’re discussing the weight of the vice chairwoman’s boobs,” one of the members informs a couple of visitors entering late in the festivities. “They’re 8.6 pounds,” adds another. “It’s a well-known fact.” How the alleged fact was discovered is not revealed, only the clue that it was not accomplished by water displacement. One male member of the party is wearing a skirt, a holdover from a test earlier in the night in which candidates had to reach up and describe what piece of hardware (hammer, screwdriver, or other) the student was holding under it.

Of all the parties, the Conservatives are the most deliberately and ruthlessly intimidating. Like the POR, they make candidates stand in a small space demarcated by candles on the floor, backs to the audience, and they administer an “elixir”—of truth, in the Conservatives’ case. (How it differs from the POR’s elixir of life is anyone’s guess.) Candidates have to knock three times on the door of the Conservatives’ Inquisition room, and when they enter, the party members hiss and stamp their feet in fervent disapproval.

Members of the party pace behind the candidates, shouting out questions.

During the questioning, members of the party pace around the room behind the candidates, shouting out questions: “What is your political philosophy?” “What is the good?” “What conception of the soul do you accept, the Aristotelian or the Platonic?” They greet the answers with derision and raucous laughter. When one candidate mentions F. A. Hayek, a party member sneers, “Has the gentleman even read The Road to Serfdom?”

Even though everyone expects an inquisition, it’s a grueling experience. A member of the Class of 2003, who ran as a Liberal Party candidate for the union’s vice president of debate in 1999, recalls: “The first and only time I cried in public was on the Con floor.”

Dara Lind ’09 (Party of the Left) ran unopposed last year for the position of the union’s director of campus relations. She likes Inquisition Night. “I have a weakness for ritual, personally.” She believes, however, that “some parties”—as a publicist, she won’t name names—”misunderstand the nature” of Inquisition. It is “more important that candidates know about the duties of the job rather than the parties know the personal political philosophies” of the candidates.

But David M. Wagner ’80, ’84Grd, a POR member who returns periodically to Yale to sit in on Political Union debates and Inquisitions, argues that “anything that accustoms people to speak in front of an audience that is demanding and who does not agree with you is useful for anything—especially politics.” Roger Low ’07, who served as union president in 2006, says that in the course of a two-hour interrogation on the POR floor last year, “I think I gave the best defense of gay marriage I have ever given. Running for office was certainly a formative intellectual experience.”

Union members begin casting their ballots at noon the day after Inquisition Night (just a few hours, in other words, after the interrogations end). Each party issues an endorsement sheet for its members. Some—such as the Conservatives’ and the POR’s—give only the names, thus conveying a whiff of backroom negotiations and lofty secrecy. Others are rich in explanatory detail.

In their endorsement of Dan Thies ’07 (Tory), who is running unopposed for union president, the Progs write: “[We] agree that Mr. Thies was that guy who sat in the front row of your physics lab—the one who explained torque to you and then let you copy that answer on the homework. … Thies’s optimism and genuine kindness was oddly refreshing.”

The Tories don’t offer up much information on the candidates, but they do provide an extended commentary on their “divisive and strategic combat” in Diplomacy. Their conclusion: “With the night waning and the weary British, French, Italians, and Austria-Hungarians facing total destruction at the hands of the unrelenting Germans and Russians, and with the brave Turks already completely wiped out, the Tory Party made their way back to their rooms, unhappy, perhaps, with the plots of the Kaiser but with high hopes for the next semester of the Union.”

The fraternities may have their paddles and the athletes their forced pushups. The secret societies may have their coffins and mud wrestling. But the Yale Political Union will forever claim Inquisition Night.

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