"The Machine today: menace or myth?" Ryan Hickman Dateline Alabama March 31, 2006
March 31| Dateline Alabama tracks the contemporary political climate at the University of Alabama to gauge whether the historically mysterious Machine is more mythology than menace. Part one of two.
When the high sun of spring goes down at the University of Alabama, the campus whispers with history. You can hear Gov. George Wallace's voice outside Foster Auditorium, the chatter of Union troops as you walk past the president's mansion, and murmurs of the Machine coming from fraternity and sorority rows.
But, like the other tales that have made UA the South's most historical grounds for learning, has the concept of the Machine simply devolved into university folklore?
Like all good legend, the group of traditionally white fraternities and sororities, as the Machine is most generally defined, has maintained its legacy through the assortment of stories that follow it around. With many things in the South, history dictates the present.
By all accounts, The Crimson White began referring to a select group of fraternities at the university as the Machine in the 1920s, and that became part of the newspaper's terminology during the 1940s. The campus publication has been the narrative of the group since. The pseudonym for the fraternal sect stems from their mechanical efficiency in placing and winning Student Government Association elections and other politically charged competitions, like homecoming, at the university.
The Machine's occult characteristics stem from its bloodlines with Theta Nu Epsilon. The fraternity, which has its origins in secretive societies like the Bones at Yale, was initiated at UA by Lister Hill in 1914. Hill followed the lead of the original chapter of TNE formed at Weslyan University before the turn of the 20th century. Weslyan's mission was to select and run candidates for student government. While maintaining a highly exclusive membership, the TNE-backed candidates became sure-things in all university elections.
Due to the shrouded history of TNE and today's Machine, there is no real distinction between the two or if the old fraternity just goes by another name. Regardless, the Machine and TNE both represent a combined greek organization to promote candidacy within the SGA.
The perpetual success of the Machine in SGA elections, combined with its rigidly fraternal and publicly cloaked structures, furthers the underground and secretive traits that loom today. Speculation of the Machine's tactics behind each negative political incident on the campus has turned into automatic assumption because of the group's hush-hush persona. Each new story of cross burnings, physical intimidation and wrongdoing in SGA elections only whips the winds of conspiracy into a greater frenzy. Although Minda Riley's assault in 1992 is no matter to disregard; and John Merrill's office break-in cannot be disputed; and the cross burning on the Kappa Kappa Gamma house lawn following the electing of Cleo Thomas as SGA president in 1976 should not be scoffed at, these events have piled up on each other and taken on a life of their own.
The stories are part of the Machine legend at UA and continue as evidence for non-greeks to substantiate the deeper cabalistic presumptions of the group-ritualistic initiation and secretive meetings to decide the moves of the SGA in the basements of fraternity and sorority houses (on Wednesdays or Sunday nights, depending on which report you ascribe to) -that the group's critics like to dwell on. Skeptics, and many greeks, will say that the stories of the past have been taken to extremes, and like a bad game of broken telephone, have aggrandized into exaggerated, hyperbolized tales constantly rehashed just to sell newspapers.
Racist death threats, verbal and physical harassment and shadowy organizations at an already historically inflamed campus in the Deep South are not just good fodder for The Crimson White, The Tuscaloosa News and harangues in the blogosphere, but are engaging stories for national audiences.
The tales of the UA Machine brought Philip Weiss to Tuscaloosa to investigate his now infamous Esquire cover story from 1992, and the Machine's reputation of racism upheld through the segregated greek system lured Jason Zengerle of The New Republic to town for his article in 2002.
Preservers of Machine mythology will point to the CNN piece in 1999 about SGA presidential candidate Fabien Zinga's death threat and the mention in the 2004 Newsweek story surrounding crooked campus politics as evidence of external eyes confirming an internal phenomenon.
The national attention tacitly legitimizes the coercion that the Machine wields today in people's minds. The past props up the present with folklore and sometimes the mental perception of a political group's power can be more daunting than what they actually are. With a rigidly private organization like the Machine where outsiders have no real knowledge of their decision-making, particular incidents that occurred in the past are the only evidence that can substantiate critics'claims of misdeed by the group today. Every disparager of the greek-backed Machine uses the past to generalize the future.
Past Deeds Feed Today's Critics
In an opinion piece on Feb. 27 in The Crimson White, Matt Dover, the chairman of the ethical government watchdog group Capstone Political Action Committee, lambasted the present Machine for its racist actions in the past.
"…Theta Nu is indeed racist," Dover wrote, referring to the Machine and TNE as one entity. "The Machine has never supported a single candidate of color and has bitterly opposed the advancement of minorities on campus at every step."
Like any good argument, Dover backed up his claims with previous racist events that have been widely associated with the Machine. A day later though, following a presentation by Cleo Thomas, the only black SGA president in the school's history and one of only seven non-Machine backed presidents in the SGA's history, Dover played down his sweeping strokes of racism attributed to the Machine in his editorial.
"I don't think it is institutionally racist," Dover said. "Their actions are racist. It's hard to distinguish between individual and institution."
Dover did admit that the Machine has been exclusionary since its inception, predating any racial strife on the UA campus. Examining the issue of race might be more suited to an investigation of the segregated greek system, rather than SGA elections. But associating racism with the Machine furthers the air of malicious secrecy.
Intimidation Over Racism
For Nick Beadle, the Machine is more about intimidation than racism.
"The whole thing is driven by fear," Beadle said. "They are flamboyant about it. They let you know that they are out there."
Beadle, the current managing editor for The Crimson White, has been an astute chronicler of the Machine as a reporter and student life editor of the campus newspaper. Beadle was responsible for the candid article "You don't want to mess with us" that ran two years ago in the CW detailing accounts of intimidation and stiff structure within the greek system for electing SGA members.
The story stood on the accounts of Emily Aviki, a member of Chi Omega, and Emily Lumpkin, an Alpha Gamma Delta sister. It detailed how the sorority girls were intimidated by Machine members and ostracized in the greek system as a result of Aviki's successful SGA senate campaign in 2003. The article revealed a number of details surrounding the secretive ways of the Machine and its grip on greeks.
Beadle knew that his story was going to incite some rumbling across the student population, especially from fraternity and sorority members, but the worst part for him was not when the story ran, but rather the anticipation leading up to it.
"We didn't let anyone else know, so that it wouldn't get out," Beadle said, referring to himself and only one other staff member at the CW that knew about the impending story in 2004. "We couldn't take the chance."
Beadle explained that he was worried that Machine members would catch wind of his interviews with Aviki and Lumpkin, who both have since transferred to Duke University, and inflict some of the same heavy-handed tactics that have been synonymous with the group in the past and felt by his two sources.
He said a school administrator encouraged him to get the locks at his house changed upon hearing that Beadle was working on revealing touchy material concerning the Machine in his story.
Beadle followed the official's advice, and said that he slept at night with a baseball bat the entire time he was working on the article.
"It was one of the toughest things I've ever done in my life," Beadle said.
But nothing happened to Beadle. No intimidation. No physical harm. No crosses burned on his lawn. He took the necessary safety precautions because of the past, because of events that have compounded themselves into a menacing thought in people's minds.
Most greeks probably don't mind the perception of their power. It draws people in and keeps the allure of the system's power alive. Even Lumpkin admitted that she was captivated with the mystique surrounding the Machine, quoted in the CWarticle as saying, "I was intrigued by its mysteriousness."
Does the lust for power from members within the greek system become so emotionally overwhelming that certain individuals feel they need to uphold it by administering acts of violent intimidation? It might be an explanation for the specific incidents that have transpired in the past that have transformed into mammoth tales surrounding the Machine today.
"[The] stories from the past-true or not-are stories," said Justice Smyth, the 2006-2007 SGA president-elect, in his VP of student affairs office during this year's campaign.
This Year's Election
Unlike past years, this spring's election ran blemish-free, with Smyth taking the presidential race by a substantial margin. But voter turnout was as low as it has been in years, with just under 20 percent of the student body voting.
Of the four candidates for SGA president this year, Smyth, a member of Old Row fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, was the only one with greek affiliations. That pretense automatically put Smyth as the Machine-backed candidate.
"If you want to say I'm the Greek candidate, you can say that, but I'm not in it," Smyth said regarding his relationship with the Machine. "I didn't join a fraternity for political reasons."
As much as Smyth may have denied it, the history of the greek system, the Machine mythology and the SGA presidency dictated the perception of Smyth in the race.
"I like to say that he is what a traditionally Machine-backed candidate looks like," Smyth's presidential opponent Corbin Martin, said about him.
Smyth's results indeed followed suit with the outcome of Machine candidates in the past. He eclipsed second place finisher Adam Rankin by almost 1,500 votes and left additional candidates Robert Steiner and Martin behind with minimal support on the ballot.
As the race unfolded, it was clear the two strongest candidates, also with the most SGA experience, had risen to the top in essentially a two-man race. Rankin, twice a SGA senator, ran an impressive campaign with an assortment of strong ideas, even garnering an endorsement from the CW. Smyth, the current SGA VP of student affairs, showed his polish and experience in elections with an effective campaign of his own.
With Rankin, not a fraternity member, possessing no strong associations to the greek system and Smyth in one of the traditionally most politically powerful houses, the race appeared on the surface in the familiar University of Alabama political divide-Machine vs. Independent.
"I think it is funny that the students here cannot conceptualize elections except in relationship to the Machine," said Margaret King, the University's vice president of student affairs.
The more the Machine is discussed, the bigger shadow it casts over the real issues that plague the leaders of student government and ostracizes the average student who is constantly bombarded with the notion that elections on their campus are predetermined in the basements of fraternity houses.
Perpetuating the perception of two polarized sides to each SGA race only enhances age-old campus rivalries and further frustrates the already apathetic student electorate.
"The Machine versus independents is tired, old politics," Smyth said. "I'm sick of hearing about it. I want to move on."
But it is difficult to take steps forward when talk of the Machine keeps cropping up in the political discourse.
The Capstone PAC, according to their Web site, is out to achieve ethical leadership in student government at UA. The tool for the mission is the critical examination of current campus political conditions, but much of their content has been focusing on the past.
In a campus wide survey by the PAC in fall 2005, the group asked the student population about their thoughts on SGA elections. The survey immediately broke the respondents into categories of greek and independent. After a handful of inquiries into students' voting thoughts, the survey prodded students with four questions about the Machine.
A student was asked if they had heard of the Machine, believed in the Machine and their opinion of the Machine. Lastly, the PAC listed possible options to the question, 'Why is the Machine bad?' The answer choices were all loaded with past preconceptions of the Machine-racism, coercion and secrecy-without providing a definition of the Machine throughout the entire survey.
Won't dwelling on the past injustices of one group continue to immortalize the friction on campus and regress progress rather than advance it? Dover claims that the Machine must be addressed because it is the impetus for the sterile political system at the University.
"There is a general distrust of the SGA," Dover said. "The Machine is a major cause of it."
Part two will run tomorrow with comments from SGA president Mary Margaret Carroll in reaction to her recent disclosure of her membership in the Machine and a possible solution to the Machine's influence from a former SGA president.