VEISHEA: rabid tradition put to sleep

The administration of Iowa State University has declared VEISHEA dead. This is, or was, a spring festival, nearly a century old. “VEISHEA” is an acronym made from the departments* at ISU when the festival began. I believe the phrase “largest student-run festival in the US” has long been attached to VEISHEA, which was in theory both a celebration of pride in things Iowa State and a point of pride itself.

That theory has been getting more and more difficult to put into practice, though, for as long as I have been aware of the event.

I think this final, no-hiatus no-probation end to VEISHEA is probably a “straw that broke the camel’s back” situation, mostly. Rioting outbreaks stretch back even before I enrolled as a student, and so far as I can tell the 2014 episode was hardly the worst. The worst VEISHEA disaster was, in fact, by most measures my very first. At the risk of mangling a metaphor, VEISHEA 1997 was probably the iron crowbar the fractured the camel’s back, leaving it vulnerable to the weight of mere straw.

I thought then, and still think to some extent, that the “grown-ups” overreacted. VEISHEA provided a context for a fatal stabbing on a fraternity lawn, but it’s difficult to say that it was the cause. The victim was one of many people drawn in from out of town, in those years, by VEISHEA’s reputation as a college students gone (relatively) wild bacchanal. But, ultimately, he died because something went very atypically wrong at a rowdy party; VEISHEA was an occasion for many such parties but it wasn’t by any means the only one. ISU has never ranked high as a “party school” (outside of pre-1997 VEISHEAs) but it’s still an association of tens of thousands of Americans in their late teens and early 20s. Booze-soaked parties happen. Sometimes these erupt in violence. Looking back as an adult, I suppose one might have argued that VEISHEA combined more parties and booze with a large influx of strangers and therefore loaded the dice for violence to turn lethal. That seems plausible. But those dice were still rolling on any given weekend, so the panic that followed VEISHEA 1997 still seems to involve a lot of sentiment over statistics, much like larger reactions to gun violence and terrorism.

They probably have further elements in common, in fact, such as authorities’ desire to cover their asses. I don’t know whether President Martin Jischke really quite believed that one unfortunate episode tied to VEISHEA largely by happenstance really required a “we must do everything in our power to make sure this never happens again” response, or whether he was just playing a role. I don’t think it matters. I thought it was borderline hysteria then, and I still think it was in terms of tone… but I will confess that now, perhaps for the first time, I feel like it was actually rather proportionate in its details.

Marty and his various committees didn’t cancel VEISHEA. I’m not 100% sure that they didn’t suspend it, but if they did it wasn’t for long. Basically, in broad outline, they seemed to pursue two goals: 1) dry out VEISHEA at least somewhat, then, partly as a result, hopefully 2) reduce the attraction for out-of-town party-seekers who were probably on average more “hard core” than the average of the local students. Basically, try to revert VEISHEA from Spring Break North to an ISU event.

Explained this way, what we students booed as “Dry VEISHEA” and “Veischke” actually seems entirely reasonable. It wasn’t explained that way, or at least not very well. Even now I think President Jischke had a lot of faults, but inability to communicate effectively with college students must have been one of the biggest, in addition to exacerbating the others. Jischke was not going to sell that or any VEISHEA reform program to us…

…but in fairness to him, I’m not sure anyone else was, either. Recognizing the ways in which VEISHEA loaded the dice for disaster, and trying to tone down the excesses to save not only administrators’ public images but the festival, itself, makes sense to me now. But I’m a 36-year-old who goes to bed early even on weekends, and hardly goes out at all. As a college student, I didn’t want to hear “Dry VEISHEA.” Never mind the fact that banning booze from campus for one weekend was hardly Prohibition, especially since up until my senior year I lived in the residence halls which were dry anyway and I scarcely even tasted alcohol.

Never mind that, I just went along with the crowd. Figuratively; it was the late 1990s and all but the goodiest of the goody-two-shoes among us firmly believed in an obligation to “fight for our right to party.” The grown-ups, the suits, The Man was trying to shut down our party, and whether or not we had ever partied all that hard ourselves, we heard, felt and answered the call to resist.**

Or, more accurately (perhaps not being completely out of our senses and certainly being soft and lazy) we mostly went along with it, with a few spiteful, token gestures of complaint. Including our own “riot.” I use quotation marks because it seemed and seems debatable whether a modest parade of students marching (or shuffling) to the presidential manor to do some yelling constituted a riot. As I recall, a stop sign was damaged at some point. That’s about it. I also recall a discussion in a journalism class about whether the term “riot” had been appropriate, and while some decent arguments were proposed, it still seems like a stretch. Even by the standards of VEISHEA riots, the late 90s “Dry VEISHEA protest” seems very small beer. I don’t recall any injuries, nothing was set on fire, and certainly no tear gas flew.

That said, riot or no, I do feel like there’s some significance in that stupid, immature little what-have-you, and in my own part in it. I was there, yes, I also literally went along with the crowd. Which, I have long thought, invites interesting questions about the meaning of going along with the crowd in such a context, and about the meaning of the event itself. Because I thought of myself as mostly “going along to watch,” but there was not and probably cannot be any clear dividing line between following a demonstration to watch it and being part of it. I didn’t feel like I was exactly “part of” the group, but I was there even if mostly out of curiosity, and I did some yelling. I realized right away that this could well have applied to many of the others present, and that if somehow all of the people there “to watch” the crowd were invisible there might not have been a crowd.

I’m not sure exactly what this means—probably nothing very deep—and this post is really more a ramble than anything else. How VEISHEA or any other context can cross some difficult-to-define but usually recognizable state of “riot” is interesting to me, but I don’t really know. I like to think that “well, I was being silly, but I wouldn’t have picked up a rock and hurled it, e.g., even if others began doing so.” But I’m not sure. What if I had been in a situation where formal authorities were trying to break up the crowd, might I not have decided to “fight back” then? Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure that I was contributing to the potential for violence even if neither I nor anyone else really got violent, that time. By being part of the crowd I’m sure I fueled a sense of power and of an “us” that easily becomes “us vs them.” Even by “going along to watch,” I was part of an audience that can also be fuel for breaking from convention.

Some times, all of this is good, but I believe that mostly depends on the existence of some authority or convention that justifies knocking it over. In the case of VEISHEA, well…

What the hell has anyone ever been rioting against, or for?

I can come up with explanations for myself and my peers, as outlined; they aren’t even close to justifications but they at least offer some crude cause-and-effect narrative. But, as also noted, even if you assign us to the series of “VEISHEA riots” we were neither its beginning nor its end.

What really fascinates me is the persistence of this connection between VEISHEA and “kicking off” in some way. It has to be at least 20 years, now. From the perspective of administrators, I can see why they’ve decided to throw up their hands and walk away. When I read about the mayhem this past spring, I thought “logically, at this point they have to either get used to this, or else cancel the whole thing, because every ‘reform’ idea that they might try has probably been tried already since 1997.” Obviously it hasn’t worked, so if you’re honest (and don’t just serve up old non-alcoholic wine in a new bottle), you probably have to conclude that you’re beaten.

But, beaten by what? I have to conclude that at this point, “riot” has become an inseparable part of informal VEISHEA tradition. The strange thing is, though, that it isn’t an every-year tradition. Years can go by without anything approaching that “there’s been a riot” threshold, even by the mild standards of one bent stop sign. In college, that’s long enough to forget an astonishing amount.

I remember one notorious episode from my dorm years that was, apparently, barely remembered five or six years later, but only as a folk tale that people retold without believing. A friend of mine who enrolled four years before I did still occasionally grumps about the remodeling of one area in the student union; to me it was just always that way. By the same token, I remain resentful of the university’s rule-bending attachment of Martin Jischke’s name to a new Honors Program building, but subsequent students have long since forgotten that the man ever existed and simply accepted that it’s what the building is called.

Somehow, VEISHEA seems to have departed from this pattern. If “VEISHEA is a good occasion to make noise and break shit” is some kind of memetic virus, it seems to be what I think has been called a “terminate and stay resident” virus. It seems capable of hibernating and then reviving after you think it’s gone. Perhaps the student paper plays some small role in this; I recall reading about an earlier VEISHEA riot before experiencing anything of the kind. Maybe it’s just juicy enough that everyone helps keep the concept alive; I also recall people long talking excitedly about how “we found tear gas cans in the creek out back afterward!!” Maybe it’s the fact that VEISHEA itself goes away, and then comes back, regularly, providing an acute prompt to memories that a persistent part of the background doesn’t.

I don’t know. At this point, it does seem like there is no clear way to purge the “hey, maybe we’ll have a riot this year” idea from VEISHEA, leaving a purge of the event itself as the best prospect for keeping students from kicking off. I suspect it will probably work. “Hey, this is the weekend when we would have held VEISHEA before it was canceled” just doesn’t have quite the same catchiness as “hey it’s VEISHEA.”

Still, it’s very sad. Not so much for VEISHEA. Meh. For various reasons, I won’t much lament VEISHEA itself. But I am sad about the resignation and even despair in the president’s comments. The larger message seems to be “we give up. We can’t control this temptation, so we’re doing away with it completely. This is ‘why we can’t have nice things’; we just cannot improve human behavior.”

Coming from an institution dedicated to teaching, insight and progress, that’s just very, very saddening. Perhaps not wrong. Probably not wrong. Just sad.

* It’s funny; I was going to type “colleges” and I feel pretty sure that I’ve usually seen the word colleges used in that explanation… but Iowa State itself was just a college, officially, until the mid-20th century. I suspect now that people probably took to retroactively promoting the pre-university departments to colleges without giving it any thought.

** Ah, the 1990s. I can go into this at much greater length, but really, it was an odd little moment. I’m probably justifying to some extent, but really, the cold war was over, the age of terror hadn’t begun, the economy was good and the “rising tide lifts all boats” narrative still seemed credible… I expect materially comfortable college students are mostly childish and self-absorbed in every era, but, without saying we weren’t also… didn’t we kind of have a relatively good excuse?

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