We the People?

I’m writing this post on election day, November 9, 2016, as I try to take in what has happened to bring an unexperienced and malevolent person to the highest office in the land. I’m nervous and fidgety and despairing, though trying to do some writing. But I’ve also been thinking back over this interminable campaign, pondering moments that especially stood out for me. One of them came in during Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, when Trump said, referring to “the system,” said that no one knows the system better than he does and that “I alone can fix it.” As my British friends would say, I was gobsmacked, stunned at the enormity of those five words, leading off with “I.”
During the last thirty years, I have worked very hard, along with many colleagues, to resist what Lisa Ede and I call “radical individualism,” the constant focus on self, the refusal to recognize that knowledge and art and all our accomplishments are the product of collaboration, of sharing. That making progress will always call for cooperation, for working together, for joining hands and giving up the myth of the solitary “great man” who will act as knight in shining armor. Ask the leading tech companies today and they will agree that a focus on “I” doesn’t ; even in the Academy, the realization that “we” is more powerful than “I” has taken hold, widely in the sciences and now even to some degree in the humanities, with their still strong ndividualistic bias.
Imagine my delight, then, when on the eve of the election I found Nick Sousanis’s comic on this campaign/election, expressing what I have been feeling. He too found that the “Only I can fix it” line haunted him and brought him back to thinking of another powerful phrase, “We the people.” We, not I. Our, not my. I could describe Nick’s terrific cartoon, but better yet take a look at it for yourself on Nick’s blog, Spin, Weave, and Cut, at http://spinweaveandcut.com/we/
Yet this election shows that “I” has trumped “We,” once again, keeping the glass ceiling firmly in place and offering up a “hero” to save the day. I have read, and reread, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 in the horrific aftermath of war and asking “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” It’s a question worth pondering today.
Right now, I feel like assuming the fetal position—for the next four years. But teachers don’t get to do that, especially teachers of writing and rhetoric. Now more than ever we must steel ourselves to working harder than ever to teach our students to think critically and carefully, to shape arguments that are deeply resourced and replete with credible and reliable evidence, to continue making their voices heard in all their rich complexity and diversity. So as I grieve for what I see as the triumph of “I” politics and wait to see what a President Trump will actually do, these are the goals I pledge myself to pursuing.

Combat Paper Project!

Have you seen the Combat Paper Project ?
Drew Cameron joined the Army in 2000, right out of high school, and served as a Sergeant in Iraq. In an interview, he says he realized fairly early on that what was happening in Iraq was all wrong and that “we shouldn’t be here,” but he served his tour of duty anyway. When he came home in 2006, he sought ways to express his experiences, without success, until one day, he said, he put on his uniform and then began cutting it off his body.
Thus was born his Combat Paper Project. As he puts it, “Language to articulate the complex associations and memories wrapped up in military service can be a mountainous task. Starting with a non-verbal activity, with the intention of exploring those places, is a phenomenally empowering act. “ An artist and paper maker, Cameron took his cut up uniform and began hand transforming it into handmade paper, which he then painted or drew or wrote on. Slowly, he began to contact other veterans who wanted to take part in this process, who were interested in fiber art and in how “we might transform [materials] into a narrative that illustrates our collective stories.”
I first met Cameron a year or so in Chicago, where he was exhibiting his work in connection with the world premiere of composer Jonathan Berger’s “My Lai,” which tells the story of the Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who tried to stop the My Lai Massacre, was reviled and ostracized for his actions and only 30 years after the fact recognized with a Soldier’s Medal for bravery.. Sung by Rinde Eckert (with lush and moving libretto by Harriet Chessman) and performed by The Kronos Quartet, “My Lai” is one of the most gripping and memorable musical works I have ever heard. It was after the haunting performance that I met Cameron, along with one of the two 18-year-old crew members who was with him during March 16, 1968 (the second young soldier died in battle three weeks later). I believe that this work will be touring the country for the 50th anniversary of this tragedy: if you and your students can possibly see it, do so.
Recently I encountered Cameron again, this time at UCLA where he was leading papermaking workshops with first-year undergraduates (and others). Students were bringing in all kinds of materials: some, of course, were veterans themselves, with uniforms and other materials from their service; others had relatives who had given them articles, like the young woman whose grandfather had given her parachute cloth. Together, they were learning to create a remix, a mashup, as they turned the cloth into pulpy fiber and then learned to make sheets of handmade paper with it.
What struck me during this encounter was how Cameron spoke about the stories that these artifacts tell, and about the stories that they elicit from the people who work with them. Somehow, he says, this process of unmaking and remaking seems to release the words necessary to share experiences further, as a visual art leads to a verbal one and back again. Some of the paper makers have gone on to write blogs, articles, essays, even books. And continue to make visual art as well.
I left wishing that every college in the country could have a visit from Drew Cameron and his Combat Paper Project. He has conducted them from coast to coast and is currently engaged in teaching others to carry out similar projects. The college frosh who either drop in or sign up for these workshops may never have heard of My Lai, may have thought very little about war, about the way war is inscribed on the bodies of those who are caught in its vice. But they leave with new knowledge, as well as with the experience of having made something good and strong and real out of the materials of war.
You can read more about Combat Paper on PBS News hour’s “The Rundown” from April 30, 2012 at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/combat-paper-ptsd-treatment/ and check out Combat Paper’s Website at https://www.combatpaper.org.