A couple of months ago, as the President's campaign for war against Saddam Hussein began to heat up, San Diego State English professor Harold Jaffe fired off an e-mailed message to his colleagues in the English Department that said something like, “I think we're in a privileged position, because of our awareness of language and our knowledge of drama and so on, with this impending war we could perhaps do something. In the spirit of [German playwright Bertolt] Brecht, in the spirit of ‘happenings‚' in the '60s, we could do some theater.”
Aside from one professor who answered by arguing with Jaffe over what the U.S.'s preparation for an invasion meant, Jaffe's inbox of responses was barren. “All the people who got involved with me are students,” he said. “I couldn't interest a single [faculty member] in the English Department. Now, these are a number of people who went through the Vietnam War and were protesting against it, but for reasons that are still not clear to me, they didn't want to get involved. Maybe they feel is hasn't crystallized sufficiently, maybe they just feel impotent.”
For Jaffe, the lack of involvement among teachers at San Diego State borders on unacceptable. He borrows from Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci when he says, “Pessimist of the intellect, optimist of the will-it's important to will yourself to be optimistic and not to bean-count, not to think of how many people you're going to change or whether the response is going to be commensurate to your effort. If you start thinking in those terms, you're going to stymie yourself.
“Do it because,” Jaffe said, “it deserves to be done.”
It was in that “do it” spirit that Jaffe, along with political science teacher Carol Kennedy, organized last Thursday's teach-in at the San Diego State campus on war and peace. There were the usual speakers and panels, including a member of Congress and a retired general, but there was also a panel session involving progressive-minded students representing various religions and a “guerilla theater” event. The last two made up Jaffe's contribution.
The actors in the theater presentation were from Counter Attack, the artistic wing of Jaffe's fledgling campus organization, Students and Teachers Against War. At midday, the group called attention to itself with conga drummers and students dressed as birds walking on stilts. Participants costumed as “death”-white faced and clad in black-conducted a mock poll by distributing a questionnaire that asked five yes-or-no questions about how willing respondents were to go to war. Meanwhile, others staged a “die-in” where students “died” and were covered with sheets as mourners held signs bearing sentiments like “Love doesn't kill, war kills.”
“It wasn't super-ambitious, but it was a first time,” Jaffe said a day later. “We wanted to be careful. A few of the students wanted to do something dangerous; they wanted to scale buildings and come down with parachutes. They were thinking of their own sort of aggrandized notions of art. With guerilla theater, it's situational. You must always understand the sense of the context-where you are, who the constituency is, what it is that you think their needs are. And here we're at San Diego State, and we're trying to get into the minds and the hearts of these young guys and girls who don't know much about what's going on in the world-through no fault of their own-and so we have to pull back and be a little bit more modest.”
Later came the student panel, during which five students answered fairly complex questions about American foreign policy. On the panel were Mark Rackers, a self-described “recovering Catholic” and a grad student in English; Ella de Castro, a Philippine evangelical Christian and also a grad student in English; Mariam Wakili, an Afghani daughter of two U.N. workers and an undeclared grad student; English major Paul Alexander, a Muslim whose mother was a Black Panther and whose father was a Danish reporter writing about the Panthers; and Ben Dally, a Jewish English major who is switching to political science.
Although some of their answers were somewhat simple and predictably critical of U.S. policies, Jaffe was surprised by some of what he heard. For instance, he didn't expect Wakili to affiliate herself so much with American ideals, or de Castro to be so in defense of Christian proselytizing overseas, or Dally to express such anti-Israel sentiment. It's that sort of unexpected discovery that makes such give and take so fascinating.
“It wasn't so much that they answered the questions with any particular discerning-although I thought in many instances, the responses were smart and perceptive-but for me it was that they were digging in and that they were thinking outside of themselves,” Jaffe said. “Kids, they're young-all they know are themselves and their friends and their peer group and so on. It's very difficult for them to think outside of that. I think they were thinking with compassion, and also they were trying to think with precision and to be fair-minded and to be civilized.
“My idea was pretty modest, and that is simply to try to get these young people to think for themselves, to think autonomously. It is even important to me, certainly at this juncture, that they think in a particular way. Yes, I prefer they not think like a fascist, but the important things is that they just think and maybe develop some kind of ‘fellow' feeling, feeling for other people.”
Of course, these five students are among the elite in terms of engagement and awareness of the world around them. A small minority of students is expected to get involved at times such as these.
Jaffe refers to the larger student population with a sort of resignation-females with breast implants, males with steroid-aided muscular enhancement and few with their nose in books. “For them, war, such as what's about to happen now, is an abstraction,” he said. “They were babies when the Gulf War happened. It's difficult for them-they're not motivated sufficiently to move away, to deviate from what they do day-to-day, the kind of narcissistic things that kids that age are involved with.”
Although, as Jaffe said, “the level of engagement campus-wide is low,” there's still time; student activism, he said, “is like a plant that grows in arid soil-it'll remain dormant for generation, and then the right circumstances come about and suddenly it becomes fruitful.”