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I Am What We Are

Poster for a University of Delaware event about issues raised by the execution of Troy Davis

In the days after the Penn State sex-abuse scandal broke, students gathered outside the house of then-coach Joe Paterno. The coach stepped outside to thank them for their support, after which, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Paterno then twice shouted the customary ‘We are!’ and got a roaring of “Penn State!’” Interviewed by the Inquirer, a student in the crowd said, “This brings us together and really shows our Penn State pride. It really is the epitome of ‘We are.’”

“We are … Penn State” has been hard to avoid over the past couple of weeks, with students and supporters hauling it out at every opportunity, but it’s far from new. According to an article in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, the chant was invented in 1977 by the Penn State cheerleading squad. It quickly caught on. The following November, The Washington Post printed an article about the school’s football team, which at the time was ranked Number 2 in the country:

Paterno, in a light blue suit, jumped up on the speaker’s platform and raised his arms like a candidate accepting a draft from a raucous convention. Bedlam.

“It’s been 29 years. I’ve waited a long time to be where we are tonight,” he said, beginning a speech that was to build to a pitch worthy of Knute Rockne. Paterno has been called “the best coach who has never had a national champion,” a reputation he is determined to adjust.

“We are Penn State, we are Penn State,” chanted the frenzied throng. “We are No. 1.”

We Are seems to have been in the air in the late 70s. Queen released its anthem “We Are the Champions” in 1977, and two years later came Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” adopted as a theme song by the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. In due time, other colleges took a “Your Name Here” approach to Penn State’s motto, notably Georgetown, Notre Dame, Southern California (“We Are SC”) and Marshall. (We Are Marshall is the title of a recent movie about a 1970 plane crash that took the lives of most of the university’s football team. The film shows people shouting “We are Marshall!” in the  aftermath, but that is apparently poetic license, the chant not having taken hold till the 90s.)

The formulation just won’t go away. The Occupy Wall Street crowds chant “We Are the 99 Percent!”; Fox Sports proclaims, “We Are Fox Sports.” It’s become such a cliché, in fact, that it’s spoofed in an oft-played AT&T commercial (below), where a guy doesn’t get the message that the time for a flash-mob performance has been moved. So he dances alone and shouts “We are … ” only to be met with silence.

Whence the appeal of such chants? I guess we all want to feel we belong. Taking it a step further, shouting in unison with 100,000 like-minded souls may offer a temporary respite from or alternative to our notoriously demanding individualistic society.

A parallel track exists for FPSDOS (that is, first-person singular declarations of solidarity). It begins with Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. In a justly famous scene, after slaves are told they would be treated leniently if they identified Spartacus, each one stands, in turn, and proclaims, “I’m Spartacus.” In subsequent iterations, the contraction has been eliminated, presumably for lacking portent and rhetorical power. The Episcopal Church’s Web site is iamepiscopalian.org. Last year, the Twitter hashtag #iamspartacus was used to protest the arrest and conviction of an English man who had jokingly tweeted that if a closed airport did not quickly reopen, he would blow it up.

Then there is “I am Canadian,” which, despite its origin as a beer commercial, is moving, eloquent, and deeply iconic:

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