This year marks the 50th anniverary of The Port Huron Statement, a democratic manifesto drafted largely by Tom Hayden and modified and adopted by Students for a Democratic Society, a leading activist organization of that period.
For many people like myself who came up in the sixties, it was an important articulation of political values. Just glancing back over my blog, I see I’ve made reference to it a couple of times in the last half-dozen years, once during the immigration marches of 2006, and once in response to TV series about the sixties.
Read today, The Port Huron Statement seems to illuminate many things about the path U.S. political life has taken in these 50 years.
It’s a youthful statement in so many ways—outraged at adult hypocrisy, particularly the gap between “American values we found good, principles by which we could live” and the actual deeds of the powers-that-be. This is well worth pondering. Outrage at hypocrisy fueled energetic and persistent youth activism in the sixties. But you really can’t get worked up over hypocrisy unless you think the hypocrites can feel shame, can respond to pangs of national conscience. Today, there a widespread perception that people in high places who pay lip-service to democratic ideals are merely lying, wrapping themselves in the flag to camouflage a traitorous indifference to the health of the body politic. And that sometimes gives a half-hearted character to what otherwise might be pure outrage: if you don’t really believe you have a chance to defeat the bully, why try so hard?
It preceded much of the consciousness-raising and activism that hugely enlarged awareness of the injuries of class, race, and gender. So while the statement was strongly supportive of the early sixties’ Southern civil rights movement, it is amazingly oblivious to gender discrimination. The sentence quoted above ends this way: “American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men.” Indeed, there are at least fifty uses of “man,” “men,” and “mankind” when we would today refer to “people” or “humankind” or some other gender-neutral expression—and the word “women” appears twice. “Negro” appears 36 times, and “black” twice. These usages say a lot about exactly where this landmark manifesto appears on the timeline of human liberation.
Yet some truths travel very well across time. This line in the preamble seems more true today than ever, and more apt than ever in noting the way the operatives of a dominant order trumpet their own rightness and inevitability: “In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present.” And just so, a few lines later, there appears an evergreen statement of possibility: “The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today.”
The Port Huron Statement reflected the economic realities of the moment, beginning with the opening statement which seems slightly blind to the privilege it encodes: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” During the period from the late 1950s till well after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the top one percent of earners owned between five and eight percent of aggregate income. A small group of wealthy people owned more than an equal share, to be sure, but the contrast to today’s division is startling. According to the New York Times, “The top 1 percent of earners…receives just under a fifth of the country’s pretax income, about double their share 30 years ago.” When you consider wealth disparities (not just income), the contrast is even starker: While the Times estimated the top 1 percent of household income at about 7.5 times median household income, “the 1 percent threshold for net worth in the Fed data was nearly $8.4 million, or 69 times the median household’s net holdings.”
We live in a different world from the Port Huron authors. In some ways, the difference between the idealism of the Port Huron Statement and the stark reality of today’s pervasive political despair directly parallels the change in economic situation. We are living now with the aftermath of the privileged few having hollowed out the economy to enrich themselves, with government mostly aiding and abetting this theft. That this was allowed to happen is perhaps the most discouraging thing of all. (For an excellent explanation of how and why, be sure to see the powerful film Heist: Who Stole The American Dream?, which is now available on DVD as well as for community and theatrical screenings. Full disclosure: I had a small part in helping it get made, but that’s not why I’m recommending it.)
The Port Huron Statement takes values seriously. It treats understanding and choosing our social order as a valid enterprise, worthy of much time and effort. It doesn’t shy from speaking in terms we seldom read in political statements nowadays, to wit, love: “We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.”
The Statement speaks in a nuanced way about the roles of electoral politics and labor unions, then takes a great leap, asserting universities as “an overlooked seat of influence” and locus for “a new left,” sketching what has now—in the age of corporatized education—become largely a rather lovely fantasy of the university as an intellectual community that can debate, synthesize, prepare activists, and translate complexity into felt reality. The authors foresaw a growing alliance between campus and the larger community. Sadly, what more often evolved was a wider gulf between them: the intensity of sixties campus clashes—which sometimes extended to occupying buildings, destroying property, and turning National Guard rifles and mounted police on unarmed demonstrators—was mostly more frightening than inspiriting to people off-campus, setting the stage for the retrenchment that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980.
This past June one of the Port Huron authors (and the first president of SDS), Al Haber, organized a conference in Ann Arbor to cooperatively craft a “Port Huron Statement for the 21st Century.” The drafting process is ongoing, with the intention of unveiling something in time for a 50th anniversary conference at the University of Michigan—“A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement in its Time and Ours”—featuring a stellar array of sixties activists as speakers and a plan to engage current student activists throughout. One of the two keynotes will be offered by Tom Hayden, principal drafter of the Port Huron Statement; the other by Ruth Rosen, whose work focuses on the women’s movement of the period. There’s a campus lecture series leading up to the conference that makes me wonder if it’s possible to extract the life from even such a vivid period of history, but I probably shouldn’t pay all that much attention to the academic fashion in titles, which begs for parody. The conference itself may be vivid and exciting (although it could benefit from a few speakers like myself—I say immodestly—whose sixties activism took place off-campus rather than on).
I love manifestos. What can I say? I’m a public intellectual who believes in the power of ideas. Expressed with clarity and force, they can help shape disparate but related impulses into an effective movement. On the other hand, movements are easily prey to the type of magical thinking that says if we can only get the words right, the actions will fall into place. In the end, the reflection and debate involved in crafting a manifesto are salubrious in and of themselves: diehard activists tend to move fast from one action to the next, shooting from the hip; without reflection you get repetition but not necessarily progress, which demands self-questioning as well as determination.
I look forward to seeing what emerges from Al Haber’s project for a new manifesto. If the result captures my interest, I’ll write about it here.
In the meantime, here’s my question for you. The Port Huron Statement has strong echoes of the Declaration of Independence’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident”: “We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.” How would you describe the thwarted potential of the human subject today? Would “reason, freedom, and love” sum it up? I find myself rattling off words like “compassion,” “healing,” and “equality,” as well as “freedom.” How about you?
When I write “the sixties,” I’m thinking of a period that didn’t really develop in earnest till 1964 or so: musically, the Port Huron Statement coincided with the Beatles’ arrival on the U.S. music scene, Sam Cooke singing “Twistin’ The Night Away,” and Ray Charles going country with “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Bob Dylan’s first album came out that year, but most of the songs on it were folk standards. Jimi Hendrix didn’t record till 1964; Jefferson Airplane 1966, Santana 1969. But 1962 had its saving graces. The Supremes first album included this great song by Smokey Robinson, later a huge hit (in a much better version) for the Jackson 5: “Who’s Lovin’ You.” It’s a little cheesy, I know, but I like this version by Sananda Maitreya (the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby).