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Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement
Posted on Oct 24, 2016
By Tom Hayden
Students, the Universities and the Postmodern Legacy
Of all the contributions of the Port Huron Statement, perhaps the most important was the insight that university communities had a role in social change. Universities had become as indispensable to economics in what we called the automation age as factories were in the age of industrial development. Robert McNamara, after all, was trained at the University of Michigan. In a few years, University of California President Clark Kerr would invent the label “multiversity” to explain the importance of knowledge to power.
Clearly, the CIA understood the importance of universities; as early as 1961, as the Port Huron Statement was being conceived, its chief of covert action wrote that books were “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda.” 
We saw the possibilities, therefore, in challenging or disrupting the role of the universities in the knowledge economy. More important, however, was the alienation that the impersonal mass universities bred among idealistic youth searching for “relevance,” as described in some of the most eloquent passages of the Port Huron Statement. We wanted participatory education in our participatory democracy, truth from the bottom up, access for the historically excluded to the colleges and universities. Gradually, this led to a fundamental rejection of the narratives we had been taught, the myths of the American melting pot, the privileged superiority of (white) Western civilization, and inevitably to the quest for inclusion of “the other”—the contributions of women, people of color and all those marginalized by the march of power. The result of this subversion of traditional authority became known as multiculturalism, deconstruction and postmodernism. In his perceptive 1968 study, “Young Radicals, Notes on Committed Youth,” the Harvard researcher Kenneth Kenniston was the first to conclude that our “approach to the world—fluid, personalistic, anti-technological, and non-violent—suggests the emergence of what I will call the post-modern style.”  It could also be called the Port Huron style, the endless improvising, the techniques of dialogue and participation, learning through direct action, the rejection of dogma while searching for theory. It was typical of the style that the PHS was offered as a “living document,” not a set of marching orders.
When I first met Howard Zinn, he was a professor at a black women’s college in Atlanta, where both of us were immersed in the early civil rights movement. He was one of the few engaged intellectuals I had ever met. While witnessing and participating in the civil rights movement, he was discovering a “story” far different than the conventional one he knew as a trained historian. It eventually was published as “A People’s History of the United States,” selling some 750,000 copies although Zinn was fired by two universities.
Thanks to Zinn and numerous subsequent writers, the “disappeared” of history were suddenly appearing in new narratives and publications developed in ethnic studies, women’s studies, African-American studies, Chicano studies, queer studies, environmental studies. Films like “Roots,” “The Color Purple” and “Taxi Driver” expanded and deepened this discovery process. Conservatives like Lynn Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, were distressed that more young people knew of Harriet Tubman than the name of the commandeer of the American revolutionary army (George Washington). 
Cheney has been working since the Reagan era to undercut the ‘60s cultural revolution, but the effort is not simply Republican. Among the corporate Democrats, Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary and now president of Harvard, is devoted to “eradicating the influence of the 1960s,” according to a recent biography (Richard Bradley, “Harvard Rules,” HarperCollins, 2005; quoted in New York Times review, March 27, 2005).
The unexpected student revolt that produced the Port Huron Statement was the kind of moment described by the French philosopher of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, who took the side of the French students at the barricades in 1968. In his words, Derrida tried to “distinguish between what one calls the future and ‘l’avenir’. There’s a future that is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come), which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate its arrival. So if there is a real future beyond this other known future, it’s l’avenir in that it’s the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee its arrival.” 
The Port Huron Statement announced such an unexpected arrival, with a simple introductory sentence: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit.” Now as that same Port Huron generation enters into its senior years, it’s worth asking whether we are uncomfortable about the world we are passing on as inheritance, and what may still be done. For me, the experience of the ‘60s will always hold a bittersweet quality, and I remain haunted by another question raised by Ignazio Silone in “Bread and Wine”: “What would happen if men remained loyal to the ideals of their youth?”
Now that deconstruction has succeeded, is it time for reconstruction again? The postmodern cannot be an end state, only a transition to the unexpected future. Transition to what? Not an empire, not a fundamentalist retreat from modernity, for they are no answers to the world crisis. As the Port Huron Statement said, “The world is in transition. But America is not.” New global movements, symbolized by the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, declare that “another world is possible,” echoing the Zapatista call for “a world in which all worlds fit.” The demands of these new rebels are transitional too, toward a new inclusive narrative in addition to the many narratives of multiculturalism. Perhaps the work begun at Port Huron will be taken up again, this time around the world, for the globalization of power and capital and empire surely will globalize the stirrings of conscience and resistance. While the powers that be debate whether the world is dominated by a single superpower (the U.S. position) or is multipolar (the position of the French, the Chinese and others), there is an alternative vision appearing among the millions involved in global justice, peace, human rights and environmental movements, a future created through participatory democracy.
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