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Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement

Posted on Oct 24, 2016

By Tom Hayden

(Page 5)

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.” [57]

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.” [58] 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.


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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). [59]

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.” [60]

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?”[61]

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.

[57] From Senate hearings, in Zinn, 557. At the time, in 1961, I was writing a pamphlet on the civil rights movement for the U.S. National Student Association, for international distribution. Without my knowledge, CIA funds were paying for it, presumably to show an idealistic image at international youth forums.
[58]Kenneth Kenniston, “Young Radicals, Notes on Committed Youth,” Harcourt Brace, 1968, p. 235.
[59]Lynn Cheney
[60] Kirby Dick and Amy Kofman, “Derrida,” Routledge 2005, p. 62[61]Silone, p. 146

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By Struggling College girl, October 23, 2008 at 11:26 am Link to this comment
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recently received the following assignment:

After reading Port Huron and Sharon Statement declare a new policy statement for your generation in a promise to honor the Free Speech Movement. Are you bold or apathetic? Statements should be clear of purpose, passionate, and serious.

any ideas????
Please Help………..

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By Jim, April 13, 2006 at 11:10 am Link to this comment
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The comments by Mamosa on megalomania and some of the history of the 1960s which Tom Hayden discusses raise, in my mind, some crucial issues that all future social movements will face.
  Tom states that “..the subsequent assinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968 permanently derailed what remained of the hopes that were born at Port Huron.”  He goes on to say that “...hope died slowly and painfully…” and that what followed was radicalization, polarization, and that SDS members who choose “ become more radical, sectarian dogmatic and violent…” made those decisions in a context which, more or less, justified such choices.
  Since I was an SDS member who made such a choice (as was Tom Hayden) I think it is important too look as closely as possible at that type of decision. I remember at the time the type of private thought which went through my brain was something to the effect “all right system, you murdered our leaders, you continue with your insane policy in Vietnam, I going to take you on in any way I know how.”  My brain sent me a message as to how to respond to the power of the “establishment” and the logic of that response (greater dogmatism, greater polarizing behavior) simply duplicated the logic of the “establishment” power I was supposedly fighting against.
  That type of decision and choice was made by many hundreds if not thousand of individuals between 1968 and 1970 and it had disasterous consequences for the more Utopian dreams of Port Huron.  The megalomania of the “establishment,” was duplicated to a lesser degree in our decisions as protestors.  We had listened to a message in our heads as to the “proper,” way to respond to unjust power.
  This is part of the reason why the road to “an alternative way of being,” is so difficult. Our brain absorbs a message on how to achieve or challenge power and we go with that impulse when it is the very impulse we should be fighting against.

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By Lee Hirz, April 13, 2006 at 6:05 am Link to this comment
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As a member of various groups that have been trying to attack the issue of progressive politics I have had a stunning reminder of the fact that people are so distracted by the symptoms of our problems that they almost consciously refuse to attack the causes. I have distributed the Port Huron Statement to little avail The people I’ve worked with, while not appathetic and while good intentioned cannot think outside the context of the public arguments, which once framed, do not allow for much vigorous argument.  2020 Democrats is one organization that I held high hopes for, but have not been able to have much an effect on because, while they aspouse to want to create a new platform for the Democratic party, refuse to take the issues of social justice very seriously.  There is an ogranization in England called the Fabian Society which as three basic premises that can be used to frame all of their philosophies:  Liberty, responsibility and fairness, all framed in a global context, but acted on locally.  This country needs a “Fabian Society” like organization that can in the long term develop the intellectual basis for social justice in our American culture.

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By mamosa, April 12, 2006 at 10:52 pm Link to this comment
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The understated passion in your words is more powerful than the history you relate.  I appreciate that.

I was a part time activist in the sixties, a part time student, a weekend hippie, a full time husband and father of two, and a full time employee.  I had grown up unaware and without hunger. 

I woke up about 4:30 PM on my way home from work on November 22, 1963 when the radio announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  Six months earlier he had been my Commander in Chief and I was proud to serve.  That event troubles me to this day.  It changed my life.

I realized that something was terribly wrong.  I committed myself to learning what it was and what I could do about it.  It is deeper than lack of compassion, deeper than dishonesty, and deeper than greed.  It is megalomania, a psychological disorder that propels those afflicted to rise to the top through lies, theft and murder. 

Not all leaders are afflicted, but the ones who are, are fairly easy to spot.  If they fool me once, or lie to me once, I will never trust them again.  Hey Hey LBJ!  Total openness and honesty from wannabe leaders, and everyone else for that matter, is the answer.

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By Eva Periut, April 12, 2006 at 8:32 pm Link to this comment
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Sadly, there is little justice where there is such greed and malice of those in power. In fact, I have come to believe most powers that be, care very little, if at all for human suffering, much less seek justice for humanity.  And I would hope that the Israeli lobbying that goes on will tone down its rhetoric for this story and allow the truth of this valiant young woman be told. It would only demostrate our common humanity after all.

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By freespeechlover, April 12, 2006 at 10:26 am Link to this comment
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Thanks for that comment.  It was very insightful and helpful in understanding that time for those of us who were not old enough then to participate in it.

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By Jim, April 11, 2006 at 11:29 pm Link to this comment
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The cultural belief that SDS began to challenge in the 1960s the “absolute impossibility of another way of being,” continues to be the major challenge of the 21st century.  What we in SDS in the 1960s failed to realize was how difficult this challenge truly is.
  Tom Hayden insighfully describes how the call for participatory democracy tapped into the rich tradition of representation ( the Native American tribal tradition of consensus and self-governing town meetings)present at the founding of America.
  He also indicates that particpatory democracy “should be understood in its psychic, liberatory dimension, not simply as an alternative concept of government organization…but as a mode of associated living.” Tom states that many of us were moved by the demonstrations in the South. This was certainly true but what was it exactly that moved us.
  I remember particpating in my first civil rights demonstration in downtown Milwaukee in 1964. I listed to impassioned speeches inside a black church and then suddently the entire congregation black and white walked out of the church and marched into the street together.  This was direct action and it was exhilirating.
But it was more than that, for a few brief moments I also experienced a different way of being, a different sense of individuality, more open and connected to those around me.
  In 1964 I felt a part of, but by 1974 after 10 years of politcal activity I felt above it all, separate from and certain in my righteous ideological stance.  Somehow in 10 years the search for another way of being had simply become a search for power. It strikes me that if such a process is not to continually reassert itself all of us who are interested in changing America must carefully reflect and acknowledge what truly moves us and what internally and externally stops us from following such passions.

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