the port huron statement -- 10/24/22

Today's selection -- from After the Ivory Tower Falls by Will Bunch. The Port Huron Statement was a political manifesto of the American student activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) written in 1962:
"The movement that came to be called The New Left united many of the vague stirrings caused by the psychic whipsaw of Cold War anxiety and the comfort-craving materialism of the 1950s. 'The government lied to people and this image that we were fed in school -- our great forefa­thers and this great democracy and we're the greatest country in the world, blah blah -- when you're confronted with other things,' said [Free Speech Movement activist Lynne] Hollander, referring to segregation and McCarthyism. 'Plus the in­security of feeling that nuclear war might break out at any time, and these crazy people thinking you could duck under your desk. All of these things came together.' 

"They came together in one of the most remarkable documents of the twentieth century: the Port Huron Statement. It was the foundational work of a new group called the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, which ironically arose from the ashes of a leftist youth group backed by the powerful United Auto Workers Union, only to reject the labor-driven brand of liberalism that had defined the Industrial Rev­olution. The first leader of the SDS was the University of Michigan's [Tom] Hayden. In June 1962, he and his fellow founders of the SDS gathered for a retreat at a UAW summer camp in Port Huron, Michigan, north of Detroit, where they drafted a statement that shunned the old fights over communism in favor of a new politics that rejected both middle­class conformity and Cold War angst. Most significantly, it identified American college campuses as the nexus of a new political and social revolution.

"'We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,' the Hayden-drafted Port Huron Statement begins famously. 'When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and stron­gest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world.' Their childhood bred complacency, the statement argues, which would be shattered by growing awareness of the destructive power of the atom bomb and the moral indefensibility of racism, especially segregation.

"The 25,700-word statement embraces a newish concept that it la­beled 'participatory democracy,' which would give individuals more of a say, in politics and over their own lives. It was a 'New Left' be­cause in pursuit of progressive goals, it rejected the collective action of worker-based early-twentieth-century leftist movements for a kind of personal freedom, made possible -- ironically -- by the liberation of union-aided postwar affluence, and boosted by the free thought of liberal education. It would have been impossible to predict from a 1962 perspective how the desires for personal freedom might some­day metastasize -- steered by the generations coming up right behind them -- into things like open-carry gun ownership or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic. At the peak of JFK's soon-to-be-shattered 'Camelot,' participatory democracy instead was seen as the vehicle that would finally bring about goals like integration, peaceful use of atomic energy, and an end to overseas imperialism.

"In other ways, the Port Huron Statement is a kind of a yin to the yang of [Clark] Kerr's Uses of the University lectures. While the University of California president saw his modern 'multiversity' as the humming factory of a knowledge economy that was making the United States the essential world superpower, Hayden and the SDS saw the univer­sity as the last place where a democratic America could be saved -- if students and faculty were allowed to convert their knowledge into po­litical power.

"With labor unions compromised by the Cold War and other key groups such as southern Blacks struggling on the margins, the state­ment argued that the nation's booming universities were now the last best hope for progressivism as 'the only mainstream institution that is open to participation by individuals of nearly any viewpoint.' Col­lege campuses, it continued, could be incubators of democracy, exactly as the New Deal technocrats of the Truman Commission era had imagined -- but a true version of democracy, not the corrupted Cold War model. The Port Huron Statement urged that both students and faculty 'wrest control of the educational process from the adminis­trative bureaucracy' and integrate more real-world issues into the curriculum -- the 1950s notion of college as 'general education,' but on steroids. Students could use the new American way of college as 'a base for their assault upon the loci of power.' 

"This was a radical notion. In the short term, this key argument of the Port Huron Statement set the stage for a decade of youthful polit­ical energy and revolutionary ideas unlike anything that America has seen before ... or since. Needless to say, the so-called Establishment had no idea what was coming. The newspapers of 1962 didn't bother to dismiss the statement as the sophomoric ramblings of idealistically naive youth, because the newspapers didn't even think this was news. Only when the seeds that were planted near the shores of Lake Hu­ron began to bloom on campuses from Berkeley to Columbia would the postwar Establishment begin to wonder whether its great experi­ment in taxpayer-subsidized liberal education and free thought had run amok and created a monster. The coming battles that would be waged from the streets of Chicago to Woodstock Nation were only the first shots of a war that has lasted until today. The youth power of the stu­dent movement sparked by groups like SNCC and the SDS gave rise to a powerful opposing force -- the backlash that gave voice to Ronald Reagan, then Rush Limbaugh, then Donald Trump."



Will Bunch


After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics -- and How to Fix It


William Morrow


Copyright 2022 by Will Bunch


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