Tom Hayden and Noam Chomsky met at MIT’s Wong Auditorium on Wednesday, April 11 to reflect on the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 50 years after its publication.
Drafted in 1962 by Hayden, then a 22-year-old student at the University of Michigan, the Port Huron Statement articulates the democratic vision shared by many students of the 1960s. Scholars cite it as one of the defining documents of the decade’s wave of liberation movements.
Hayden likened the spirit that guided him in authoring the text to today’s global Occupy Movement. Namely, the September 17, 2011 demand for “a direct and transparent, participatory democracy.”
“The resilience of this concept keeps coming back,” he said, referring to a “homegrown” democracy rooted in the tradition of local 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau. According to whom, Hayden recalled, real democracy means not just voting at the ballot box, but voting with your whole life.
As testimony, the Port Huron writer told the story of how, after covering the early Civil Rights Movement as a journalist for the Michigan Daily, he directly participated in the Freedom Rides, sharing a “powerful emotional bind” with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and fellow SDS members, as together the activists braved the perils of racist police and lynch mobs.
SDS asked Hayden to pen a vision statement. He obliged. In the summer of 1962, after much dialogue, additions, and editing, the group published the Port Huron Statement, a “living document” for the generation. It famously begins, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
The statement challenges the dominant 20th /early 21st century ideology, which regards people as “thing[s] to be manipulated” and “inherently incapable of directing [their] own affairs.” SDS viewed themselves not as mere consumers, or tools in the system of Violent Industry & Propaganda, but as dignified people––with “unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love” and “unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity.” People who, cooperatively, could “determine the quality and direction of [their] lives.”
Hayden said, “I hope we can be forgiven for our omissions,” of which included women’s liberation and environmentalism. But he directed the audience’s attention to one prescient point which did find its way onto page 27 of the publication: “The wealthiest one percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of all personal shares of stock.”
The SDS manifesto was like “a blast of fresh air that, quite eloquently” helped to “galvanize the activist movements of the ‘60s,” recalled Chomsky, internationally acclaimed professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT.
Hayden recalled traveling to Chomsky’s home in the summer of 1966 to find the MIT professor seated opposite a typewriter, working away at his classic moral essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals (http://www.chomsky.info/articles/19670223.htm)–– still key reading for pro-democracy students today.
In his talk, Chomsky contrasted the democratic spirit of the Port Huron Statement with the darker story of 1962, beginning with “the most dangerous moment in history”––the Cuban Missile Crisis. That near-apocalypse, he stressed, ought to be understood in the context of the “major campaign of terror” (“sometimes called counterterror”) the U.S. unleashed against Cuba in years prior to it, in “hysterical reaction” to Fidel Castro’s concept of granting the island’s people the liberty of “taking matters into [their] own hands.” Contempt for this concept prompted U.S. administrations to “establish brutal military dictatorships everywhere in the region,” to control capital, he noted.
A likeminded approach prevailed in the East in 1962, when U.S. policymakers ordered the attack of South Vietnam. Chomsky detailed the horrible destruction of the ensuing war, and recommended the audience check out a recent book by Fred Wilcox, Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam. It describes how “three million adults and 500,000 children” today in Vietnam, generations after the war, still suffer (birth defects, deformities, retardation, cancer) and die from having been exposed to the roughly 12 million gallons of Agent Orange/Dioxin––chiefly manufactured and sold by Dow Chemical and Monsanto Corporation––that the U.S. Air Force began to douse the country with in 1962.
1962 also marked “the first time in 1,600 years that the church returned to the Gospels.” Chomsky recounted how the Second Vatican Council beginning that year gave rise to liberation theology in the Latin American Church, and how graduates of the U.S.’ School of the Americas murderously suppressed it. One finds a philosophy of “radical pacifism” and a “preferential option for the poor” in the Gospels “if [one] bothers[s] to read [them] and not just mouth the words,” he observed.
Hayden remembered the air in America in 1962 as “quite related to the wind blowing through the Vatican.” In writing the Port Huron Statement, he felt like “a vessel or instrument for a feeling that was going on in the world.”
The former SDS activist hypothesized that there comes a time in which people in each generation ask themselves: Are you satisfied with the system under which you are living? In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, activists recognized that, unless they stood up for their rights, “Jim Crowe was their future.” Without participating as they did, “nothing would have happened.”
Linking this to modern times, Hayden declared, “The mountain of Wall St. is not as high as Stone Mountain of Georgia,” and “the NYPD don’t match the Birmingham Police.” He encouraged occupiers to “be visionary and pragmatic at the same time,” and to keep enduring, for “[we] may be winning while [we] experience the feeling that [we]’re losing.”
The key, Hayden said, is unity. Democracy activists need to transcend the sectarianism that plagued aspects the New Left in the late sixties. In that era, enormous numbers of people came together in solidarity for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, the Student Strike of 1970, and the First Earth Day, yet folks criticized SDS as “too reformist,” Hayden recalled. “As if you have to be out of your mind to want reform.”
Hayden encouraged listeners to educate and organize within their communities, to “let neighbors and friends know.” He passed around a pro-peace email list for which those interested could sign up and stay informed.
“The American people will come around to the Wall St. scandal” if they see occupiers continually uniting together in nonviolent direct action, the Port Huron writer reasoned. Results arise from the chemistry set in motion by this kind of participatory democracy. “That is what I think the future of Occupy looks like.”
Follow this link to read the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962 http://www.h-net.org/~hst306/documents/huron.html