By Melanie Kruvelis, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published November 5, 2012
By and large, the students, or, at least, the thousands involved in Students for a Democratic Society, thought they could do something about this cluster-fucked world. Dreams of the democratic Shangri-La may have died, but participatory democracy — the cornerstone of the Statement — did not.
What are your thoughts on our generation compared to the one of the 60s?
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And as for students today? We still look uncomfortably to the world, but with much less optimism.
“Protesting is just a little too inconvenient,” says Rory Cahill, an LSA senior who helped organize the conference. “You’ve got to finish your thesis and get a job.”
“That’s where the emphasis is now,” Cahill says. “Not on social change, but on staying afloat.”
“You want ecstatic experiences”
“You know, we were in a period that’s rare,” Hayden says between a sip of coffee. “It really did seem like we could do anything. But it was so brief that it’s hard to say much more than that.”
We’re sitting in the alcove off the Anderson room in the Union. A makeshift bookshelf was put together here, displaying some of the 20 books Hayden has written over the last 40 years. In the half-hour or so I’m with Hayden, several grey-haired heads pop in the alcove, hoping to catch up with him.
“Hey, Tom — I’m Fred. I was working on your campaign in Santa Barbara County when you ran for U.S. Senate.”
Hayden turns around. “Well, what the hell are you doing here?”
Fred laughs. “I saw this in a newsletter and thought, man, I’ve gotta go to this. It’s great to see these people all together again. Lord knows we need it.”
The two men shake hands, and Fred goes about his way. Hayden looks back down at his coffee.
“When I was writing the Statement, I was debating the absurdity of life,” Hayden says. “It all ends up in suffering and death, so why exactly should you expect anything?”
“It makes it hard for me to believe in rational hope,” Hayden continues. “I’m much more comfortable with the idea of fighting against the bullies. Being moved by somebody like you standing up for yourself — that’s what it’s all about.”
There’s something funny about hearing the former president of SDS, one of the most active, most visible groups this campus has ever seen, arguing for gradual solutions to social justice. But 50 years after leaving the University of Michigan, Hayden understands change as a step-by-step process. No matter how maddening that may be.
“Organizers are always trying to figure out, well, what’s the chance of us succeeding?” Hayden says with a chuckle. “I’m always thinking that on a deeper level, there’s no chance. But on a practical level, if you have an inch-by-inch concept, you will be able to get those inches.”
And if you look back on the achievements of SDS and the Statement, you can see where those inches were made. Jim Crow was ended. The 26th Amendment was passed, giving people 18 and older the right to vote. New issues entered the political platform, through the creation of organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the rise of minority rights groups. Even the escalation of the Vietnam War — SDS’s worst nightmare — was fought through popular uprising.
Maybe we don’t have a total participatory democracy like the Statement wanted. Maybe the University still isn’t fostering the kind of debate that we want. But, as Hayden says, maybe you should just give it time.
“The path for us didn’t turn out to be a pleasant one. By the time you get to each peak, there’s another mountain to climb,” Hayden says.
Of course, for our generation — the Lost Generation Part II — well, this isn’t the foundation of the most attractive future. For Hayden, this is where the importance of a community lies. Community as a tangible force, not some candy-coated concept. A forum to get up, get angry and talk, goddammit.
“I don’t mean to be a phony realist and tell you your dreams can’t be achieved and that you have to scale them down,” Hayden says. “My conclusion is this: You’ve got to join a community of meaning while you’re looking for answers.”
He pauses for a moment. “You can’t just say, I want change and I’m going to get it through an inch-by-inch process. No — you want to be liberated. You want to be thrilled. You want to have sex. You want to travel to 52 countries. You want to read books that blow your mind. You want ecstatic experiences.”
“The only way you get that is finding people who want that too. And that will get you through life.”
There’s no ‘I’ in protest
For Cahill, that sense of kindred, fired up community left the University with the class of 1962.
“I joined the College Democrats when I first got here,” Cahill says. “We were basically just being used as grassroots labor for local and state candidates. We didn’t have much time to talk about why we were doing it or any of our own ideas.”
He swishes around his paper cup of espresso. “More credit to them, I guess.