“Think I need this thing?”
The moderator talks into the microphone — testing, one, two, yep, much better. The audience wanders from the coffee machines back to their seats. It’s the first full day of the University's Port Huron Statement conference, this two-part workshop, one-part reunion honoring the 50th anniversary of the New Left manifesto.
Under the chandeliers of the Michigan Union Pendleton Room, seven students in blazers and button-ups gather to discuss the impact of the document. More importantly, they’re talking about the students of the 60s, our can’t-stop, won’t-stop predecessors that shook this campus — shook the ideas of any campus, really — until it was blue in the face.
The whole thing makes them uneasy.
“The 60s were a time of huge social change — you know, with rallies and protests,” one of the panelists says. “We just don’t have that anymore.”
Another student chimes in, “It’s obvious that people are angry today. What’s not so obvious is if anyone will take their frustrations past Facebook.”
The student on the end grabs the microphone. “In comparison, nothing we do today is good enough.”
An exasperated generational sigh hovers over the panel. Not because the groups these panelists represent aren’t important. Not because they aren’t trying. As the discussion of the differences between them — the take-it-to-the-streets students of the 60s and us — come to a close, it’s clear. We’re fighting a bigger monster of apathy. And we have no idea how to kill it.
The audience senses it too. “You know, I really feel bad for your generation,” an older man says during questions. “You have no movement. You have all these issues, and no movement. And you know what’s the problem? You have no leaders.”
A kid sitting in front of me adjusts his sweatshirt, revealing the familiar motto hidden under his hood — Michigan, home to the leaders and best.
When did that promise start to ring hollow?
“Not the compromised second draft”
For a 50-year-old document, the Port Huron Statement looks pretty young.
Of course, the references to the Cold War and the suppressed black vote give it some wrinkles. But on the whole, the Statement’s ability to bottle up and explode the student condition — the frustrated, fed-up, but conscious condition — hasn’t withered over the last half-century. From the first sentence on, it’s hard to read through it without thinking someone yanked the repressed frustration out of your brain and transcribed the hell out of it.
“We are the people of this generation,” the Statement begins, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
Drop the book. That subtle “uncomfortably” — there’s something about it that just gets it. Because maybe when you’re in the middle of your second procrasti-shower of the day, or standing in line at 7-11, you remember — there’s a world beyond that calculus exam. It’s a big mundo outside our Ann Arbor bubble, and good god, soon it will be ours to inherit.
That responsibility is uncomfortably hard to convey. The Japanese have a term for it — yugen, an awareness of the universe that triggers responses too deep and mysterious for words. Today we might call such a feeling “practically nonexistent.” Or maybe more accurately, “too scary and real to think about. I better get to class.”
Naturally, the full aims of the Left’s defining document won’t be supported across the political spectrum. In fact, it isn’t. Critics have called it a relic of a utopian past, a too-young, too-ambitious appeal to socialist ideals. Writer David Horowitz called the Statement a “self-conscious effort to rescue the communist project from its Soviet fate.” But even setting aside the ideologies, just for a minute, there’s still this sort of psychic power to the Statement. It’s hard to believe that a manifesto from 1962 can sum up millennial gripes, but the proof is in the print.
“It’s a place of commitment to business-as-usual,” the manifesto says, in reference to the University. “It’s a place of mass affirmation to the 'Twist' ” — or “Gangnam Style,” if you prefer — “but mass reluctance towards the controversial public stance.”
To be sure, the Port Huron Statement and its aims have been, to some extent, romanticized. In the three years following the dissemination of the Statement came the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the arrival of LBJ and the biggie — the escalation of the Vietnam War. To borrow from Tom Hayden, the University alum who drafted the Statement, in just three years, the utopian vision was gone.
But the energy was not. The anti-war movement exploded, the fight for racial equality intensified. And the students were there, working under the presumption that something’s gotta change. In their minds, they were the ones who could fix it.
Here’s where the original audience takes a turn from today’s reader. 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.
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. They’re doing fairly important things, albeit in a defensive way. But I didn’t want to be part of that. I didn’t feel like I was participating.”
I hand him a flyer from a recent Coalition for Tuition Equality protest on campus. “Do it like we did in the 60s,” the card says. “Stand up and protest. Join the movement.”
“What do you think about that?” I ask him. “You know, using the 1960s as this blueprint for student activism?”
He leans back in his chair. “Just look at the town. Look at the giant apartment buildings coming up. Things have changed in a big way.”
He pauses. “There’s been a huge shift in the way we understand problems. Back then, there was a systemic responsibility on everyone involved.”
And now? “The narrative shifted to the individual. It’s become hard to convince people of anything. That anything is their problem too.”
“And you know, as one middle-class college student, who are you to say what’s right?” Cahill asks. “You just don’t know.”
“Do you think we’ll leave as much of an impact on this campus as the students of the 60s did?” I ask.
“No,” Cahill says immediately. “Not a chance.”
Is Campus dead?
There are a lot of tempting conclusions to come out of this.
One: To bastardize Nietzsche, Campus is dead.
Tempting indeed. After all, the weather is already awful, no one knows how to walk in Angell Hall and no one cares about anything, ever.
But of course, this is too simple. Sure, we don’t have SDS anymore. But maybe SDS is now SSDP, ACLU, HRTE and thousands of other active acronyms. For better or for worse, we’ve splintered off into this alphabet soup of special interest organizations.
But is that enough? Are mass meetings, mass emails and mass reply-alls really reaching the student body in a meaningful way? We’re not taking to the streets. We’re not holding sit-ins at meetings of the University's Board of Regents. Professors aren’t holding teach-ins, like they did in 1965, when they cancelled classes to protest the Vietnam War. If we model ourselves after the students of the 60s — as we may be tempted to do, the answer is a resounding hell no.
Which brings us to conclusion two: Maybe that campus, that idea of campus, is dead. But it doesn’t mean ours is too.
“There’s a fallacy in looking just at student orgs as a source of change,” says Riley Linebaugh, an LSA senior who sat on the student panel at the conference. “Whether it’s a friend group or a team or a social organization, people are interacting in ways that reflect love, fraternity and democracy like the Port Huron Statement talks about.”
“The problem is those interactions aren’t interpreted as being relevant to social change. What we’re doing right now,” she says, pointing across the table at me and back to her, “is part of the change.”
For Linebaugh, the solution to academic apathy, to finding our impact on this campus isn’t in existing organizations. It isn’t in following the exact path of SDS and feeling disappointed when it leads to nowhere. It’s about taking what we learned from the very alive, very present 60s and making it our own.
“There’s this misunderstanding that activism and critical thought somehow has to be contained within university structures,” Linebaugh says. “I just think it would be amazing if a student critical mass pushed for new spaces, new forums to come together outside of organizations.”
She pauses. “Maybe if we did that, we’d look a little less uncomfortably to the future.”