An Anachronistic Reading

Historians warn us not to interpret or judge the past through contemporary eyes. They recognize that the past is a foreign country, and that some day in the future we will come under the same moral scrutiny we wish to apply to the past. But I am a political scientist, not a historian, so in this essay I commit the solecism of reading the Port Huron Statement anachronistically. My question: “What can the Statement teach us today?”

The first thing one notices is its length: 25,800 words. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street’s first “official document for release” is 660 words long, while Occupy Iowa City’s Statement of Principles takes 531 words and that of Occupy Harvard takes 377. Length has no relation to substantive importance, and shorter documents may be more politically memorable than longer ones. Still, writers lacking Lincoln’s genius for combining pithiness with profundity, as in the Gettysburg address, have a better chance of explicating their worldviews in several thousand words than in several hundred. The prolixity of the Statement, while excessive and perhaps self-defeating, reveals its writers’ optimism that people can be persuaded into political activism through discourse.

So one question the Statement raises is whether it is still possible to rouse people to political action through extended, detailed argumentation. My own students, and perhaps political activists more generally, believe that persuasive speech cannot mobilize, that the goal of statements is to assert one’s position rather than to explain, defend, and plead for it. This mistaken view is a real loss to democratic discourse.

Substantively, the Port Huron Statement includes passages that sound strikingly contemporary:

The declaration ’all men are created equal . . .’ rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo [substitute ’Middle East’]. . . . While two-thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. . . . Uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources. . . . America rests in national stalemate, . . . its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than ’of, by, and for the people.’

Whether this uncannily familiar list of political dilemmas means that the United States has remained static for half a century—or whether racial and economic inequality, warmongering and resource exploitation, apathy and manipulation are eternal problems of humankind (or at least of Western democracies)—is a second question worth pondering. The United States has certainly changed in important ways and largely for the better, partly due to the passionate activism signaled by the Statement, but it is indeed sobering to review these indictments.

On the left we see a vacuum where traditional class-oriented populism used to be.

One measure of how the United States has changed is the topics on which the Port Huron Statement is silent, but which no contemporary progressive would ignore. It excoriates racial inequality and discrimination: “in housing, schools, recreation, travel, all of [Negroes’] potential is circumscribed, thwarted, and often extinguished.” The white American “reclines in whiteness instead of preparing for diversity.” But the Statement makes only a glancing reference to immigration and never addresses gender, sexuality, or disability. Of course, almost no one focused on these issues in 1962, and the Statement helped to open political space for these new issues to gain traction. Yet a nagging question arises: What deeply important issues are we on the left not now attending to, and what blind spots will embarrass us 50 years from now?

The Statement does address class issues, but its approach is a bit idiosyncratic, thanks to the authors’ desire to distinguish themselves from the old left’s somewhat tired approach to class. The Statement vehemently critiques the hollowness of bourgeois materialism, but does not fully engage with the isolation of severe poverty or the complex stagnation of deeply poor communities. It does little to help us understand rising wealth inequality, the extraordinary gains of the top 1 percent, or the awe that financial dealings on Wall Street have held for so many Americans. Those were not concerns in the early 1960s, so I am anachronistically disappointed that the Statement helps us little in combating today’s structural inequities.

Finally, some crucial passages are strikingly at variance with contemporary American politics. For instance:

Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will ’muddle through,’ . . . is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures. . . . The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies.

This view was wrong in 1962 and became more glaringly so in succeeding years (again, partly because of the Statement itself). Protest by African Americans, feminists, opponents of the Vietnam War, and advocates for gay rights, disability rights, or undocumented immigrants showed that the potential critics of the dominant institutions were not blunted. But at present the energies of protest and reform lie more with conservatives than with the left. Rolling back women’s access to birth control, abolishing the Federal Reserve Board, privatizing social security and public schooling, eliminating birthright citizenship—these are visions of new departures that evoke the Statement’s call for reform, but do not promote its goals. So the Statement leaves us with yet another question: How can the left regenerate the vision and urgency that drove the Students for a Democratic Society?

The answer has two prongs: first, explaining why the right is galvanized and, second, why the left is not. On the right we see a resurgence of traditional moral and religious populism—think of the Know-Nothings, or the Scopes monkey trial—combined with a new fear among older middle-class, white small business owners and corporate employees that they are being demographically and socially dispossessed. On the left we see a vacuum where traditional class-oriented populism used to be—think of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Huey Long, Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign—combined with the inability (as yet) of young, hopefully middle class, nonwhites and their allies to generate much political impact. The key is “as yet.” The Tea Party may be right that the past was theirs but the future is not, and Occupy may be the initial stirring of a new Students for a Democratic Society. To that end, the Port Huron Statement is a poor blueprint but a great inspiration.