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The Port Huron Statement, Up on the Shelf

One small pleasure in life: after I work out at the New York Sports Club in Baldwin Place, NY, I browse the book and CD section of the nearby Goodwill store. I'll scan books that catch my attention, buying some and noting others to get from the library.

Last Sunday my eye traveled to "The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution," written in 1962 by Tom Hayden (with contributors), then a 21 year-old student at the University of Michigan and a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society. This version of what's known as "PHS" dated from 2005 with a new introduction from Hayden, plus photos.

So far, nothing much to catch my attention. Then I looked at the inside cover. There, I saw that Hayden himself had signed the bookand signed it for somebody whose name I well recogized. The note said,

Katrinawho's to saybut without The Nation there might have been no Port Huron Statement. Thank you for embodying the radical reformist spirit! Tom

That wouldn't mean anything to most readers, but I knew it referred to Katrina vanden Heuvel, Princeton Class of 1981, and editor and publisher of The Nation, a magazine founded in 1865. Back in 1996 I had written a short profile of her for the Princeton Alumni Weekly (so I recalled, although I can't find the clip), so I always felt a certain connection to her, even if our politics differ. To hold a historical book signed by the author, addressed to somebody I met, packed a thrill that makes book hunting a passion for me.

I could only compare this to finding "Man's Quest for God," signed by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for $1.

I bought this book for the inscription, but then I decided to see what all the excitement was about, given that the book outlined ideas that became part of the Great Society. After all, the PHS ignites media reflections whenever the anniversary of its publication rolls around. Hayden and co-author Dick Flacks wrote about it in The Nation in 2002. I had read about it in Kirkpatrick Sale's 1973 book "SDS: The Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society."

The book's content ranges widely, from antique themes to startlingly familiar. Hayden mentions "in loco parentis" several times, referring to the idea that colleges act like students' parents. The prose reflects a prefeminist vocabulary: "We regards men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love." That emphasis is in the original.

A bit later in the opening chapter on values:

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolotrous worship of things by man.

Improved gadgetssociety didn't follow the PHS way of thinking on that topic.

PHS covers all the issues of the day, especially the global economy, civil rights and discrimination, colonialism, the Cold War, communism and foreign policy, domestic politics (with references to the "Dixiecrat-Republican alliance"), the search for meaning in life and the impact of automation on the workforce, and wraps up with a policy agenda. Some of the ideas are nothing if not ambitious: "We should undertake here and now a fifty-year effort to prepare for all nations the conditions of industrialization."

On the domestic side, PHS almost ventures into the realm of science fiction, and I mean that in a positive way. Examples:

Mechanisms of voluntary association must be created through which political information can be imparted and political participation encouraged.  That sounds a lot like the Internet to me, even if Hayden didn't have a technology solution in mind.

Institutions and practices which stifle dissent should be abolished, and the promotion of peaceful dissent should be actively promoted. PHS mentions here the House Un-American Activities Committee, loyalty oaths, and the Smith and McCarran Acts, adding, "The process of eliminating the blighting institutions is the process of restoring democratic participation." These are smart ideas, freshly applicable to the intolerance now found on college campuses and the threat of deplatforming of controversial thinkers by technology providers.

All told, PHS reads as a time capsule that captures a mood, and looks ahead to other generations of political and social tumult. It never ends

Finally, to circle back to the beginning, one more comment on that PAW profile of Katrina vanden Heuvel that I can't find. Owing to her outspoken political views and media visibility, the profile started circulating online, with my name attached to it. Most of the ruckus has died down, but the quotes can still be found on websites' archives, like this one.

But as the Port Huron Statement counseled, I'm all in favor of the promotion of peaceful dissent and analysis, whatever the source.


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