Another anniversary is upon us. This one is half the age of the Titanic but remembered—perhaps because the wreckage is still in plain sight and the results far more consequential—by many fewer people.
I’m referring, of course, to the Port Huron Statement. It’s clear that it was written in a different time—defined variously in terms of the “affluent society,” the Cold War, and nuclear deterrence—but many of the concerns expressed by the Students for a Democratic Society are as valid today as in 1962.
Horizon. In summary: a more reformed, more human capitalism, functioning at three-fourths capacity while one-third of America and two-thirds of the world goes needy, domination of politics and the economy by fantastically rich elites, accommodation and limited effectiveness by the labor movement, hard-core poverty and unemployment, automation confirming the dark ascension of machine over man instead of shared abundance, technological change being introduced into the economy by the criteria of profitability — this has been our inheritance. However inadequate, it has instilled quiescence in liberal hearts — partly reflecting the extent to which misery has been over-come but also the eclipse of social ideals. Though many of us are “affluent”, poverty, waste, elitism, manipulation are too manifest to go unnoticed, too clearly unnecessary to go accepted. To change the Cold War status quo and other social evils, concern with the challenges to the American economic machine must expand. Now, as a truly better social state becomes visible, a new poverty impends: a poverty of vision, and a poverty of political action to make that vision reality. Without new vision, the failure to achieve our potentialities will spell the inability of our society to endure in a world of obvious, crying needs and rapid change.
Todd Gitlin, who was president of SDS in 1964 and 1965 and helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965, recently spoke of the connection between the Port Huron Statement and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The core American values of the New Left ignited many millions of people who did not necessarily subscribe to the movement’s very doctrine and whim and style. Around kitchen tables and in their private nights they went beyond asking: What should the world be? They asked themselves, and asked each other: What should Ido?
That subterranean movement, I suspect, is again or still, at work among us. So too is the aboveground movement, reawakening the awakening, reminding ourselves of our better angels.
What a crazy idea for a crazy country, which is no less a crazy country, though a differently crazy country, than it was half a century ago, in 1962. You can trace a line from then to now. It’s not a straight line but a sinuous one, full of lurches, surprises, chasms, and leaps.
Today’s Occupy movement, I think, holds open the promise of a renewal, another great awakening, that moves us further along the long and winding road toward a more respectful and less cruel society, one which conserves the earth (and is therefore in an honest sense “conservative”) and takes seriously, again, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I wonder how many of the Occupards have read the Port Huron Statement or trace the roots of the movement not just to contemporary protests (such as the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignados) but also to such historical events as the pan-European uprisings of 1848, the Great Rail Strike of 1877, and the lunch-counter sit-ins by black students in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960.
Perhaps learning from the past is one way of moving forward.