Essay from the Sixties

A course offered by some bright young people from the Resistance School referred to another group of similar students who organized the SDS, wrote the Port Huron Manifesto and managed to get arrested, arraigned and tried following a Democratic National Convention. (Chicago 1968).  Since reflection plus experience produces knowledge, I had to dig into those papers again and I concluded that you don’t have toget arrested anymore. Read on…

Tom Hayden died in October 2016 at the age of 76. A half-century ago, he was a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It was June 1962 when Hayden and some twenty-somethings of the SDS got together to examine their values within a larger critique of American values. Over the course of a few days, they wrote up a radical set of ideas and criticisms that sound like common sense today.  It wasn’t until sixty years later that it became apparent, making common sense really wasn’t the point.

The week they first met, John F. Kennedy was at Yale for a commencement speech. The invention of the first communication satellite that year included an idea that you could build rockets to chase the moon and no one even imagined having the computer that connected everyone to everyone else would be in your pocket. Nevertheless, they wrote a very useful vision of a democratic society worthy of reading again. This is what I learned.

The SDS gathered to write an agenda for their generation and concluded with a statement about the values and principles of participatory democracy known today as the Port Heron Manifesto. Re-imagining these principles using the future perfect tense adds accountability to sustaining our democracy because we control what we can make recur. By the year 2050, we will have:

  • established a political order that defines problems and sets goals accurately
  • discovered the means to share the social and economic consequences of public decisions equally
  • enabled people to come out of isolation and participate
  • accepted the privacy of social relations among all people
  • added new ways for people to find meaning in public leadership
  • provided outlets for the expression of grievances and aspirations
  • illuminated a broad range of choices that facilitate goal attainment
  • acknowledged questions that help to reformulate well-defined issues

The principles above offer instructions for participation in a democracy that filters oppression out of the social context. Not surprisingly, fulfilling these principles by 2020 as they had hoped is proving to be unlikely; therefore, whatever steps toward recurrence that may be successfully taken today, tomorrow and forever will require ongoing identification and if possible authentication among a widening body of actors. If political leaders are to be helpful as individuals or as regional delegations, evaluative measures to determine the evidence of help will be drawn from this use of the future perfect tense.

Each principle attaches to data by periods such as days, months, years, decades or generations. If you live these principles you have the capacity for persuasion. Connecting these principles to an issue that needs a group of people on an issue such as the “health of the American people, or “my neighborhood” leads to data. The group can say “at the end of this period” in the implementation of this method we will have “x.” In this example, health problems and goals to resolve them will have measures of advance or decline as an assessment of the existing political order.

The writers of these principles also knew that the measures of economic change whether caused by fresh capital or human sweat, also require a statement of values. In the simple future tense, as follows:

All aspects of (our) work will be:

worthier than incentives, money or survival
educative, creative, self-directed and collaborative
a source of human dignity, independence with respect for others
subject to democratic and social regulation
responsive to ethical standards and guidance
a decisive personal experience that instills self-determination
an influential economic understanding that strengthens every community
a means of production open to democratic participation

The Port Huron Statement offers some striking insights into the current, highly polarized political condition of global politics. The list of modern examples that illustrate the predictive nature of their insights is shocking if not ironic. They sensed that we were in danger of replacing goal-oriented and idealistic thinking with a kind of theoretical chaos neatly symbolized by zombies.  Despite the “I Have A Dream” by Martin Luther King would be heard the following year (1663) and the science was well underway to put people on the moon, the possibility of American chaos was no longer theoretical it became mathematical and not in a good way.

Statements of ends are statements of values, and when it comes to values reason is silent. Vague appeals to American “posterity” sit like insults on the horizon at sunset. Justifications for the “present mutilations” of war used to justify democracy as if it was a way of life and not thought.  New insults say searching for answers is futile and too complex for the ordinary person.  We then slip, far too easily into the ratification of the conventional and yield to a critical detachment from the catastrophes facing humanity. Today, we watch millions running from the anarchy of war or drought, we see millions of others imprisoned by the quarantine and fear the breath of others.

No matter which party is in power, Congress is without a consensus for anything but war ceded to the Executive. A good part of the American public and its leadership is in denial regarding human environmental impacts that no longer isolate a nearby lake or stream, but the whole of the global ocean. The great flow of wealth to the top suggests those with great power have the same fear of the chaos, but they too have given up.  They appear to accept all impending tragedies in favor of personal well-being. The central purpose of privately held power in a democracy is to assure an organized political pause, it is now the concentration of that power that threatens the democracy in preference to a stalemate.

When the Port Huron Conference concluded, the hope was to advance the quality of political change in a democracy regarding the imbalance created by wealth inequality.  The rise of economic inequality was dominated by race that by definition limited the dialogue. However, since June 15, 1962, two fundamental changes brought by the technological sphere in which we now function offers hope from which a plan will emerge.

First, ending the separation of people from power, relevant knowledge, and effective decision-making is more than a possibility. It is probable. All that remains is wealth, a thing easily taken from anyone and everyone at any time. As the contradictions of this reality begin to sink in, there are opportunities to deal with the “takings threat” that make stealing a futile, even laughable practice.

Second, to become one of the bright, thoughtful members of a generation, one no longer needs to be “born in modest comfort” or from a university adorning privileges. The internet experience is upon us, the capacity for knowledge, consensus, and collaboration is enormous. Along with a few core competencies, all that is required is the injection of some serious, task-oriented curiosity and organizational development experiences to look ever more efficiently at the world you want to inherit. Thank you, Tom, but it seems the streets will not be where we win this one.