Port Huron Statement's themes, issues, and concerns in light of the relevant American history of the last forty years. Political and social activist Tom Hayden wrote the Port Huron Statement along with other members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and presented it at the SDS convention in Port Huron, Michigan in 1962. The Statement addresses many of the societal ills that plagued the country at the time, from Civil Rights issues to the atomic bomb and the Cold War. The Statement was quite controversial at the time, and many believed the SDS was a radical and dangerous organization. Today, the Statement seems dated, certainly, but its' emotion and fear are still apparent, and they seem strangely fitting in today's world of economic crisis, terrorist threats, and global environmental crisis.
At the base of the statement is a quest for change and a fear of American apathy and non-involvement. The Students write about a generation that is happy to settle for things the way they are, rather than working for change and innovation, and it frightens them. To be sure, the statement is naive in many ways, and idealistic, but it addresses some of the basic problems facing the nation at the time. They take on just about every social ill, from prejudice and subjugation to schools and their lagging curriculums. The Students write, "The questions we might want raised -- what is really important? can we live in a different and better way? If we wanted to change society, how would we do it? -- are not thought to be questions of a 'fruitful, empirical nature,' and thus are brushed aside."
The Students are critical of universities because they believe they are the agents of social change, and they are falling behind in their duties. The Students are critical of other institutions too, but the university issue remains an important element of this Statement. So important, that Tom Hayden addresses it in a "new" Port Huron Statement written in 2006. He writes, "Of all the contributions of the Port Huron Statement, perhaps the most important was the insight that university communities had a role in social change."
Have universities stepped up to this insight? It seems many have, and university campuses and students have become more involved, especially this year in the election, than ever before. Students worked tirelessly for change and hope in the country, indicating that at least on some scale, universities are becoming the hotbeds of change and social revolution again.
Some of these issues seem to leap from the pages of recent newspapers and media as the country cried out for change during the recent Presidential election. In many ways, reading the Port Huron Statement indicates just how little so many things have changed in this country and how new generations of young people all seem to ask for the same things, even though history has created many changes in American society and values. A continual theme throughout the Statement is apathy, and that is certainly one thing that has not changed in this country. If anything, a majority of Americans are more apathetic today than when the Statement was issued and more self-centered as well. At a time when the economy is at an all-time low, job loss is at a 16-year high, and the holidays loom, headlines note that the need for donations for the poor is up, but donations of holiday meals and gifts are down this year. More Americans are needy, but their fellow citizens are apathetic about their need. What does that say about the country, the people, and apathy? It says that the Statement nailed America and Americans, and that has not altered over time, either.
One of the document's strengths is its passion and emotion. This is not a Statement meant to be read and forgotten. It is a passionate appeal to the listeners to create change and optimism in a time of doubt and "realism. The Students write, "Doubt has replaced hopefulness -- and men act out a defeatism that is labeled realistic. The decline of utopia and hope is in fact one of the defining features of social life today."
Their words are powerful and they evoke emotion in the reader, and they seem timeless in that they reflect so much that is still happening in this country. Another strength is the writing style, which is emotional but also readable, so it reaches more people and does not attempt to be too pedantic or scholarly in its tone. The document urges people to find meaning in life, and to make a difference, something that everyone should aspire to, and they advocate social change for the betterment of society. Their message was peaceful and advocated humankind getting along with each other through mutual respect. These messages may be naive, but they are well spoken and heartfelt, and that gives the document strength and longevity at the same time.
Weaknesses of the Statement could be the passion that makes it so memorable. It is clear these are idealistic and even romantic ideals of a perfect society, and as most people recognize, there is no "perfect" society or Utopia. It is impossible for every aspect of a diverse society to remain perfect and ideal. Another weakness could be the socialistic tone of at least some of the Statement, which would rub many people the wrong way. The view of the economy, for example, discussing how people do not have a say in the economy, is interesting, but it is one of the Statement's weak points because it is essentially a very idealistic view of economic gain, and it certainly seems like it would not work in real life. It sounds "nice" and fair and equal, but in reality, it seems as if it takes too much for granted and gives too much value to humankind's sense of fair play and goodness, when it is clear most industry revolves around anything but fair play and goodness. The greed and excess of the financial world of Wall Street and the investment bankers clearly shows that leaving business to its own devices and expecting them to play fair is an approach that does not work.
The Statement stands up quite well to time, and much of it seems to have been written last week, rather than 44 years ago. For example, the Statement reads, "Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance."
This is extremely relevant to what is happening today in our society, where the economy is in turmoil and yet the wealthiest Americans still live lavish lifestyles while the poorest Americans cannot afford even the basics like food because of consistently rising prices. While much has changed in history in these 40 years, the excesses of American society have grown, and in this and other areas, the Statement remains completely relevant and timely.
My own critique and vision of American democratic society right now is much more cynical and unforgiving. America is tumbling into some of the worst economic times on record, and it seems there is little anyone can do to stop the tumble. The economic bailout seems like a joke at this point - the Treasury cannot even decide how to dole out the money. The American automobile industry may be headed for complete disaster, and how will the economy survive a blow like that? The world economy is also tumbling as a result of America's fall, and it is clear it will take quite a bit of time for the economy to recover. The Democrats won the election, but change cannot occur overnight, and I do not think it can occur in four years. Our democratic society is at a crossroads, and instead of banding together, the country is essentially split in two, with one half hopeful about the future with a new leader, and the other half determined to show the leader will fail. How can anything possibly get accomplished when the two sides are so far away from each other, and how can the country heal itself when it is so divided?
Our democracy seems to have come quite far from what the founding fathers had in mind when they created the country. The current administration has rewritten the office of the presidency and has created laws that allow the government much more power in so many areas, such as wiretapping and spying on citizens, security, and other issues that make them seem as if they believe they are above the law. Lobbyists and special interests overrun Washington and seem to have Congress in their grips, which is why the drug companies and oil companies gain so many concessions from Congress and then gouge the American people. There really seems to be little difference between the parties when you look closely - they both…