[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last Friday, Tom Hayden, co-founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, principal author of 1962’s Port Huron Statement (or, if you Big Lebowski fans insist, the compromised second draft), Freedom Rider, anti-war activist, social worker, California state representative for 18 years, author, and all-around inspiration to anyone on the left, visited Wichita and spoke at a local church, as part of our Peace and Social Justice Center‘s 20th anniversary. What I got out of that visit is that his words ought to be an at least partial inspiration to those on the right as well.

Hayden has, of course, spoken at probably thousands of similar occasions, to millions of people, over the past half-century. And deservedly so: the Port Huron Statement stands, in my opinion, with Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and perhaps at most only a handful of other documents as one of the truly essential political expressions of the 20th century. I teach the Statement a couple of times every year, and when I do I strive to point my students towards the arguably ambiguous place which its passionate, communitarian, participatory, democratic radicalism occupies in the history of modern progressive liberalism. Today “liberal,” when anyone can be bothered to think about the term honestly and seriously, is usually understood to mean the use of the state (its bureaucracies, its technologies, its manpower and money) to promote a kind of positive liberty and general equality. But Hayden and his co-radicals, thinking about the struggle for civil rights far away from their comfortably elite universities in the northern United States, had much more on their minds than vigorous enforcement of the 13th and 14th amendments (though they were thinking about that too):

[W]e are…countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs. We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things–if anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to “posterity” cannot justify the mutilations of the present. We oppose, too, the doctrine of human incompetence because it rests essentially on the modern fact that men have been “competently” manipulated into incompetence–we see little reason why men cannot meet with increasing skill the complexities and responsibilities of their situation, if society is organized not for minority, but for majority, participation in decision-making…The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic….

This kind of independence does not mean egoistic individualism–the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own. Nor do we deify man–we merely have faith in his potential. Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty. Human interdependence is contemporary fact; human brotherhood must be willed however, as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate form of social relations….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 idolatrous worship of things by man.

These young, privileged, and courageous twenty-somethings were doing more than laying out grievances. They were doing something prophetic, responding to the distancing, the conformity, and the apathy which post-WWII suburban wealth and stability had spread across much of white America, capturing and articulating some early whiff of the 60s utopian zeitgeist, one suffused with a spirituality that, even when not fully reflected in the final document or the actions of those who trumpeted it over the decades of activism to come, is undeniable. As Hayden himself put it, both in this reflection here and while talking to me after his presentation Friday night, “the Port Huron Statement wrote us, not the other way around.”

Hayden, in speaking and responding to numerous questions (and yes, even in Wichita, KS, there were more than enough of us liberals, progressives, former hippies, Occupiers, and other assorted radicals and wanna-bes and interested others to fill Fairmount United Church of Christ up to the balcony), returned repeatedly to that theme of apathy. The milieu he’d grown up in (like that of so many in this wealthy nation still today) was that suggested to him that it was only crazy, disturbed people, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who felt the need to take real action in opposition to the status quo–and yet there was the example of African-American citizens throughout the American South, engaging in sit-ins and protest marches and boycotts, risking their livelihoods and their very lives to be fully recognized members of the American community. They were taking incredible risks–and, from the perspective of decades later, he said he was more convinced than ever that they were capable of taking such risks because they knew how to “take the long view.” Not that the didn’t have immediate demands; they absolutely did! But they also were part of “communities of meaning” which much of the white consumer-capitalism-created college-educated class lacked, communities that provided them with strength and resources for when things get absurd and “sideways”–which, of course, they always will. He credited his own religious tradition (he was raised in a strong Irish Catholic family) with giving him a little of that, and, Californian that he has been most of his life, the example of the protesting Hispanic farm workers as well. This stronger sense of history–one might even call it “tragic,” though he didn’t–is something which he feels so much of the progressive left in the U.S. has lacked over the past half-century. Liberals, he said, have too often been oppositionally inclinced and easily frustrated consumers, people who don’t how to do the organizing, or to respect and build upon the organizing done by those who have gone before, or to accept defeat and keep on working, confident that the lack of any coherent–much less “rational”!–story of progress in one’s ability to govern one’s community justly doesn’t mean the end of the story. When he spoke about the need to recognize one’s limits, to address oneself to those causes which one can most immediately respond to on the ground here in Kansas (or wherever), to be conscious of history, and to reject abstract “hope” in favor of realistic “planning,” the man sounded almost Burkean.

Hayden remained humorous and thoughtful and reflective through his presentation, with perhaps his only genuine flash of energy and anger coming when a questioner from the audience confessed that Obama’s inability or unwillingness to follow through on certain promises he made regarding civil liberties and the wars in the Middle East (an issue which has had much impact on my own thinking) had “broken his heart.” “Don’t let him do that!!” Hayden almost shouted in response. He continued: what activists and radicals are trying to do is make change, but when those changes happen they will because millions of individuals and neighborhoods and communities and groups have changed the conversation–“burst the canopy,” as he put it–through their own slow, constant activism. To expect change to be quickly delivered through signing an online petition or casting a vote and nothing else, like buying a jar of pickles at Walmart and getting angry because they taste bad, is just another kind of consumerist apathy–one that the corporate masters of our whole socio-economic and political order no doubt delight it. (On more than one occasion during his presentation, I thought he was about to break into a quotation from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.) He’s happy to criticize the President, but as one who fully lines up with many progressive liberal views on environmental regulation and women’s rights and more, he’s frustrated at the idea that anyone whose vote might have made a difference in the 2012 election might have chosen the Green Party over the Democrats. Not because the Democrats are so great–he ripped into their war record and their dependence on Wall Street money often–but because are part of the conversation. The long view, he insisted, has to be about getting a place at the table, and then doing the deal-making you must when you get there. To make it all a grand, be-all-and-end-all moralistic struggle (he also said he hated talk about “lesser evils”–as if any actual Democrat or Republican in America today, no matter what they vote for or support, should be labeled “evil,” in comparison to the violence so common elsewhere in the world!), one that has you shouting in triumph when your bill passes or speaking of being heartbroken when you candidate losses, only shows that your sense of history is in the wrong place: that your focus isn’t a family or community that provide real meaning to your life. Political wins, he ultimately implied, shouldn’t be nearly as important to us (no matter what the issue) as the communal context that allow us to participate in political contests in the first place.

A few days before Hayden arrived in Wichita a student of mine–a wounded veteran of the war in Iraq, and one who drinks deeply from the wells of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity–saw the flyer for Hayden’s visit on my office door, and went on a predictable tear, about how men like him were responsible for the decline of America’s greatness and had let loose in American public life a revolution in immorality which our country may never recover from. He was wrong of course–and I wish my student could have been there, as all sorts of folks, from academic eggheads like myself to Mennonite handymen like my friend Leroy Hershberger, were. If he’d come, he he would have heard what he expected in terms of policy preferences: Hayden is today, as he was a half-century ago, a crusader on behalf of liberal progressive causes (climate change, the war in Afghanistan, public employee unions, immigration reform, the drug war, etc.), and it would be interesting to talk with him about how his own chosen causes, and the candidates who back them, arguably sometimes complicate his own almost “conservative” insistence upon planning and organizing working to build communities democratically. But, if my student had been open-minded, he might also have been surprised to hear this man, so long and so thoroughly dismissed as a revolutionary hippie, talk quietly and seriously about the local, and radical, labor of politics, about striving to enable all citizens to be part of the never-ending conversation of government, and about the bureaucracies, the corporations, and commercialism that gets in the way of individuals making such authentic moments for themselves. That’s his wisdom; that’s his example. And frankly, if you take a look at what the man has represented and what he has accomplished….you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one.

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  1. The old Tom Hayden, when confronted with a question about eroding civil liberties, drones and continuing foreign wars would not have been an apologist as in “don’t let them do that”…who is “them”…..I don’t know which might be worse, the reflexive support of the right or the reflexive support of the left. Well, perhaps the reflexive support of the purported halcyon middle is the biggest flea bitten dog. Getting a seat at this table requires a Horn Fly Spray afterwards.

    It is not surprising that the old socialist has retreated to the local . It is, of course, the only place that amounts to a Good Got Dang. One does not need to get a seat at a Foggy Bottom Table when sitting down to solve problems in Wichita or Twin Falls.

  2. This kind of independence does not mean egoistic individualism–the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.

    It is a strange world today that so many of the values of the Front Porch are found on the left, while the right is often home to the purest of rationalist individualism. I wouldn’t say that his hopes in Obama negates it all, just as I wouldn’t say that one’s hopes in Romney negated everything conservative. But it comes damn close.

  3. “so many of the values of the Front Porch are found on the left”…. Really?

    The current “left”, like the current “right” possesses well-healed boxing gloves punching themselves out with upgraded alacrity.

    This is where the Porch once held such promise, avoiding the mangy mongrel dog that is our current political dysfunction .

  4. Nothing “evil” in these United States “compared to what goes on in the rest of the world?”. Drone attacks and kill lists go on in the rest of the world, does the US have nothing to do with these?

  5. D.W. and J. Blum,

    I’m not going to take issue with what I suspect is the the heart of your apparent discontent with what I’ve presented here about Hayden’s presentation–namely, that the man’s willingness to support Obama, his unwillingness to be moved to extremes by the unconstitutional and (I agree!) downright evil things which Obama has allowed to take place under his authority, simply shows the degree to which he doesn’t live up to his own best intentions. You may be right; I certainly don’t know that man’s heart. But let me at least suggest a possible response: whatever else Hayden is, he’s clearly a man who believes in democracy, in participation, and he wants to see it happen wherever and however it may. And, of course, he’s also a progressive liberal on so many issues. As I noted, it would be valuable, I think, to try to get someone like Hayden to reflect on the possibility that these two elements of his political faith may sometimes be opposed to each other: for example, that perhaps defending Roe v. Wade actually ends up strengthening undemocratic and distant institutions (the Supreme Court, etc.) rather than providing much by way of democratic empowerment to women who benefit from the having that option guaranteed to them as a constitutional right. But such contradictions are hardly the sum total of his faith. Most of the time, it seems to me perfectly reasonable that he could decide, with complete authenticity, that the war on terror (as well as the war on drugs, and much else) which Obama administers is a terrible harm, and that getting to the point where someone can take a seat at the Democratic table to make that argument to Obama is worth far more than simply voting against him in the name of leftier-than-thou purity. I speak as a Jill Stein voter myself when I say this; Hayden was partially calling out folks like me. And he has a point: someone who says “What Obama (or Bush, or whomever) had done is simply too evil to be tolerable,” or says “The system is so corrupt as to be completely unfixable,” may be standing on conscience–but they are also arrogating to themselves the ability to draw lines in the sand, and to implictly judge all the ordinary activists who are working hard–in legal, nonviolent, perfectly ordinary ways–to make changes on the inside of that line (and here he would definitely include Republicans with Democrats, Tea Partiers with Occupiers), as somehow lacking any moral sense. There may be a righteous and worthy point to doing that, but so long as democracy means actual engagement with our fellow citizens, folks like me can’t really claim that what we’re doing to turning our backs on the tables available to us is nonetheless democratic–because it isn’t.

    I repeat: this is a man who apparently truly believes in the engaging work of politics; he was never much of an Obama fan, with his talk of “hope.” He doesn’t believe in expecting some new world, but in taking immediate, local, realistic steps to reform the existing one. He called this work “radical,” but not “revolutionary.” And perhaps that was an additional, implicit insight to his talk: those with real and meaningful families and neighborhoods and communities available to them don’t get sucked into easily-dashed revolutionary postures, because they already have a new and better world, a higher one, available to them, thus allowing them the strength to endure the setbacks as they go about the radical, deep, patient work before them.

  6. Hayden says that those who refuse to endorse the “lesser of two evils” are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot by ensuring that they will later be denied a “place at the table.” This reminds me of a podcast from the Free Library of Philadelphia’s author events series that featured Chris Hedges that offers a contradictory (and I believe, more accurate) view.

    Hedges was recounting a passage from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs in which people protesting the Vietnam War had encircled the White House, compelling Nixon’s aides to order enough buses to form a ring between them and the protestors. Nixon was nervously peering out the windows of the Oval Office saying, “They’re going to come through and get us, Henry!” Hedges’ assessment of this happening was that this is EXACTLY where you want people in positions of power, that in fact it is the only way that you can actually get them to act.

    I don’t think that Hedges’ view nullifies any of Hayden’s ideas on the importance of local organization and being a part of a real community. However, I think it does help to highlight the inherent conflict between local organization and community, and power. As Fredrick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a fight.” If power gives you a seat at the table, then it only does so because it realizes that if it does not, the outcome may be much less to its liking.

  7. The current Left-Right debate is a farce. Twenty babies were gunned down….some with eleven murderous slugs in their tiny bodies while we debate what kind of a civil society we wish to inhabit.

    This boat left the dock a long time ago

    Its time we manage to produce a few people, courageous enough to do so, who will begin again….at long last, to speak of a the beauty of a civil society.

    I’m not convinced that the the government which produces the biggest selling computer animation game involving violent war can actually do this, but I’m ready to listen….and damned well act on behalf of these 20 beautiful babies.

  8. To speak of “left” and “right” is ludicrous. The left is either the party in opposition to the current administration (that would be the Republicans?) or, as the term developed after the French Revolution closed, it is the political tendencies seeking support from and to advance programs for the working classes of the world, in opposition to the capitalists. The right, then, is either those same capitalists, or, if they are still in liberal mode (the original meaning of the term), the right is the tory landowning classes.

    Of course there were, e.g., overtly Catholic trade union movements which were right-wing within the working class, but often constituted the Catholic left… the reason the picture looks so entangled and complex is because it IS so tangled and complex.

  9. Tom Hayden claims to oppose the “dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated,” and the “depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things,” while at the same time claiming to support abortion rights (including the right to late term abortions) whereby women and their doctors treat members of the species homo sapiens (i.e. humans) as “things” to be discarded as meaningless collections of worthless cells. I am not sure how he or any other self-professed “radicals” can possibly reconcile such conflicting views.

    The passage quoted above states that Tom Hayden believes that “Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty. Human interdependence is contemporary fact; human brotherhood must be willed however, as a condition of future survival and as the most appropriate form of social relations….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 idolatrous worship of things by man.” If he truly believes such things, how can he advocate for the rights of women to kill those who are most dependent on them – little children, some 8 or 9 months old who have eyes, and hands, and beating hearts? Isn’t the killing of an innocent life the ultimate way in which we manipulate life through gadgets, and by which we depersonalize human beings? All the things Tom claims to support – interdependence, love, fraternity – are destroyed when a mother ends the life of her child through abortion.

    I basically agree with Tom’s position that we should have an open, democratic, participatory society. But I find it hard to listen to contemporary “radicals” like him who like to talk about “fraternity” and “interdependence” while actually supporting a truly “radical” view of human autonomy that rejects fraternity and interdependence where it matters most – in the family. If we want an open, democractic, participatory society, we cannot also want a society that gives its citizens the right to kill within the first nine months of life any human being we find to be inconvenient.

  10. while at the same time claiming to support abortion rights (including the right to late term abortions) whereby women and their doctors treat members of the species homo sapiens (i.e. humans) as “things” to be discarded as meaningless collections of worthless cells

    Well, that’s the fundamental question about abortion. Unquestionably, criminal penalties for abortion involve The State intervening with its compulsory police power in one of the most intimate functions a woman has, actually internal to her own body. IF what is growing in her own body is another fully independent human being, then of course there is ample basis for state intervention. But that last point is precisely what we don’t all agree on.

    I for one find accusations that late-term abortions are often performed through gross abuse of the “life or health of the mother” standard quite credible. There ARE genuine instances where the mother will die if the nearly-fully-formed baby is not removed, and where this cannot be done, safely for the mother, without destroying it. Those choices are tragic, but The State has no call to order the mother to sacrifice her own life for her baby — whatever priests in Ireland circa 1900 used to tell the doctors and women.

    On the other hand, asking a pregnant woman, so is this pregnancy giving you suicidal thoughts, is hardly in conformance with what state law, in full conformance with Roe v. Wade generally requires.

    Pregnancy is a continuum. I have no doubt at all that a newly formed zygote is nothing but a cell. I have no doubt that a blastocyst and an embryo are nothing but a bunch of cells. The longer you go, the more complex the growth is. At some point, it has a central nervous system capable of self-awareness. It doesn’t require a Ph.D to be self-aware, or even the ability to speak, but it requires more than a mere reflex. At some point, it could survive on its own if removed from the womb, even if “from his mother’s womb untimely torn.” It is good to be conservative about these things. I would set the line at 20 weeks, since we now know a great deal more about fetal development than we did when “quickening” was the best dividing line medical practice could offer. Also, if a baby can be removed safely to both its own life and the mother’s, the removal is not an abortion, it is a delivery, and should be governed as such in both law and medical ethics.

    Its not a thing… its either a subordinate and dispensable part of a woman, OR its an independent life. One might of course plausibly argue that the more militant pro-life groups are using women as “things” whose sole function is to reproduce, and if necessary, to die in doing so. Its not an easy subject to speak compellingly about.

  11. S. Jenkins – thanks for your thoughtful comments. You say “a newly formed zygote is nothing but a cell. I have no doubt that a blastocyst and an embryo are nothing but a bunch of cells.” I am not sure. If they are nothing but a bunch of cells, leave them alone for a few months and see what happens. Abortion (even early-stage abortion) is about a lot more than destroying “a bunch of cells” – it is about destroying a unique human life who, left undisturbed, would grow and develop into a crying baby, an adolescent, etc. I think that’s one reason why pro-choice advocates need to advocate for abortion “on demand and without apology” – they know there is something more at stake than “just a bunch of cells.”

    The problem is this: we will never create a society that values “fraternity” and “love” and “interdependence” if our society treats abortion as something normal, good (i.e. a fundamental right), and worth protecting with taxpayer dollars. Abortion is a tragedy, like war, where no one ever really wins. But radicals like Tom, keep spending their time trying to get the state to fund and promote abortion with taxpayer money. In doing so they end up being “radical” in precisely the opposite direction than they intended: instead of a society of “love” and “fraternity,” they end up creating a society of radical autonomy where no one is his brother’s keeper. Not even mom.

  12. I could agree with you that abortion interrupts a natural process that, if not interrupted, will result in a new human life. I can even agree that taking this step is NOT something to be done lightly, frivolously, with no thought of consequences. There ARE real consequences, emotional, hormonal, social… at least, and possibly spiritual. I might even agree that public funds should not be spent to subsidize abortion.

    But to say it “will” grow into a new life is different from saying it “is” a new life. I view the unique genetic signature of the zygote as a self-expanding blueprint, rather than as a baby. I love babies. I could never cradle a zygote in my arms, or feed it, or encourage it to exercise its new leg muscles to prepare for the day when it will walk.

    Bottom line, for nine months, the pregnant woman has to carry this pregnancy, through all its stages. Nobody else can take that on for her. I find it repugnant that people who are not carrying that responsibility, who cannot by any means do so, would ORDER her to carry the pregnancy to term. Ditto for employing the police powers of the state to force her to do so.

    Obviously, I modify that thought as we get closer to delivery, because the more fully formed the new life is, the more it could survive outside the womb if necessary, the more its independent claim to protection grows. Five days before delivery is WAY to late to decide “but I don’t want a baby.”

    It may be wrong. It may be a sin. The issue is far too complex for the blunt instrument of the law to sort out with precision, no matter how sincerely concerned pro-life observers may be. (A pro-life woman who is pregnant is not only free to carry her pregnancy to term, if any government ever dared to order her to abort, Roe v. Wade denies it the authority to do so). Any woman who can be voluntarily convinced by the pro-life movement that carrying her pregnancy to term IS the right choice, more power to you.

  13. Isn’t the voluntary choice to have sex the last time a woman gets to say “I don’t want to have a baby”? No one old enough to have sex should be confused about what the outcome may be. To paraphrase G. Kellor: “if you don’t want to go to Chicago, why are you on the train to Chicago.”

    I think the science is clear that a fertilized human egg “is” a new human life – it is a member of the species homo sapiens with all the same DNA that you and I possess. Your argument is that this new life is not a person with *rights* that should be protected by law, persumably because it has not developed to a stage that you think it “worthy” of protection. I think the same argument has been made about blacks, and Jews, and the disabled. They may be members of our species, but they are not entitled to the protection of the law – after all, they look different from us and are less developed than our class of people.

    The fact that an egg is dependent on his mother is hardly a fact that diminishes its humanity – in many respects it only further highlights how much our world depends on the bonds of “fraternity” and “love” and “interdependence” being secure. All of us pass through the state of total dependence on our mothers, and many of us return to a state of total dependence before we die. Abortion destroys those bonds of community, and undermines the foundation of society – the flourishing of human life within the loving care of a family.

    I assume you are not seriously proposing that what makes a human being a person with *rights* under the law is your ability to feed and hold it (i.e. your subjective perception of whether or not it is really a human like you, and therefore worthy of protection under the law)? Surely it is something far more intrinsic to the being itself. The idea that a person gets to enjoy the protections of law only once it reaches day 35, or day 120, or at the moment that its head has passed through the cervix – all of those options seem arbitrary and they all ignore the fact that at each stage the same unique person exists. Whether you kill it on day 1 or at age 5 or at age 85, you are killing the same person. The person may look different at each of those times in its life, but it remains the same unique being with all the same DNA.

    The law has a pedagogical function – it is not just a blunt instrument. If the law says that it is the fundamental right of each woman to kill her child if she finds it to be inconvenient (and to protect that right the state must fund such killing with taxpayer dollars), what do we teach people? The importance of “love” and “fraternity” and “interdependence” – the values Tom says are so important? No, the law teaches people that they are autonomous beings with no obligations to anyone other than themselves, and that human life is disposable, especially when it is most vulnerable. This leads to a coarsening of the human spirit, and the erosion of the very fraternal bonds that we all need in order to live and thrive.

    A merry Christmas to all.

  14. I will be brief, because we have reached the point of a fundamental difference in premises, in what each of us considers axiomatic. It would be no bad thing if a woman who didn’t want a baby refrained from sex, or used contraception, but I don’t follow you that this IS the LAST time a woman can decide not to have a baby. As we all know, within marriage as well as without, there ARE reasons for having sexual relations other than seeking pregnancy.

    Nor is “the science” at all “clear” that a fertilized human egg “is” a new life. I hear that all the time from people who want to believe it. It IS clear that a newly fertilized zygote contains a unique new genetic signature. It is by no means established “science” that it is a new human being. After all, it may by natural processes be flushed out of the womb without implanting, among other things. Its one of billions of potential genetic combinations, most of which never are expressed in a living person.

    I haven’t noticed that abortion destroys bonds of community among people who have in fact been born. I just haven’t. Again, I’m sure you believe it, but its not a statement of fact, but a point of view. That’s a poor basis for criminal legislation.

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