Peace and justice activist Tom Hayden, a driving force in SDS and the Sixties New Left, was our guest on Rag Radio on January 6 and January 20, 2012. On the two hour-long programs we discussed the legacy of SDS and Sixties activism, as well as contemporary American society, foreign policy, and progressive politics.
Progressive Activist and SDS Pioneer Tom Hayden
on Rag Radio with Thorne Dreyer, Jan. 6, 2012:
Progressive Activist Tom Hayden on Current Issues
on Rag Radio with Thorne Dreyer, Jan. 20, 2012:
Rag Radio, which has been aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas, features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history. It is hosted by Rag Blog editor and SDS veteran Thorne Dreyer.
Tom Hayden was the primary author of the Port Huron Statement, SDS’ 1962 “Agenda for a Generation,” the legendary SDS manifesto that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with events at UCLA, UC-Santa Barbara, NYU, MIT, and the University of Michigan, and at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Historian James Miller called the Port Huron Statement “one of the pivotal documents in post-war American history.”
Ken Handel, writing in The Rag Blog on July 19, 2011, said that, “The 59 SDS members who assembled in the small Michigan town of Port Huron in June 1962 could not accept a status quo that tolerated the possibility of nuclear annihilation, state-sanctioned racism, and a nation suffering from extensive poverty amidst affluence.”
The Port Huron Statement — which brought the term “participatory democracy” into the common parlance — begins in words familiar to most anyone who was active in the era. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” It concludes: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
In the Rag Radio interviews, Hayden compared the era in which the Port Huron Statement was written with the world today: “The Cold War is gone, but not the threat of nuclear weapons, and I think the Cold War has been replaced as a template by the global war on terrorism, which requires secrecy, excessive military spending, and the shrinking of civil liberties.”
“So many of the issues that plagued us as young people then, plague students today,” Hayden said, “but I think the big difference is the economic recession and the gloom.” We are moving, he said, into a “whole new period of conflict and threats involving the possible use of force with China, and that’s going to be the next generation’s issue.”
Reflecting on Port Huron, Hayden said that “these crazy, inspired, visionary documents often come from the young and liberated and innocent. Most of us who wrote it were 21 years old and it remains to be seen whether such a document materializes again…” But, he added, “It’s a little uncanny how the words of the Port Huron Statement echo today, as it’s used in classes and a lot of the students can’t tell when it was written.”
According to Nicholas Lemann of The Atlantic, “Tom Hayden changed America.” Hayden was a Freedom Rider in the deep South, a community organizer in Newark, N.J., and one of the most visible and articulate opponents of the War in Vietnam. He was one of the Chicago Seven, arrested during demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Richard Goodwin, an advisor to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, said Hayden “created the blueprint for the Great Society programs.”
Hayden later organized the grassroots Campaign for Economic Democracy in California, and served for 18 years in the California State Assembly and Senate. At that time, The Sacramento Bee called Hayden “the conscience of the Senate.”
Tom has recently taught at Scripps College and Pitzer College, Occidental College, and Harvard University’s Institute of Politics; and is currently teaching a class at UCLA on protest movements from Port Huron to the present.
Hayden, who is the author or editor of 19 books and serves on the editorial board of The Nation, is a leading progressive activist and an outspoken critic of the Pentagon's “Long War.” He was an initiator of Progressives for Obama, a group that offered critical support for Barack Obama during his initial campaign for the presidency. Hayden is director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, California, edits the Peace Exchange Bulletin, and organizes anti-war activities for the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA).
On Rag Radio, Tom Hayden discussed his work with the Peace and Justice Resource Center, explaining that its mission is to provide “original research and reporting and networking principally around the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the ‘Long War’ doctrine behind them, and the war on the border that we share with California, Texas, and Mexico where 47,000 people have died since 2006.”
He said it’s important that we realize that Obama’s ending the war in Iraq was a victory for the anti-war movement, and he expresses serious concern over the possibility of war with Iran, even though he doesn’t believe such a war would be in the United States’ “imperial interests.” Hayden recently wrote that “rational self interest is not always enough to prevent what Barbara Tuchman has called the ‘march to folly.’”
He fears things could be getting out of control “because it’s an election year in America.” Obama “doesn’t exactly need a war in the election year because it will drive up oil prices,” he said. “He’s looking at the Democratic Party and they’re pretty limp… the doves in the Democratic Party are not exactly flapping.”
“You see the right wing Israeli government of Netanyahu very intertwined with Romney and Gingrich. And they’re pounding on Obama to do something,” he says.
“It’s sort of stunning. I didn’t know until last year that Romney was in business with Netanyahu. They were business partners in a consulting firm… And Gingrich. The guy that bailed him out, Adelson, the casino billionaire, is very, very close to Netanyahu. Adelson owns newspapers in Israel that support Netanyahu. And both of them [Romney and Gingrich] are for a war with Iran, if need be, or forcing Iran to essentially submit to regime change.”
Hayden said that Obama was responding to pressure from environmentalists in postponing the Keystone Pipeline. “Bill McKibben, whose credentials as an environmental fighter go unchallenged, actually said on Pacifica… that he thought that the president’s decision was bold and brave.”
Looking to the 2012 elections, Hayden said, “My philosophy is that there’s no one prescription for the vast diversity of protesters, progressives, and radicals, and movement activists in this country…”
He believes we should take a “pluralistic approach where we should look to the federal government to protect certain basic standards but also allow cities and states to take more progressive steps where they can, so that we’re not bound by the lowest possible standard.”
“You could start with state initiatives, the way California has done for decades, on energy efficiency, on solar power, anti-Nuke, and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. And linking up with other states, they begin to create a powerful political and economic force for an alternative,” he said. “I think we win by building progressive power in certain areas of the country and then eventually the federal government is forced to go along.”
Hayden suggests “we should study more how our victories are won and how our defeats are suffered, and learn more about the interaction between social movements and electoral politics and this president… We’ve had a couple of years to see what works and what doesn’t and we need to move forward…”
He also says we should “focus more on Citizens United and taking down the infernal power of finance capital and the corporations over the campaign contributions.”
Hayden believes we need to reelect Obama, “hopefully elect Elizabeth Warren as a symbolic crusader against Wall Street in Massachusetts… [and] at all costs, do not lose the presidency and the Senate and the House to the Republicans, unless you’re ready for a juggernaut backed by a crazy right-wing U.S. Supreme Court.”
As far as Obama’s performance: “Do I think that he has performed less well than I would have hoped? Yes, absolutely. But it’s an experiment, it’s a learning enterprise… he’s always going to be a disappointment as a centrist because he needs to have a left against him in order to counterbalance the right.”
Hayden believes that Wisconsin has been the site of “the single most important political and economic struggle in the country… [Wisconsin] was the spearpoint of the Tea Party governors who wanted to destroy labor — public sector unions — and the spear got broken by the Wisconsin opposition.”
“If we ever mark a time when the Tea Party started to be repelled and pushed back, I think it started in Wisconsin.”
Hayden notes that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker offered the police and the firefighters a deal “to exempt them from his attack on public sector workers, because he wanted to go after the teachers’ unions and so forth — and they said no.”
“If you go out there to Wisconsin to this day you’ll find the fife and drum corps of the firefighters, dressed in kilts, playing their instruments and leading the crowds into the state capitol, where they take the place over for an hour a day and sing all these very lively, energized radical labor songs.”
Hayden's not sure how powerful the Occupy movement is. “They had a surprising beginning, amazing acceleration and spread, they had tremendous media impact on the income equality issues, but they don’t have the Tea Party’s resource base or political base.”
But, “as long as we have our economic misery and Wall Street is out there as a big fat plutocratic target, I think Occupy will keep coming back in different forms.”
“These movements always come like the wind, they come out of nowhere, they come by surprise. It’s very hopeful, and it’s become a universal consensus that they’ve changed the dialogue to income inequality and poverty.”
And, “If you read the manifesto of Occupy Wall Street, the very first principle in their statement of principles is a transparent 'participatory democracy.'” The Occupy movement is clearly “carrying on the participatory democracy tradition.”
Port Huron lives. Fifty years and counting.