Justice  /  Antecedent

Kids These Days

Compared to their 1960s forerunners, today’s young radicals seem far less interested in moving towards responsible adulthood.

By 1968, SDS could not contain all the forces on the Left, which is why many associate today’s student protests with the campus unrest of the 1960s. In that important year, the New Left had identified the Vietnam War as the most glaring example of America’s wicked hegemony. Some SDS members broke away to form the Weather Underground as a revolutionary vehicle for “bringing the war home.” This was also several years after the free speech movement—most notably exhibited at the University of California, Berkeley—became the most visible element of student protests. SDS had a short run for implementing its proposals before radicalized youth took up other complaints. On the upside, between 1965 and 1968, SDS increased membership from 2,000 to 100,000—but size also brought confusion and division.

Even before the collapse of SDS, the organization was undisciplined. Hayden threw himself (1964) into community organizing among the urban poor in Newark, New Jersey. Another SDS president, Todd Gitlin, who had a successful academic career as a sociologist and cultural critic, organized a Baltimore protest to integrate a whites-only amusement park. The one SDS president, Carl Oglesby, who in 1965 galvanized the organization’s opposition to Vietnam, came to the student group as a technical writer for the Bendix Corporation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although SDS refused to denounce Communism as its parent organization, League for Industrial Democracy, had, the reasons were as much liberal as ideologically Left. When Hayden and Gitlin met with the radical community organizer, Saul Alinsky, the elder Leftist considered SDS’s hopes for participatory democracy to be too liberal and naïve. The 1970 Congressional Committee on Internal Security reached a similar conclusion: SDS was “socialist-inclined, but it was not favorably disposed toward communism.”

The Port Huron Statement itself, unlike the website of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest, called students to work for a better world. Its aspirations were idealistic but hardly unreasonable for young adults before taking on a mortgage and child-rearing. SDS conceived of politics as “bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life.” The Statement also called for a process that provided outlets for “opposing views” on the way to “clarifying problems in a way instrumental to their solution.” In the realm of economics, SDS aspired to work that was meaningful, that involved “incentives worthier than money or survival,” encouraged “respect for others” and a “willingness to accept social responsibility.” If conservative students behind Young Americans for Freedom (formed in 1960) heard echoes of the conservative author Russell Kirk’s critique of suburbia’s shallow materialism, they were perceptive. In his 1954 essay, “The Problem of Tradition,” Kirk scoffed at Americans who maintained that nothing was “seriously wrong” in America by pointing to “a commuter’s ticket and a lawn-sprinkler [as] proofs of national greatness.”