Essay: Youth counterculture of the sixties

The source itself is an extract of The Port Huron Statement of 1962. It was produced by 58 members of the Student for a Democratic Society, including large contributions by their Field Secretary Tom Hayden. The 25,700 word statement aimed to ‘articulate the fundamental problems of American society and laid a radical vision for a better future’. The manifesto advances the call for participatory democracy in which each individual citizen could help make ‘social decisions determining the quality and direction’ of their lives. The SDS believed Human beings were ‘infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love’ . It is these poignantly written, humanitarian viewpoints which created this view of the ‘sixties hippie’ counterculture. The purpose of the extract was to persuade the audience, being the general public, as well as students, to question the current system of democracy. This is evident by use emotive language and rhetoric questions, aimed to provoke new political thought within the minds of the reader. Whilst the SDS’s early political ideas were not revolutionary, its open-policy to the backgrounds of students making up the SDS, as well as the numerous issues tackled catalysed its remarkable growth. This is due to the work of Al Haber, the SDS’s first president, who sought to create a non-sectarian group that would not focus on single issues, but would realize the connections among all of the issues. Haber believed that ‘in its early stage, student activity…does not go beyond a single issue, or see issues as inter-related…It does not, in short, seek root causes.’ Haber describes the ‘challenge ahead’ of finding and implementing ‘radical alternatives to the inadequate society of today.’ Thus the SDS’s outlook was that of a new generation, composed of mostly middle-class students ‘bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit’. The prevalence of Al Haber’s principles within the source is therefore imperative into understanding the complex and interlinked ‘deeply-felt anxieties’ of the new generation. The wide-ranging political backgrounds of party members are also reflected within the source, as it encompasses a multitude of concerns and political viewpoints.
The source gives evidence of the rise and fears of various political activist groups at that time. These fears ascended from the unprecedented period of prosperity within the United States. From 1946-73 the U.S. experienced the longest sustained boom in its history. The average weekly earnings for manufacturing workers grew by 84 percent between 1950 and 1965. Yet such thriving reconstruction also engaged the U.S. into a power struggle between the Soviet Union for political and military dominance within the Cold War. The ‘American Dream’ stood under the constant shadow of nuclear annihilation. Such concerns within the newfound nuclear age is mentioned within the source in how ‘with nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history’. Despite such advancements economically and technologically, America is criticised throughout the source for regressing socially. Despite efforts to boost employment and minimum wage, ethnic minorities however were left out almost entirely. As the source rightly identifies the ‘declaration ‘all men are created equal” rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the south and big cities of the North’. The extract therefore sheds light upon the concurrent Segregationist ‘Jim Crow’ legislation within the South, along with crippling poverty within Northern ghettos; which
sought to aid the social and economic gulf between white and black. The United States claimed to stand as a beacon of democracy and freedom despite being rife with ‘racial bigotry’ and surrounded in the merciless atmosphere of McCarthyism. It is within these contradictive issues at home that American foreign policy is criticized by the SDS. Noting upon the paradox of ‘peaceful intentions’ contradict[ing] its economic and military investments’, the SDS questions the ‘national stalemate’ of democratic reform within the country and urges for America to bear its concerns homeward rather than in foreign lands. The Port Huron Statement also ushers in the ideology of participatory democracy, which itself is a radical step forward from the conservative decade preceding them; as it moves away from the ‘tradition bound’ America emerging from World War II. The Port Huron Statement raises many concerns with the political system within the 1960’s, but also the fears of a growing democratically warped capitalist state. Whilst it is not explicitly addressed within the extract, it is evident from the SDS’s left-wing origins and the criticism of the class system ‘While two-thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance’. It is understandable as to why the SDS did not specifically address capitalism overtly, as it may lead to the alienation of the audience during the turbulent era of McCarthyism.
Overall the source is useful as evidence in understanding the youth counterculture of the sixties. The source is highly typical of views of a left centred political activist party. However what sets The Port Huron Statement and the SDS aside from typical activists is the quality of the collective discourse within the manifesto. The many viewpoints of different peoples make the source particularly useful into understanding the many concerns of the new generation. The document however is limited in its ability to inform. Most of the statements, fears and concerns expressed are not backed with hard evidence. However in understanding counterculture within an ideological and social spectrum, this documents stands as testament to the major concerns at that time; making the source invaluable.

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