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The Lost Generation, Part II

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Melanie Kruvelis, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published November 5, 2012

“Think I need this thing?”

What are your thoughts on our generation compared to the one of the 60s?


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The moderator talks into the microphone — testing, one, two, yep, much better. The audience wanders from the coffee machines back to their seats. It’s the first full day of the University's Port Huron Statement conference, this two-part workshop, one-part reunion honoring the 50th anniversary of the New Left manifesto.

Under the chandeliers of the Michigan Union Pendleton Room, seven students in blazers and button-ups gather to discuss the impact of the document. More importantly, they’re talking about the students of the 60s, our can’t-stop, won’t-stop predecessors that shook this campus — shook the ideas of any campus, really — until it was blue in the face.

The whole thing makes them uneasy.

“The 60s were a time of huge social change — you know, with rallies and protests,” one of the panelists says. “We just don’t have that anymore.”

Another student chimes in, “It’s obvious that people are angry today. What’s not so obvious is if anyone will take their frustrations past Facebook.”

The student on the end grabs the microphone. “In comparison, nothing we do today is good enough.”

An exasperated generational sigh hovers over the panel. Not because the groups these panelists represent aren’t important. Not because they aren’t trying. As the discussion of the differences between them — the take-it-to-the-streets students of the 60s and us — come to a close, it’s clear. We’re fighting a bigger monster of apathy. And we have no idea how to kill it.

The audience senses it too. “You know, I really feel bad for your generation,” an older man says during questions. “You have no movement. You have all these issues, and no movement. And you know what’s the problem? You have no leaders.”

A kid sitting in front of me adjusts his sweatshirt, revealing the familiar motto hidden under his hood — Michigan, home to the leaders and best.

When did that promise start to ring hollow?

“Not the compromised second draft”

For a 50-year-old document, the Port Huron Statement looks pretty young.

Of course, the references to the Cold War and the suppressed black vote give it some wrinkles. But on the whole, the Statement’s ability to bottle up and explode the student condition — the frustrated, fed-up, but conscious condition — hasn’t withered over the last half-century. From the first sentence on, it’s hard to read through it without thinking someone yanked the repressed frustration out of your brain and transcribed the hell out of it.

“We are the people of this generation,” the Statement begins, “bred in at least modest comfort, housed in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

Drop the book. That subtle “uncomfortably” — there’s something about it that just gets it. Because maybe when you’re in the middle of your second procrasti-shower of the day, or standing in line at 7-11, you remember — there’s a world beyond that calculus exam. It’s a big mundo outside our Ann Arbor bubble, and good god, soon it will be ours to inherit.

That responsibility is uncomfortably hard to convey. The Japanese have a term for it — yugen, an awareness of the universe that triggers responses too deep and mysterious for words. Today we might call such a feeling “practically nonexistent.” Or maybe more accurately, “too scary and real to think about. I better get to class.”

Naturally, the full aims of the Left’s defining document won’t be supported across the political spectrum. In fact, it isn’t. Critics have called it a relic of a utopian past, a too-young, too-ambitious appeal to socialist ideals. Writer David Horowitz called the Statement a “self-conscious effort to rescue the communist project from its Soviet fate.” But even setting aside the ideologies, just for a minute, there’s still this sort of psychic power to the Statement. It’s hard to believe that a manifesto from 1962 can sum up millennial gripes, but the proof is in the print.

“It’s a place of commitment to business-as-usual,” the manifesto says, in reference to the University. “It’s a place of mass affirmation to the 'Twist' ” — or “Gangnam Style,” if you prefer — “but mass reluctance towards the controversial public stance.”

To be sure, the Port Huron Statement and its aims have been, to some extent, romanticized. In the three years following the dissemination of the Statement came the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the arrival of LBJ and the biggie — the escalation of the Vietnam War. To borrow from Tom Hayden, the University alum who drafted the Statement, in just three years, the utopian vision was gone.

But the energy was not. The anti-war movement exploded, the fight for racial equality intensified. And the students were there, working under the presumption that something’s gotta change. In their minds, they were the ones who could fix it.

Here’s where the original audience takes a turn from today’s reader.