Posted by rflacks on:
Last Sunday I had the honor being invited to give the commencement address to the social science graduation exercise at UCSB. It seemed to have been well received., I'll share the text here for foks who may want to take a look.
chutzpah can make history
This very weekend 50
years ago, I was one of about 60 people in their teens and early 20s who stood,
early in the morning, on the shore of Lake Huron in Michigan. We were ending a
5 day gathering at a labor camp in Port Huron Michigan—a gathering which launched a new student organization
called Students for a Democratic society—and most of the time during that week,
we had spent arguing and discussing and writing what became a manifesto for the
Sixties generation, which came to be called the Port Huron Statement. It was a
small group of people, who, despite their youth, had already had some
experience with history—some came directly from scenes of struggle against
segregation in the American south in which several had gone to jail because
they had engaged in civil disobedience defying legalized segregation. Some had
been rallying and marching to oppose the testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs
and demanding an end to the nuclear arms race. Some of those who came were
leaders on the campuses—student body presidents and campus newspaper editors.
We shared a strong feeling that the politics and policies then governing –the politics of racism and
cold war, of corporate bureaucracy and the warfare state, were providing our
futures with little room for honorable service and honest expression. But we
were enormously excited and compelled by another feeling: that young people,
not burdened by the mindsets of the past, were taking and could take creative
action that could change history. That feeling was inspired by the sit ins and
freedom rights and mass marches of black youth, who were crumbling the walls of
segregation-- doing with their bodies and with their songs what Joshua had done
with trumpets at Jericho.
We have a word in Yiddish:
chutzpah. Let’s hear you say it:
It’s sort of untranslatable but it conveys something
like “audacious presumption” or ‘presumptuous audacity”! The students who
occupied the lunch counters, and people like Rosa Parks who broke a law requiring
to give up her seat to a white man on the bus—showed chutzpah. So did the young
people gathered at Port Huron 50 years ago—because we, a small band of young
people, presumed to make a detailed
statement of how the world should be that intentionally challenged the conventional wisdom of their
elders—asserted that somehow, despite our youth, we might know better than those
in charge how the th world ought to work:
racial segregation had to go—now.
The nuclear arms race must
Colleges and universities ought to be doing
more to connect students’ lives to the conditions and movements of society.
And above all—we declared
our commitment to what we called participatory democracy—a vision of society
organized so that people could have a say in the decisions that affected them--not
just vote for leaders but be able actively to share in governance in their everyday
lives –in their workplaces, schools, communities—in the economy as well as the
One lesson of the
sixties: chutzpah can make history
A small group of kids
with chutzpah , acting creatively , can help trigger a widening movement, can plant a seed to start a branching tree,
can hurl a stone in a pool making waves. We learned then an important
sociological principle: the power of the powerless resides in collective action
that very often starts when small numbers have the chutzpah to initiate action
or express ideas that break official rules and silences.
We’re seeing this
happening I think all over the world right now.
In Cairo, a small circle of young computer
savvy folks, who had read a lot about the nonviolent movements of the sixties, daringly
used megaphones and twitter to call people to gather in Tahrir square at a fortuitous
moment. In NY a small group of young people decided to tent out in a park on Wall
Street. In Madison, a local union of graduate teaching assistants occupied the
state capitol building to protest the Wisconsin governor’s efforts to virtually
destroy the capacity of public employees to be represented by unions,
And just Friday we
learned that the courageous activism of student DREAMers has led the president
to provide protection to the right’s of
800,000 American youth.
These are but a few of
the astonishing waves of protests in many parts of the world that have been
going on for the last 18 months Alongside the Arab Spring, and the Wisconsin
movement, and the occupy wall street, massive mobilizations have happened in
these months in Quebec, and Chile, In Tel Aviv and Madrid—very often sparked by
students and recent graduates. In fact, the size and scope of these are at
least equal to similar moments back in the sixties.
One way to interpret
all of this: these protests all are
seeking a semblance of real democracy—a
social set up where people can have a say in the decision that affect them.
That quest for real voice is made urgent in a time of economic crisis: When the
economic pie is not growing, when it’s shrinking, how is the pain distributed?
As you all know that’s
a matter that deeply affects daily life and life chances. We’re being told right
now, in California, that our school year must be reduced, that vital programs
must be ended, that, in a state whose university was begun on the premise that
its tuition would be free so that all qualified
could come to it, must increasingly shift its costs to students. This is
happening when large numbers of affluent Californians refuse to pay higher
taxes—even though many of them were in their youth beneficiaries of a free education.
This is happening on the
premise that it’s fair to expect college students to go into debt to pay their
education, because their degrees will provide so much opportunity for future
earning power—and yet those opportunities are being greatly narrowed by the
austerity effort aimed at social investment and public service. The shrionking
of the public sector, austerity aimed at the helping professions and at
education and social service—directly limits your ability to do the work you’ve
been preparing for in your years here.
If you feel, under these circumstances, that you and your peers ought to have more say in
the making of policies that affect you, well I’m here to support that
As a longtime sociology
prof here, I am proud to believe that the education you’ve been provided in your
years here has given you a good deal of the knowledge, the intellectual tools,
to make your voice worth hearing—and to figure out how to make it heard.
Last Friday, I
attended the serrvice awards ceremony for graduating seniors honoring their
leadership and scholarship—and was deeply inspired by the achievements—often
against adversity—of so many people in your graduating class.
This state—and this country--desperately
needs to hear your learned voices.
Your own life chances really
depend on your active presence in the public discourse.
As we can see from the swirl of conflict
around the world, there’s no straight path from people rising up to demand a
share of power and the achieving of it. But let’s remember what Dr. King asked
us to realize: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends
On the shores of Lake
Huron 50 years ago today I internalized a faith in the promise and the
necessity of participatory democracy, Now so much older, I am not wise. My
experience, and my research efforts lead
me to affirm that faith—democracy is desperately needed, it’s possible, Its
possibility depends on people willing to
question authority even though that might mean serious risk and sacrifice.
Your generation has to
lead now in the endless struggle for democracy. But it isn’t all on you. We all
together have to make it.